PROFESSIONAL ANXIETY

I realized recently that there is a serious source of anxiety in my job. I am a pastor working with churches in an area where I have lived for around 40 years. Many of the people who form the congregations I serve are more than just parishioners—they are friends. The relationships go back many years and involve many shared experiences that have tied us together over the years. And because of the fact that I have been here so long, I know many in the communities who don’t attend our church—or any church—equally as well.

I had some inkling of the anxiety but tended to ignore it until this week. I had a call about a death—not an unusual call for a pastor in an area with one of the highest rates of over 65s in Canada. The call involved someone I knew, not a church member but with strong family connections in the church, someone I knew because of the family connections. Shortly after that call, I got another about another death. Again, this was a person I knew well, who had at one point been heavily involved in churches I pastored but who had moved and while still in the immediate area, wasn’t as much a part of any churches I pastor.

The anxiety developed as I realized that both these people were about my age, I knew them fairly well and in the end, while they were not parishioners, they were friends. My thinking process, always a bit overactive, very quickly began making lists of people in the same category: people I know who are like me getting on in years. Unlike me, some of them have developed some fairly significant health problems and we are all at the stage in life where the unexpected can pop up at any time.

For me, the anxiety develops because I realize that professionally and personally, when bad things happen, I am the person who is going to get called. Professionally, I am the pastor to a significant number of people, some of whom attend worship and some of whom don’t. Personally, I am the only pastor many people know—they don’t actually know me as their pastor but they know I am a pastor and that means they will call when life gets tough.

So, I do a lot of funerals for friends and family of friends. Doing funerals is a basic part of my job—it is so basic a part of the job that early in my ministry, I spent a lot of time looking at the death and funeral process so that I could do the best job possible. I like to think that when it comes to the grief and funeral process, I know what I am doing.

But there is a major difference doing what I do for someone I have known and liked and spent time with in a variety of ways over the years. I am grieving myself—maybe not as much as the family but I have still lost someone whose death is creating a dark hole in my life. My work and my life come together creating a difficult task—I need to use all my training and professional ability to help people process a death that I am also processing at the same time.

My anxiety isn’t about that, or at least, it isn’t primarily about that. I can do that—there is a certain amount of this cross over in every funeral. I have learned how to help people as a pastor and process my own grief at the same time in a way that enables both to happen. It hasn’t been and isn’t always easy but I can do it.

The anxiety comes from the fact that I realize I am facing a lot more of this cross over. People I have known for 40 years or more are not well. Some will get better. Some will remain chronic. And some will die. And I will get called in on many of these life realities. I don’t want to have to deal with this stuff. I especially don’t want to deal with it when it involves people I have known for so long and whose lives have been intertwined with mine in so many ways.

But that is my job and my calling and so I will deal with it—but I will depend on the presence and power of God in the process.

May the peace of God be with you.

TWO FUNERALS

One of the pastorates I serve is in the midst of their winter shutdown. An aging congregation combine with old energy inefficient buildings and possible winter driving conditions is such a way as to suggest that I should have some extra time to myself in the winter. We have modified the winter plan just a bit and have one service a month but basically, we are closed for business for the first three months of the year.

Except that when it comes to anything involving people, it is pretty much impossible to be closed for business. The people who form the churches and the people who live in the communities served by the churches still require ministry. They get sick, have operations, get down, need a coffee, want to get married. They also die. And many of them want a representative of God available to help them deal with the realities of life.

So, I minister. One week recently, that ministry during the shutdown involved two funerals. Fortunately, they were on separate days. One funeral is a lot of work but two pretty much wipes out the week—nothing else gets done. So, when I got the notice about the first one, I was a bit frustrated, since I had plans for the week and wasn’t actually supposed to be working for that church anyway. But I am the pastor and so I went to see the family. In the process of the visit to plan the funeral, I discovered that here had been a another death—this in the family of the partner of the person I was meeting with.

That death had just occurred and so no one knew anything about arrangements or plans—but I, as the all knowing pastor of rural congregations, I knew that I would likely end up getting a call about that funeral as well. There are not a lot of options open to families in small communities when it comes to someone to conduct a funeral. We finished the planning session and I had prayer with the family, including a prayer for the family of the second person and headed home, pretty sure that before the end of the day, I would get another call.

