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.

HOW BIG IS THE CHURCH?

I have been the pastor of a lot of small congregations in my 40+ years of ministry.  I have never broken the 100 mark in regular attendance.  These days, the combined attendance at the two pastorates I serve part time rarely reaches 40, unless it is for a funeral. (I don’t know about weddings–we haven’t had any yet.)  I did once pastor a church that had over 250 members on paper but because of problems and issues, there were only about 25 in worship when I started as pastor.

Given that I am within visual range of retirement, I am pretty sure that my chances of being pastor to a large church are pretty small.  That’s okay with me–I don’t dream of being the next world-famous mega-church pastor any more (well, not much anyway).

But as I have been reading about church growth and how to deal with large increases in attendance and how to prepare for it and all sorts of stuff like that for years.  I know that there is more than just a difference in numbers when it comes to church size.  Beyond a certain point, the quality and nature of the congregation changes.  One blog I read recently suggested that once a church reaches a certain size, the pastor can’t know everyone–and everyone else can’t know everyone either.  His suggestion of nametags was an appropriate way of dealing with that problem.

But one of the nagging questions that has always bothered me when I think about this qualitative difference focuses on exactly this issue.  If I can’t know at least the names of everyone joined together with me in a congregation, are we really a church?  We can be a gathering of believers, we can have a strong theoretical commitment to God and each other but if I can’t know all of the others, are we really a church?

Christianity is a social faith, which requires that our commitment to God through Christ express itself in our relationships with other believers.  And I don’t think that is meant to be a theoretical, generalized expression.  We are called to love each other in very practical and personal ways–but if there are so many of us that I can’t even remember names, how personal can my expression of faith be in that context?

If I am to love other believers as Jesus loved us (John 13.34-35), don’t I need to know the names of my fellow believers (John 10.1-17, especially verse 3)? If I have to look at a name tag to know who I am talking to, how can I be expected to really love people as Christ loved us–without a real sense of who the person is, isn’t my love more generic than personal?

This isn’t an anti-big church rant.  I have friends who pastor large congregations and others who attend large congregations and whose faith I respect and appreciate.  But as I look at some of these larger congregations, it seems to me that they really aren’t united and unified.  Rather than being one big happy church family, they seem to be several different but slightly overlapping church families–several congregations meeting together.

And there are lots of good reasons for such groupings of churches in one congregation.  It allows for more and better programs and facilities and makes delivery of ministry more efficient and allows them to afford things that my small congregations can’t even afford to dream about.  But in the end, I wonder if it might not be better and more correct to call these large groups a gathering of churches rather than a church.

Maybe, once we lose the ability to know names and therefore the ability to really know people, we have lost something vital to the nature of the church.  Knowing someone’s name opens the door to knowing a lot more about the person and that allows us to specifically and personally show people how our common faith in God is expressed in our relationship.

And so while I really hope and pray that our small congregations will grow in numbers, I also am not really interested in the kind of growth that means I can’t know the names of the people I lead in worship.  If we ever get that big, we can start another church so that people can live their faith with people whose names they know and who know their names.

May the peace of God be with you.

A HUMBLE CONFESSION

As I was writing the last post, I realized that it could suggest that I have a very high opinion of my pastoral abilities.  And I do think that I am pretty good at what I do–I have been a pastor for a lot of years and have helped congregations through some difficult times.  And while I have never been called to a large congregation, I think I have been good for the churches that I have pastored.  As well, I have been called to teach pastors both in Canada and Kenya.

But at the same time,  I have to confess that most of the time in ministry, I really don’t know what I am doing.  Sure, there are some basics:  I need to preach, teach Bible study, visit people, attend (and sometimes chair) meetings, do some counselling, and be there for life transitions like funerals and weddings.  But beyond the basics, I don’t always have great plans and inspiring visions.  I don’t dream (much) of seeing the congregation become a mega-church; I am never sure where we will be next month let alone 5 or 10 years from now.  In truth, sometimes, I can’t even tell you what I will be preaching next Sunday, although that only happens when I forget that the current sermon plan actually ends next week.

None of my congregations have ever given me a coffee mug with the message “World’s Greatest Pastor” printed on it–nor have I even felt that I deserve one.  Even more, there are times when I am convinced that I made a serious mistake when I decided that God wanted me to be a pastor–and more than a few times when I have been convinced that God made a serious mistake by calling me to be a pastor.

I get tired of what I am doing; I get depressed when the stress of ministry leads to overwork; I waste time when I could be studying or seeing people; I wonder why God didn’t call me to some other work; I get angry at things that happen in the church; I fantasize about winning the lottery and retiring; I sometimes hope for snow days for more than just the opportunity to go cross-country skiing.

