SELECTIVE HEARING

A few years ago, I was attempting to prove that while my hearing was fine, my wife had been gradually lowering her voice making it difficult for me to hear so I scheduled an appointment with a hearing specialist.  An hour and lots of money later, I had hearing aids because it was my hearing that was the actual problem after all.  The specialist was careful to brief both of us on what to expect and what not to expect from the new hearing aids.  Since I could now hear, I listened carefully–and am glad I did because of what began to happen.

I was hearing everything.  After getting the devices fitted, we went shopping.  As I was standing in line, I heard the conversation between a couple several spots behind me in the line–did I mention that the new hearing aids have both forward and rear facing microphones?  I heard the squeaks and rattles in the car, the rustling of the groceries in the back, the raindrops hitting my hat.  Everything was clear and audible and eventually annoying.

I would have been tempted to rush back to the dealer and have him readjust the hearing aids, except he had warned me about this.  My hearing had been slowly deteriorating over the years and I hadn’t realized I wasn’t hearing all this stuff.  Normally, our brain processes out most of the extraneous noise–but because my hearing had been bad, the areas that do that processing had to be retrained to ignore the stuff I could now hear but really didn’t need to hear.

We all have somewhat selective hearing.  Right now, I am working in our living room.  There is an air purifier running by the living room door.  The kitchen fridge adds to the noise level.  If I focus, I can hear the dehumidifier in the basement.  The fan in my laptop cycles on and off.  The dog flops and walks and does whatever else he does.  With my hearing aids, I can now hear all that stuff.

But I have had them long enough that my filtering systems are back at work and so I only hear them when I choose to or something goes wrong with them.  My hearing is normal in that I can hear it all and depend on my brain to select what I really need to hear, except for a few minutes immediately after I put the hearing aids on in the morning until the filtering process kicks in.

This selective sensing works in most areas of life.  I look out the window and see the trees, the deer, the squirrels and the salt marsh, ignoring the lawn, the wires and the neighbour’s cat.  I can smell the cinnamon from my breakfast granola and not notice the slight odour of wet dog.  I notice the perpetual pain in my left knee from but ignore the lesser pain in my right knee.

And on the larger level, I stand in the pulpit every Sunday and look at the congregation members.  I know these people–remember, I pastor small churches.  As I talk with them before and after the service (and sometimes during), I see and hear lots of things, some of which I actually pay attention to and some of which I don’t.

I see the need of the person I know is struggling with grief and the related issues.  I hear the person who is struggling with some personal issue.  I might perceive the tensions sitting between one of the couples in worship.  I hear the excitement of the couple with grandchildren visiting.  I am aware of the person carrying the burden of an aging and increasingly disabled relative.

And because I am a pastor, I often need to do something in many of these situations–but part of my ministry is knowing what to focus on and what to ignore.  Just like I filter out what my hearing aid augmented ears pick up, so I need to filter out what my pastoral senses show me.

I have learned that the best way for me to do that is to open myself not only to the people but also to God so that the Holy Spirit can help me in the process.  Left to myself, I would either hear it all, which leads to burnout or ignore it all, which is just wrong.  While I am still learning that process, I have discovered a few things, which will be the topic of the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

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SABBATH

One of the interesting but often unspoken realities of any form of ministry is that it can be very hazardous to one’s spiritual health.  On the surface, that seems like it shouldn’t be true–and maybe even less true for me than for others.  To start with, while I am pastor of two separate church settings, I am 40% at each, which even with my shaky math works out to 80%, leaving me lots of free time to do a variety of other things, including spiritual development.

In practise, though, ministry of any kind and any temporal duration has a tendency to expand.  Last week, my 40% position at one church expanded to well above 50%.  Fortunately, the other position was pretty much “normal” last week but there have been times when both have had expansionary weeks and “free” time consisted of trying to stay awake while I watched the evening news.