When it came, I made my plans to visit the family, which was a bit complicated because the visit had to be arranged around my other worship services and between two winter storms. Having accomplished the visit, we made plans and I prayed and left, feeling sorry for myself for all the extra work this week would have because of the two funerals. I was also doing some major recalculating of my week so that I could get everything done that needed to be done. That recalculating involved cancelling my attendance at a meeting later in the week—given my dislike of meetings, that wasn’t a major inconvenience.

While I was somewhat upset with the extra work, I didn’t focus on that too much once I got a plan for the week developed. After that, I began to think more about the connections between the two funerals and all the people who would be affected by both. Families, friends, community members were all involved because of the tangled relationships that are a basic part of rural life. I anticipated seeing many of the same people at both services, which meant that I had to make sure that the services were different but offered the same level of hope and comfort that I try to bring to a funeral service.

Normally, funerals are separated by enough time that if I use the same Scriptures or the same reference, it isn’t a problem. But with the services following each other so closely and so many attending both, I had to work a bit harder to make sure I wasn’t repeating myself—I wanted people to have a sense that the service was designed for them and their needs and wasn’t just something I cut and pasted together.

Part of the reason I like rural living is the dense web of connections linking people. Sometimes, I don’t discover the connections until I get involved in ministry with the people. That network is a powerful part of rural living—and if it means that planning two funerals back to back is a bit more difficult, I will accept the difficulty because of the blessings that network provides.

May the peace of God be with you.

LET’S TALK

I got a phone call from a friend a while ago. We don’t know each other all that well but we were neighbours for years and had a comfortable relationship. He was calling because he was going to need a pastor in the near future—his wife has an incurable illness and he wanted to be somewhat prepared for what was coming. He didn’t have any real church connections but he did know me and knew that I was a pastor—in fact, the last time I was talking to him was at a funeral I was conducting.

I don’t actually like this sort of thing. The dying and grief process are always painful and difficult and when I am called in because of friendship, it is more difficult. But he is a friend and I am a pastor so I arranged a time to meet with him and talk. Because we are friends, the conversation dealt with more than just then essentials of pre-planning a funeral service. We did that but then went on to talk about lots of other friend stuff: how things were going for each of us, where we were each working, why I didn’t walk anymore and so on.

In the course of the conversation, I discovered that he did have a church connection. Like many kids our age, he had attended Sunday School—and had attended at one of the churches I now pastor. That was quickly followed by the almost obligatory apology for not actually being involved in church anymore. We actually had an interesting conversation around that revelation and half-hearted apology.

I suggested to him that maybe the reason he wasn’t involved in church was more the church’s fault than his. Since we had already been talking about his involvement in a local club, I suggested that if church actually met some of his needs, he would be there—just like he was part of this club because it met some of his needs. Somehow, we in the church hadn’t been able to provide what he needed to maintain a connection.

I think my friend represents a great many people today. The problem isn’t that he is anti-faith. He has a spiritual side: he wanted a pastor to help him through the process of his wife’s decline and death; he enthusiastically welcomed my offer of prayer; he remembered hymns and even some Scriptures that he wanted as part of the coming funeral. He might not be on a first name basis with God but he isn’t rejecting God.

But somehow, somewhere, the church missed him and his real needs. We couldn’t or wouldn’t supply what he needed to help feed that faith spark that is still fairly evident in his life. We had nothing on offer that he wanted and so he stopped looking in our shop, finding substitutes elsewhere. But even he knows that we have more available. It seems, though, that we aren’t really making it easy for people to discover what we really have.

We claim that Christ is the answer—and I believe that he is. But when we don’t really know the questions that people are looking to have answered, we probably don’t have the required answers on display—and even more, we might not even know that the answers are available. We have sometimes even questioned the legitimacy of the question, preferring that people ask the easy questions that we can quickly answer with tried and true formulas.

