CHOICES

As a pastor and someone involved in the task of helping others, I get contacted about a lot of things. Everyone seems to think that a pastor has nothing more to do than become involved with their particular concern. Most of the things people want me to become involved in or to help them with are worthwhile. Whether it is helping develop counselling resources in our region or helping provide food for hungry kids in school or housing for people who need it or defending the environment or preserving the built history of our area or—well, the list goes on and on.

And if I were rich, didn’t need to earn a living and didn’t have a bunch of things I am required to do, I might be interested in some of these things. But one of the realities of my life is that I already have a long list of required activity. Every week, I need to prepare and preach two sermons, develop and lead (or pretend to lead) two Bible studies, and keep a spiritual eye on the people I have been called to serve as pastor. I also have to be ready to drop everything to work with serious illness or funerals or other life crises. I am responsible for primary spiritual and emotional care for the people in the congregation. Along with all that, I have to find some time to cook and eat meals, exercise and sleep.

I am also finding that as I age, the energy I have available isn’t as plentiful as it was 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. Burning the candle at both ends might be possible at 36 but at 66, the candle doesn’t actually allow for that. I keep being told by medical people that I am healthy—but then they add for a 66 year old, subtly reminding me that I am not 36.

So, I have to make choices. And these choices aren’t like choosing between drinking a cup of good coffee or a cup of stagnant puddle water. These are choices between things that are equally appealing, equally valid and equally important. Do I choose providing counselling for the adult victim of childhood sexual abuse or helping a shattered family process the death of their loved one or finding ways to discretely provide food and clothing to the kids in school whose families can’t afford it or take part in the long process to correct an environmental mess?

I learned early in my life that I can’t do everything—and learned almost as soon that I would have to say no to some very good things. I would like to say that I have developed a simple, easy to use two step process for making such decisions but since I am still a pastor, a profession that requires honesty (except in the case of sermon illustrations), I won’t say that.

I have found that the process of choosing isn’t easy, at least for me. I do have friends who semi-boastfully tell me that God spoke to them and made it clear what they were supposed to do. I believe God speaks but it always seems to take me a lot longer to get the message. And so I often find myself juggling choices, trying to figure out which ones I can do and which therefore have to be not chosen.

I do work hard when I have a choice like this to make and the work does include serious prayer. I don’t actually get down on my knees—the days of getting on my knees are long gone. But I do pray. Sometimes the prayer involves weighing consequences in the awareness of God’s presence. Sometimes, it involves a groaning plea something like, “What do I do?” And sometimes, it involves mowing the lawn or shovelling snow or staring out the window allowing God to move around in my thought process.

Eventually, I make a decision. Sometimes, I second guess the decision; occasionally, I feel guilty about the decision; now and then I even change the decision. But I work at making faith decisions about the various demands, claims and possibilities that I have to deal with. I really can’t do everything but doing one thing often involves not doing something else, which means I have to think carefully and pray hard about the choices I make.

May the peace of God be with you.

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LIFE GOES ON

I am discovering the reality of something that I actually knew but am being forced to see I a new light. I am a pastor, someone whose job involves me in people’s lives at some of their worst times, as well as a few of the best times. When I am helping someone deal with the sudden death of a close relative, the unexpected cancer diagnosis, the marriage break up, the collapse of a life plan, I tend to be focused and pastoral—my calling and my personality and my faith are all focused on trying to provide whatever I can provide to help people cope.

I know that during the times I am not present, people still cope—true, some cope well and some cope poorly but they cope. When they talk to me, especially if they have requested the session, they talk and act as if the issue under discussion were the only thing in their lives. When we are done talking, well, then they go back to cooking meals and shoveling driveways and watching TV and bragging about grandchildren. (Remember, I live and work in an area of Canada with one of the highest average ages in the country.)

When we are together, the issue is front and centre and both the focus and the purpose of our session. When it is done, we both go back to whatever occupies us until the next time. Because I have multiple sessions with many people, I tend not to give too much thought to the rest of the person’s life beyond the issue. I know that they wash dishes and drink coffee but mostly, I don’t much think about their lives beyond the issue unless I see them outside of a session, which does happen quite often in our rural context.

