FEELING GUILTY

The other day, I was at the fall fundraising event for several of the churches in our area. Rather than set up competing events, the churches get together, rent a large hall and do the event together. So, in one big space, there are bake sales, jam sales, quasi-yard sales, silent auctions and a really good brunch. Since we browse the tables at different speeds, my wife and I quickly got separated but since we both knew we would end up at the brunch tables, that wasn’t a problem.

As I looked at the tables and talked to people I knew from all the various churches, I came to the table run by a neighbour who is on one of the same committees I serve on. She had volunteered to take the minutes of our last meeting, which I would then scan and send on to the rest of the committee. As soon as she saw me, she joked about feeling guilty because she didn’t have the minutes done. My joking response was that my job as a pastor was done because I had made her feel guilty. We both knew we were joking and went on to talk about other things—and in the process made a tentative plan to get the minutes done.

I have been thinking on the topic of guilt since then—well, to be honest, it is a topic that I have been thinking about on and off for a while. It seems like guilt is almost synonymous with being a person of faith. I have heard pastors (and comedians) talk about various religious groups as being the inventors of guilt. I remember one person whose faith I admired telling a visiting speaker that she really appreciated his message because it made her feel so guilty—she was giving him what was her supreme compliment.

There is a connection between faith and guilt but not the one that is popularly assumed to be there. It seems like many people both inside and outside the faith want guilt to be the supreme quality of a religious person. Such thinking almost has a valid point. Most religions begin with the idea that we human beings are imperfect and that there is a better, holier and perfect something beyond us. Our continued imperfection is a problem—and guilt seems to be the appropriate response for most people.

Interestingly enough, most people want to maintain a perfect level of guilt. They want to have enough to feel religious but not enough to change behaviour. This is a hard balance to maintain, though, and often people get caught in the swamp of uncontrolled guilt that causes them to slip into low self-esteem, despair, even hopelessness. The process isn’t helped by the vast amount of guilt producing preaching, teaching and advice given by religious leaders.

But what if guilt isn’t the purpose of faith? What if, instead of guilt being the goal and focus of faith, it is only a tool to get us to something greater, a tool that has a important but limited use? What is God uses guilt to motivate us to confess and accept his forgiveness so that we can be free of guilt? What is guilt that can’t be dealt with by God’s offer of forgiveness is false guilt and isn’t something that we need to or should deal with?

I think that this what if is actually the case. I think our Christian faith is based on the reality that God doesn’t want us to feel guilty. In actual fact, he wants us to feel forgiven—and forgiveness by definition ends the hold of guilt on our lives. God wants us to live in the freedom that comes from knowing that we are forgiven and that there is no need to hold on to the guilt that led us to accept God’s forgiveness. Sometimes, that left over guilt is really a sign of our inability to really accept and appreciate the forgiveness that God has given us in Jesus. We hold on to our guilt probably because we feel better feeling guilty that we do feeling free.

But as believers, we are free, we are forgiven and for us, guilt should only be a temporary reminder that we have more to take to God and when we take it to him, he takes care of us, relieving us of the need to feel guilty. Real faith is marked by a sense of freedom from guilt, a freedom that comes from opening ourselves to the grace of God.

May the peace of God be with you.

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THE YARD SALE

Like most small congregations, the churches I serve tend to be underfinanced. One in particular has had some serious financial issues over the years. The financial crunch has eased a bit because we have sold the unused parsonage and shifted to a part-time ministry position, But we still carry on some of the fund raising activities that were crucial our church when finances were tighter.

One of these is the annual yard sale. All year, we fill the unused upstairs Sunday School area with the bits and pieces that people no longer want but can’t quite bring themselves to throw away. The actual preparation for the sale involves carrying everything downstairs, spreading it all around the hall, the sanctuary and outside and putting prices on it. I have to confess that I am not much use in that part of the process—my bad knees seriously limit the number of trips I can make on the stairs and I have absolutely no sense of what used stuff is worth. But I was there, doing what I could.

The day of the yard sale, I really didn’t have an assigned job. I did take charge of making tea and coffee for the staff and initially was assigned to accept payment, I job I held until we actually had people buying stuff—my math ability is seriously limited. There were some things that needed to be moved around, some people needed help with carrying things out and there were occasional requests to help find something or identify something that someone wanted to buy but didn’t actually know what it was.

