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.

WE NEED SOMEONE TO…

I was at a meeting recently, one of those meetings that are occupational hazards for those of us in ministry.  It was scheduled for the whole day, including lunch.  Now, in my ministry career, I have spent a lot of time at such meetings as a speaker, a chairperson or just as someone attending such a meeting.  Meetings of any kind are generally not my favourite aspect of ministry–but that may become the topic of a later post.

At many of the meetings like this that I attend, there is always a point in the meeting where those in charge reveal that some committee or another needs someone to do some task.  Generally, the tasks have some purpose that is legitimate and maybe even important.  It will also be a volunteer position, although occasionally, there might be compensation for expenses, although since most of my meetings are church related, that isn’t a given.

I have found over the years of attending such meetings that there are generally two types of people when it comes to such requests.  There are the volunteers, which we will look at tomorrow, and there are the non-volunteers, which is what I want to look at today.  There is some shifting between the categories but in general, most people fit in one or the other category.

I personally tend to be in the non-volunteer category.  I think part of that might result from the mantra I learned in my brief military experience, where we were continually being told “Don’t Volunteer”.  More of the unwillingness not to volunteer comes from the fact that I need time to think things through and volunteering when I first hear something just doesn’t fit with my need to think and pray things through.  Occasionally, I don’t volunteer because I know immediately that I don’t have the time and/or ability to do the job.  But more often than not, I don’t volunteer because I need time to think and pray.

Others whom I have talked to as a pastor have a different reason for not volunteering–they are pretty much convinced that they have nothing to offer that would do anyone any good.  In their  minds, calls for volunteers are never for them because they would never, ever be able to do anything.

I don’t feel I have nothing to offer when someone asks for volunteers–I am just reluctant to speak up without taking the time I need to make a decision, so like so many others, when the call for this or that position goes out, I don’t respond–or, better, I don’t respond by immediately jumping into the position.  I might respond later, once I have had the time to think that I need but chances of my responding right there and then are pretty slim.  It has happened, but only at those times when I knew before hand that the call was coming and had been thinking it through.

While I am comfortable with the “don’t volunteer immediately” approach that I have developed, there is a downside.  If I don’t volunteer and don’t really listen to the call and therefore don’t think about it, I may be missing something that God wants me to do.  Over the years as a pastor, I have seen this play out a lot among the people who don’t volunteer because they think they can’t do anything.

People like me need to be careful when it comes to our not volunteering.  Going through life with a blanket “no” to any and every call to do something is probably a mistake.  We all have at least one gift of the Holy Spirit that needs to be expressed for the full development of the church and the faith.  Sometimes, that gift will best be expressed in the context of a something that we are asked to volunteer for at a meeting of some kind.  When I automatically say no, I may well be saying no not so much to a committee’s request to me but rather to God’s request for me to volunteer for something.

I need to remember to take the time to think things through, rather than just say no and forget about it.  I don’t have to volunteer for everything that comes along but I do have to be open to God’s leading, which may even come during a long and not always riveting meeting.

May the peace of God be with you.

WAIT TILL YOUR FATHER GETS HOME

At a particularly difficult congregational annual business meeting many years ago, I was accused of spending too much time preaching on grace. Those making the accusation felt that it was time that the church heard some of the “deeper” truths of the faith–truths that they just happened to know and would gladly reveal to the congregation if I would just stop preaching about grace and get out of their way. At the time, I was pretty sure that it was impossible to emphasize grace too much, a belief that really hasn’t changed in the intervening years. God’s grace is still the most important point in my approach to our faith.

When I began this series of stories for the blog, I quickly remembered the first two–but this once kept peaking around the edges of my mind, a story from my childhood that I didn’t think much of over the years but is much more important that I realize. While I am a bit uncomfortable sharing it here for some reason, here goes.

I grew up in a big family–there were nine of us kids. Although Dad had a steady job that paid fairly well, big families tended to be poor even way back then–we didn’t live on a farm and the garden and pigs that Dad kept only supplemented our diet. So, food for all of us, clothes, shoes and all the rest meant that there wasn’t a lot of money to spare.

The story begins with me playing in the living room by myself–how that happened in a house full of kids I can’t remember. I was swinging a throw pillow from the couch, just having fun stretching and turning and whirling around for no other reason than I could. Unfortunately, one poorly thought out swing of the pillow took out the ceiling light fixture. It was just a bare bulb but still, it was looked totally wrecked and would probably have to be replaced.

Mum cleaned up the mess on the floor and told me “Wait until your father gets home!” The rest of the day was long and painful as I waited for Dad to get home. I remember that he was on the day shift that week which meant that he would be home shortly after 3:00. Since I broke the light around mid-morning, it meant that I had to wait a few hours to find out my punishment for the light.

