A GOOD PASTOR

I have never been called to serve as the pastor of a perfect church. But that is okay since none of the congregations I have been called to serve were calling a perfect pastor. I wasn’t perfect before they called me, I didn’t become perfect when I served the church and I didn’t become perfect when I left the congregation. There are some pastors who manage to achieve perfection—but only a few years after they have left the congregation and when succeeding pastors have more glaring weaknesses than they had. But while hindsight might make a pastor look perfect, that is more a case of selective remembering than actual reality.

Like congregations, pastors are not perfect. We are called, we are forgiven, we are gifted—but we are not perfect. We pick up our calling and carry it out with a confusing blend of good and bad that can be wildly infuriating to both pastor and congregation. We provide the absolutely perfect ministry that changes a life one minute and the next, we drive three other people to question not just our call but our basic faith.

When congregations forget that pastors aren’t perfect, all sorts of problems develop. Congregations forget to test the spirits, as I John 4.1 tells us. This allows us as pastors to operate without accountability—and the worst thing we can give to an imperfect individual is a freedom from accountability. With no accountability, we have no reason to see or acknowledge or deal with our imperfections. Generally, lack of accountability results in increased imperfection, not less imperfection.

When congregations forget that pastors aren’t perfect, it become very traumatic when the real imperfections manifest themselves. While some congregation members can and will ignore any and all imperfections, most people will eventually discover the pastor whom they thought was perfect isn’t perfect and that will create all sorts of responses, from mild irritation to rejection of the church to rejection of the faith.

When pastors forget that pastors aren’t perfect, the consequences are even worse. When we pastors forget that we don’t have it all together, we then begin to minister from our imperfection, not from our commitment to God. Our desire for power gets wrapped in “doing God’s will”; our need for approval overshadows the need to speak the truth of God; our desire for affection rewrites the moral standards of the faith. We end up hurting not just ourselves but the wider church. Our imperfections can often become the institutionalized dysfunction of the congregation or denomination.

So, let me be clear. Pastors are not perfect—nor will we be perfect this side of eternity. And since that someday perfection simply isn’t the reality here and now, we pastors need to learn to minister as imperfect people and congregations need to accept the reality that their pastor isn’t perfect and won’t be perfect—and wasn’t actually perfect in the case of former pastors.

How do we imperfect pastors minister to imperfect congregations? I think we start with honesty. It isn’t quite the blind leading the blind—but is the imperfect pastoring the imperfect. If we all start there, then we can become mutually accountable and responsible. As an imperfect pastor of an imperfect congregation, I need to make sure that both I and the congregation are willing to commit proper time and resources to seeking the leading from the Perfect that we need. My latest and greatest idea that will revitalize our church and change the face of Christianity needs the careful and prayerful consideration of the congregation to make sure it isn’t actually an expression of my imperfection wrapped in a few decontextualized Scriptures. While I am called to be their pastor, I am not called to be their boss or dictator. Rather, both pastor and congregation are called to mutual responsibility and accountability as we together seek to offer our imperfection to God so that he can bring us all closer to what we are meant to be.

The churches I have been called to serve as pastor didn’t get a perfect pastor when they called me. But then again, they didn’t have one before I arrived (no matter what the older members say) and they won’t have one after I leave. As long as I and the congregation remember that, we are better able to seek God’s perfection to deal with our imperfection.

May the peace of God be with you.

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SOMETIMES I WONDER…

I am a pastor of small congregations. That has been the basic description of what I do pretty much for the whole of my ministry career. I like to jazz it up a bit by including the fact that I have also taught at our denominational seminary, spent some time as a chaplain at a younger offenders facility and even been a missionary in Kenya. But the truth is that all these have been a minor part of my career—most of the time, I have been the pastor of small, often struggling congregations.

I was once pastor of a congregation that had a membership of 200+, which sounds really great but before I arrived, the actual attendance had shrunk to perhaps 25. A sanctuary that will seat 250 or more people looks pretty depressing with 25 in attendance, to say nothing about the heavy financial burden it places on the congregation.

The decision to be a pastor of small congregations isn’t one that I consciously made at some point but it is one that I had a part in. There were times along the way when some larger congregations were interested in calling me as pastor but each time, my sense was that God wasn’t leading me in that direction—there was more I was supposed to accomplish where I was at the time.