But I see that differently these days. I need surgery soon—while it is fairly serious surgery, it is necessary to prevent some even more serious stuff. I have been letting people know that it is coming so that they can make other arrangements or recognize that our present arrangements may have to be put on hold a bit. Recently, for example, I told one of the Bible study groups that we had some breaks coming up—one because of a previously planned vacation week and the other because of an upcoming surgery.

The group wanted as many details of the surgery as I was able and willing to give; they expressed concern and promises of prayers; they assured me that I was making a wise decision. After that discussion, we began our Bible study, which followed the accepted and habitual pattern—I prayed, asked a question and we chased rabbits and opened topics and had a good time sharing our faith response to life. My impending surgery was there but we had another focus and we stuck with the study.

I am sure if the news I gave them was of my impending demise, things would probably have been different. But the surgery, although serious, isn’t likely to be fatal. I am concerned and they are concerned—but none of us really want to spend all the time up to the surgery worrying and fretting and discussing the coming surgery. We have stuff to do—we need to see if it is actually possible to finish a verse or two in our Bible study or we need to deal with the question that has been nagging one of the members since last Sunday or we need to theologize about the news headline we are all concerned about.

In short, life goes on. No matter what the issue or bump in the road, life needs to go on. Unless the bump or issue is immediately fatal, life goes on. And even when it is fatal for one person, life still has to go on for everyone else. Or, rather, it needs to go on. There are some people who can’t seem to keep their life moving when stuff hits the fan—but that is why God has called and gifted pastors and counsellors and therapists.

He seeks to work through these support personnel so that those who can’t find a way to have life go on can find the help they need to carry on. I know all that—but every now and then, it is good to see things from a different perspective.

May the peace of God be with you.

DAVID THE BLOGGER

The worship service at one of the churches I serve has a unique addition to the order. Right after I read the Scriptures, the congregation has an opportunity to ask questions or make comments. This came about as a result of a suggestion by one of the members and has become a highlight of the worship for both pastor and congregation. While there are occasional Sundays where nobody has a question or comment, there are generally some interesting comments and questions—and several times a year, the ensuing discussion become so interesting and valuable that we never actually get to the sermon, which means I am prepared for another Sunday.

Recently, the Scriptures came from Isaiah and Mark. Both passages prompted some comments and we batted them around for awhile. And then, one of the congregants had a question about the responsive reading that we had used earlier in the worship. It was a legitimate question because the reading was Scripture, a reading from Psalm 27.

The question concerned the author of the Psalm. The question and discussion focused on David rather than the Psalm itself. We re-established the fact that David wrote many of the Psalms but not all of them and then the discussion began to look at the character of the writing. The questioner wanted to know a couple of things:

• Can we figure out what David was doing at the time he wrote each Psalm?
• Why are the Psalms so different from other parts of the Bible, like the Gospels for example?

The first question was relatively easy to deal with. Some Psalms identify the circumstances of the writing either in an explanatory note at the beginning or be the content. The second question was more interesting, at least for me. David’s writings are different from the Gospels or the Epistles or the History books partly because David was a poet whose response to the realities and events of his life drove him to record his thoughts and feelings. He wasn’t writing history, biography, theology, explanations, or apologetics. David was writing his feelings.

The best explanation of the difference I could offer was to suggest that if David had been alive today, he would have been a blogger. I don’t read a lot of blogs but many of the ones I do seem to be focused in the writer’s response to their life and the realities they see and experience. Certainly there are the factual blogs, the history blogs, the informative blogs—but there are also a uncounted number of blogs that deal with the writer’s feelings and responses. Even this blog has a strong element of that, although I will never be accused of being a poet.

