WHAT DO I KNOW?

I am leading worship, something I do twice a Sunday almost every Sunday of the year–I do take vacations.  I have finished the announcements, begun the worship and we are singing the first hymn.  After making sure that I have the bookmarks in place for the responsive reading and the next hymn (I am organized, not obsessive), I take some time to look around at the congregation.  I have greeted everyone as they come in and had a brief conversation with most of them but this is my first time to really see the whole congregation.

I know who is there but at this point in the service, I get to take a quick count (a relatively quick and easy job in small congregations) and at the same time, discover who isn’t there.  Some, I already know won’t be present–they have mentioned to me that they will be away because of this or that commitment.  I am pretty sure that I know the reason for the absence of one or two others.  But there are a couple whose absence concerns me.

I am not concerned because it makes the numbers look bad–having been the pastor of small congregations for many years, I don’t get too concerned about numbers until there is a major, sustained deviation from the average.  But I am concerned because I don’t know why they are missing from the worship that day.

You might think this shows that I am a controlling, nosey, busybody who needs to know every detail of everyone’s life.  I prefer to think that I am a pastor, a person called by God to provide spiritual and other input as God leads me–and being a pastor means that I am concerned with what goes on in the lives of the people that God has called me to shepherd.  Most Sundays, my big concern isn’t whether we have 17 or 20 people in worship–my real concern is whether those who aren’t there are okay.

I have the same concern for those who are there as well–but I can do something about that.  As I greet them and talk with them, I can and do get a sense of how they are doing and whether I need to plan some pastoral input during the coming week.  But when someone expected isn’t there, I have to confess that I have alarm bells going off in my mind–not level one, all out panic alarm bells but alarm bells nonetheless.

If I am really lucky, someone will mention to me that one of the absentees had company drop in or caught a cold or something equally minor.  If not, I might ask one of their friends.  And if no one knows, the person  goes on my pastoral list.  Because I am a pastor in small, rural communities, I can be pretty sure that if the person missing from worship is suffering from a major, catastrophic event, everyone will know about it and someone will tell me eventually.  But there are lots of things between minor and catastrophic that I can and do respond to as their pastor.

One of the things I know is that I am called by God to provide pastoral care to the churches that I worship with each week.  Pastoral care is a vague and hard to define concept that is often much easier to see in its absence that in its presence.  It is a calling that I sometimes get tired of–but can’t seem to ever get away from.  Even when I am not a pastor, I find myself reacting to people like a pastor–listening and watching and paying attention, looking for the clues that God helps me see so that I know how best to respond to the individual and their needs in God’s name.

Being a pastor tires me–but it also completes me.  It irritates me at times–but it also gives me a sense of purpose and direction.  Being a pastor clashes with my introverted nature sometimes–but it also fulfills an even deeper part of my nature.

I know that I am called to be a pastor.  Some days, I am not sure of much and other days, I discover that what I think I know is wrong–but every day, I know that I am a pastor and need to care for those people whom God has called me to shepherd.

May the peace of God be with you.

GETTING TO THE PULPIT

I will begin this post with a disclaimer:  the story I am about to tell is a pastoral story.  That means that I have used my pastoral privilege to alter details to protect the identity of anyone who might be involved and of course, to make the story fit my point better.  We pastors like nothing better than a story that perfectly fits our point and it is often easier to tweak the story than the point.

Anyway, the story.  I am almost always one of the first to arrive for worship.  I like the time it gives me to set up my stuff on the pulpit and refocus on the coming worship.  My nervousness level generally requires that I re-visit the pulpit several times to make sure that things are still set up properly–who knows when some evil gremlin will turn the hymnbook to the wrong page.

So, I start for the pulpit to check the hymnbook and tablet yet again.  But now, there are people present so I stop and talk.  I hear about the frustration of getting a driveway cleared (we had heavy snow before the worship;  I hear about the sick grandchild in another province; I hear about the depression someone is struggling with; I hear about the anniversary trip coming up soon.  Eventually, I make it to the pulpit and discover that the hymnbook and tablet are just as I left them.  I check my watch and discover that we have 2 minutes before we are supposed to start, just enough time to get to the back and pray with the choir before worship begins.

But the trip to the back of the sanctuary, which should take 15 seconds (20 on bad knee days) gets interrupted as I hear about the upcoming surgery and how comfortable someone feels in our worship and how someone else has to be away and will miss Bible study next week.  Eventually, I make it to the back for prayer–it has  be rushed because it is already past time to start–but one of the choir members has to finish telling his story and another has to remind us that she won’t be with us next week.

