WELCOME BACK

Both the pastorates I serve are located in beautiful, rural areas. Both have waterfront and both have relatively inexpensive property, even relatively inexpensive waterfront property. This is not an introduction to a post encouraging people to buy real estate in our area—it is actually background to help understand something that happens in our churches. Our congregations have bigger summer attendance that we do during the winter because a lot of our people only spend the summers with us. Some are with us for several months, some for a few weeks and some come and go.

Whatever their pattern, we have a significant part of our worshipping community who are with us only part of the time. But they are a part of our community and we all respond positively when they are with us. Worship starts a bit late because everyone has to greet and be greeted by those who have arrived for the summer. It takes longer to get away after worship because the conversations that were interrupted by worship are picked up again.

We are happy that our seasonal people are back and are again sharing their gifts with us. The normally tight budget gets some wiggle room as more people contribute. The singing, which is normally good, becomes even better as the seasonal voices kick in. The special seasonal events that they are so much a part of begin to take shape as dates are set. The social scene in our community ramps up as everyone tries to make the best use of the time that people are here.

From my perspective, the arrival of the summer participants has some real benefits. Several of them are pastors, both retired and active. One Sunday recently saw a total of two active vacationing pastors, two retired pastors and one theology student attending the two worship services I lead. Several of them are interested in supply preaching, which means that I can call on them when I want to take vacation, something I really appreciate. A couple of them also provide some valuable professional feedback on my sermons and ministry.

The seasonal people are not visitors. They are a basic and vital part of our congregations, even if they are only with us part of the time. Both they and the permanent members of the congregation recognize that. We do some of our planning around their schedules. I include their presence in my sermon planning process. We minister to them and are ministered to by them. We are a stronger congregation because they are with us, even if only for a couple of weeks now and then.

For me, this points to a deeper reality of church life. All congregations except the most informal and loose ones have an official membership—but all congregations are much bigger than that. As well as the official membership, there are those who attend but who for some reason aren’t official members. There are the seasonal people, the ones who live away part of the year and those who can’t get out part of the year. There are those who look to our church for a variety of spiritual services like weddings, funerals, counselling, prayer and so on. There are the people whose parents or grandparents brought them to worship once or twice who still feel some connection with us. There are also some who used to be an active part of the congregation but who got upset and left but whom still feel they have a stake in the congregation and who want some say in what happens.

All of these people are part of our congregations—and as pastor, part of my responsibility to is figure out how to ministry to all of them. And given that I am a part-time pastor at both places, that can get complicated at times. The active, permanent members might understand that I have only so much time and can understand and live with the limits. But the further from the centre people are the less they are likely to understand that there are good reasons why they aren’t getting the ministry they think they should be getting.

This too is part of my ministry—figuring out how to juggle time so that I can get 20 hours of ministry out of 16 hours of real time. It doesn’t always work but the process is interesting at times. It is nice to have the summer people back—but I had better go so I can figure out how to see them before they leave.

May the peace of God be with you.

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HOW MANY?

Both the worship services I lead recently had me feeling much more nervous. The morning service was a special worship to which we invited the community. While I suggested the idea and thought it was a good one, I wasn’t expecting much increase in attendance—it was a holiday weekend, after all. On the drive to worship, I counted in my mind the ones who would likely be there: our normal 8 or so, depending on who was sick or away plus maybe 4-6 more from the visiting family of one of our members.

But that morning, people just kept coming and coming. We ran out of chorus sheets early in the process. At one point, after seating more than expected I peeked out the open door and saw as many people standing around as were seated. My final count was 27 while one of the others got 29—we decided to go with his numbers.

The second service at my other pastorate was definitely not going to be that good, I thought. To start with, it was a stifling hot day—and our buildings have no air conditioning. It was the first Sunday of our summer worship schedule, meaning worship was in the evening. And then there was the fact that the we couldn’t use the building we were supposed to use because of serious emergency repairs. We called everyone and put a sign on the building about the change but I was pretty sure the change would upset things.

And just like the morning worship, once people started coming, they kept coming. We surpassed our average of 18-20 really quickly. We ran out of bulletins. We used up all the new chorus books we are printing for the church. And people kept coming. When we started, we had 29 people in our worship.