I did what any smart, scared kid would do–I tried to be both the best kid in the family and the most invisible kid in the family at the same time. The closer it got to 3:00, the more invisible I tried to become. Eventually, though, the time came. Dad arrived home–we didn’t have a car in those days so he walked home. I stayed out of sight as he cleaned up and talked to my mother.

Then came the call–Dad was in the living room and I needed to go there right now–no more hiding, no more being good, no side trips to the bathroom. It was judgement time. I dragged my feet to the living room and there was Dad, poking at the broken fixture with a screwdriver. He looked at me and said something like, “It just needs a new light bulb–don’t swing the pillows in the house anymore.”

To say I was relieved doesn’t really capture the feelings I experienced at that moment. I was free–no punishment, no grounding, no restrictions. All the heaviness of the previous hours was gone. The punishment I expected and knew I deserved was gone. The anticipated distance from my father never arrived. I didn’t get excited about getting away with breaking the light–I got excited about, well, I am not sure that I could have described it then.

Now, I am aware that I experienced a taste of grace–a totally unexpected, unwarranted, undeserved forgiveness that wiped out a very real wrong on my part. As I have studied and taught theology over the years, that story has probably been quietly influencing and shaping my thinking much more than I realized, at least until I began working on this post.

Can we preach grace too much–I don’t really think so because unless everything we preach and teach and practise is grounded in the grace of God, we will still spend a long day waiting for Dad to come home. Grace tells us that when he gets home, we have nothing to worry about.

May the peace of God be with you.

CAN THE CALL BE WITHDRAWN?

I was reading a news report recently that I found quite shocking–and the further I read in the report, the more shocked I was. The report told of a worship service that was invaded by a very angry man with a gun. The pastor responded to the situation by pulling out his own gun and shooting the man, killing him. While you can make arguments one way or another, I did find it shocking that a pastor leading worship would be armed and even more that he would be willing–and able–to kill someone during that worship service.

The article then went on to add details. The man who was shot was a former member of the congregation who was angry at the pastor because he had discovered that the pastor had had an affair with the man’s wife and she was pregnant with the pastor’s baby. There is a lot of tragedy and pain in this story and lots of things that could be the focus of attention.

But for me today, the question that arises is weather than pastor should be allowed to carry on in ministry. Is a call from God an irrevocable call or can people lose their call and therefore their place in ministry?

Some denominations give a qualified “yes” to this question. They have standards of conduct for ordained leaders. If, after suitable investigation, an individual is found to have broken the standards, he/she is sanctioned–and that sanction can include removing them from ministry or at least revoking their ministerial credentials. The sanction can be temporary or permanent, depending on the severity of the offence.

Local congregations may or may not have an answer to the question. I remember visiting one church years ago where the treasurer had been stealing money from the church. Even after he was proven guilty beyond question, he was retained as the church treasurer, although he wasn’t allowed to handle actual money anymore.

Congregations and denominations have a need and the right to set limits on people who carry out ministry on their behalf. As long as the limits are clear and consistently applied, the organization has the right to withdraw the privilege of ministry from an individual.

But there is a larger question, at least for me. It grows out of the fact that some people who have had their ministry credentials or practise ended simply go somewhere else to do their ministry. Their group may not recognize their right to minister but they refuse to recognize the group’s right to do that.

Does God ever remove the call to ministry? This may not be a big issue for many but I think it is worth looking at. We do have one clear case in the Bible where this happens.

In response to the demands of the people of Israel, God provides the people with a king. Saul very quickly commits a serious sin and proves his unworthiness for the office (or ministry) that God has called him to. As a result, God revokes his calling as king. (I Samuel 13) While Saul goes on to rule for many years, he does so without the power and leading of God. While there are lots of stories of individuals trying to remove themselves from God’s call (Jonah), this is the only time I can think of in Scripture where God clearly takes away an individual’s calling. Let me know if you can think of others.

This is an important question because people do act in ways that threatens damage to the church and the faith. But we also know that God is a God of grace, mercy and forgiveness. And we know as well that none of us is perfect.

When I look at all of these realities, my conclusion is that congregations and denominations do need to protect people and the faith from called ones who misuse their calling. This protection may extend to removing the right of ministry temporarily or permanently. This isn’t the same as revoking the calling–it is a recognition that the group involved no longer recognizes the individual’s right to exercise their calling on behalf of the group.

God may chose to remove the calling from some individuals because of the nature of their actions. Individuals may chose to continue ministering in spite of the revocation of their calling but they will be ministering on their own and for their own ends and that will ultimately make itself clear.