David used his poetry to help himself deal with his life—and given that his life had a significant number of highs and lows, he had a lot to deal with. In his day, his audience would have been limited to people in the royal court and the temple. But somehow, through the grace of God, some of his poetry was recorded and made available not just to the people of his day but also to people of all time. David probably holds the record for the all time highest number of views—and likes, for that matter.

While it is interesting to speculate how well David would have done as a 21st century blogger, there is no need to actually speculate on his ability to connect with people. His words, written over 2500 years ago in a small, somewhat backwater country in a language that most of us don’t speak manage to cut across time, language and culture and touch something within us that shouts that he got it—he understands. We read his blog, we are touched by the words and ideas and emotions, we react—and most of the time, we are helped. The poetry from the past enables us to deal better with our life in this very different present. And, given the track record, if the world lasts another 2500 years, or 25,000 or 250,000 more years, people are still going to read the Psalms and be touched and changed and helped.

That is pretty good for a 2500+ year old poet who was just trying to make sense of his life using his propensity towards poetry. Most of the rest of us: bloggers, preachers, writers, even poets can only dream of writing something so significant.

May the peace of God be with you.

FREE TIME

The last few months in the churches have been hectic and stressed—church work can be that way, even in small congregations. The regular activities like worship and Bible study and pastoral care get supplemented by funerals, crises, special events and a variety of unpredictable things. While I try to find breaks and rest stops along the way, most of the time, I find myself hanging on, counting the days until the next break.

Because of my particular situation, I also look forward to the New Year because one of the pastorates I serve basically closes down for the winter months. The membership decided several years ago that the stress of winter travel, snow clearing and heating old buildings was too much for a small aging group of people. Better to shut down and wait out the winter. Since these congregations account for half my work week, the shut down means that I have some free time over the winter.

This year looked even better because the congregation I had been filling in for during the shutdown months has recently called a permanent pastor. In the past, I have made significant plans for the use of this free time. I have had woodworking projects, outdoor plans like skiing, plans to meet with friends for coffee and so on. But I didn’t actually get around to making any plans for this year. The fall was busier than normal for some reason and I didn’t have the time to give the break a lot of thought. I knew it was coming and was depending on it mentally but didn’t really give in much thought, beyond the occasional “I’ll get to that in the new year.”

Well, the New Year has arrived—and if the first few weeks are any indication, I was really wise not to plan anything major that depended on having that time free. The free time is turning out to be busier that I expected and probably busier than I want. Today, for example, should be relatively free—it’s a Monday, a day when I don’t normally work and it is a Monday during the down time of the year so it should be even freer. But instead of having a relaxed Monday where the most difficult decision is coffee or chocolate for my mid-morning break, I have three appointments. Two are related to ministry I am involved in beyond the churches and one is a health appointment.

So far, the month of January is pretty much filled with stuff like this. Some of the health stuff I am not all that fussy about but it does need to be taken care of. The ministry stuff is all stuff that I want to do—I either volunteered or didn’t resist being volunteered because it involves things I like or feel strongly that I should do. But January at least isn’t going to have the amount of free time that I anticipated.

I am sure that there will be some free time during this down time—and the reason I am sure of it is that I will make it happen. I need the break so that I am able to function at my best. And so I will decide just how busy I am during this time. I am not going to play the game that keeps me running and rushing all the time because it gives me some inner gratification to think that I am so important that I can’t actually slow down. I know that in the end, I am in charge of my schedule and my plans.

There are certainly some things that I can’t control: the various health related activities or the crises arising in the churches, for example. But ultimately, I decide how much I do and when I do it. If I let the whole three month shut down go by without getting some time and space for relaxation and restoration, I have no one to blame but myself. So, as busy as this time seems to be starting out, I will find the time I need to prepare myself physically, mentally and spiritually for the rest of the year. It will take some effort and work but it is my schedule and my life and I have no one to blame but myself if it doesn’t happen.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHRISTMAS VACATION

During the Advent season, the two Bible studies I lead chose to spend some time looking at Christmas, technically from the Biblical perspective but practically from any perspective we wanted. In the course of the discussion with one group, I mentioned the movie Christmas Vacation as the example of how people have unrealistic expectations of the Christmas season. Most of us had actually seen the movie—and the one who hadn’t seen it was quite happy to watch it when I loaned him my copy.