It would be nice to report that every small congregation that I served as a pastor eventually grew into a large, thriving congregation. There was growth in all of them—we generally had baptismal services each year and people transferred their membership in and new people started attending. But most times, at the end of my ministry, the attendance numbers weren’t all that different from the numbers at the beginning of my ministry. The actual people were often different but the numbers were pretty much the same. People died, moved away, got sick—all of which meant that the congregations grew at pretty much the same rate they shrank.

Given that I am already over the “official” retirement age, I don’t actually foresee much chance that I will ever be the pastor of a large congregation, which is okay with me because my limited experience with them suggests that I don’t feel all that comfortable in large congregations as a worshipper, let alone as a pastor.

So recently, one of my personal questions has focused on the overall value of what I have been doing for the past 40+ years. I wonder if being the pastor of a handful of small congregations has been a worthwhile way to invest my energy and time and professional effort. I think I have two answers.

The first is theological and sounds somewhat sanctimonious. It has obviously been worthwhile because I was doing what God wanted me to do where he wanted me to do it. I know that sounds a bit too pietistic but I do believe that and there are days when that I find that a very significant part of my understanding of myself and my career.

The second is more practical. What I have done has been worthwhile because of the people I have worked with over the years, the relationships that have developed, the faiths that have been strengthened. Working with small congregations gives me the luxury of time to actually work with people in some very significant ways.

I have had time to help people discover and develop their spiritual gifts. I have had time to help people work through their deep spiritual fears and questions. I have had time to counsel the hurting; encourage the searching; enable the struggling. I have been able to help people find answers to hard questions. And along the way, I have been able to laugh a lot with them, cry almost as much, drink a lot of coffee, eat a lot of great food.

And in the process, we have all grown. We have grown in our understanding of the Gospel and we have especially grown in our understanding and practice of Christian community. As we worship, study, eat, share, pray, work and do whatever we do in our small congregations, we experience the wonder of God at work in our midst.

And so while I sometimes wonder if I have followed the best course, most of the time, I don’t—I more often give God thanks for the opportunity to serve small congregations.

May the peace of God be with you

CHURCH GROWTH

I was reading an article recently dealing with church growth. Now, I am not normally a fan of church growth articles but this was from someone whose stuff I read regularly and who almost always has good stuff to say. I liked what he had to say in the article but I was actually more interested in a chain of thought that developed for me as I was reading and afterwards.

I pastor small churches, churches which have a stable and involved attendance. We know each other; we appreciate each other; we are aware of each other’s gifts and abilities; we generally know why someone isn’t present. Our small numbers present some problems at times because we lack bodies to do specific jobs—or, as is sometimes the case, the bodies we have are no longer capable of the jobs that need to be done.

It would be nice to have more people, which I suppose puts me in the category of church growth supporter. But I realized that I simply don’t see church growth in the same way as some people do. Often, church growth is presented in terms of statistical analysis, with suggestions that a certain growth rate is healthy; that a certain percentage of the community is open to evangelism; that various approaches to outreach have specified success rates. The discussions and planning focus on numbers.

But my thinking goes in a totally different direction, something I realized as I was reading that article after a week in which I had two funerals in one of the pastorates I serve. Both were men who were well known in the community and had many connections, which meant that many of the same people attended both funerals. Before and after the service, I had a chance to connect with many of those attending. Both church and non-church people were there and since I have lived in this area for almost than 40 years, I knew most of the people attending.

So, at one point, a couple coming in to the second funeral was held up in the line to sign the condolence book. The husband looked at me and said that this was the third death he had to deal with this week. His voice was shaky and his eyes were watery—and this from a strong, no nonsense, salt of the earth man who normally appeared unflappable. But he was obviously affected by these losses.

He and his wife have been on the fringes of the church for as long as a I can remember: their kids were part of our kids programs, they attended concerts and special events, they probably gave money when the church was hurting financially a while ago, they show up at all fund raisers, they both have shown an openness to the things of faith. But they don’t attend worship.