But mostly, I found myself wandering around talking to people. Early in the day, I talked to the church people working at the sale. I would find myself near their work site and would chat about the weather, their family, their plans, and so on. Now and then, we might spend some time talking about the church or the Bible study and I think one person might have actually mentioned a recent sermon.

As the sale got busier, I found myself talking to customers, sometimes about where to find something or the price of something but often about the building (This is our new building, put up on 1833….), our ministry (yes, we actually hold worship here on a regular basis), how they are doing (the surgery went well and the chemo isn’t that bad…). This was punctuated by spells of making coffee and tea, moving things around, carrying stuff to cars, taking a few pictures and infrequently, taking money for people who didn’t really want to go back to the cash desk.

Now and then, I would slow down to breath and notice the rest of the church people doing similar things. Over the course of the day, I saw pretty much all of our church people involved in conversations with each other and with people coming for the sale. As I watched, it was clear that some of the people they were talking to were good friends—but it was also clear that a lot of times, our church people were talking with people who simply showed up for the sale—sunny Saturdays inspire some people to make a circuit of all the sales in the area. I heard them talking about the weather, their family, their plans and so on. Now and then, I heard them talking about our building, our ministry and how the people were doing. We were all doing pretty much the same thing, except that most of the other church people were a whole lot better at handling money than I was.

What did we accomplish with the sale? Well, we raised some money which will help with our continued ministry. Since some of that will undoubtedly end up on my pay cheque, I am happy about that. But I think that we also did some serious ministry. We met people, we spent time with people, we talked and listened. There were no dramatic spiritual events during the day but we did, I think, provide people with something of our faith. We spent time with people, not just because we wanted them to spend money but ultimately because we wanted to—and in the process, I think we showed something of our faith and what we believe. I think we were witnesses, which might be the most important thing we did that day.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?

I am not the leader in the churches I serve, no matter what some of the people who make up the churches think. I don’t want to be the leader and actively resist pressures and temptations to become the leader. And even more, I actively encourage, seek out and develop leaders within the congregation. I am aware that this means I am seriously out of step with a lot of the books and theories of ministry these days, which tend to emphasize that as pastor, I should be and even need to be the pastor.

I have taught and written and mentored theology students over the years of my ministry and have always worked in that context from my bias—they don’t have to be the leader. It feels a bit like trying to hold back the tide at times—being on the wrong side of a cultural trend is exhausting and somewhat isolating. As I approach the end of my time of active pastoral ministry (no date set but it is coming), I have been doing some introspection and asking myself a lot of questions as I think over the various things I have done in ministry.

And one question I keep looking at is the one that provides the title for this post: What difference does it make? So, what difference does it make that I am not the leader? Is this important enough to justify the energy and time I spend over the years practising it, teaching it and resisting the other views? Or was this just some distraction that I could have and should have ignored so that I would have time and energy for other things?

So far, my thinking is that the issue does make a difference, in my context. I work in small churches—that has been where God has called me and what he has gifted me for. And in this context, how the pastor approaches the issue of leadership does make a real difference. Many of the current ideas about ministry come from big churches and, from what I can see and understand from my study, are based on good theory and practise.

But small churches such as I and at least 80% of the rest of North American pastors work with are not big churches. Most of them are not even potential big churches. And most pastors will never pastor a big church—we will spend our ministry doing God’s leading in small and occasionally medium sized churches. And if we try to use the theory and practise necessary for a big church in a small church, both we and the church are in for a rough, painful but relatively short ride.

Small churches generally already have leaders. They generally aren’t trained, qualified, ordained leaders. While many are recognized with official church titles (deacon, elder, trustee, treasures, moderator), more than a few have no official office or title but are nonetheless the leader of the congregation. Often, even a small congregation has more than one of these leaders who generally develop working relationships that range from seriously dysfunctional to seriously functional.

The small church likely doesn’t need another leader. It likely needs a pastor to care for the hurting. It probably needs a teacher to help it grow in its understanding of and practise the faith. It may occasionally need a loving prophet to help it find its ways. It most certainly will need a shepherd to show it the way to the pastures and waters that will nurture it. But another leader—well, to be honest most small congregations need another leader about as much as they need another bill.