And there is a deeper, more significant side of this ministry expansion.  I work hard at having an approach to spiritual growth that takes into account my particular needs and personality, which involves a lot of reading since my primary approach to spiritual development involves study and contemplation.  But reading takes energy–or rather, reading in a way that allows me to understand and process what I am reading so that I can use it as the basis of a contemplative spiritual development process takes energy.

But as the ministry week expands and grows and fills in spaces set aside for other things, it also fills in the space I set aside for reading–and at the same time, taps into the energy I need to effectively use the time I have.  And that means that after a short time of battling ministry expansion and resulting fatigue, I find myself approaching my reading time with the realization that no matter what I read, I am not going to take much in because I am tired physically, emotionally and spiritually.

I could, I suppose, summon up vast amounts of spiritual discipline (or guilt) and read anyway.  Having tried that approach, I can assure you that it doesn’t work for.  If I am reading while on the exercise bike, I realize my mind is drifting and I am taking in nothing.  If I am sitting in the living room, I eventually realize that I have been asleep for the past 15 minutes and so haven’t taken in anything.  At least for me, forcing myself really doesn’t help.

Ministry expands and the expansion threatens to fill every part of life.  And whether a person is a pastor like I am or a lay person, ministry is always expanding.  No matter what the ministry is, there is always potential for expansion and when we commit to ministry and crank up our gifts and openness to the Spirit, we have a tendency to follow the expansion wherever it goes.

That might sound faithful and might look faithful but in the end, it is spiritually unwise and will lead to burnout, depression, anxiety, anger, and a decreased ability to relate lovingly to ourselves, others and God.  Our faith and our concern for the ministry God has given us come together and produce an unhealthy minister.

That is why the Biblical idea of Sabbath is so important.  Technically, the Sabbath was the one day out of seven when the people were supposed to rest and reconnect.  Most of the Christian church has moved from Sabbath observation (Saturday) to keeping the Lord’s Day (Sunday) but many of the Sabbath ideas were transferred to Sunday.

Taking one day out of seven to rest and reconnect with ourselves, others and God is good theology and good psychology.  And the idea of Sabbath can be expanded.  We can have Sabbath moments during our day–on Sundays, I have about an hour between worship services, which provides me with a mini-Sabbath.  During that hour, I have some lunch, read some news and take a power nap.  I do read over my notes for the next service but the other components of the mini-Sabbath are much more important.

We need Sabbaths during the year as well.  The longer I go without a break from ministry, the more I need a break.  Fortunately, a short vacation is coming up soon.

Ministry, whether paid or not expands with inexorable force.  We need to work hard at countering the negative effects of that expansion with the powerful antidote of the Sabbath.

May the peace of God be with you.

WOUNDED HEALERS

I am a pastor and have been a teacher of pastors.  I have worked with pastors in at least four countries, taught pastors from half a dozen countries and done pastoral work myself for over 40 years.  At the beginning of my pastoral career, I came to an important realization that has been strengthened and deepened by all my experience in pastoral work.  That realization is that we pastors are not perfect.

Now, that may seem like a glaringly obvious reality to many non-pastors but it can be hard for we who are pastors to really understand and believe this reality.  Our calling puts us in a privileged and important position.  We get involved in people’s lives when things are painful, hectic, exciting or confusing.  We deal with issues and thoughts and ideas that many people shy away from.  We get asked for advice and answers on many things from the trivial (Why do Baptists use grape juice for Communion?) to the profound (How can God love someone like me?).  We are seen as being the representative of God–when we are present, people can feel like God is present.

The always present temptation is the temptation to believe that we really are what some people think we are and to forget who we really are.  When I am the person to deliver the understanding of the presence of God and his grace, it is all too tempting to believe that something divine has rubbed off on me and that I have somehow been elevated to another level–certainly, in all modesty, I keep the halo hidden but, well, we all know that it is there.

Except that it really isn’t there.  I might be God’s representative, I might presume to speak for God twice each Sunday, I might mediate between the hurting world and the graceful God–but none of the holiness of God has rubbed off on me.  Or better, no more of it has rubbed off on me that has rubbed off on others–and there may be some who have managed to attract even more.