I realized that when I think church growth, I think of people like this. I am not actually thinking about statistical increases and rate of growth possibilities. In the end, I am concerned with how I can help people like this couple make their faith more a part of their lives. Or I think of some of the family members who attended funerals, wondering how we as a church can somehow become more responsive to their needs. Or I wonder how we can atone for the stupidities of our church past that prevents some people from becoming more involved.

I don’t actually want a bigger church—I want a church that these people a part of it. Sure, that likely means that our churches will grow. But it isn’t the growth that I want. I probably won’t even know the percentage increase—and wouldn’t care if someone told me. I am concerned about specific people, some of whom I know and many of whom I don’t yet know. And so I don’t think much about church growth.

I do think a lot about ministry, how I look after the people I have been called to shepherd and how we as a church minister to the people we see every day. We already have a significant relationship with these people and many of them look to us for spiritual support. I want to provide them with more of the love and grace that God has for them. That is my version of church growth.

May the peace of God be with you.

PROFESSIONAL ANXIETY

I realized recently that there is a serious source of anxiety in my job. I am a pastor working with churches in an area where I have lived for around 40 years. Many of the people who form the congregations I serve are more than just parishioners—they are friends. The relationships go back many years and involve many shared experiences that have tied us together over the years. And because of the fact that I have been here so long, I know many in the communities who don’t attend our church—or any church—equally as well.

I had some inkling of the anxiety but tended to ignore it until this week. I had a call about a death—not an unusual call for a pastor in an area with one of the highest rates of over 65s in Canada. The call involved someone I knew, not a church member but with strong family connections in the church, someone I knew because of the family connections. Shortly after that call, I got another about another death. Again, this was a person I knew well, who had at one point been heavily involved in churches I pastored but who had moved and while still in the immediate area, wasn’t as much a part of any churches I pastor.

The anxiety developed as I realized that both these people were about my age, I knew them fairly well and in the end, while they were not parishioners, they were friends. My thinking process, always a bit overactive, very quickly began making lists of people in the same category: people I know who are like me getting on in years. Unlike me, some of them have developed some fairly significant health problems and we are all at the stage in life where the unexpected can pop up at any time.

For me, the anxiety develops because I realize that professionally and personally, when bad things happen, I am the person who is going to get called. Professionally, I am the pastor to a significant number of people, some of whom attend worship and some of whom don’t. Personally, I am the only pastor many people know—they don’t actually know me as their pastor but they know I am a pastor and that means they will call when life gets tough.

So, I do a lot of funerals for friends and family of friends. Doing funerals is a basic part of my job—it is so basic a part of the job that early in my ministry, I spent a lot of time looking at the death and funeral process so that I could do the best job possible. I like to think that when it comes to the grief and funeral process, I know what I am doing.

But there is a major difference doing what I do for someone I have known and liked and spent time with in a variety of ways over the years. I am grieving myself—maybe not as much as the family but I have still lost someone whose death is creating a dark hole in my life. My work and my life come together creating a difficult task—I need to use all my training and professional ability to help people process a death that I am also processing at the same time.

My anxiety isn’t about that, or at least, it isn’t primarily about that. I can do that—there is a certain amount of this cross over in every funeral. I have learned how to help people as a pastor and process my own grief at the same time in a way that enables both to happen. It hasn’t been and isn’t always easy but I can do it.

The anxiety comes from the fact that I realize I am facing a lot more of this cross over. People I have known for 40 years or more are not well. Some will get better. Some will remain chronic. And some will die. And I will get called in on many of these life realities. I don’t want to have to deal with this stuff. I especially don’t want to deal with it when it involves people I have known for so long and whose lives have been intertwined with mine in so many ways.

But that is my job and my calling and so I will deal with it—but I will depend on the presence and power of God in the process.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE DISHWASHER

To be involved in ministry and be serious about it brings an intimate understanding of stress. I have spend my whole life in ministry of some sort so I am not really qualified to say how that stress level compares to other occupations. I have read a perhaps made up story of a second career pastor who found the stress too much and went back to his previous occupation—air-traffic controller. I do have a friend who is a second career pastor and who found the stress level in ministry much higher than the stress level in his previous job—he was a police special operations officer.