The pastor and the leadership in the small church have complimentary and important roles in the church, roles that God can and will use to enable the congregation to become what he knows it can become. But the moment I as the pastor in a small church begin to feel I need to be the leader, I am probably starting down a road that can only lead to problems. The problems come because not only am I not doing my God given job in the congregation but I am then also interfering with others trying to carry out their God given jobs.

It works much better when we all know and seek to fulfill our particular calling, so in the end it does make a difference whether I am the pastor or the leader.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHY DO I HAVE TO BE THE LEADER?

One of the best paying jobs I ever had while a university student was as a reserve army officer. For a couple of summers, I was an active duty officer, working as a cadet instructor. The pay was great and as an added benefit, I got to play with some neat toys and even run around in the dark firing off blank rounds and throwing flash-bangs.

But those summers weren’t all fun and games. I discovered a few things about myself in the process. I was an officer, someone who was given a great deal of authority. True, I was pretty much the lowest level of officer but most of the time, I was actually with people who were lower in rank than I was, meaning that what I wanted tended to be what happened. I discovered that I liked having that power—and at the same time, I realized that that kind of power can be seductive and extremely dangerous.

I also discovered that in the end, I don’t need that kind of power in my life. I liked it and probably would still like it—but the truth is that having power over other people is as addictive and destructive as any drug. There are people who seem to be able to deal with the dangers of this power but I realized that I am not one of them. I have also seen that many others probably aren’t the ones who can deal with it either.

I think that experience was important for me as I prepared for a career in ministry. I got into ministry just as the ministerial culture was shifting from a pastoral orientation to a leadership orientation. I began ministry understanding that I was to provide spiritual care and guidance and teaching to the people God had called me to shepherd. But more and more, I was being encouraged to lead these people: to tell them what God wanted them to do and then use my leadership to make sure that they got the job done. The books and seminars used words like “vision” and “visionary” and so on, but the whole idea was that I was responsible for leading the church to where it needed to go—and even more, I was responsible for deciding where it needed to go.

Being an introspective introvert, I couldn’t just buy into the books and trends. I needed to know why—and so began my study of leadership as it applies to the faith. I quickly discovered the real question, at least for me. The church, like any organization, needs leaders—but why did I automatically have to be the leader? Why does being given the title “Rev” also confer the supreme leadership of the church on me?

I have yet to find a good answer to that question. I have not yet found any convincing theological or Biblical reason that allows me to automatically equate pastor with leader. In fact, I have discovered a lot of reasons why too much leadership takes away from the ability of an individual to be a pastor. If I am the leader pushing (and even fighting) to get my vision accomplished by the church, I can seriously damage my ability to actually provide pastoral care to someone who might disagree with my vision. Or what of the people who have been slighted by my push to move the reluctant church in the way I see them needing to go? Are they going to be as open to my teaching at Bible Study or my preaching?

The church needs leaders—but why do I automatically have to be the leader just because I am the pastor? There are certainly times and situations when I provide pastorally oriented leadership but I am first of all a pastor and secondarily a teacher. I needed to learn to work from my strengths—and that means that I don’t need to be the leader. The God who called me and gifted me with the pastoral gifts I need also calls and gifts the leaders the church needs. I have discovered that I am at me best when I work my real gifts and calling and encourage others to work their real gifts and calling. I need to be a pastor and teacher—I don’t need to be a leader.

May the peace of God be with you.

SOMETHING IS FINALLY DONE

There is an empty space in the corner of the basement that I use for a workshop. The cabinet and shelf unit that I have been working on for several months is finally done. It took several weeks longer that I had planned but it did come in under budget, thanks in part to sales and discount scratch off coupons. This was a winter project designed to fill in some of the “free” time I was anticipating during the three months one of the pastorates I serve was shutdown.

As I have posted here before, the time wasn’t as free as I had anticipated and when it was, the weather wasn’t always cooperative, which wouldn’t have been a big problem except for the fact that I have to do major cutting and sanding outside. But eventually, the job got done and I moved the cabinet and shelf into the dining room where it is now filling up with all the stuff that needed a place so that we could get at other stuff.

Each time I walk through the dining room, I look at the finished project and have a sense of accomplishment. I do notice the imperfections and “not quite right” stuff that are incorporated in the piece because of my less than perfect woodworking skills. But even seeing all those doesn’t take away from the fact that the job is done, the project is finished and it is now doing what it was built for and the next time I have to do anything with it will be the day I take it apart so that we can move, a day which isn’t happening anytime soon.