Very early in my ministry, I ran across Henri Nouwen’s book  The Wounded Healer.  Without even reading the book, I was and continue to be struck by the insight and profound truth expressed by the title.  Reading the book just amplifies and solidifies the bedrock reality that no matter what I think I am; no matter that I wrestle with the things of God as a matter of course; no matter that I can and do bring the awareness of God to the darkness of life, I am still human and approach my calling as an imperfect person who must deal with my own imperfections while I help others deal with theirs.  All of us need the grace of God, not just the people I work with.

God calls us in our wounded state and works to heal us.  But we will remain wounded and imperfect for the whole of our existence here.  We never reach perfection because as soon as we finally deal with one wound, God shows us another one.  When we take the bandage off one healed spot, we probably manage to cut ourselves with the scissors God gave us to cut the bandage and so need healing for that new wound.

As a pastor, I long ago realized I can’t really hide my wounds from anyone but myself.  And if I can’t hide them, I needed to learn how to do my calling with them.  Sometimes, I try to do it in spite of my wounds.  But mostly, I have realized that my best work at carrying out my calling comes when I let God work through both my strengths and my weaknesses.  Sometimes, the fact that I can get beyond my bouts of depression help people and sometimes the fact that I can still minister even during a bout of depression helps even more people.  Sometimes, my wounds need healing from the people I pastor, which is also part of God’s plan for me and them.

I am a pastor, which means that in the end, I am a wounded healer.  I need help even as I offer help.  Fortunately, the presence and grace of God means that he is willing to both heal me and work through me, just as he heals and works through those I am called to shepherd.

May the grace of God be with you.

THE CHURCH WEATHER REPORT

A few times over the course of my ministry with small congregations, I have been taken aside by some member of the congregation and thanked for what I have done and am doing in the congregation.  Since I am somewhat analytical by nature, I have generally asked the person to tell me just what it is that they think I have done.  Initially, I was thinking I would hear some comment about my breathtaking preaching, my incredibly inspiring teaching, my superlative administrative skills or at least the fact that last Sunday, I managed to produce a bulletin with no discernible mistakes.

But in almost every case in which this scenario happened, the informant doesn’t mention any of those things.  Almost all have told me that what I have done that is so important to them is change the atmosphere of the congregation.  They mention that they come to worship now because they want to, not because they feel it is their duty.  They talk about the fact that we laugh a lot as a congregation–and often add that we laugh together, not at each other.  Sometimes, the person will say that the congregation used to be gloomy but now they feel hope and excitement.

I have to confess that this hasn’t been some planned strategy on my part but as I have reviewed the ministry I have done, I can see that a change of atmosphere is generally a by-product of what I have been doing.  And in each situation, I haven’t been doing anything more than what I think is my job as pastor.

My primary area of skill, ability, gifts and inclination is pastoral.  I am concerned about people.  Now, because I am an introvert, I joke with churches that I don’t actually like people but that really isn’t true.  As a pastor, I like and care for the people I am working with and for–and they are my primary focus.  That doesn’t seem to be the case for all pastor-congregation matches.

As I read and study pastoral trends these days, I find strong encouragement for me to be a Leader, a Visionary or even better, a Visionary Leader.  I am told by others that I must be an unflinching advocate of the TRUTH, unwavering in my defence of all that it right.  Others suggest that I must be Seeker Sensitive, designing worship and programs for those who aren’t there but who might come if I get things right.  I also need to be an advocate of Church Growth, following which ever theory is hot at the moment.

In the end, though, I am a pastor, called by God to love and care for a specific group of people.  The spiritual (and sometimes actual) feeding of this flock is my focus.  And as I have analysed the congregations I have worked with, I realize that the comments I mentioned at the beginning of this post are a direct result of the fact that the people feel cared for and supported in their spiritual development–and that changes the nature of their relationship with both the faith and the church.