Anyway, no matter how it compares to other occupations, ministry has its stresses and recognizing and managing that stress is an important part of successful ministry. We are all taught that, often by professors whose recognition and handling of their own ministry stress is inspiring in its ability to show us a bad example. The key struggle for many of us in ministry is learning how to recognize our stress levels. The difficulty is that the signs of stress keep changing—as soon as we recognize one sign and make (hopefully) effective changes in our habits, the inherent stress expresses itself in another sign.

I have been aided in my stress battle by a variety of signs: recurring dreams, insomnia, depression, unfocused anger and so on—all relatively common and normal signs and symptoms of stress that many others is all occupations would experience. But recently, I discovered a new sign of my stress levels, one that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere else.

This sign of stress involves our dishwasher. We live in a church supplied house, which came equipped with a dishwasher, which I personally appreciate. I cook most of the meals we eat together and we have a rule that he who cooks also cleans up. I have occasionally sought to change that rule but so far, it has been consistently applied in our context. So, I am also in charge of the dishwasher. Since there are only the two of us most of the time, it takes a couple of days to get a full load of dishes—and we try to be as energy conscious as possible so I wait until the dishwasher is full or we run out of vital dishware before I run the dishwasher.

So, how does this pretty normal activity show my stress level? It has nothing to do with repressed anger coming out at the dishwasher or how hard I shut the door or how much noise I make putting the dishes in the machine. No—the new indicator of how high my stress level is comes when I see the dishwasher getting full and think there must be something wrong because I just emptied the thing yesterday. When life is hectic and ministry is gobbling up my time and energy, I lose track of how long it has been since I actually ran and emptied the dishwasher.

I don’t know how long this will remain an effective sign of high stress levels—I suspect that now that I have identified it, it will probably go back on the shelf in my mind which holds the inactive indicators like the recurring dreams and so on. Right now, it works and helps me in the never-ending task of keeping my stress levels in the acceptable range.

And that is important because stress is a integral part of ministry—and learning to both recognize and deal with stress is an integral part of developing a long and effective ministry. Those of us who are called to serve God through his people are accepting a high-stress occupation. But we are not called to accept high stress as a fact of life. The God who calls us also empowers and enables us and provides the help we need to cope with the stress of ministry. He provides the signs that we are stressed, even using dishwashers to point out the problem. He also graciously provides the help we need to deal with the stress and carry out our calling, provided of course, we let him minister to us.

Right now, God used the dishwasher to remind me that I don’t need to save the world—he has already done that. I just need to use his help to deal with the little bit of the universe that he has called me serve.

May the peace of God be with you.

TWO FUNERALS

One of the pastorates I serve is in the midst of their winter shutdown. An aging congregation combine with old energy inefficient buildings and possible winter driving conditions is such a way as to suggest that I should have some extra time to myself in the winter. We have modified the winter plan just a bit and have one service a month but basically, we are closed for business for the first three months of the year.

Except that when it comes to anything involving people, it is pretty much impossible to be closed for business. The people who form the churches and the people who live in the communities served by the churches still require ministry. They get sick, have operations, get down, need a coffee, want to get married. They also die. And many of them want a representative of God available to help them deal with the realities of life.

So, I minister. One week recently, that ministry during the shutdown involved two funerals. Fortunately, they were on separate days. One funeral is a lot of work but two pretty much wipes out the week—nothing else gets done. So, when I got the notice about the first one, I was a bit frustrated, since I had plans for the week and wasn’t actually supposed to be working for that church anyway. But I am the pastor and so I went to see the family. In the process of the visit to plan the funeral, I discovered that here had been a another death—this in the family of the partner of the person I was meeting with.

That death had just occurred and so no one knew anything about arrangements or plans—but I, as the all knowing pastor of rural congregations, I knew that I would likely end up getting a call about that funeral as well. There are not a lot of options open to families in small communities when it comes to someone to conduct a funeral. We finished the planning session and I had prayer with the family, including a prayer for the family of the second person and headed home, pretty sure that before the end of the day, I would get another call.

When it came, I made my plans to visit the family, which was a bit complicated because the visit had to be arranged around my other worship services and between two winter storms. Having accomplished the visit, we made plans and I prayed and left, feeling sorry for myself for all the extra work this week would have because of the two funerals. I was also doing some major recalculating of my week so that I could get everything done that needed to be done. That recalculating involved cancelling my attendance at a meeting later in the week—given my dislike of meetings, that wasn’t a major inconvenience.