Meanwhile, people like my friend wander around, looking for stuff, settling for substitutes while all the while knowing something about the faith that we seem not to know. They know that the answers they are looking for are found within the faith that we follow. They might not know the answer; they might not see the answer; they might get tired waiting for us to hear the actual question they are answering but they believe that there is an answer and that somehow, the church and its agents can provide it. And so when people like my friend really need an answer, they pick up the phone and ask the question again, hoping that maybe we have dug around in the storeroom and found that we actually have an answer to that question in stock.

I am hoping that with the power of the Holy Spirit, I can help my friend find the answer he is looking for.

May the peace of God be with you.

REAL MINISTRY

I am a pastor, which means many things: I get to be chief grace sayer at all kinds of meals; I am expected to know the meaning of every obscure word and verse in the Bible; I am able to conjure up food and money for every needy person and situation. In short, I am involved in ministry. While I am aware that others are involved in ministry as well, I have a tendency to forget that.

But recently, I was talking with someone who needed someone to listen while they opened up about something they were involved in—that is another of the many activities that go along with being a pastor. I actually knew a fair bit about the situation since it had been a topic of the church and our prayers for a while. I knew about this person’s involvement. As they talked, the story became more interesting.

The person was a bit frustrated with the response to the situation. The person we were all concerned about needed serious help financially, emotionally and medically. He needed major repairs on his house or he would spend the winter with a temporarily patched roof—never a good thing in a Nova Scotia winter where wind, rain and snow come regularly. But in spite of the fact that this was a small community, there wasn’t a lot of activity. Some work had been done and some money had been raised but not what might be expected.

The person talking to me was trying really hard to get things going and frustrated at the results. As we talked, the person acknowledged that helping this other person was difficult: the life choices he had made had tended to turn people away from him. His alcoholic life style, his sometimes difficult personality, his overly independent personality had all worked to create a situation where he was more tolerated in his community than appreciated. Nobody would actually wish his harm but nobody was very quick to step in and help either.

But the person was trying, which I thought was great. But as they talked to me, what I was hearing became even more significant. The person acknowledged that the person was difficult. And then they told me that they had been bullied and I suspect even abused by this person and had spend many years being afraid of the person. There were clearly painful and deep scars associated with this particular individual.

And yet the person talking to me was committed to making sure that the person had a safe and secure home for the winter. They were making arrangements, setting up processes, ensuring that money was accounted for, pushing community leaders. They had made a commitment to this person, a person whom I wasn’t even sure they really liked.

As I reflected on the conversation, I had lots of thoughts, one of which was that this person was engaged in real ministry. They were committed to helping someone others were rejecting for some valid reasons. They themselves had good reason to ignore the person and the situation. And yet, the individual in question needed help—and for some reason, the person talking to me felt it was their job to make sure that the help was delivered. I think what I was hearing from this person qualified as a call to ministry.

Not a call to ministry in the sense of committing to spending a life time working in and for the church, which is what we often consider a call to ministry to be. But this was a specific call to a specific ministry for a specific time. For some reason or reasons, I think God has asked the person talking to me to be his agent for a person they might not like but to whom they can be used as God’s hands. The results of this call are already evident: the man in need is slowly getting the help he needs and if the person I was talking to has anything to say about it, they will have a warm shelter for the winter. But there are other results of that call that are equally valid, results that have to do with the ability of the person talking to me to open themselves to God to find the resources needed to do what God asks.

May the peace of God be with you.

SAD NEWS

In that past couple of weeks, the news from our denominational office has included obituaries of two pastors. Both of them were second career pastors, people who had sensed God’s calling later in their lives and were willing to answer that call. Both of them attended the seminary where I was teaching at the time and both were in my classes so I knew them fairly well.

There are not the first students from my teaching days to have died. Several students from my times teaching in Kenya have died—but given the realities of life in Kenya, those deaths, while sad, were not a total surprise. There have even been some students from my time teaching in Canada. A couple of students died as a result of existing medical conditions and so again, their death, although sad, were not unexpected.

These last two, however, were a bit harder for me to process. Both were older and their death were ultimately the result of accumulating enough years that their bodies simply wore out. What makes these more difficult is that neither student was that much older that I am—well, one was a fair bit older but the other was much closer to my age than I realized.

