AN ANSWER TO PRAYER

I am a part-time pastor—and a part-time pastor who likes to research and study and stuff like that. So, I have spent some time looking at part-time ministry—I even wrote a short book about it a few years ago for our denomination. Anyway, one of the bits of data I have dug up indicated that there are two broad categories of congregations that seek part-time pastors.

New church plants often begin with some form of part-time ministry. If the plant is successful, the group eventually become large enough that they can afford a full-time pastor or two. While I have been connected with a few such situations through my denomination, I have spent my time as a part-time pastor working in the other major category.

This category includes all those congregations which once used to be bigger and financially more solid and which used to have a full-time pastor. But as membership shrinks and the costs of full-time ministry escalate, the congregation eventually has to make the difficult and demoralizing to shift from a full-time pastor to a part-time pastor. This is without question one of the most traumatic decisions a congregation has to make because to most, it signifies that they are on the way out—it might take years but their decline will eventually result in the church closing.

I begin work in part-time settings very much aware of this mindset—and feel that a big part of my responsibility as the pastor is helping the congregation deal with their realities. But I don’t generally include closing as one of the realities I am concerned about. Certainly, it is always a reality. But there are other possible realities: stabilization, for example, is a possibility—a small congregation that is healthy and doing ministry is a valid reality. Reversing the downward trend is also a valid reality—sometimes, given the cultural context not as possible as stabilization but still a possibility.

So, with that in mind, I think a large part of my ministry is helping the part-time congregation look at itself and discover the reality of God’s love and grace working in and through it. But I have to confess that recently, the direction of my thoughts concerning the smaller of the two pastorates I work with has been a bit on the gloomy side. I hadn’t been able to really get a sense of direction or potential. I have been praying, thinking, listening and all the rest but mostly kept seeing our small numbers and the relative lack of what I would consider positive signs.

I am aware that we have an uphill climb—but I wasn’t seeing much to suggest that we had what it takes to make the climb. That is, I didn’t until a recent church meeting. This wasn’t an official meeting but more the general discussion we do before, during and after worship. We discussed and made a significant decision on helping out in a community need. But underneath, there were all sorts of revelations that I saw—the members there might not have seen them all but I did.

I saw a group of people who were not only deeply concerned with their community but who were also very active in the community. Everyone knew who was needing what and was working to meet those needs in a variety of ways: some visit and provide food and conversation; some provide a listening ear; some pound nails to repair houses; some provide prayer; some fill out complex application forms—and everyone is known and respected and appreciated in the community.

And in this, I found an answer to my prayers and my worries. We are small and struggling in some ways—but we are deeply involved in the life of the community. We are taking the light of God’s grace and love directly to our community. Many of the people touched by our small group haven’t been in our building for years, if ever—but they are experiencing God at work through our group.

I still don’t know where we are going as a group—but I have an answer to my prayers. As a church, we keep doing the ministry we are doing and as a pastor, I keep encouraging and enabling this gathering of believers to be God’s light and salt in our community.

May the peace of God be with you.

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A DISAGREEMENT ABOUT MONEY

I have spend my entire working career in ministry, most of it in the context of small, struggling rural congregations. There are a great many realities clustered around that statement but one of the more significant realities is that I have basically spent my entire working career in a context where there is never enough money. There may be small, rural congregations that have tons of money (I have heard rumours about such things) but I have never been called to be the pastor of one of them.

This means that I have spent a lot of time discussing money. Sometimes, we call it discussing vision and ministry and options and all that but in the end, it becomes a discussion of money—or, to be more honest, it becomes a discussion about our lack of money, how we can get some more money and what we can’t do until we get some more money. I know there are lots of ministries that can be done with very little money but one of the basic truths of living in our culture is that ministry costs money and if we don’t have the money, it makes a difference in terms of what we can and can’t do. Dreaming is free—implementing dreams generally costs money.

The tensions between the need to do ministry and the lack of finances create some difficult, long, heated and painful discussions in small churches. Generally, one side wants to keep as much money as possible, holding it for the inevitable crisis in the future. The other side wants to do something, reasoning that having money in the bank isn’t much good if we are doing nothing. As pastor, I tend to be caught in the middle, wanting to encourage the church to do ministry but also recognizing that some of that money in the bank ensures that my paycheque won’t bounce at the end of the month.