Now, I know that for many people, those numbers are small and that for some churches, that might be the number of greeters and ushers, not the whole congregation. But these are big numbers for us—and while I was excited and pleased and happy, I was also more nervous. I am always nervous about leading worship and preaching but on a normal Sunday with our normal group, I have more control of the nervousness. But more people tend to increase my anxiety.

To start with, there is more to do before the worship. I like to greet people as they come—since our buildings are basically one room, I am obviously there and so it makes sense to greet people as they come in. There are other bits and pieces to deal with, questions about the worship, changes to the music and so on that get harder to work out as we have more people. I begin to lose focus and forget things.

In the morning service, I forgot to take my water cup to the pulpit—in fact, I completely forget where I put it and couldn’t see it from the pulpit. Fortunately, I had some cough drops for when my voice needed some help. In the evening service, I forgot to turn on my tablet until I got to the pulpit to start worship, an omission that I confessed and which delayed our start a bit since I didn’t have a bulletin to read the announcements from.

There are probably some who would suggest my increased nervousness is a negative thing. There are some who would suggest that being nervous at all before leading worship is a negative thing, perhaps a sign of a weaknesses of faith or something like that. I am the first to admit that I don’t have a perfect faith and have definite weaknesses in my faith.

But my nervousness before worship isn’t a sign of weak faith or something negative. I think it is a healthy sign and an indication of my respect for the people I lead in worship and the God I serve through that process. I want to do my best to help the worshippers experience the reality of God’s presence and be faithful to God’s calling to me. If I am not nervous, I am probably relying on myself in the process not God through the power of the Holy Spirit. My nervousness is a sign that I am aware of my need of God’s strength and help and a reminder to open myself to him in the process.

May the peace of God be with you.

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.

AN ANSWER TO PRAYER

I am a part-time pastor—and a part-time pastor who likes to research and study and stuff like that. So, I have spent some time looking at part-time ministry—I even wrote a short book about it a few years ago for our denomination. Anyway, one of the bits of data I have dug up indicated that there are two broad categories of congregations that seek part-time pastors.

New church plants often begin with some form of part-time ministry. If the plant is successful, the group eventually become large enough that they can afford a full-time pastor or two. While I have been connected with a few such situations through my denomination, I have spent my time as a part-time pastor working in the other major category.

This category includes all those congregations which once used to be bigger and financially more solid and which used to have a full-time pastor. But as membership shrinks and the costs of full-time ministry escalate, the congregation eventually has to make the difficult and demoralizing to shift from a full-time pastor to a part-time pastor. This is without question one of the most traumatic decisions a congregation has to make because to most, it signifies that they are on the way out—it might take years but their decline will eventually result in the church closing.

I begin work in part-time settings very much aware of this mindset—and feel that a big part of my responsibility as the pastor is helping the congregation deal with their realities. But I don’t generally include closing as one of the realities I am concerned about. Certainly, it is always a reality. But there are other possible realities: stabilization, for example, is a possibility—a small congregation that is healthy and doing ministry is a valid reality. Reversing the downward trend is also a valid reality—sometimes, given the cultural context not as possible as stabilization but still a possibility.

So, with that in mind, I think a large part of my ministry is helping the part-time congregation look at itself and discover the reality of God’s love and grace working in and through it. But I have to confess that recently, the direction of my thoughts concerning the smaller of the two pastorates I work with has been a bit on the gloomy side. I hadn’t been able to really get a sense of direction or potential. I have been praying, thinking, listening and all the rest but mostly kept seeing our small numbers and the relative lack of what I would consider positive signs.

I am aware that we have an uphill climb—but I wasn’t seeing much to suggest that we had what it takes to make the climb. That is, I didn’t until a recent church meeting. This wasn’t an official meeting but more the general discussion we do before, during and after worship. We discussed and made a significant decision on helping out in a community need. But underneath, there were all sorts of revelations that I saw—the members there might not have seen them all but I did.