I am a pastor–but even after all these years of pastoring, teaching pastors, reflecting and writing on pastoring, I am still trying to figure out what it really means to be a pastor.  Maybe after I retire sometime in the not too distant future, I will have some time to figure out what it is that I am really supposed to be doing.

I have actually made some progress at figuring it out.  I have learned some things that pastors shouldn’t do.  Some of these I have learned from my own painful experience.  Others I have learned from watching the experience of others–those lessons have been less painful for me but no less painful for congregations and pastors.  Knowing what not to do is actually a helpful start on the road to knowing what to do.

If it is a mistake to scold the congregation with every sermon, as it is, then not only do I know to avoid that but also, I have an opportunity to discover what might be a better use of the sermon.  Teaching during the sermon, encouraging with the message, inspiring congregations through the preaching–all these are much better for everyone than a ranting scold every week.

And even more importantly, I have learned one of the most basic realities of my profession.  Ministry is really about developing relationships with people that can help them and me develop our relationship with God.  In the course of developing those relationships, we may discover God’s leading and empowering to do interesting, exciting and inspiring things but the development of the relationships is the key issue.  We have to really know each other before we can trust each other.  We have to trust each other before we can really open to each other about faith.  We have to open to each other about faith before we can experience the fullness of the presence of God in our midst.

So, day after day, I take my introverted self and go be a pastor–I joke with people, drink coffee with people, cry with people, pray with people, teach people, get taught by people.  I do my job, a job that I don’t always understand and which I sometimes struggle to explain and am not sure how good at it I really am but which God has called me to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

ONE DAY DURING WORSHIP

            One Sunday we were at worship.  We were between snow storms–most had just finished the clean up from the most recent one and we were waiting for the one was due in a few hours.  That probably cut our attendance by about 10 percent (which in our case means a couple of people didn’t make it).  Worship was going smoothly–I hadn’t made any major mistakes and think I even avoided the minor ones.  I had lots of time before worship to get ready and no one had provided any unexpected confusion.

We went through the announcements, began worship and reached the point for the choir to sing.  As they were singing, I looked at my watch and realized that I was pretty much through the order of service except for the Scriptures and sermon and we had used up only about 10 minutes.

I remember thinking, “What have we done?”  But I wasn’t asking the question in the same way some melodramatic TV or movie character would ask it. I was really asking myself if during the previous 10 minutes we had really worshipped God.  I had lead the congregation through the order of service, making appropriate comments about the music and doing the prayers at the right time–even using the right prayer at the right time.  We had sung and read together and prayed and offered our offering and listened to the choir–but had we really worshipped God.

That isn’t an easy question for me to answer.  I am aware that simply following the order of service and getting it right (something I don’t always do) doesn’t ensure that we worship.  Worship involves an opening of ourselves to the presence of God.  God is always present in our lives but we don’t always make the effort to be aware of his presence.  Public and private worship provide us with times to actually remind ourselves of the wonder of the presence of God.

But to be honest, I am not always aware of the presence of God during worship.  I am busy leading, guiding the flow of the service, making sure that I follow the order of service, reading people’s reactions to the service, coping with my nervousness, anticipating the next several steps of worship, making sure that I move the text on the tablet at the right time.  Am I aware of the presence God in our midst?  Intellectually and theologically, I am deeply and profoundly aware of the powerful truth that God is with us no matter what.  Practically, when I am leading worship, I am often more aware of leading the worship that the presence of God.

What are the worshippers aware of?  That I can’t say with any great degree of certainty, but from past experience, I can say that some are aware of the physical limitations of the sanctuary, the pain they experience from their arthritic joints meeting hard pews, the worry about life issues they bring with them to worship, the smell of the coffee we will share after the worship, and maybe trying to figure out the joke the worship leader (me) told poorly.

And yet, in spite of all of this, week after week, we come and somehow, by the grace of God, we manage to connect with God.  Somehow, I see beyond the anxiety of leading the worship and experience the presence of God.  Somehow, the congregation reaches beyond the hard pews, aches and pains, life baggage and poor preaching and encounters the reality of the presence of God in their midst.  Somehow, we do it–we see God, we experience God, we thank God, we praise God.

How do I know that?  Well, sometimes, people tell me how they encountered God.  Sometimes, I have my own personal encounter.  But more often than now, I realize that we have encountered God simply because we leave worship with more than we brought to worship.  We worship and because we somehow experience the reality of the presence of God in our lives, we are touched with the grace of God, a touch that changes our lives.  It may not be a spectacular change, although those do happen now and then.  It may not be a touch that lasts a long time, although those too happen from time to time.

But we are touched by the presence of God and we do take the experience of that touch with us and it does make a difference–and so in some way, somehow, we have worshipped.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT AM I DOING?