While I was somewhat upset with the extra work, I didn’t focus on that too much once I got a plan for the week developed. After that, I began to think more about the connections between the two funerals and all the people who would be affected by both. Families, friends, community members were all involved because of the tangled relationships that are a basic part of rural life. I anticipated seeing many of the same people at both services, which meant that I had to make sure that the services were different but offered the same level of hope and comfort that I try to bring to a funeral service.

Normally, funerals are separated by enough time that if I use the same Scriptures or the same reference, it isn’t a problem. But with the services following each other so closely and so many attending both, I had to work a bit harder to make sure I wasn’t repeating myself—I wanted people to have a sense that the service was designed for them and their needs and wasn’t just something I cut and pasted together.

Part of the reason I like rural living is the dense web of connections linking people. Sometimes, I don’t discover the connections until I get involved in ministry with the people. That network is a powerful part of rural living—and if it means that planning two funerals back to back is a bit more difficult, I will accept the difficulty because of the blessings that network provides.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING A PASTOR

I am a pastor—to be honest, it is the only job I have ever had. I have done a few other things but they have all been related to being a pastor. One of the things that means is that I know really well the traditional joke about pastors that everyone loves to make. I tell someone I am a pastor and the immediate response is something along to lines of “That means you work for an hour a week!”

Over the years, I have developed several responses to that tired joke:

• I have two worship services a week so I actually work two hours a week
• Actually, since everyone sleeps during worship, I sleep then as well
• Its even better than that—since nobody listens, I have been using the same sermon for 40 years.
• I had a wedding and a funeral this week as well so I had to work three hours—I am worn out.

Once the joke is out of the way, we can get on with whatever it was that we were supposed to doing in the first place. While I am a bit tired of the joke, I can understand where it comes from. I think there are two sources that lead to the joke and the assumption that pastors really don’t work.

The first reason is that most of my work isn’t seen by many people. People see me leading worship or conducting funerals or some other public activity but they don’t see the hours of preparation or the time spend with a grieving family or the counselling sessions or the even the amount of time spent driving from one pastoral activity to another. One person might know that I conducted a funeral and a worship service and counselled them and their family during the week but others simply don’t know everything I do—and given the realities of life, they probably don’t actually give much thought into how I fill in the unseen hours.

The other reason people think we pastors don’t do much is not as pleasant to think about. There are pastors who don’t actually do all that much. There aren’t many of them but they do exist and their lack of activity is real and tends to affect the rest of us. Much of ministry is self-directed and a very few take advantage of that, a process that has become even easier these days when you can easily down load a sermon from somewhere on the internet.

I can’t do much about the small minority whose lack of actual work gives the rest of us a black eye. Even when I have been teaching pastors, I have been aware that there would be a few who would turn their lackadaisical, as little as possible student careers into a very lazy ministry career. Such pastors have made one contribution to the overall ministry we engage in—they provided the grounds for the very old joke I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

The rest of us, well we work. Generally, we work too much, stress too much, bite off more than we can comfortably chew in one week. We are generally on the knife edge of burnout, secretly praying for a snow day (even in July), juggling a schedule that is always too full and wondering how we can get everything done with only seven days a week.

While there are those few who would benefit from doing some actual work, most of us in ministry need to learn how not to work—as a whole, we clergy are pretty terrible at setting and keeping limits. No matter how well the limits are set out, there is always that call that we need to respond to immediately—that is, after all, what we do.

I am a pastor. I actually work much more than an hour a week. Since I am part time, I actually am supposed to work 32 hours a week—and some weeks, I actually reach that number of hours. Unfortunately, most weeks, I reach it and pass it and still have a pile of stuff that needs to be done.

However, God is gracious and loving and through the Holy Spirit, he continues to work with me, helping me know and even occasionally keep the limits that allow me to minister well to the church and myself.

May the peace of God be with you.

FAMILIES

I have been in ministry for over 40 years. I have the sermon pile, the pastoral weight gain and the grey hair to prove all that. But there are a great many people who don’t seem to understand the full implications of 40+ years of ministry. Either they think that clergy are the most sheltered people in the world or we are the most unobservant and unintelligent people around.