I realized a while ago that although my expectations for Christmas aren’t the same as the “hero” of the movie, I was also in possession of some seriously unrealistic Christmas expectations. I wanted the Advent process to be a deeply spiritual journey for the churches and me. Together, we would explore the wonder of the Incarnation through worship, study and conversation. We would also develop and implement ways of using the Advent/Christmas season as a means of sharing our faith with our communities.

At the same time, I would thoughtfully and carefully choose perfect presents for all the significant people I buy presents for. I would participate in both secular and church Christmas events, parties and processes to the full. That tended to involve a great deal more activity when our children were home but even after they left home, there were a considerable number of events to take part in both inside and outside the church.

And then, because all this wasn’t enough, I wanted Christmas to be a time for me to both grow spiritually and get some much needed rest and relaxation so that I would be able to enter the winter church season ready to lead the church well as they continued to follow God and seek to do his will.

Obviously, there are some significant and irreconcilable conflicts build into those expectations. It is pretty much impossible to experience cultural and spiritual Advent/Christmas to the full and end the season rested and revitalized. While juggling a full church schedule and full cultural schedule is required at this time of the year, it precludes the kind and amount of time necessary for personal spiritual growth. The need to develop and write compelling and inspiring sermons, Advent Candle programs and Bible studies for the church pretty much eliminates the ability to inspire myself.

And so I tended to end the Advent/Christmas season worn out and somewhat depressed. My expectations were high and unattainable—I was almost guaranteed to fail. I would be able to accomplish some things but overall, the results were much less than I anticipated or wanted, which when combined with the physical fatigue meant I began the new year down, depressed and lacking motivation.

It took a while before I realized that the problem was my expectations. I had to admit that I couldn’t do everything the way I thought it should be done. And so I began to focus and select. There are some things that just have to be done—the churches pay me to preach, for example, and so I do need to give attention to my preaching. That might mean that I have less time and mental space to work on perfect presents—but the truth is that there are no perfect presents and the search for them could actually be cut back.

It was important for me and the church that I come out of the Advent/Christmas season ready to move into the new year of church activity somewhat rested and at least partially prepared—and that would mean that there had to be some careful selection in what I did and didn’t do over the Advent/Christmas season. It also meant recognizing that just as most people in the church pretty much stopped for a few days after Christmas, I could do the same. The sermon had to be written but nobody really needed or wanted a visit from the pastor, unless they were facing a crisis.

These days, I have fewer expectations for the Christmas season. I don’t do as much—but what I do, I have the opportunity and time and energy to do well. And I also have the space needed to rest and relax a bit before things get going after Christmas.

May the peace of God be with you.

LIFE IS GREAT!

I ran into a friend recently whom I haven’t really connected with since his retirement over a year ago. We were both involved in the same event so didn’t have a lot of time to talk but we did exchange the basic information pertinent to our relationship: my knees are worse, he is now serving a church quarter time, I am not retired, he is loving retirement. He sort of wondered why I wasn’t retired because he is finding retirement to be really great.

I could, I suppose, have questioned how great retirement is if he is back at work after such a short time—I think he had been retired only a few months before he started at his new position. He was also involved in the same inter-church program I was in that evening as well, which suggests that maybe his retirement isn’t as retiring as he wanted me to believe. I have no doubt that his life is great right now and that he is enjoying himself—but maybe retirement isn’t the whole reason why he is doing well.

Life needs purpose and direction and meaning, I think. For most people, that is found in the process of work and family and the normal stuff that we do along the way. I am aware that that is a significant over-generalization but I think it does contain a lot of truth as well. I do know that there are many people whose work and family and living situations don’t provide sufficient purpose and direction and meaning. But the truth is that most of us find enough in the realities of living and working to keep going, even if we have times when we want more.