There are some days when I have no clue what I am doing, at least in terms of what I am doing as a pastor.  It is important to remember the context here.  I have been involved in some form of ministry since 1973.  Although I have done many different things during that time, I have primarily been a pastor, serving small rural congregations in western Nova Scotia, Canada.  I have advanced education in ministry and have taught other pastors at schools in Canada, Kenya and Rwanda.  I have done seminars and workshops and conferences geared towards pastors.  And so when I saw that there are some days when I have no clue what I am doing as a pastor, it isn’t because I have no background.

Nor am I doing the false modesty thing–you know, pretending that I am less capable than I really am.  I am actually being honest here–there are a lot of times when I really don’t know what I am doing in ministry.  And that is a culturally difficult admission because I do ministry in a climate when pastors are supposed to be all knowing and all capable leaders who have a vision and a plan and who are going to build the next great mega church.

I have read all that stuff and have even attended a few of the conferences on vision and stuff like that.  And for a short spell a few years ago, I was actually doing workshops on the vision process.  Being me, I took a different approach to the vision process, suggesting that the vision for the church needed to arise from the church and that the pastor’s real task was helping the congregation see and articulate their own home-grown vision.  So I know the expectation of other pastors–I should be a vision-casting, purpose-driven inspired and inspiring leader who knows where he is going and where the church needs to go.

But the truth is that most days, I have difficulty articulating a vision for anything, let alone the church.  I feel many days that I really have no clue what I am doing.  Of course, that isn’t entirely true.  I know that I have to lead Bible Study, preach on Sunday, visit the sick, connect with the congregation, be open to emergencies and unexpected calls and all that.  But at the same time, there are many days when I couldn’t tell you why I do these things and how they fit into some overall scheme of things.

In short, I really don’t have much of a vision for the churches I pastor.  Some of the stuff being produced these days about vision and leadership would suggest that this is why I have spend my ministry career in small congregations–if I don’t have a vision and a plan to implement the vision, I won’t get anywhere.

Some of this not knowing comes about because I am still relatively new in the congregations I serve and I have discovered that developing a real and meaningful vision for a church takes time and effort on the part of the church and the pastor.  After I am there for a few more years, the church and I will probably have a sense of what God’s vision for the church is.  I have some hints and glimpses of that in the congregation I have been working with for a couple of years now.

But when I really think about it, I realize that the stuff I am doing as a pastor is often the goal and purpose of my calling anyway.  I have never sensed God calling me to be a visionary.  I am called and gifted to be a pastor and teacher–or, to use one variation of the list of gifts found in Ephesians 4.11, I am a pastor/teacher.  I care for people in the name of God, doing things like preaching and teaching and visiting and caring and counselling and praying and answering the phone and returning calls and responding to emergencies.  The things I do don’t always have some great visionary purpose-they just need to be done because that is what God has called me to do.

If in the process, God chooses to use the things I do to help me and the church develop some greater vision and purpose, I hope and pray that we are open to seeing that vision.  But even now, the things I do are important and so when I say I don’t know what I am doing, maybe I am saying that I don’t know where things fit in some cosmic vision–but I do them because they are important and I have been called to do them and maybe that is enough, at least for now.

May the peace of God be with you.

A NOT BORING SERMON

Most of the church buildings I have worked in over my many years of pastoral ministry have had only one door and the few that had more than one often had only one “official” door–there had to be a really good reason to use the other door, as well as someone handy with the key to open it.  While there are lots of security and safety issues associated with such a building, there is one good thing about it from my perspective.

It means that by parking myself near the door, I get the chance to see everyone who comes in or out.  Before a worship service, there is a lot to do and I sometimes miss people coming in but after the worship, I am a committed devotee of the old rural custom of the pastor standing at the back greeting people as they leave.  That means that no matter what happens, I at least get a brief opportunity to touch base with people.

So, one Sunday a week or two before Christmas, one of the congregation meets me at the door.  Since everyone else was busy catching up and talking, we were alone at that point with no one waiting to get out.  As we talk, he said something like, “I came this morning expecting another boring Christmas sermon–but you made it really interesting and worthwhile–thank you.”

I appreciated his words partly because he says what he thinks and partly because I had worked hard to avoid preaching “another boring Christmas sermon”.  But when I was working on the sermon, I was actually only conscious of not boring myself.  I have been preaching for over 40 years and in that time, have been responsible for leading and preaching Christmas worship for most of those years.  Trying to find some way to do Christmas sermons that doesn’t bore me gets harder and harder.

But I hadn’t really thought about the fact that most people in my congregations have heard those 40+ years of sermons–not all from me, of course.  There are certainly congregations where that isn’t true–but for my area and the congregations I serve, this is very true.  And after I thought about it a bit, the whole thing made me a bit sad.