Calling is important and a basic part of the Christian life. But just as being called is not the same as being ready, so also calling is not the same as always being right.

May the peace of God be with you.

CALLED BUT NOT READY

I began my involvement in pastoral training in 1970 and since then have been associated with the process of theological education of both pastors and laity in a variety of ways in several countries and several languages–some I understand and some I don’t (trusting an interpreter is an interesting experience). On a regular basis throughout that time, I have seen and heard several variations of a common misconception of the call.

Among theology students, for example, there is always at least one who will voice the comment, “I was called to preach, not to study”. Church members are often recruited at the last minute for some ministry and shoved into it with little or no training. When I was asked to teach Sunday School as a teen, I was handed a teachers’ book and shown my classroom full of 8-10 kids and went to work. I have known pastors who look at the congregation and arbitrarily call upon someone to pray or do some other part of public ministry with no preparation or training. While many professions have strict requirements for upgrading and continuing education, clergy, especially in the evangelical denominations have no such requirements at all, although to be fair, a few recommend continuing education and try to provide opportunities which tend to be underused.

It seems that many Christians believe that being called is the same as being ready. A person called to teach Sunday School, for example, just needs to dive in and get to work. A person called to preach only needs to stand in the pulpit to activate that ministry. Time spend on things like training and preparation and upgrading is time stolen directly from the ministry. In fact, there is a strong feeling among some conservative believers that education in any form is a satanic plot to destroy ministry.

The painful reality is that I was a terrible Sunday School teacher as a teen–I had no idea how to prepare a lesson, didn’t know how to deal with the problem kids in the class, expected them to listen to every word I said and know the answers to questions immediately. As a teacher of preachers, I have listened to more first sermons that is probably healthy and know very well that there is more to preaching than just standing behind a pulpit. Being called is not the same as being ready.

Most denominations recognize the truth of this when it comes to their professional leadership–there are various programs and requirements for ordained ministers to ensure that they meet certain standards. In spite of complaints from students and graduates of such programs, the denominations hold to the requirements in most cases.

But at the local congregation level, that is generally not the case. Very little effort is put into training people in their calling. Getting people into positions is the focus–as long as there is a name to put on a annual report, it seems that the church doesn’t care if the teachers can teach, the treasurers can count, the deacons can “dece” or the trustees are trustworthy.

While recruiters operate on this principle, it appears that members of the congregation operate on a different one. The most common excuse for not doing something in the church is “I couldn’t do that”, a comment that comes not from an unwillingness to do ministry but from a lack of knowledge.

Calling isn’t generally sufficient preparation for ministry. The calling, coupled with the gifts from the Holy Spirit, provides the individual with a clear understanding of their place in the ministry of the church. The calling and gifting will together provide the person with interest, some abilities and insights. But there is still a need for more information, more knowledge, more skill development before the individual is able to do effective ministry.

Congregations need to recognize the need for training for those who are called in order to help them develop the gifts they have so that the ministry they are called to can be done well. That doesn’t mean that every congregation needs to provide training for everyone–congregations can work together to provide that training.

Training can also become a required part of the process for involvement in a ministry–Sunday School teachers, for example can be required to take part in training events which the church supports through covering the costs for example.

It is vital for congregations to recognize that all are called to ministry of some form. But it is just as vital that congregations recognize the need to provide for proper training for those who are called. Just as a lack of response to a calling can cause serious problems to a church, so poorly done ministry can cause equally serious problems to the church’s ministry.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHEN ARE WE CALLED?

Some people knew what ministry God called them to very early in life–I was in high school when I first began to believe that God was calling me to s specific type of ministry. I had been a Christian only for a couple of years at that point but was aware that God wanted me for something particular–and began to fight against that calling at the same time.

I know other people whose call to a specific ministry came much later in their lives. Some of the became believers later in life so the lateness of their call can be understood in that context–God can’t really call someone to ministry if they haven’t first answered the initial to come to him. But there have been others whose calling seems to have been delayed until much later in their lives. Although he was in a very different situation from Christians seeking a call, Moses experienced his call to a specific ministry when he was 80.

This raises a question for me about when God calls people to their ministry, a question that is a bit complicated by a quotation from Jeremiah 1.4-5:

The word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart….” (NIV)

Theologically, this verse does reveal a reality that I believe–God knows what is going to happen in every life and so he not only knows who is going to be called to what but also how they will react to that calling. That doesn’t really answer the question of when people are called though. It does form part of the background in my thinking though.