And that is why for many people, retirement creates some serious problems. Suddenly, everything that provided meaning and purpose and hope is gone—and for some people, it is really hard to replace that. In one fishing village that I used to be the pastor for, the men used to have a way of expressing it: a fisher who retired and didn’t go back to the wharf regularly died within a year of retirement. I think they recognized the reality that losing work and not having anything to replace it produced a hopelessness that made life hard to continue.

While this has traditionally been a problem with men, it is becoming more and more a problem for all people. In a more traditional times in the past, men worked outside the home and women worked inside the home, meaning there was still a purpose and meaning for the woman since their job of cooking and cleaning and care giving as still needed. But with everyone needing to work, everyone faces the life dilemma of what gives meaning after retirement.

Some of my older friends in ministry approach this problem by having several retirements. They retire, accept a call to “interim” ministry, retire again, accept another call and so on. I like to joke that they just do this because they really like retirement parties. More likely, they don’t like the feelings that come from not doing what was so important and central to their lives.

So, why write about retirement aside from the fact that it was on my mind after talking with my happily “retired” friend? I suppose part of it is because I plan on retiring someday. I am not sure when—the ministry I am doing now isn’t done yet and I want to see where God is taking me and the churches I have been called to. But I am past retirement age, my pensions will provide a comfortable income, my aging process is producing more and more aches and pains and limits and I am beginning to think that it will be nice at some point to wake up on the morning and not have to get moving because the sermon isn’t done or there is that meeting or I need to lead worship.

So, I am planning on retiring someday—but I am also planning my retirement already. I have a list of things I would like to do and explore. Nothing is written down but I keep seeing and thinking of things I want to try when I have some time. I want to learn how to make chocolate croissants and built scale model Cape Island boats for example. Will that be enough? I don’t know—but if it isn’t, I guess I can try my friend’s part time retirement approach.

May the peace of God be with you.

KEEP MOVING

I was talking with a friend on ministry the other day about our mutual occupation. We were both in the midst of the fall rush. Basically, from mid-September to mid-December, pastors and church workers don’t have much time for anything beyond work. And as the fall transitions to Advent, things get even worse. The time period is filled with special events, new programs, pastoral emergencies, church and denominational meetings—the list goes on and on. I find myself taking a deep breath in the middle of September and basically beginning to run the marathon.

Except that this marathon has a nasty surprise near the end. Fall church programming leads into Advent and Christmas programming. To use the marathon analogy, this marathon ends with a steep uphill climb. I don’t actually run marathons but have children and friends who do—and from their stories of marathons, I am pretty sure that a marathon with a steep hill at the end would be the very last thing they would want to do.

So, with Advent beginning soon, I find myself in the middle of the hill. Because of my preparation process, I hit the hill a bit before some of my colleagues in ministry. I try to stay a week ahead in all my preparation which does give me some psychological and practical wiggle room but also means I hit the crunch earlier. So, this next two weeks are probably the busiest I am going to have. Two sermons, the Bible study for the area churches that seemed like such a great idea last April, the church fund raiser that helps ensure I get paid, the Advent programs that need to be prepared, the Christmas newsletter, the meeting to prepare our next year’s worship schedule, along with all the other stuff that must be done means that I need to take another deep breath to make sure I keep going—I am definitely feeling the steepness of the hill right now.

Based on previous years of ministry (and I have a lot of those), I will get everything done and I will survive the climb. Eventually, the middle of December will come and things will slow down a bit and then, well, there is always the post-Christmas slump which also brings with it the possibility of a Sunday snow storm with produces a cancellation.

The issue for me is always doing the best I can. I used to be concerned with doing my best, which sounds noble and heroic and faithful but which in practise leads to stress, fatigue, anxiety and burnout. I know that I am capable of doing some pretty good stuff—but the unfortunate reality is that I can’t always work to my limits. Or maybe it is better to say that my limits are moved by my circumstances. The fantastic sermon I could produce with unlimited time becomes a somewhat less fantastic sermon because I also have to write the ecumenical study, the Advent candle program and our regular Bible study.