I saw a group of people who were not only deeply concerned with their community but who were also very active in the community. Everyone knew who was needing what and was working to meet those needs in a variety of ways: some visit and provide food and conversation; some provide a listening ear; some pound nails to repair houses; some provide prayer; some fill out complex application forms—and everyone is known and respected and appreciated in the community.

And in this, I found an answer to my prayers and my worries. We are small and struggling in some ways—but we are deeply involved in the life of the community. We are taking the light of God’s grace and love directly to our community. Many of the people touched by our small group haven’t been in our building for years, if ever—but they are experiencing God at work through our group.

I still don’t know where we are going as a group—but I have an answer to my prayers. As a church, we keep doing the ministry we are doing and as a pastor, I keep encouraging and enabling this gathering of believers to be God’s light and salt in our community.

May the peace of God be with you.

A DONATED SUIT

I am sitting in a deacons’ meeting where we have been looking at a lot of different issues affecting our church. Since we were slowly climbing out of a serious mess that occurred just before I was called to the church, there was a lot to talk about. We rejoiced at the signs of life we were seeing and pondered the best ways to deal with the continuing issues from the previous mess. Near the end of the meeting, we opened the agenda to anyone who might have concerns.

Our senior deacon wanted to raise a concern. Since he was a retired pastor with many years of experience who tended to be on the ball and quite helpful, we all listened to him. He raised the issue of the young people who were attending our worship—about six of them, week after week, faithfully attending, participating and seeming to really appreciate what we were doing. I had wanted to raise the issue myself—we had a lot to rejoice about: the kids were coming, our student intern was doing great things with them, they made up 10-20 percent of our small but growing attendance.

But the senior deacon had a whole different idea. He was concerned about how the kids dressed. Their clothing wasn’t respectful. Some of them were showing up in jeans and t-shirts, covered with various jackets. They were wearing sneakers and some of the guys wore baseball hats—although somewhere along the line, they had learned to take the hats off during worship. But the bottom line was that these young people were not showing sufficient respect for God because they weren’t well dressed.

He had a solution, one that had helped him as a young person. He came from a poor family and didn’t feel comfortable attending worship until someone in the congregation graciously donated a used suit that he could wear. As a church, we needed to find people to donate good used suits for the guys and appropriate dresses for the girls. Then they would feel much more at home and be more reverent and respectful.

The only thing I found more difficult than preventing my student intern from climbing over the table to do physical harm to the senior deacon was preventing myself from climbing over the table to do serious harm to the senior deacon. Somehow, the grace of God broke through and neither I nor the student intern did what we were thinking.

Instead, we had a serious and significant discussion about cultural relatively. The senior deacon was concerned about these kids but was working from a whole different culture. It made a major difference to him when I pointed out that the jeans the kids wore on Sunday morning likely cost more than the suit he wore—these weren’t poor street kids. The student intern pointed out that some of those kids got more allowance than the senior deacon got in pension, which was probably an exaggeration on both sides but helped the discussion along.

While the senior deacon would still liked to have seen the kids coming in attire appropriate to the culture from 40 years ago, he began to get some insights into the changes that had occurred over the past years and decided that maybe jeans that cost more than his suit were more appropriate for those kids than a donated suit. With the crisis averted, we adjourned the meeting, secure in the knowledge that we could continue the ministry we were involved in and could rejoice in the fact that these kids found our worship valuable enough to get up early on Sunday morning, put on their best jeans and t-shirts and join us.

Is there a point here? Well, maybe we in the church need to pay attention to our culture and realize that much of the time, we want to donate suits to people who neither want nor need our used suits. They need and want something different and sometimes actually find it—but because we get caught up in the need to supply a suit to the suitless, we damage their ability to get what they actually need and want. Isn’t is much better to amplify what we are doing that they need and want than spend all the effort it would take to donate a used suit?

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING FAITHFUL

This week’s posts have been more on the introspective side and could be interpreted to suggest that I am slipping into the chasm of depression—introspection, especially introspection focused on the realities of my current pastoral settings, can easily go that way. Small and decreasing numbers combined with my age and stage of life could make it easy to feel that not only am I wasting my time now but since I have spent my whole life in ministry with small churches, maybe I have wasted my whole ministry.