Now, as I mentioned, this has never happened–but it happens almost every week.  People have stuff they need to share–and they want to share it with me.  They want to share it with me not because I am such a great person or because they recognize that I am too polite to ignore them.  They want to share this stuff with me because I am the pastor.  Sharing it with me helps them be aware that God is concerned with their concerns.  When I listen to them, they feel that God has been listening to them.

Many of us in ministry struggle with this reality.  We forget, I think, just how important it is to many people to receive this pastoral care.  It is easy for me to focus on the coming worship and try to make sure that everything is ready so I can lead worship without the anxiety that comes from not checking the pulpit 42.5 times.  It is sometimes tempting to think that my task of helping the church develop a newer and bigger vision is more important than listening to someone talk about some fear or triumph or detail of life.  I am tempted to think that my study of the derivation of the key words in the text for Sunday’s sermon is a more important focus for my energy than listening (for the 10th time) to the story of how a grandchild who had problems at birth is now walking and talking.

But the truth I have learned is that I am a pastor–and people in the congregation need their pastor to hear them and listen to them and care for them.  Feeding the sheep is not an option for when I have some extra time–feeding the sheep is the essential priority of my calling.  When I don’t give this pastoral care the priority it deserves, I get reminders of how important it is.  One reminder is how long it takes to get to the pulpit.

If I ignore the reminders and continue to neglect the feeding of the flock I have been called to, the whole congregation will suffer–and anything else that I think is important will fall apart.

Trips to the pulpit such as I described here are a reminder to me of what is really important.

May the peace of God be with you.

ITS MONDAY AGAIN

Monday mornings can be hard for some of us in ministry.  Traditionally, Monday was the pastor’s day off (listen carefully and you can hear the snickers in the background).  Leading worship, preaching and connecting with people is demanding and therefore Sundays take a lot of energy from clergy, especially those of us who are introverts.  And many of us are introverts–I read a study a while ago that suggested that the percentage of introverts in ministry is higher than the percentage of introverts in the general population.

So that means that many of us in ministry wake up on Monday morning with the equivalent of a hangover–we are tired, perhaps a bit irritable, not totally sure why we should get out of bed and wishing we had won the lottery and could retire.  Taking the day of seems like a good idea, which is why all the ministry books suggest Monday as a day off.

But it doesn’t often happen, at least not completely.  There is always something to do–ministry is an occupation where things just never get finished.  When  we finish a sermon, there is another one needing to be done.  When we visit a parishioner, there are three more who need a visit.  When we finally figure out why the photocopier isn’t working, well, someone has to make sure there is coffee in the kitchen for the Bible Study group.  And sometimes, the only time to really get to those things in Monday.

The rational is simple–I will just do these few things and then I will go skiing or spend some time in the workshop.  But if I don’t do these other things today, then I have to find time to do them during the work week and that is full enough already.  Maybe I can take all of next Monday off if I get some things out of the way today.  And when I begin thinking that way, a Monday off becomes the Monday that never comes because no matter what I do this Monday, there will be something else next Monday.

We who are in ministry have some of the worst personal care habits of any occupation–or maybe not.  I don’t know too much about people in other occupations and their work/relaxation habits but I do know about clergy.  Some of us seem to function on the idea that we are pretty much indispensible.  If we are not working, the church, the Kingdom and the universe will fall apart.  It seems that some of us think that while God might have taken a day off to rest, we have to pick up the slack caused by his day of rest.

So, this is Monday.  I have no work planned today and actually hope to go skiing sometime today.  Well, I do have to send the chair of the deacons an email about the items I would like included in the agenda for our next meeting and maybe I should spend a little bit of time planning my work week so I can get a quick start tomorrow and there is that person in the hospital that I could drop in and see before I go skiing–well, you get the picture.

I have spent my ministry career trying to find the balance between the demands of ministry and the need for time for myself.  I have actually tried to teach others of the need to take time off.  And with all my teaching, writing and attempts, I generally have one foot on the wrong side of the burn-out line and keep going by assuring myself that I will take next Monday off completely.

Now, I have been getting better.  It helps that the combined total of my work week is 80%  but there is still that temptation to do just a bit more, take care of just a few things, to postpone the break until I get that important task done.  But I am working on making sure that down time is actually down time,  not just a sometime fantasy.

God was secure enough in himself and his creation that he could rest after six days of work, so maybe he can look after the universe if I take this Monday off.

May the peace of God be with you.