None of them will be my best work—none of them will be as good as what I could produce if I had only that one thing to do. So, each one of them gets the best that I can do given the time and opportunity I have. I can’t do my best work—but I can and will do the best I can in the circumstances.

And I will do what I always do—I will give God and the church my best and then depend on God to take care of the rest. Ultimately, I do what I do because God has called me to be his agent to carry out his will. All that I do passes through him and any effects and results are due more to his divine work than my efforts.

For me, this isn’t a cop out or an excuse of sub-standard work or an extra nap. For me, this is a basic reality that enables me to cope with the impossible task that I have been called to. Even if I could produce me best all the time, it still isn’t good enough. But if I consciously work at giving God and the church the very best I can in any circumstance, then I can take comfort in the reality that God is going to use what I do to accomplish his will.

May the peace of God be with you.

MORE VACATION

One of the perks of being a pastor in our denomination is the vacation time recommendation that our head office suggests. The denomination recommends that pastors get four weeks of vacation a year. Most of the churches within our denomination follow that recommendation, which I really appreciate. Many pastors choose to take their vacation in a block. Some, according to one cynical church member I knew years ago, try to schedule their vacation for a five Sunday month to get an extra week.

That has never really worked for us. In fact, I don’t think that we have ever taken a month of vacation all at one time ever during my time in ministry. There have been a couple of times when I have been away from the church for a month or so but that was generally vacation combined with church sanctioned ministry which didn’t count as vacation. We have tended to take two or three breaks during the year, a pattern which works much better with both our personal fatigue cycles and the church year. An added bonus is that by not taking a whole month off during the slower summer months, I get the opportunity to use some of the over-time hours I accumulate during the busier seasons as extra summer time off.

While this plan has worked really well for my time in ministry, there is a drawback. The drawback is that I always seem to be telling the church that I will be away on vacation again. Nobody in the churches minds that I am taking vacation. Some, in fact, would allow me to take even more time if I wanted it. And yet there is that nagging sense of guilt when I approach the deacons or write the announcement in the bulletin or tell the church that I am off yet again for another vacation.

The only ones who ever say anything about the vacation fall into two categories. One group teases me about being away so much, asking didn’t I just have a vacation and so on. They are not being serious, we all know they are joking. The other group, who are often exactly the same people, tell me it is about time and that I need to forget about the church and have a good break.

My problem isn’t with the church—they are quite happy to give me my vacation time. No—the problem is mine. Even after 40+ years of ministry, I am still a bit uncomfortable getting paid to travel, go camping, visit family, finish woodworking projects or just sit home and do nothing related to church work. I know that I need the time—my ministry is much better after a vacation than it is just before a vacation time. The break, whether it is one week or two, is enough to clear out the accumulated fatigue, re-motivate me and allow me to get on with the ministry that I have been called to do.

And having three such breaks a year, combined with the compensatory time off during the slower seasons of ministry allows me to recharge at regular intervals, rather than trying to jam the whole rest and restoration process into one long break. But that does mean that three times a year, I have to stand in the pulpit and announce that I am going to be on vacation for a certain period of time—and deal with the nagging sense of guilt that comes with that.

It isn’t debilitating guilt. It isn’t strong enough that I resist vacations. I don’t feel guilty enough to have to do penance when I get back. There definitely isn’t enough guilt to take away from the enjoyment of being on vacation. I just feel enough guilt to make the announcement in worship uncomfortable. Once that is out of the way, I am on vacation and the guilt can get lost.

I am not going to find a way to get rid of that guilt at this point. It has been there for 40+ years so I am pretty sure that it will only go away when I retire. But that is okay because my vacation guilt and I have come to an agreement that works. I will acknowledge the guilt and having been acknowledged, the guilt will then let me enjoy my vacation.

May the peace of God be with you.