That might seem like a small thing but for me, it is significant. I have spend most of my life involved in ministry: pastor, chaplain, teacher, missionary, counsellor and one of the most clear and unchanging realities about ministry is that completed projects are few and far between. I can spend a week on a sermon, researching and planning and writing and rewriting to get it just right. I stand in the pulpit and preach the sermon, doing an almost perfect job of presenting the message. (Or I could waste time, skimp on the research, present poorly—it happens.) But the job isn’t done—because I have to do the same thing all over again—and again and again.

Or suppose I am teaching a class. I research the topic, read extensively, write out the syllabus and the individual lectures. I plan the assignments. The class begins, I teach and discuss and mark and do all the work. And then, we finish—but it isn’t over because likely as not, I will need to do the same course again for another group or prepare a different course for a different group. So, I work hard and then I start all over again with the same thing.

Ministry keeps going and the stuff I do in ministry just keeps going as well. Even when I finish one chapter in ministry, another opens up. When I realize that I have finished the particular work God has called me to do on one place, I discover that God’s call and leading are taking me to another place where there is work to be done—it might not be exactly the same kind of work but there are enough similarities that the same processes work.

And that probably goes a long way towards explaining why I like woodworking. No matter how long it takes, no matter how complicated the process, no matter how much delay, there will come a point where the work is actually done and I don’t need to do anything more. The project is done—it sits in place, doing the work it was designed to do and I only need to appreciate the enjoyment I got out of doing the work and that I get out of it doing what it was designed to do.

I am comfortable with the reality that ministry doesn’t have clear and easy to notice completions. In many ways, I appreciate the process nature of ministry. I work well in the context of always being in process. But it is also good to have a part of my life where I can point to clear completions, to things that I have finished and which don’t need my input anymore.

May the peace of God be with you.

DURING THE HYMN

A couple of Sundays ago, I was standing behind the pulpit conducting my second worship service for the day. The first service had gone well with a larger than expected attendance. This service was also better attended than I expected. I might be the pastor of small churches and thus used to low numbers but it is still nice when there are more people than expected present.

Anyway, the congregation was singing one of the hymns, I was thinking—I have to confess that music isn’t a huge part of my life and doesn’t have the same effect on me that it has for some people. I like music but since I don’t sing well and am not really into music, my mind wanders during the singing. Sometimes, the wandering thoughts are about what comes next in the service or why so and so isn’t present or something equally pastoral.

But at that service, I found myself thinking about my ministry in general. I realized that I was leading that worship service and the dominant feeling I had was fatigue. I wasn’t excited about the higher attendance; I wasn’t caught up in the worship; I wasn’t enthused about the chance to minister to God’s people. I was just tired and my knees were hurting.

By the time we got to the second verse, I was wondering what was wrong with me—was I slipping into depression? Or was I bordering on burnout? No—a quick self-examination revealed that I was just tired—but not sleepy tired and not didn’t sleep well tired. It was not even the results of a too busy week tired. It was a fatigue that comes from being involved in some form of ministry for around 40 years. It is the tired that comes from doing something that requires me to give a lot of myself to a lot of people for a lot of years.

I don’t have the emotional energy that I had 20 or thirty or forty years ago. Early in ministry, everything was new and exciting and I could and did experiment and play and have fun. I didn’t know a whole lot about what I was doing but what I lacked in knowledge, I tried to make up for with enthusiasm and commitment.

By about the third verse, I was doing some deeper reflection. Was I cheating the church or maybe even slipping in my commitment to God? Before the guilt kicked in, I realized that wasn’t the case. I was and am working hard for both pastorates. We are involved in self-examination; we are trying new ideas; we are enabling each other to grow in faith; we are discovering and developing new ministries to ourselves and our communities. As pastor, I am involved and engaged and working hard to help us as churches discover and carry out God’s will for us.

I realized that these days, I minister much more from knowledge and wisdom that from emotion. I still experiment and play with things. I still examine, research, hypothesize and work to help implement new ideas and ministries. I may not get overly excited but I am still completely committed to what I am doing. I am still giving the best that I am capable of giving.