Christmas, stripped of the commercial and cultural tinsel that it has accumulated over the years, is an exciting story.  It is the story of a loving and graceful God shaking up the way things are to step into the lives of a rebellious humanity.  It is a love story of epic and even eternal proportions, a story that has touched lives all around the world since that night when the angels announced the birth.  It is a story of hope, a story as real as today’s headlines, a story that should be anything but boring.

Maybe it doesn’t stack up well when compared to the hype surrounding the latest must have kids’ toy.  Maybe it doesn’t have the drama of the latest political production.  Maybe it doesn’t have the attraction of the most recent sexual scandal.   Maybe it doesn’t produce as much hope as the on and off ceasefire talks in the latest conflict.

But then again, maybe it is a story that outclasses all these stories and the real problem is with the presentation and the presenter, with some of the blame going to the presentees. (I know that isn’t a real word but the symmetry appeals to my preacher side).

There is an old saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”    While I don’t think our familiarity with Christmas breeds contempt, I do think that it has produced a bit of boredom, especially when we don’t make the effort to really hear and enter into the story.  We who are preaching and teaching the story probably need to work at opening ourselves to God’s Spirit to find new ways to approach the story.  We who are listening probably need to open ourselves more to the Spirit who is trying to show us new facets of the story that we hadn’t seen or haven’t seen in a long time.

Maybe all of us need to chop thorough the tinsel and gift wrapping and culture and turkey and find the story at the heart of it all–the story of how God loves us so much that he comes to us on our terms and on our level so that he can bring us to his level.  I’m glad I didn’t bore my friend with that sermon because the story is too great and too important to be made boring.

May the peace of God be with you.

UP AND DOWN

A few weeks ago, we had a great worship service at one of the churches I serve.  We were commemorating the founders of the original congregation that produced the two present congregations that I serve.  The original building is still standing and we had planned on holding the service in the building until we found out that for safety reasons, the old wood stove and stove pipe had been removed.  Since this was October in Nova Scotia, we decided to hold the service in a local community hall.

We had a great service–the attendance was good, the hall was warm, the music was great, the sermon was short and the potluck lunch was great as always.  We had time to talk and laugh and share together.  There were some visitors and everything worked well.  The hall committee refunded our rental fee and offered to work with us if we wanted to hold worship there at other times, which gives us some options during the winter shut down of our regular buildings.  The sixteen of us at the worship service went home having experienced a real spiritual lift.

Skip ahead a week.  At 10:30, when worship was supposed to start, there were three people and me–but one had to leave because the building was too cold and she is particularly sensitive to cold.  As she left, another person came.  And just as I was wondering what we would do, a couple of others came, relatively new people.  So, the six of us worshipped.  As worship with six people goes, it wasn’t bad.  Two of the ladies carried us in singing the hymns a capella, there was some good discussion during the sermon with an insightful and important question coming from one of the new people, showing that he understood and liked our somewhat non-traditional format.

But after the high of the week before, it was a bit of a let-down.  But for me, it was only a bit of a let-down and only because the week before had set a high standard.  Fortunately, I had to foresight to plan for the let down.  Well, it is probably more honest and accurate to say that the Spirit was inspiring me to plan for the let down.  I went to the second worship expecting less than the week before.

First, I knew that the attendance would be way down.  Two regulars would be away, the people from the city were not visiting that weekend, another was away for medical reasons.  I knew we would be way down in  attendance–when 15 is a high number, it doesn’t take too many to drastically reduce the attendance.  In a congregation of 100, having 10 not attend is barely noticeable–but when 15 is a season high, missing 10 is extremely noticeable.

The low attendance, the lack of music to accompany our singing, the cold building–all of this combined to make the second worship much less exciting and sparkling than the one the week before.  But the truth is that this second worship is much closer to our norm–and wasn’t even our lowest attendance this year.

Being prepared for the contrast helped me a great deal.  I didn’t go home after the worship with the same spiritual high of the week before but I also didn’t go home in a dark down of depression.  I went home, had lunch and a short nap and headerd out for worship at the other churches I serve.

I think I am learning something.  It isn’t totally clear in my mind yet and I probably have more to learn but I think it involves accepting what is for what it is, not getting upset for what it isn’t.  That was easy to do with the first worship service because everything was so great.  But it was a bit harder for the second because it was such a contrast to the first one.

But God was present at both services; we opened ourselves in worship at both services and we were aware of the presence of God in our midst.  We missed our regulars who weren’t with us at both services and we welcomed our visitors at both services and they seemed to feel at home.  While I would have liked a bit more of the numbers and feelings of the earlier service at the second service, both did what they were supposed to do–and what more can we really ask?

May the peace of God be with you.