So, with all that in mind, join me as one of my pastoral charges discusses a money issue. Worship was late starting because during the announcements, we discussed the fire in the community the night before. A house was severely damaged, likely beyond repair. The owner was in the hospital, fortunately in stable condition. He had been disabled for several months and therefore unable to work—and probably wouldn’t be able to work, especially given his injuries suffered in the fire. While no one actually said it, I think we were all assuming there was no insurance on the house or contents.

Since everyone knew the person and he was related to some on the church, the congregation wanted to help—and in this case, that meant a financial contribution. We had been planning on making a donation to another cause which ultimately didn’t need our help so some thought it would be a good idea to use that money to help. That started the discussion—what we were going to give wasn’t enough given the needs caused by the fire and injuries. Certainly, the wider community was likely going to hold some sort of benefit at some point. Definitely, there was a need—but there were several other serious needs in the community as well.

The discussion didn’t take too long. We wanted to help, the need was real, the amount we have been going to give wasn’t enough. So, the amount was almost doubled, everyone agreed and that was it. Most of the donation would be coming from our “reserves”—we don’t take in enough to make any kind of donation beyond paying the part-time pastor. We moved on and began our worship, later than normal but that isn’t unusual for us.

Not much of a discussion—but a significant one from my perspective. This group of people is interested in doing ministry and instead of seeing limits and walls and barriers, they see opportunities and want to respond. Money is a tool to use for ministry here and now. So, as a church, we look at the need and we respond—and then we move on to discover what else God has in store for us.

This is healthy and positive and significant. It says a lot about the underlying faith of this small group. This church is comfortable putting its money where its ministry is.

May the peace of God be with you.

A DONATED SUIT

I am sitting in a deacons’ meeting where we have been looking at a lot of different issues affecting our church. Since we were slowly climbing out of a serious mess that occurred just before I was called to the church, there was a lot to talk about. We rejoiced at the signs of life we were seeing and pondered the best ways to deal with the continuing issues from the previous mess. Near the end of the meeting, we opened the agenda to anyone who might have concerns.

Our senior deacon wanted to raise a concern. Since he was a retired pastor with many years of experience who tended to be on the ball and quite helpful, we all listened to him. He raised the issue of the young people who were attending our worship—about six of them, week after week, faithfully attending, participating and seeming to really appreciate what we were doing. I had wanted to raise the issue myself—we had a lot to rejoice about: the kids were coming, our student intern was doing great things with them, they made up 10-20 percent of our small but growing attendance.

But the senior deacon had a whole different idea. He was concerned about how the kids dressed. Their clothing wasn’t respectful. Some of them were showing up in jeans and t-shirts, covered with various jackets. They were wearing sneakers and some of the guys wore baseball hats—although somewhere along the line, they had learned to take the hats off during worship. But the bottom line was that these young people were not showing sufficient respect for God because they weren’t well dressed.

He had a solution, one that had helped him as a young person. He came from a poor family and didn’t feel comfortable attending worship until someone in the congregation graciously donated a used suit that he could wear. As a church, we needed to find people to donate good used suits for the guys and appropriate dresses for the girls. Then they would feel much more at home and be more reverent and respectful.

The only thing I found more difficult than preventing my student intern from climbing over the table to do physical harm to the senior deacon was preventing myself from climbing over the table to do serious harm to the senior deacon. Somehow, the grace of God broke through and neither I nor the student intern did what we were thinking.

Instead, we had a serious and significant discussion about cultural relatively. The senior deacon was concerned about these kids but was working from a whole different culture. It made a major difference to him when I pointed out that the jeans the kids wore on Sunday morning likely cost more than the suit he wore—these weren’t poor street kids. The student intern pointed out that some of those kids got more allowance than the senior deacon got in pension, which was probably an exaggeration on both sides but helped the discussion along.

While the senior deacon would still liked to have seen the kids coming in attire appropriate to the culture from 40 years ago, he began to get some insights into the changes that had occurred over the past years and decided that maybe jeans that cost more than his suit were more appropriate for those kids than a donated suit. With the crisis averted, we adjourned the meeting, secure in the knowledge that we could continue the ministry we were involved in and could rejoice in the fact that these kids found our worship valuable enough to get up early on Sunday morning, put on their best jeans and t-shirts and join us.

Is there a point here? Well, maybe we in the church need to pay attention to our culture and realize that much of the time, we want to donate suits to people who neither want nor need our used suits. They need and want something different and sometimes actually find it—but because we get caught up in the need to supply a suit to the suitless, we damage their ability to get what they actually need and want. Isn’t is much better to amplify what we are doing that they need and want than spend all the effort it would take to donate a used suit?