And I will openly confess that I am no stranger to that line of thought. When I hear of a colleague or former student who has been called to a larger congregation, I have a tinge (or more) of jealousy. When I realize that my name doesn’t come up much anymore when people are looking for someone to be a part of an important committee, I am simultaneously relieved that I don’t have to make a decision about the extra work and annoyed that I wasn’t even considered.

That being said, the times of jealousy and annoyance are not a major part of my life—they are there but on the scale of how they affect me, they are more like the bald spot I can’t see on the back of my head than the continual pain from my very old knees. I know the bald spot is there but while a full head of hair would be nice, it isn’t something I spend much energy on, except to remember a hat on sunny days—a sunburned bald spot isn’t pleasant.

A year or two after I had begun my first pastoral charge, I got a letter from a large congregation—you know this was a long time ago because it was an actual letter, not an email or text. People did that sort of thing way back then. Anyway, this church, one of the largest in the area at the time, wanted me to submit a resume for consideration as their next pastor. I was home by myself when I got the letter and it was exciting and gratifying and I was sure that this had to be God’s leading. I began packing—at least in my mind, I began packing.

But there was still a sermon to write for the church I was serving and a Bible study to get ready and a call or two to make. I also went for a walk—this was back in the days when my knees didn’t control my activity as much. The day passed and the letter sat on my desk—I was sure that when my wife got home from work, we would both be planning our move.

Except that by the time she got home, I realized that although it was really flattering to be considered for that position, it wasn’t for me. At the time, I realized it wasn’t for me at that point in time but looking back, I now realize that the call to a big congregation wasn’t ever one for me. God had a place and a purpose for me, one that kept me serving and working with small struggling congregations that needed someone to really care for them.

Since that first letter, there have been other letters, emails and phone calls from larger churches. Each one brought much the same reaction—excitement at being considered followed eventually by a clear sense that this wasn’t for me. And it wasn’t because I was avoiding the big churches—it was just that each time, there was the clear sense that I was where I was for a reason and when that reason was taken care of God would clearly show me what was next.

Being faithful has always been important to me, more important than moving up the ladder. I am not suggesting that anyone accepting a call to a larger church isn’t being faithful—I am saying that for me to have accepted any of those calls would have been unfaithful. Most of the people I know serving large congregations are good at what they do and are faithfully serving where they are clearly called.

The facts that I am sometimes jealous of them and often these days don’t really know what I am doing are realities that I am aware of. But the deeper reality is that I have tried to be faithful and that is more important to me than anything.

May the peace of God be with you.

DRIVING BY OTHER CHURCHES

I spend a lot of time on the road when I am working. The nearest of the churches I serve is an 18 kilometer round trip and the most distant is a 78 kilometer round trip. No matter which building I am going to, I have to pass other churches—some Baptist and some representing other denominations. And because I have lived in this area for a long time, I know quite a bit about those other churches.

And the one fact that stares me in face every time I drive by is that they all have more people in worship that I have. It doesn’t matter which denomination or where they are on the theological spectrum, they have more people in worship than I have. There are a couple of congregations in the area that have fewer but they aren’t on my regular routes so the bottom line is that every congregation I drive by has more people in worship than I have.

Now, being the spiritually mature, balanced and understanding pastor that I am, this doesn’t bother me at all. I can drive by and say a prayer of thanksgiving that they are doing so well and go to my small worship spiritually secure in the knowledge that all is well and that numbers don’t matter and that as long as God is being praised, all is well.

And if you are willing to believe that last paragraph, can I interest you in some land I have for sale? It is a great piece of land, although we need to wait for a six month dry spell so the ground is firm enough to stand on without sinking in too much.

Being the pastor of some of the smallest congregations in our area does bother me, especially since I have been working there for over two years and have managed to slightly decrease our average attendance in that time. Driving by other congregations can be painful.

I drive by the very conservative ones that have clear answers for everything, along with lots and lots of cars in the parking lot and wonder if maybe I need to start giving people clear answers like those groups do. But then, as I think about the people in the pews that I work with week after week, I realize that they neither need nor want clear and rigid answers—their faith needs the freedom to ask questions and seek answers that is such a strong part of our ministry.