I say this because there are a great many people both inside and outside the church who feel it necessary to clue me in on things that they think will surprise me, upset me or shock me. It is not uncommon, for example, for someone to drag me aside to give me vital information about the family I am working with during funeral planning. In the corner, speaking quietly, they inform me that there are tensions within the family that might make the whole funeral difficult. Or the wedding planning process that someone feels they need to talk to me about because someone won’t like it if someone else is involved.

Then there are the shocking moral issues that people feel they need to bring to me, perhaps thinking that I need to be warned so that I don’t pass out when I discover that the couple I am going to marry are already living together and have a child or that the older gentleman I am conducting the funeral for was an alcoholic. Or perhaps they feel I need to know that the child of one of the church members is actually gay and that is causing some problems in the family.

I listen to all these insights and revelations and nod pastorally. But inside, I have to confess that I am thinking something like, “Do you actually think I am that stupid/naive/out of touch?” I am a pastor, which means that I know almost as much about people and their families as the village gossip—and I gained my knowledge legitimately and know what is true and what is made up. I am also because of my training, my experience and my nature, as capable social observer. I am rarely surprised and even when I am, can actually see the reality of the new revelation pretty quickly.

It is actually a major part of my calling to understand and know people. I think it is also a major part of my calling to know and understand and accept the realities that I am working with. People are people and families are families. We all have good and bad, positive and negative, inspiring and sordid mixed together in a tangled and confusing mess that makes us what we are. To find a family where some members are at odds with each other isn’t a surprise to a pastor—actually, the surprise is finding a family where that isn’t true.

As I have thought about this, I think that part of the problem lies with clergy. Some clergy have been and perhaps are guilty of pretending that the darker side of life is beyond them. As a body, we have perhaps been too eager to condemn the failings in individuals and families. Rather than accept and work with the realities, we have condemned, which has caused people to try to hide things and cover them over. But that isn’t a very effective way of dealing with the negatives of life.

As a pastor, my job isn’t to encourage people to hide stuff from themselves, others and me. I see my job as helping people accept their reality as a first step towards dealing with it. If I can accept their reality, it helps them accept their reality—and if I can accept their reality and them, maybe they can find the courage and insight to deal with the painful darker stuff that they, like everyone has. My model for this, of course, is Jesus who saw the darkest and deepest and most hidden realities in every life and still loved and accepted and offered the fullness of his love and grace. He did get somewhat testy with all those trying to put on a false front but for the rest, he knew, accepted and loved.

So, I listen to all the revelations that a delicate pastoral personality could never expect, thank the revealer and keep on doing what I always do—helping people discover God’s love and grace no matter what their reality is.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING A PATIENT

I spend a lot of time in hospitals. There are three where I am a regular and three more where I end up now and then. My calling as a pastor to rural congregations and communities with aging members means that there are frequently people in the hospital who want to see their pastor—and I generally want to see them. So, I am no stranger to hospitals or people needing medical attention or the processes that go on in hospitals. I am comfortable and feel that I am making a difference in the eventual outcome for the people I see.

But for all the time I spend in hospitals, I have very rarely been a patient. Until recently, I had spend about a day and a half in hospital as a patient and since that was for kidney stones, I wasn’t much aware of what was going on around me. The debilitating pain followed by the blessing of serious pain killers pretty much rendered me oblivious to anyone and anything around me in the hospital.

Recently, though, I was in the hospital for some day surgery, a process that involved a lot of waiting. We waited for my turn at the registration desk, we waited for my turn for further processing and then I waited in the surgery prep room—my wife wasn’t allowed there. After the surgery, I waited while the staff made sure there were no complications. There were lots of other people waiting at every stage in the process. In my ministry, I have spent time in most of those waiting places as a pastor, helping others through their waiting.

But what I noticed during my waiting was that I really wasn’t interested in being a pastor in any of the places I was waiting. I wasn’t overly nervous nor was I anxious about the coming surgery. Although it could have some serious implications, I wasn’t stressed or biting my nails. It wasn’t high anxiety that kept me from being concerned with the people around me.