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SERMON

A few weeks ago, I was preaching a series of sermons on the parables of Jesus. One of the first sermons in the series seems to have made a significant impression on the congregation. For a while after that sermon, people kept referring to the sermon and especially to a visual representation I used during the sermon. The Bible study group discussed the sermon. Individuals mentioned it at meetings and at other times. I even overheard people describing the sermon to members who hadn’t been there. Overall, it seems like this was a pretty successful sermon.

But that was several weeks ago. We have since moved on. We finished the series on the parables and moved into Easter. I haven’t heard anything about the parable sermon in weeks. I have heard a few comments about other sermons suggesting that people are still listening to what I have to say at least some of the time but the parable sermon seems to have disappeared into wherever sermons go in people’s minds after a period of time.

I very much doubt that old sermons go into a special mental file for most people. I doubt that people spend time thinking about the best sermons of the year or the decade. In fact, the painful truth that many preachers don’t want to deal with is that most sermons barely survive the handshake at the door on the way out of the sanctuary. A few, of course, manage to survive a little longer. A sermon with a good story or joke, a sermon that touches a special place for the worshipper or a really bad one—any of them can last into the next week and maybe even beyond.

But eventually, every sermon ends up as a part of a shapeless mass of forgotten prose, decomposed and decontextualized, sitting somewhere in the memory banks of church goers. No matter how hard I work at the sermon, no matter how deeply I research, no matter how powerful the illustrations are, the sermon ultimately loses shape and form and exists, if at all, as a blob among other blobs in people’s minds.

That could be depressing and discouraging, especially if I had some insecurities or felt that my words were so important that they had to be remembered exactly. And while there may have been times in the past when I struggled with such things, there days, I tend not to get too bent out of shape by the fact that no one really remembers my sermons for all that long. Honestly, I can’t remember them either—in order to be certain I know what I preached the Sunday before when we discuss the worship at Bible study, I keep a copy of the sermon on my phone so I can refer to it if necessary.

I don’t expect people to remember the sermon. It was flattering to have people remember and talk about the parable sermon for so long—but is doesn’t depress me that I haven’t heard anyone mention that sermon in weeks. I don’t actually preach to have people remember the sermon. I preach because I want to help people grow in faith—and any one individual sermon is about as valuable to spiritual growth as any one individual meal is valuable to physical growth.

If a person were to get just one meal in their life, they would have a very short life. No matter how great the meal was, just one meal can’t sustain life. Life is build and sustained by the accumulation of meals over the course of a lifetime—and the health and vitality of the lifetime depends on the nutritional balance of all those meals. Anyone meal is unimportant—but all of them together make the person.

Well, any one sermon by itself is pretty much worthless—even if people remember it and refer to it for days and even weeks, it still won’t be enough by itself to sustain and develop spiritual life. But when that one sermon gets folded in with all the other sermons, it can develop into a sort of spiritual compost that provides a base for solid and healthy spiritual growth.

While it was nice that people remembered an individual sermon for so long, even the best of my sermons isn’t all that memorable. But over time, my hope is that accumulation of sermons composting in the believer’s mind will make a difference, enabling them to grow strong in the 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.

SETTING LIMITS

I have been involved in some form of ministry for my entire working life. While I have mostly been the pastor of small, rural congregations, I have also had the privilege of serving as a jail chaplain, a teacher of pastors in Canada and Kenya and a pastoral counsellor. Part of the reason I do what I do is because I am deeply conscious of the calling that God has given me to the various forms of ministry I do. There have been times I have resented God’s calling, times when I have fought against it and a few times when I have asked, begged and demanded that God rescind that call. But in the end, I do both accept and appreciate the calling that God has given me.

Another part of the reason why I do what I do is because in the end, I like helping people. Now, I am pretty sure that is connected with the calling–it is one of the gifts or qualities or attributes that God has given me as part of the tool kit that comes with his calling. When God calls us to anything, he also provides the equipment that we need to follow his leading. But whatever the reason, I actually like helping people.

That can be a mixed blessing. We who like helping people do a lot of good for a lot of people but we can also do a lot of harm to a lot of people. A lot of the difference can be attributed to our motives for helping.

If I am helping people to satisfy my need to help out, I am probably going to cause more harm than good because I am more concerned with what I will get out of the process than what will really help in the process. I will likely end up diminishing the people I want to help because I put myself before them.