I am saddened by their deaths. They were students but because of the nature of my teaching style and the relatively small size of the clergy community in our denomination, they were also friends. I didn’t see either of them all that much beyond denominational events but we could and did talk and share and were concerned with each other’s lives and ministry. It is sad to think that I won’t see either of them again this side of eternity.

But their deaths also opened a door that I have pretty much been avoiding. I am getting older. Normally, I am not overly conscious of being 66 years old, unless of course it is one of those days when my much older knees are protesting and complaining. I am not sure exactly what age I perceive myself but it is definitely younger than 66. But as I was reading the obituary of the former student who was pretty close to my age, I realized that being 66 has some serious implications. I am in pretty good health, according to my personal observations and my GP’s evaluations, but the basic statistical reality is that I am closer to my death date than I am to my birth date. And since the latest scientific research suggests that the upper limit of human aging is about 120, by that most optimistic standard, I have lived well over half my life.

I deal with death as a regular part of my work. The pastor is one of the first people called in rural areas when death occurs. But most of the time, there is a professional wall between me and the death. I am concerned with helping the people I pastor work through their trauma and grief and so on. Without question, some of these deaths touch me and affect me—my professionalism isn’t something I use as a defence against my own grief.

But these two students dying of essentially age related causes at an age that I can identify with because of its proximity to my age—well, I really can’t professionalize that. To start with, I am not the pastor in either of those situations. I am just one of the many who knew them and who grieves their loss. And without the professional focus to distract me, I look at their loss more personally—and I also recognize the implications of their deaths for me and my context.

Their deaths are sad—I will miss them. Their deaths also point out to me that I am getting up there and could be closer to my own end that I want to realize. But in the end, I really can’t live well if I pay too much attention to the statistical realities that come with my present age. I know that I will die some day. I do take care physically—eating sort of right, sleeping enough, doing some exercise. But I am not really interested in living with the fear or dread of my death. The reminders of the potential that my former students death’s brought are real—but I think that in the end, I decided a long time ago to live until I die, without too much worry about when and how that will be.

May the peace of God be with you.

TWO BUILDINGS

One of the realities of being a pastor for rural churches is that I get to work in some really old buildings. One Sunday recently, both worship services occurred in old buildings. One dates back to 1835 and the other to 1833. In another pastorate, we were responsible for a building that was put up in 1810. By European standards, these are of course relatively new buildings—but by our standards, they are very old.

These buildings have all the drawbacks that you might expect from such an old building: limited facilities, inadequate electricity, inefficient heating systems, no cooling system, poor parking, uncomfortable and fixed seating. Most of them are wooden buildings, which always need serious work—the 1835 building needs sills replaced and the 1833 building has had major work done recently. The majority of them indicate their age with the tell tale scent of mold and decay. Basic maintenance jobs tend to be expensive and eat up lots of time, energy and money getting them taken care of.

There are some advantages to the buildings: we have a place for our church to gather, we can enjoy the old-time craftsmanship, we can complain about the hard seats. If we get enough money and support, we can and so make some modifications that make them better for our purposes.

But lots of people ask why we are so committed to these old, expensive, inefficient buildings. Generally, the only people not asking that question are the ones who have regularly worshipped in the buildings year after year. New comers, people from away, leaders of bigger congregations in other places, denominational dealership, even theology professors ask the question a lot, sometimes assuming that just because they ask the question, we inhabiting these old buildings will see the light and abandon the buildings.

But those of us who worship in such buildings aren’t asking the question. A person like me who has pastored congregations like this for years used to ask the question. These days, I don’t bother asking because I know the answer. Why do we in small churches keep meeting in old, antiquated, expensive to maintain and heat buildings? The answer is simple: because we can.

We don’t worship the building—well, maybe a few do. Mostly, we continue to inhabit our buildings because they are ours. We worship week after week and the building itself enhances our worship. Occasionally, the enhancement is a result of the building itself–the acoustics, the craftsmanship, the view—but more often, the enhancements occurs because of what the building houses.