These days, I am more aware of the atmosphere of congregations and more concerned with changing the atmosphere.  But the process I follow really hasn’t changed.  I am still a pastor.  I work at listening and caring and supporting.  I build my teaching and preaching on what I am hearing and seeing and deducing from my pastoral contacts.  But most of all, I spend time with people, listening and learning.

The results of good pastoral care are many and varied–but one of the most important is that people feel valued and important.  Worship becomes a time of sharing with each other and with God their sense of value and importance.  Whatever we do as a congregation grows out of this atmosphere of value and importance.  People are free to open themselves to the leading of the Spirit–and when the congregation opens themselves to this leading, there is no telling what will happen but it will generally be positive, powerful and exciting for everyone involved.

The church weather report is one of the most powerful indicators of the health and potential of a congregation–and the role of the pastor is crucial to establishing conditions for a good weather report.

May the peace of God be with you.

EVALUATING THE SMALL CHURCH PASTOR 3

In the October 12 blog post, I wrote “The purpose of a job evaluation is not to find problems and create tension. Rather, the purpose is to help the individual do the best job possible.” This must be always in the forefront during the pastoral evaluation. The goal is not to “catch” the pastor, not to cover over real problems, not to find fault or excessively praise. It is to enhance the ministry the pastor does so that the congregation will be stronger.

The overall evaluation is best done by a small, official group who represent the whole congregation. It can be a group already in place, such as the Board of Deacons. The congregation can also choose to elect a special committee to do the pastoral review. However they are chose, this group has the responsibility for working through the process with the pastor.

Using the job description as a base, the pastor and committee discuss the pastor’s activity. He/she can be asked to prepare a report on the work that has been done, including an evaluation showing how the activity fulfilled the requirements of the job description. The report can include recommendations for changing the job description as well.

Each member of the committee should also go through a similar process, writing an evaluation based on their perspective. It is very important here that the individual committee members provide their own personal evaluation. It is not helpful for committee members to report on what “they” said. Second and third hand reports channeled through the committee do not help the process because there is no way to determine the validity of such comments. As well, committee members need to refrain from commenting on things they may not be fully able to evaluate.

For example, the committee member may only have had one visit from the pastor–but that does not mean the pastor isn’t visiting others. The committee can state they have been visited once and during the discussion can ask the pastor how much visitation he/she has done. As mentioned, the committee member also cannot say that “they” say “they” are not being visited enough.

The committee can and should get input from the congregation. The best way to do this is through a questionnaire or interview process where people are given the opportunity to share their own personal thoughts and feelings. It is important that the instructions explain that the committee is looking for only the responses of the individual.

If the committee opts to use a questionnaire, make sure the questions are clear, have an answering system that is easy to understand and score and will give results that can be easily shared. When using a questionnaire in a small congregation, have pencils available and encourage the congregation to fill it out right then–questionnaires taken home rarely get filled out and even more rarely get returned.

When all the reports and questionnaires have been submitted, read and correlated by the committee, the committee and pastor can meet together. They seek to affirm the positive discoveries, make plans to develop the weak areas that show up and make recommendations to change the job description as necessary to further enable ministry.

One further issue that needs to be carefully considered is who gets to know what about the final report. Some parts of the report need to be open to everyone. For example, if the congregation is asked to fill out a questionnaire, they have a right to see the results of the questionnaire. Depending on the instructions to the pastor, they may have a right to see the report the pastor prepares for the committee. Reports by individual committee members should probably be shared only with the committee.

The final report should be available to the whole congregation, unless there are things in it which are of a confidential nature. The pastor may request that certain parts remain confidential–for example, he/she may reveal plans to retire within a year or so but not want that released to the whole congregation until a later date.

All involved need to remember that the goal of the process is the same as the goal of the ministry review–to produce better and more effective ministry. Rather than fear the process and the report, all involved should see it as an opportunity to enhance the overall ministry of the congregation.

May the peace of God be with you.