Early in my ministry, the best I could give was a little knowledge and lots of energy and enthusiasm. These days, I have much more knowledge and wisdom (maybe) but less energy and enthusiasm. I am pretty sure the ultimate sum is the same: lots of energy and enthusiasm plus little knowledge probably produces the same results as flagging energy combined with significant knowledge and wisdom. I may be more tired these days, but I still know what I am doing and am still committed to doing it as well as I am able. I might need more naps and breaks in the process but I am aware enough to know when and how to take the nap and the break without harming the overall ministry.

Finally, we arrive at the last verse of the hymn and I move on to the next part of the worship service, feeling better about myself and my ministry. I am tired and it is a fatigue that probably won’t go away after a nap or a vacation. But it is also a fatigue that isn’t taking away from my ability to do what I have been called to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

COME LET US WORSHIP

            It might appear to anyone reading some of my last posts that I don’t spend a lot of time in worship actually worshipping.  I direct the service, seeking to use my gifts and abilities to help others worship.  I deal with interruptions either by ignoring them or working around them.  I am generally at least one step ahead of the congregation–while we are singing one hymn, I am making sure that I have the next one marked and ready.

And in some ways, it is true–I am not actually doing much that seems like worship.  But when I remember the times I have been able to attend English language worship services as a worship participant, I discover something interesting.  Often, when  I am just attending worship, I am less connected to the worship than when I am leading it.  I am less conscious of the flow of the service; I am less involved in the process; I have less sense of the other participants; I focus less on what is being said and done and I am less tuned in with the music.

That might indicate that I have some spiritual difficulties.  And that is probably true–like every other believer, I am not perfect and have lots of stuff that needs God’s help to make it better.  But I think when it comes to worship, I may not be doing as badly as I sometimes think I am doing.

For me, the point of worship is to help us re-connect with God.  God is present and active in our lives all the time but in the hectic, stressed and busy lives most of us lead, we lose sight of God.  We might feel that he has gone away but he is still present and active–we are simply not willing or able to focus on him.  Worship, both private and public, provides us with the chance to open our eyes and see the reality of the presence of God.

My job as the worship leader is to help people make this reconnection.  As I design worship, I am looking at how best to enable the people I serve remember the reality of God’s presence in their lives.  I choose Scriptures to enable this; I help select music to facilitate the connection; I develop prayers to help open hearts and minds to God; I prepare sermons to touch those things which will bring the awareness of God to the front.

And in the process of all this, I am offering myself to God to be used by him in the process of helping others worship. As I stand at the front and announce hymns and read Scriptures and lead prayers and preach sermons, I am working hard–but I am also conscious of the deep and powerful reality that I am leading God’s people in their worship of him and the only way I can do that is if I am willing to submit myself to him in the process.

My worship experience is different from that of the people I lead–but it is still worship.  I am recognizing the presence of God and my need of him in the process of leading others in worship.  That is probably why I struggle when I am simply a participant in  worship.  I am out of my element.  I haven’t had enough experience being a lay person in worship.

For now, I am the worship leader, responsible for leading others in the process of reconnecting with the God who never left.  I am also responsible for my own worship, seeking to make sure that as I lead others, I am worshipping through remembering that I need God’s help to do what he has called me to do.

Someday, I will need to learn how to worship like the people I am leading.  I am planning on retiring someday and will then be someone sitting in the pews seeking an opportunity to reconnect with God.  At that point, I will become a student, learning how to do what others have been doing for years.  But for now, I offer to God my time, gifts and abilities to be used through the power of the Holy Spirit to help others worship God.  For now, this is my act of worship.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE LETTER

I got a letter the other day.  I almost didn’t bother opening it because it came from a large, international Christian organization and so I assumed that the letter was a begging letter, especially since it wasn’t actually addressed to  me personally.  Letters that come addressed to “Pastor” or even “Senior Pastor” tend to have a request for money somewhere in them.  But I did open it and was a bit surprised that a return envelope didn’t fall out when I pulled the letter out.

The letter was a letter of thanks to me for being a pastor.  The letter arrived in the middle of October which someone has decided is “Pastor Appreciation Month”, one of the many special days and weeks and months throughout the course of the year which I tend to ignore.  But this letter from this large international organization was thanking me for my work as a pastor.  I confess that the letter didn’t do a whole lot for me.