I just didn’t want to engage anyone. My introversion was working overtime. I talked to my wife when she was present—but once she was gone, I was most comfortable reading and playing solitaire on my phone. Being me, I was aware of what was going on in the rooms—I heard the loud extrovert covering his anxiety with talk; I noticed the very anxious couple over in the corner; I spotted the guy trying to cover his nerves by appearing to sleep; I watched lady try to make a safe nest in her hospital bed as she waited for her turn—but I didn’t want to engage. I just wanted to be a patient.

I wanted to be someone there for day surgery who was most comfortable reading and playing solitaire. I did engage a bit when someone I knew was wheeled into the room—this is after all, a rural area and the chances of my knowing someone any place are good. But he wasn’t overly interested in conversation so after some general talk, he picked up his crossword and I went back to the phone.

I am aware that many of the people waiting with me could probably have used some pastoral input. Some might have appreciated some prayer. There may even have been one or two there who would even see a repetition of my last sermon as a good distraction. But I really wasn’t interested in providing it. Now, if someone had recognized me and specifically asked for pastoral care or prayer or even the sermon, I would probably have provided it, although they might have got the condensed version of the sermon. But mostly, I just wanted to be a patient, waiting out the process of getting my surgery done so I could go home.

I have given it some serious thought and have come to the conclusion that this was the best choice for me. I am a pastor and I do care about people and I do push beyond many limits. But that particular day, I needed to be a patient. Of all the ways I could have dealt with that day, I think I chose the best for me—I had a hospital patient arm band, I was a day surgery patient, I was in the process. Going with the flow worked for me. I was glad to just be a patient.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE PHONE CALL

I am part of the cell phone revolution—we don’t have a landline in our home. That has several implications, one of which is that my name no longer appears in a phone book. As a pastor, that means in order for people to contact me, I have to be very liberal passing our my business cards, as well as making sure that my number is published every week in the church bulletin. I am not hard to get a hold of, at least within my ministry circle.

Recently, though, I discovered that my ministry circle is much bigger than I thought. I got a call from an acquaintance, someone we used to live near. We had a good relationship, comfortable enough to pass some time when we met but nothing deep or significant. The neighbours knew I was a pastor—they may even have showed up at a funeral or two I conducted. I knew that like many people they didn’t have any real church connection. When we moved to another house, we didn’t see each other all that much but when we did, we would pass some time and move on.

The phone call, though, was an overt request for pastoral care. A death is imminent and the caller wanted me to be involved in the process. He explained how he got my number, mentioning a third person whose name I didn’t actually recognize at first gave him the number. When I finally remembered who the other person was, I realized that my connection was through another funeral for a family member—and I may have given him a card. Like the caller, this person has no real church connection other than a familial connection. But even after a year or more, he had retained my card and number and was quite happy to pass it along to his friend who needed some help.

It isn’t that there are no other clergy around. The person who passed on the phone number has a tentative connection with a church that has a pastor. The caller likely knows another clergy person personally since they are close to the same age and grew up in the same area. All the church in our town have landlines and therefore are listed in the phone book.

But the caller wanted to connect with me. It suggests to me that on some deep level, I am his pastor. I doubt if he would define the relationship that way but essentially, that is the reality. He needs a pastor—he finds my number so that he can talk to his pastor. The fact that he has never been in a worship service in any church I have pastored aside from a funeral isn’t an issue. He needs a pastor and I am his pastor.

My pastoral ministry extends well beyond the churches I serve. And it is based on a whole lot more than the activities I get paid to engage in. I am his pastor likely because of the nature of the relationship we had when we were neighbours and because of some ministry I provided to another neighbour, who also didn’t and doesn’t have any other church connection.

I realized again that believers really are never off duty. My faith is part of my being and its reality is always visible. And because of that, I am always a witness. Sometimes, as in the case of this called, my witness is positive, setting the stage for a deeper ministry when it is needed. But there is the very real possibility that some of the phone calls I don’t get are a result of a negative witness that I have shown some person along the way, a negative witness that speaks not only about how my ministry has been perceived but also about how the God I claim to follow has been perceived. I might be a part-time pastor for small congregations but I am a full time witness to a very large circle of people, a circle whose boundaries I will probably never know.

Fortunately, God is aware of the boundaries of that circle and through the power of the Holy Spirit, can and does enable one person to give another person a phone number so that they can contact me—and the same Spirit will guide my ministry with the called, as long as I am willing to listen to the Spirit.

May the peace of God be with you.