When my helping takes away the individual’s freedom to make their own choices, I have actually ceased helping them. When I do counselling for example, it really isn’t my place to tell people they have to stop doing something, no matter how destructive it might be for them. I can help them see the consequences of their actions, I can help them formulate different ways of dealing with stuff, I can even be willing to help hold them accountable. In some situations, I can and have told people I will have to report them to appropriate authorities but I can’t make them change. But I can’t actually make them do whatever it is that we are talking about.

Learning and remembering that one basic reality has saved me and those I minister to a great deal of pain, confusion and emotional turmoil. A real helper is one who has real and realistic limits. I can’t live another person’s life–and I can’t make them live their life the way I think it should be lived. I can only help them as they seek to deal with their own stuff as best they can. I can offer tools, support, counselling, accountability–but I can’t make them.

That means that there are a lot of times when my attempts to help are frustrated. It means that there are times when the proper and best response are really clear to me and the people I am trying to help and they still chose a lesser response. There are times when I get angry because of how hard I have worked only to have someone make poor or even self-destructive choices. There have even been times when I have had to stop my involvement because of the frustration.

But learning that limit has also been liberating and enabling for me in my ministry and my helping of others. I like helping–but I need to begin with the reality of the otherness of the people I am helping. They have a right to be themselves, even if I disagree with their definition of themselves. I need clear and strong limits on my helping so that I don’t try to take over their life or their issues. I am there to help, not to dominate or command or take over. As one poet from another age put it, “Good fences make good neighbours”.

May the peace of God be with you.

 

COMPARATIVE SUFFERING

I was having a conversation with someone recently about a problem they were dealing with.  It was a physical problem that was somewhat painful, somewhat annoying and somewhat limiting.  The problem wasn’t going to be fatal and it was treatable but right then and there, it was causing the individual to suffer.  I did my pastoral thing, listening and encouraging them to talk and doing all the stuff that has become second nature to me over many years of ministry.

But my comfortable professional approach was interrupted by a comment the person made. After telling me about the problem,  the person abruptly said something like, “I shouldn’t be complaining about this–there are lots of people worse off than me.”  Although I have heard the comment a lot, something about it set me off that day.

It isn’t all that uncommon a idea–we are often encouraged to compare our problems and difficulties with those of others, generally with the idea that if theirs are worse, we should stop complaining.  I seem to remember a song from years ago that said something like, “I used to complain about having no shoes until I met a man with no feet.”  If someone is suffering more than we are, then we need to stop whining, count our blessings and get on with life.

Sounds good–there is some semi-religious moralizing, some thinly veiled guilt, some covert attempts to foster denial and some social pressure to smile and carry on.  What more could be asked of an approach to suffering?

Well, maybe we could ask for a more honest approach to suffering.  Comparative suffering is really a terrible approach to suffering.  On some levels, my lack of shoes is certainly less serious than someone else’s lack of feet–but my lack of shoes is my problem and my issue and the other person’s lack of feet, tragic as that is, really doesn’t do much to help me deal with my issue.  In fact, the comparative suffering approach probably adds to my suffering because not only do I have to deal with my lack of shoes but I also have to deal with my guilt over having feet and therefore not suffering as much as the other guy.

Suffering isn’t really comparative.  My stuff is my stuff and while it may or may not be as bad as someone else’s stuff, it is my stuff and I have to deal with it using my resources and my abilities and my support systems.  And in the end, I can only really do that by being honest with myself about what I am dealing with and its effects on me.

So, when the person I was talking to suggested that they shouldn’t be complaining about their suffering when so many were worse off, I interrupted the flow of the conversation by suggesting that suffering wasn’t comparative and that what they were dealing was what they were dealing with.  There was a pause in the conversation as the person thought about this–and then a very visible and audible change in the their demeanor.  It was like they relaxed–they could be open and free about what they were dealing with because they didn’t have to compare it to someone else.  They didn’t have to put it on the global suffering scale and forget about it because it didn’t rate enough.

We continued talking and the person talked more about how the problem was affecting them and their family.  We also talked about how not having to compare it with others was a relief.  They could recognize and accept their suffering for what it was–it was something that was causing them pain and trouble and it was inconvenient and miserable and they had a right to  be upset.

The guy with no feet has a tough deal in life and I can appreciate his suffering–but his suffering is his suffering, just as my suffering is my suffering.  We each have to deal with what we have–or don’t have.  And we deal with it best by dealing with it ourselves, not by trying to place it on some cosmic scale of suffering.  I might have feet–but my lack of shoes is still a real problem in my life, one that I need to deal with honestly and freely.