I drive by the buildings of more liberal denominations which sometimes question what I consider the basics of the faith—and who also have lots of cars in the parking lot. I wonder of maybe I should copy their approach—but then I remember that most of the people I work with have built their lives and their faith on these foundational realities.

I drive by charismatic congregations, whose music and worship are obviously attracting people, at least according to the number of cars in the lot and I wonder if maybe we need to ditch the organ and piano and traditional hymns for a worship team and choruses projected on the wall—but then I remember that we are lucky to have any musician at all and we do like the older hymns but when possible, we try some new stuff.

So, I drive by. I look at the cars in the lot with some envy and maybe more jealousy that I am comfortable with. I wonder if I am doing something wrong that keeps us small and struggling. I wonder if maybe we should close up shop and go somewhere else. And then I realize that we gather each week for worship and for Bible study because we have found something that works for us. It probably won’t work for others—well, obviously, it doesn’t work for a lot of others because they aren’t there. But what happens in other places might not work for us either—I know that because some have tied hard to fit in there and it just doesn’t work.

So, I drive by and look at the cars and continue to my congregations where we gather as a small group seeking to understand God’s presence and calling and purpose for us. I don’t really know why we are who and what we are—but I do know that we are who and what we are because God has called us together and works in and through us—and for now, that counteracts the parking lot envy enough to keep me going.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHICH DIRECTION?

These days, I find myself spending a lot of time wondering where I am going, at least in terms of the churches I have been called to pastor. Both the pastorates I work with have great people and lots of potential. While neither of them is actually rolling in money, they both have enough to ensure they have a future, especially since they have made the difficult decision to move to part-time ministry. Both are located in geographical settings where they are basically the only organized expression of the Christian faith. And although both settings don’t have as many people as they used to have, there are still a significant number of people living in the communities served by the congregations and a significant number of them have no real connection with our faith.

I am entering my third year of service with this somewhat unique ministry—and to be totally honest, I have much less idea of what I am supposed to be doing than I did when I began this work. When I began, the process was clear: lead worship and preach on Sunday, prepare and lead Bible study and get to know the people, as well as deal with things like weddings and funerals and so on. In the process of doing that basic stuff, I would work at developing a sense of the churches and communities and help develop an approach to ministry that would help the churches become more healthy.

I have been doing this for a lot of years and used to think that I was pretty good at this process. I listen, observe, ask questions, research and eventually, begin to get a sense not just of what is but of what can be. I work with the church and together, we do what we feel God is calling us to do in the way God is calling us to do it. Generally, by the two year mark, I am starting to develop a fairly well focused sense of the church and its needs.

But instead of having this developing focus, I find myself these days spending a lot of time wondering what I am doing, what I need to be doing, what is needed for the church and what directions we need to be moving in. Since my ministry involves a lot of time in the car, I find myself wondering what I am supposed to be doing a lot during the drives between home and church building. But I also catch myself worrying the question when I am sanding a piece of my woodworking project or preparing a preaching plan or waiting in the line up at the grocery store.

I spend a lot of time on the question because I don’t have an answer. We have a great spirit in both settings—but our numbers are not improving and our average age isn’t decreasing. We are doing some interesting and innovative things but so far, no matter how much we enjoy it, noting much has changed our overall reality. We hear through the grapevine that people in the communities are noticing us and are pleased at what they see, something that hasn’t always been the case in our communities but that hasn’t translated more people coming to worship or special programs.

As individuals, we are learning more and more about our faith and what it means to us and we are learning how to express that faith to each other in better ways. We have been experimenting with a lot of stuff and we are finding stuff that we enjoy and stuff that we don’t really need. Our worship tends to be a bit more worshipful, our Bible study tends to be a bit more significant, our churches seem a bit more churchy—but for all that, we are still small, rural churches caught in a long-term decline. I like to think that the rate of decline has slowed down since we began looking at ourselves but the truth is that the causes of our decline haven’t really changed—we are still basically the same people we were two years ago but we are all two years older.

So, I wonder. What are we supposed to do and where are we supposed to be going and most especially, what am I supposed to be doing as the pastor of these churches?

May the peace of God be with you.