I would suggest several factors are involved in the answer. First, we remember that God calls every believer to some form of ministry. Those who don’t know or believe this may not recognize God’s calling, somewhat like Samuel in I Samuel. He was called but didn’t recognize the call until it was explained to him by Eli. There may be many believers who claim not to be called who actually don’t recognize they are being called.

Some people who are called may recognize the call for what it is–but as happened in my case, the called one resists that calling. My personal resistance didn’t last longer than a few months, although it flares up now and then even today. But others I have talked to report resisting for years and years. To them and others, this could be seen as a delayed call–but the reality is that the answer is delayed, not the calling.

Another part of the answer is that we sometimes conceive the call to ministry in the wrong way. There is a tendency to see it as a lifetime commitment to teaching Sunday School or being the church treasurer or becoming a pastor. I and others have been known to joke that the only way to get out of a job in the church is to die.

But I have realized that the commitment we need to make is a commitment to following God and answering the call to ministry as a general commitment rather than a commitment to a specific ministry. God can and does change the specifics of the call to ministry. We see that clearly in those called to paid ministry–very few pastors spend their whole ministry in one congregation. As well, those of us who are wise in ministry realize that no matter how well what we did in one congregation worked, we will probably have to do something very different in new congregation. God calls us to ministry in general–but there may be several calls to different specific ministries.

I have also realized that some of the ministry I have been called to I like more than others. Some people may feel that being called to something they really like is their first call, while in fact they have been answering the call but just in a ministry they weren’t as excited about.

For all these reasons, I think the answer to the question of when God calls us is simplified. If we are believers, we are called to ministry. We may resist but that doesn’t mean there is no call. Our commitment as believers needs to include a willingness to answer God’s call to ministry and seek to serve him as he leads.

May the peace of God be with you.

IGNORING THE CALL 2

More than a few times in my ministry I have seen a situation develop in congregations that threatens actual existence of that congregation. There are many reasons for such situations but today, I want to look at one in specific. I don’t know how common this particular situation is–I think I have had personal experience of it once and have heard of a couple of others that may have had the same cause.

Since the title of this blog says we will are still dealing with people who ignore the call of God, it doesn’t take a great leap of logic to think that this particular problem grows out of someone ignoring their call from God. Some believers, as we have seen, are given a call to engage in what we know as full-time or professional ministry. I know very few people who actively seek such a calling. Almost everyone called to this form of ministry ends up following Jonah before we end up doing what we are called to do.

There are some, however, who manage to maintain the Jonah position for many years. This puts a great deal of strain on their life and faith. Some people I know who have done this have ended up drifting from job to job, church to church, cause to cause. It is hard to settle into a life when underneath it all, your spirit has been called and prepared for something else.

Many who are ignoring this call from God end up abandoning the church. They may also claim to have abandoned the faith as well. It is very hard to maintain a good relationship with God and his people when every moment in God’s presence is a reminder that he has something for you to do that you are trying to ignore.

If these were the only consequences of ignoring God’s call to full-time ministry, that would be bad enough. The emotional and spiritual pain of running from God is severe and serious and the resulting spiritual unrest will affect all of the individual’s life and probably affect their relationships as well. This running from God also affects the church because these Jonahs are not available for the ministry God has called them to do.

But there is another consequence that has even more serious effects for the church. A few of those trying to ignore their call try to continue in the church, perhaps reasoning that if they stay in the church and become active in a local congregation, God will leave them alone. While the thought process might sound reasonable, the result is something like allowing an alcoholic to become a bartender.

This individual is called by God to be a pastor of a congregation. By virtue of the call and gifts that go with the call, he/she looks at the congregation like a pastor would, seeing the needs and possibilities and challenges that many in the congregation might not see because that is not their calling. If the person running from the call were the pastor of the congregation, he/she would be the one called to deal with these things.

But in most cases, the congregation already has a pastor, whose calling and gifts are probably slightly different and whose understanding is probably a bit sharper as a consequence of being where he/she is supposed to be. In the best case scenario, the called pastor and the running pastor find a way to work together.

In the worst case scenario, the running pastor tries to take over the congregation in order to fulfill the call he/she has been running from. The congregation ends up being pulled between two pastors–one called by God to be there and one called by God but not to that congregation. The competition and conflict can easily overwhelm real ministry and result in serious harm to the congregation and its ministry. Results can include defections from the congregation, a nasty split, long term reputation damage, legal entanglements and serious damage to the work of God’s kingdom.

I don’t know how common this is–there are lots of congregational battles that don’t come from people ignoring their call to ministry. But I think I have seen it and the fact that it does happen makes understanding the nature of our calling and the need to follow it all the more important.

May the peace of God be with you.