May the peace of God be with you.

SEARCHING FOR PERFECTION

One of the constant realities of my work as a pastor is the connections I have made with victims of childhood abuse.  As I have worked with people who have suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse during their early years, I have become deeply aware of how painful and traumatic such abuse is.  It can and does affect an individual for the rest of their lives.  It affects the ability to form healthy relationships; it affects the ability to develop healthy self-esteem; it may even affect the ability to live a long life.

Any kind of abuse at any age is wrong and evil.  And for that reason, I am hopeful about the developing trend for abuse victims to feel able to report their abuse and name names.  As long as abusers of any kind can do their evil without fear of the consequences, abuse will flourish.  Fear of being named may not change an abuser’s basic drives but it might prevent at least some of them some from abusing some people some of the time–and while that may not seem like a great victory, it is a victory for the potential victim who doesn’t get abused.

So, my hope and prayer is that our culture continues this recent trend to empower victims of all kinds of abuse to speak out.  Evil flourishes when it is hidden in the dark–shining light in the dark corners of life is a positive and powerful force that benefits everyone.   Taking away the power that fear and concealment provide to abusers and giving it to those who need protection from abuse is an essential part of changing our world.

But I have to say that I do find one part of the developing process interesting, at least from a theological point of view.  While there are some people whose outing as abusers surprises no one, there are other situations where everyone is surprised that so and so could ever do something like that.

For a variety of reasons, we assume that certain people would never do anything bad.  They are such nice people or they play such nice people in the media or that have such a great job or wonderful family or they have lots of money or are so smart.  We assume that because they are X they could never do evil–another application of the halo effect (see my post for Nov. 24/17).

And because we assume some people are incapable of such terrible things, we have one of two reactions.  Sometimes, we simply deny the reports–they accuser has to have made them up for some evil reason of their own.  But mostly, we believe the report and end up disappointed and become even more cynical–if we can’t trust so and so, who can we trust?

Theologically, we shouldn’t actually be surprised.  We can be disappointed and hurt and upset–but not surprised.  The Christian faith–and most other faiths, for that matter–is very clear on the fact that there are no perfect people.  As Paul puts it in  Romans 3.23, “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (NIV).  All of humanity shares this fatal reality:  the best of us harbour dark and evil sides and the worst of us harbour light and good sides.

And that means that all of us are guilty of something.  Dig deep enough into someone’s life and you will find the darkness and the evil.  This is a reality well known to politicians seeking to ruin an opponent, investigative reporters looking for a big story and theologians seeking to understand the world.  We all have a dark and evil side and we all will either act on that darkness or fight it for our whole lives.

When people act out their dark and evil side, it really shouldn’t be a surprise.  It can be wrong; it can be criminal; it can be devastating; it will have consequences and it must be dealt with appropriately–but it really shouldn’t be a surprise.  It is a reality of the human condition, a reality that God recognizes and seeks to deal with through the live, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

May the peace of God be with you.

WORSHIP INTERRUPTIONS

Given that my spot during worship is at the front facing the congregation, I get a great view of everything that is going on in the sanctuary, except for the choir area behind me.  While that area can be a source of interruptions, it is more normal for the interruptions to happen in front of me.

So, when the visiting grandchild starts acting out their boredom, I get to watch the grandparents struggle to cope.  When the busy farmer drops off to sleep because worship is the longest time he has sat still in weeks, I see and empathize.  I am used to interruptions and so was prepared for what happened at a recent worship service.

We were about 30 minutes into the service and I was just getting into the introduction to the sermon when I heard a noise at the front door.  Since all our regulars were either present or accounted for (one of the benefits of a small congregation), I thought that we were having visitors.  Visitors are always nice, even when they come during the sermon when the service is half over.

I was on the wrong side of the pulpit to actually see the door so in the course of preaching, I casually moved enough to see the door.  As it opened, someone peeked around the side of the door, saw me and quickly closed the door and left.  I actually wasn’t surprised that the visitor left–in that brief time his face was visible, I recognized who it was.

He wasn’t an actual late coming visitor coming to check out our worship.  He was a local resident well known for showing up at worship services and asking for money to help out his family.  The latest request tends to be for gas so his wife can get to work.  How do I know that?

Well, I have been pastor in this area for years and have worked with three generations of this family and with him directly.  He had actually called me a few weeks previously asking for money.  But since I knew that he had been making the rounds of local churches (one of the benefits of good relationships between churches) and that one pastor was offering to help the family with budgeting, I told him that I couldn’t help.