While it might have seemed like a good idea to someone at some point, it really didn’t  make me feel appreciated because it really wasn’t addressed to me.  The fact that it was a computer generated letter with a generic “Dear Pastor” salutation and talked about ministry in such vague, general terms didn’t help.  Nor did the fact that I got two other copies of the same letter with others probably coming as the various congregations I pastor get around to passing along the mail they have collected since they last saw me.

I will take some of the blame for the lack of appreciation.  Most of the mail I get from this organization is asking for money and I expect that this letter is part of a well thought out campaign to make me feel better about them than about all the other organizations that didn’t send me a letter.  If I feel better about them, maybe I will send them money.

But generic appreciation really doesn’t do all that much for me.  A letter from a huge organization which doesn’t know or care that I pastor several congregations, which doesn’t know the specifics of my ministry, which doesn’t know the particular stresses I deal with really doesn’t make me feel appreciated as a pastor.

I do feel appreciated as a pastor–but not because it is pastor appreciation month and not because some organization sends me an appreciation letter.  I know that my ministry is important and helps people.  Some of them actually tell me now and then.  But I can also see and hear the appreciation in the way people respond to my ministry.

Ministry is demanding and doesn’t always provide a whole lot of tangible appreciation.  A lot of the people I minister to are dealing with serious stuff that takes most of their focus.  People struggling with death, people excited about their wedding, people dealing with life crises don’t always have the emotional space to tell me they appreciate what I am doing.  Church members who take part in the weekly Bible Study and who listen to the sermon every week don’t often feel a need to tell me how much they appreciate what I taught and preached.  When they do, that is great.

But when they don’t, which is more often the case, it isn’t the end of the world.  I actually am pretty independent and can function without a lot of thanks and so on–a very helpful character trait for a pastor.  I don’t do what I do to get expressions of appreciation.  I do it because it is part of who God is helping me become.  He had given me gifts and abilities and desires and following those is important to me.  If people along the way thank me for it and let me know they appreciate it, that is great but I will be doing what I do anyway.

As for the multiple copies of an impersonal letter of generic appreciation, well, that didn’t do a whole lot for me.  I tossed two of them unopened into the recycling and might do the same with any others that arrive, although maybe not.  The letter did have one redeeming feature.  It was a one page letter with nothing on the back, which means that it can also go in my scrap paper pile to be used as scratch pads or working paper for church meetings.  I do appreciate that, a bit.

May the peace of God be with you.

MY DAY

I had an interesting work day recently that seems to me to be begging to be recounted.  The day began normally enough.  I did my morning routine:  exercise, Bible reading, breakfast and so on.  But from that point on, the rest of the day was spent running from one thing to another, dealing with bits and pieces that had accumulated and whose execution all fell on the same day.

The first task was to finish preparing the funeral service that was coming that afternoon. Funerals are a part of ministry that are generally unpredictable and so put a serious strain on pastor’s schedules.  So, although I had known about this one for three days, I couldn’t work the preparation in to my schedule until the morning of the service.  That wasn’t a major problem–I have often pulled the pages off the printer on my way to the funeral.  These days, I don’t do that anymore–I transfer the service details from my laptop to the tablet (and to my phone as a backup.)

I finished working on the funeral service just in time to head out to help a congregation member set up for a fund raising event.  While that isn’t in my job description, she was a bit desperate because a variety of people who normally help couldn’t make it. Her call the night before was filled with apologies and assurances that if I couldn’t make it, it was okay.  But I had the time and since I benefit from the fund raising as much or more than anyone else, I went and helped.

After that, well, I needed to finalize the text for the wedding scheduled for the next day.  Weddings, unlike funerals, tend to be scheduled long before hand.  This one had actually been scheduled several months earlier.  So, how come I was finishing the text the day before the service?  Well, the bride and groom wanted to write their own vows and didn’t get them to me until the day before, when I was tied up with other stuff.  But getting them done the day before the service–well, that could be classed as long-term planning compared to funeral preparation.

So, next is a quick lunch and a rushed nap (Google the health benefits of a regular nap) before I get ready for the funeral.  I arrive at the church building for the funeral, pass some time with the funeral director and greet the family and friends.  As people are coming it begins to rain and so we have a quick consultation with the family about holding the committal service in the sanctuary rather than at the graveyard.

