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.

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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.

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.