DEVELOPING A PASTORAL JOB DESCRIPTION 2

It is tempting to say that developing a pastoral job description while there is a pastor present is exactly the same as developing it when there isn’t a pastor present but I have to resist the temptation. When the church has a pastor, developing the job description can be as easy as when there is no pastor or it can be a very difficult and painful task.

The central issues that will determine the difficulty are the nature of the relationship between the congregation and the pastor, the pastor’s emotional reaction to the process and the presence or absence of people in the congregation who see the process as a chance to work out some of their frustrations with the present or a former pastor.

So, although I think developing a job description is an important task for any congregation, it is best done when the church is in transition. That is not to say it cannot be done with a pastor present–it just needs much more consideration before it is done. The congregation and the pastor need to weight the various factors involved and determine if the results of the process are going to be worth the potential tension and disruption it might cause.

Essentially, if the relationship between the present pastor and the congregation are not good, trying to develop a job description will likely make things worse. Given the reality that when there are significant tensions between pastor and congregation, the pastor is probably already making plans to leave (and/or the congregation is making plans to have the pastor leave) it is probably wise to delay the job description process until the pastor actually resigns or leaves.

If the relationship is good but the pastor for some reason is reluctant to engage in the process, it is wise to discover the reason for the reluctance first. I have worked with many pastors, know many other pastors and have trained pastors in three countries and realized a long time ago that we pastors have the same emotional issues as anyone else. Our insecurities are real and we do feel threatened by things like developing a job description for a job we are already doing.

If the congregation and pastor can work out the issues and become comfortable with it, they can proceed. However, if the insecurities are not worked out, it is probably better not to attempt the process–if the pastor and congregation get along well and ministry is happening, again it is not worth the effort to develop the job description.

When there are people in the congregation who want to hijack the process for their own ends, the congregational leaders will need to deal with that as well. If things develop into an attack on the current pastor by certain members of the congregation, the job description process will not work. The underlying tensions must be worked out first. Actually, the underlying tensions need to be worked out no matter what because ignoring them will allow them to grow and develop into a threat to the whole ministry of the congregation.

When the pastor and the congregation are doing well together, there are no major stumbling blocks in the way and there is no written job description, the process can proceed pretty much as outlined in the previous post.

Because there is a pastor already doing the work, he/she needs to be given a strong say in the process. Because no pastor ever does the job perfectly, both pastor and congregation need to work hard to avoid allowing the pastor’s present activity become the total job description. In the end, the job description is about the congregation designing the type of ministry they believe they need, not accepting what it.

This can be a time for pastor and congregation to re-define their ministry and improve areas of weakness while strengthening what is going well. There will without question be areas where the pastor and congregation disagree. These will need to be negotiated and discussed but in the end, all involved need to remember that the congregation is designing the job description for their needs, not to please the pastor.

The resulting job description will definitely reflect the gifts and abilities of the current pastor. That means that it should be revisited and revised when the pastor finally leaves–the next pastor will not have the same gifts and abilities and the congregation will not have the same needs so a revised job description is a necessity when looking for a new pastor.

May the peace of God be with you.

DEVELOPING A PASTORAL JOB DESCRIPTION 1

A congregation that doesn’t currently have a pastor or which is facing the departure of their current pastor has a perfect opportunity to develop a job description for their next pastor. Developing a job description not only helps the new pastor understand what the church is looking for but also helps the congregation do a better job evaluating potential candidates. It might even help minimize the desperation that some small congregations feel when searching for a new pastor. With a job description, they will have a sense of what they need and want and may not feel as desperate as is sometimes the case.

Developing a good job description requires the participation of as many of the congregation as possible. I would suggest that everyone who attends worship be invited to take part in the process. Whether they are actual members or not doesn’t really matter–they will be affected by the ministry of the new pastor and have ideas and insights that will benefit the process. A suggested process would looks something like this:

1. Get people together and begin by having them pray together about the process. Then, very quickly, have them put down as many suggested tasks and responsibilities of the pastor as possible. In this process, there is no censoring of suggestions. If someone wants to suggest that new pastor should be in charge of making pickles for the Thanksgiving supper, it goes on the list. The purpose of this task is to surface as many of the unwritten assumptions about the job as possible. Depending on the size of the group, it might be wise to break up into smaller groups to give everyone an opportunity to give input.

2. After everyone has had sufficient time to make suggestions, compile a master list of the ideas. Now go through the list asking the following questions:

Is this task something that by training and tradition any pastor can be expected to perform?
Is this task something that our congregation needs/could benefit from?
Is this task something our membership expects of the pastor and has a right to expect?
Does this task contribute to the long-term health and development of the congregation?