I know that he has been visiting local churches for a while looking for money.  I had worked with him and his family a lot over the years and have seen this pattern and process first hand.  I expect that his visit to our worship service was made in ignorance of the fact that I am the pastor–the church hasn’t got around to replacing the name of the previous pastor yet.  When he saw me, I think he realized that he was unlikely to get help that day.

The irony of the situation is that my sermon theme was that healthy churches seek to serve God by serving their community.  I am not at all sure what I think of this interruption during this particular sermon.  I think I handled the initial request wisely and graciously.  I am aware that I reached my limit with this particular family quite a while ago.  I am also aware that others have stepped in and tried.

But as my sermon progressed, part of my mind was processing the interruption and my response.  What is my responsibility to this individual and his family?  How do I serve God in my relationship with him?  I didn’t get too far in the process because the sermon does take most of my focus.  But I did decide that the family isn’t starving at this point–I know that they both have jobs.  I re-affirmed my decision not to give money.  And I decided that if he was sitting in his car waiting for us to be done to ask for money, I would offer budgeting help again hoping that this time, it would take.

Well, worship finished and by the time I actually got out the door, the parking lot was empty so I didn’t have to deal with any requests for money.  I can’t say I was upset with that, just as I can’t say I am upset with my response to the situation.  I decided that the issue for me isn’t that I don’t want to help, it is that I don’t want to help in a way which reinforces the present situation.  I want to offer something that will help change things which to me seems a much better option.

May the peace of God be with you.

NUMBER 80 ONCE MORE

I like planning and having a sense of where things are going.  I generally have a three month plan for preaching; a plan for Bible study that includes not just the present topic but also the next topic; a ever developing and changing plan for the next few weeks’ work in the churches and a less than successful plan for how to get caught up on all the things I am behind on.  I also like to have a longer sense of direction for the church, a plan that I work on with the church at regular intervals.

One set of churches will be meeting soon and we will discuss plans for next year after we start back up once the winter break is over.  I have a few ideas, some of the church people have a few ideas and as we talk together, we will likely come up with a few other ideas.  For us, that is long term planning–knowing now what we want to accomplish next July is pretty good.

But recently, I have been thinking about my position as the 80th pastor of this gathering of people and realized that I am also making plans for the 81st pastor, plans that may or may not help him/her.  I have always sort of known that.  As a long time part-time pastor, I have had the opportunity to share my experience and knowledge with other, newer part-time pastors and one of the things I tell them is to think of the next person coming along.

If the church and I agree that I will be paid to work 16 hours a week, it is tempting for me to “volunteer” more time than that because I have the time and the work needs to be done.  But in doing that, I have planted a very large and dangerous land-mine in the path of the next pastor, who may not be able to go beyond the agreed upon hours.  But as things don’t get done the way they were before, my “volunteer” hours explode and that ministry runs into trouble.

So, as number 80, I need to look ahead to number 81 or 93 or, if things don’t change drastically, number 180.  How to do that gets a little fuzzy at times because some of my best stuff may not be the best for the next person.

Our Bible study, for example, owes a significant amount of its vitality to the fact that I am an avid collector of facts, figures, interpretations, and so on that I am able to access, correlate and present in the heat of our often chaotic Bible study.  Questions and comments and unrelated thoughts take us in paths that churn up a significant amount of my accumulated knowledge.  If number 81 is a relatively new pastor who prefers order and structure, I may have unwittingly thrown a wooden shoe into the machinery (that is the actual origin of the word “sabotage”).

Somewhere along the line before I leave, I will have to help the Bible Study group develop an approach that isn’t totally dependent on my particular gifts and abilities.  What we are doing now is working and it is helping the church and we need to do it–but as number 80, I do need to look ahead further than next year and think about number 81, who will show up at some time and will need the freedom to make full use of the God given gifts that are the reason for 81 replacing 80.

So, I minister with an eye to the future.  Someday, I will leave this church.  Neither I nor the congregation really want to think much about that right now.  But I actually need to keep it in my mind.  I need to evaluate what I/we plan and do now so that as much as possible, I avoid planting land-mines.  Some things that we do because of my gifts and abilities are important and valuable and I am called by God to do them.  But some of them are based completely on my stuff.  Before I leave, I need to help the church see that as important as some of this was now, it will need to change so that 81 has the same opportunity to follow God’s leading as I had–otherwise 81 ends up spending a lot of time getting frustrated by 80, something I really don’t want.

May the peace of God be with you.