It houses our memories. That seat at the back left—that is where I first went to Sunday School. The third pew from the front in the centre, that is where Deacon Zeke used to sit—he was a wise and wonderful example of the Christian faith. That pew right there—that is where I was sitting when I decided to follow Jesus. That Communion table—that was donated by my great-grandparents and my great-grandfather made it by hand from wood he cut himself.

The building houses other memories as well. We remember those we grieved and whose lives we celebrated at the funeral. We remember the weddings when new families came into being. We remember those who grew up in our midst and went on to serve God in the pulpit or the mission field. We are reminded each week of the faithful whose memories are collected and celebrated in our buildings.

We keep our buildings because they hold the memories. We keep our buildings because they allow us to celebrate the cloud of witnesses that are part of our story. We keep our buildings because they are a visible symbol of the endurance of our faith. We keep our buildings because they help our faith.

We don’t worship our buildings and we don’t need the building to have and express our faith. If the building is beyond repair or suffers a fire, we will grieve. We will mourn the loss—but we won’t lose our faith. We will still be believers, albeit believers struggling to find a place to locate our memories.

Our old, inefficient and expensive to maintain buildings could disappear and our faith would continue. But we have them—and because we have them, we can and do use them to enhance our faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

IT’S GONE

I had a conversation with a couple recently that ended with a discussion about the health of one of the family pets. It may have a serious illness and the conversation briefly touched on their worry and anxiety over what might happen and how they would deal with it. There are some who might find that conversation a bit pointless, suggesting that it is an animal, it happens, get over it.

While I am not personally an animal person, I am aware that this is a difficult and painful situation for many people. We human beings develop significant attachments with other people, animals and inanimate objects—and when those connections are threatened, damaged or broken, we are going to react. Whenever we are in danger of losing something to which we are attached, we are going to have a grief reaction.

Our reaction to losing someone or something from our lives isn’t something that we have a lot of control over. We might thing we can control it—but often the control takes the form of denial or repression. We pretend that we are not bothered by the loss. Some of us can pull off the pretence fairly well for a time but eventually, denial and repression are going to catch up with us and we will have to deal with the loss that we didn’t deal with when it happened.

I am thinking about loss a bit these days, partly because helping people deal with loss is a basic and essential part of a pastor’s job. I tell students that helping people deal with the grief connected with loss is probably the single biggest part of our jobs as pastors, especially when we remember that any loss produces some level of grief reaction.

So, when the couple mentioned their sick pet, I was professionally prepared. But I was also personally connected as well. For most of the past week and a half, I have been dealing with a loss myself. My laptop has a hard drive that is crashing. Now, before you think I am crazy or overly nerdy, remember that we get attached to things as well as people and losing the source of the attachment is going to produce a grief reaction.

I have had the laptop for six years and it has traveled across Canada with me, it has lived in Kenya with me, it connected me to the rest of the world and it allowed me to write stuff that I can actually read and understand the next day, something that my handwriting hasn’t allowed for many years.

I liked my laptop and was used to it and it was comfortable. It had its problems and scars and limitations—but it was mine and I did a lot of stuff with it. I will soon have a new laptop—the old, back up laptop from the bottom shelf of the TV cabinet is okay but it is ancient and heavy and may not last all that long. I am not looking forward to the process of setting up a new laptop with various programs and files and all the bits and pieces of my electronic life but I am sure that once I get that done, I will attach to the new laptop.

Our grief reactions are a very personal and private and subjective thing. They grow directly out of our attachment and connection with what we have lost or are losing—and we are the only ones that get to determine the level and severity of our reaction, or rather, we are the ones who have to deal with the level and severity of our reaction. The fact that I am not an animal person doesn’t mean that I can minimize the grief of someone losing a pet, any more than a conformed technology hater gets to minimize my grief over the dead laptop.

In the end, we all need to accept and recognize our losses by letting ourselves grieve as we need to. We also need to recognize the essential subjectivity of grief—a loss that we can completely ignore can and will affect others deeply. Even if we don’t agree with the level of their grief, we can provide support and compassion.

May the peace of God be with you.