After the funeral service, I rush home, make a quick change and head out for the wedding rehearsal. The rain has stopped which is great since this is an outdoor wedding.  But the sky is still dark and threatening and I wonder if I should grab a plastic bag to protect my tablet.  Haste wins and I risk the rain, which does sprinkle a bit during the rehearsal.  The rehearsal goes fairly well, except for the 5-10 minutes I have to spend helping the bride and groom learn how to tie a reef knot for the knot ceremony they want as part of their vows. We figure it out, the tablet remains dry enough to work and everything is ready for tomorrow.

I head for home, having put in a pretty full and varied day.  I have done a lot of stuff, connected with a lot of people and managed to get everything done that had pushed itself into this particular day.  There are two things that stand out in my mind for this day.  First, it was a strange day, even for a pastor.  Most days in ministry are a bit more predictable–or at least have fewer unpredictable bits and pieces.  Except for the wedding rehearsal, this day was made up almost completely of unpredicted somewhat critical things, almost as if someone shook out the container and dumped all the left-over stuff on the same day.

The second thing that stands out for me about this day?  This all happened on a Friday, one of my days off.  Not every day off is like this and I will definitely make up for it–but now and then, it happens.  But if ministry were totally predictable, that wouldn’t be much fun.

May the peace of God be with you.

LEARNING TO HEAR

Like most people engaging in a new career, I made a lot of mistakes in my early years of ministry.  I still make mistakes at this late stage of my career but hope that I have learned to avoid some of the more serious ones from the early days.  A lot of the early problems came from not knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore–I hadn’t developed a sense of ministerial selective hearing.

I was noticing and seeing all sorts of things.  This couple was obviously having a struggle in their marriage.  That individual has an addiction problem.  That teen is heading down the wrong road.  Those parents are going to cause their child serious problems.  This congregation really needs to understand their faith.  That deacon is terrible at his calling.  These people need to make more effort to share their faith.  The things I was hearing and seeing were endless and with very little effort, I could easily have waded into the deep, murky waters of ministry and quickly been overwhelmed.

Fortunately, I had some fantastic mentors who helped me discover that seeing or hearing something wasn’t the same as being responsible for it.  I learned that what I was hearing and seeing needed to be processed through some important filters that would help me determine what needed attention and what kind of attention it needed.

Among the filters I learned to use was an awareness of my limitations.  Early in ministry, as a single pastor with no children, I might notice issues in marriages and in child rearing, but the real truth is that I had no experience with either and no credibility beyond that course I took, a course that really didn’t qualify me to intervene in such things.

I also learned to make use of the filter described in the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink”.  Some people are deeply attached to what I consider problems.  They may be unwilling or unable to deal with them or give them up.  While I might be able to help them, I really can’t help them until they want help–to try and “fix” things when they don’t want them fixed creates problems for all of us.

I learned another filter.  This filter involves the reality that other people likely see what I see and may already be involved and my help, no matter how well meaning it is, probably does nothing more than get in the way of what the other people are doing.  If the other helpers are making a difference, I need to help by allowing them to do their job.

I also learned to filter by time.  In any given congregation, even small ones like I serve, there are lots of issues and problems and things that would benefit from someone doing something.  If I see and respond to everything, I could be busy 24-7 and arrive at worship on Sunday morning with nothing to say during the sermon time because I was busy helping people.  Of course, that would only be a short term problem because the ensuing burnout would do away with the need for sermons.

Not everything needs to be dealt with right away.  Certainly, there are some critical issues that need to be deal with immediately–but sometimes, I need to be the person who defines criticality, not the nosey neighbour down the street or the well meaning friend who tends to make mountains out of a grain of sand.  And sometimes, I even need to avoid buying into the individual’s sense of how critical their situation is.

The end result of all this filtering is that I hear a lot and act on a lot–but sometimes, the action is to postpone, delay or ignore.  This isn’t because of a lack of concern or laziness or unwillingness to do my job.  It comes because I have learned to be strategic about ministry. Not everything I perceive needs to be dealt with right now by me.  In fact, I have learned that in the end, some stuff doesn’t need to be dealt with anytime by anyone.

I have also learned to trust the leading of the Holy Spirit–opening myself to this leading has proven to be the best filter possible for me.

Because I have learned to use some filters, I am more able to respond appropriately to the things that need a response when they need a response.  I may have selective hearing in my ministry but I think it makes my ministry more effective for both me and the people I am called to serve.

May the peace of God be with you.