An added question that is important is:

Is this task more an expectation of the pastor’s spouse or family than the pastor?

Answering these questions will allow some suggestions to be weeded out–for example, the training and tradition of many pastors does not include making pickles. Tasks that are more specifically focused on the spouse or family of the pastor should probably be removed, unless the congregation is going to pay that family member and they have the option of refusing the task without affecting the call process.

3. Because any pastoral job description is likely to be essentially more than one person can do, the congregation can also look at assigning priorities to the various tasks. Pastoral visitation, for example, it almost always a high priority for congregations but is the easiest task to cut in the pressure of regular ministry. Establishing the priority of this task in comparison to other tasks helps everyone involved have a better sense of what is required.

4. After the job description is acceptable to those present, it should be presented to the church and officially adopted according to the congregation’s process. It can then be posted, distributed, referred to and used by the committee in charge of the pastoral search process as well as by those involved in working with the pastor eventually called by the congregation.

The way I have described the process here may suggest that it can be done at one meeting. It probably can’t be done that quickly. It may take several meetings to arrive at an acceptable description. The time spent on the process is valuable and will provide great benefit to the church as time passes.

Finally, never view the final document as anything more than a suggestion. It will need to be reviewed and revised regularly. A lot of factors will require changes in the description: the specific gifts and abilities of the incoming pastor; the changing nature of the congregation; the requirements of new people; changes in the wider community and so on. For this reason, a job description, while necessary and important, needs to be viewed as a work in progress and the congregation needs to have a process for change that is easy to use.

Tomorrow, we will look at how to develop a job description when there is a pastor present.

May the peace of God be with you.

EVALUATING THE SMALL CHURCH PASTOR 2

In every job where I have had regular performance reviews or job evaluations, I had a clear job description that was used as the basis of the review process. That makes sense–it is hard to evaluate something if those involved aren’t really clear on what is being evaluated. But this leads to one of the major problems with doing an evaluation of the pastor–generally, there is no clear job description.

When I began ministry in the early 1970s, congregations and pastors didn’t worry about job descriptions. But the reality was that church culture of the time provided both pastor and congregation with a pretty clear unwritten job description. The pastor was expected to do things like visit the people, preach good sermons, lead Bible study, do the appropriate life stage ceremonies, be available for emergencies and other tasks depending on the specific context and pastoral abilities.

There were always some pastors and some congregations who took exception to parts of the unwritten description and no pastor ever did it all perfectly–but then again, congregations didn’t expect the pastor to do it all and do it perfectly. There were complaints, generally focusing on the lack of visitation or poor preaching but on the whole, there was a generally accepted, unwritten pastoral job description that formed the basis of the pastor-congregation connection.

In the intervening years, there have been dramatic changes in that area. The congregational view of the job description hasn’t changed much in most smaller churches but the pastoral view of the job has undergone some dramatic changes. For a variety of reasons, many pastors see their job in a very different way.

A few years after I began ministry, I began to hear pastors complain about how much of their time was wasted on pastoral visitation. Others began to suggest that a regular Bible study was not really a pastoral responsibility. Some with young families began talking about the need to set limits on congregational demands on the pastor’s time–I know a few who even forbade phone calls to the pastor’s home.

At the same time, North American culture began to make leadership more attractive than pastoring and pastors were being encouraged to see themselves as leaders and visionaries whose task was to move the creaky, staid and stuck church into the 20th (or 21st now) century, whether the church really wanted to move or not.

The end result has been a serious divergence in the way pastors and congregations view the pastor’s job. The problem lies in this divergence. Neither the congregation’s traditional job description nor the pastor’s contemporary job description are actually wrong–what is wrong is that neither really knows the other’s thinking and they end up puling in different directions. A lot of the tensions that I see between congregations and their pastors seem to come from a deep divergence on the understanding of the pastor’s job.

It is probably well past time for congregations to discover the need for a clear job description that they use when searching for a pastor. This job description provides the basis for an effective pastoral search–the congregation knows what they are looking for and potential pastors know what will be expected of them. The potential pastor can also have a better idea about their ability to deliver what the congregation is looking for.

It is probably also a very wise thing for churches that currently have a pastor to spend some time discussing and developing a mutually acceptable job description. This process is a bit harder because it has to take into consideration not just the congregation but also the incumbent pastor but it can be done and will likely prove very helpful to both congregation and pastor.

The next post will look at a process for developing a job description in a congregation that is between pastors, which is probably the easiest time to develop such a description. Eventually, we will get to using the description as the basis for a pastoral job evaluation.

May the peace of God be with you.