I’M NOT THAT BUSY

I was sitting in the doctor’s office to get the results of some tests. I had also decided to ask him about the fatigue that had been plaguing me recently. It might have been related to the tests that I was getting the results from but it could have been from something else. It was getting so bad that I felt tired all the time and needed to sit for only a couple of minutes before I was falling asleep. Given that one of my relaxing pastimes is sitting reading, the fatigue was seriously cutting into my reading. I enjoy a nap as much or more than the next guy but when I fall asleep three or four times when trying to read for an hour or so, that is getting a bit much.

So, the test results were sort of wishy-washy, suggesting that maybe I did or maybe I didn’t have a problem associated with the tests. But the results did suggest that the extreme fatigue likely came from other sources, which my doctor decided to check out through a set of other tests. But he also asked me about how busy I was.

That was an easy answer, of course. I am a part time pastor and I work 40% time at two different places. That means I work an 80% job, which isn’t all that bad and should be easily accomplished by a 66 year old reasonably healthy male. My doctor, who is also a friend and who therefore knows me as more than just a medical file reframed his question—he wasn’t asking how much I worked, he wanted to know how busy I actually was.

Well, I am 80% at official work. I also mentor a theology student. I do a bit of counselling. I spend some time writing. I occasionally do some “consulting” with other congregations and pastors—the quotation marks are because I think real consultants get paid and I don’t take money for the meetings I have. The more I listed stuff, the more the doctor nodded.

Just as he was beginning to suggest that I was actually quite busy, I realized that I might only work for pay 80% time but I actually am doing a lot—and the unpaid time and effort adds up—I am probably well over 100% if I were really honest and accurate. I think I had allowed myself to fall into the mindset that unpaid stuff was not really work and therefore shouldn’t actually count when it came to counting work/leisure hours.

I have long had this vision of myself as a sort of laid back, slightly lazy guy who gets things done but who manages to take it easy a good deal of the time. Well, that vision evaporated quickly under the harsh lights of my reality. I am actually quite busy, busier than I let myself realize. Most of what I do, I like and I do it because I think it is valuable and important.

But during that visit to the doctor, I realized that I am going to have to make some changes to deal with the realities I live with now. The doctor is making sure that there is no serious underlying medical issue—I gave up enough blood to the technicians to ensure everything is tested and checked.

But even without the results of those tests, it is clear that I need to make some adjustments in my life style. I need to make some different choices that take into account the reality that I am 66 not 26 and the energy I need to do all that I want to do isn’t as easy to come by as it was 40 years ago. I am making some adjustments to my sleep patterns. I am looking carefully at all the things I am doing, seeking to cut down the work load a bit—realizing that unpaid isn’t the same as not working helps out here. I want to get to the point where I can actually read for an hour or so without falling asleep. I want to be able to nap but I want the nap time to be my choice, not something that I have no control over.

I think the new sleep pattern is working and I am pretty sure there isn’t much going on beyond the fact that I need to relearn my limits.

May the peace of God be with you.

CLOSE THEM DOWN!

Recently, both my wife and I has parishioners in the large regional hospital 2.5 hours away. Our pastoral calling made a trip to the city necessary—and practical considerations made going together in one car a good idea. The fact that we would have some uninterrupted time together while we were doing our respective jobs was a blessing. The five hour drive wasn’t such a great blessing but we were at least together.

On the way back, we stopped for coffee and groceries—whenever we pass near a larger centre, we plan our shopping trip to take advantage of the lower prices and greater selection. While we were having our coffee break, a friend we hadn’t seen since our last stint in Kenya noticed us and came over to sit with us. We had a good time catching up with what was going on in all of our lives.

Except that one part of the conversation upset us both a bit. Our friend knew we were back in Canada but didn’t know what we were doing so we had to do the story of which churches we were serving. It took a while to get across the idea that between us, we serve nine different churches. We had to go through the explanation of how many worship services we do each Sunday; how many people there are in worship; how many in my pastorates go wherever the worship is and so on.

After we got that part done, our friend made the profound observation that it would make a lot more sense to close a lot of the buildings and save everyone a lot of time and effort. At that point, I sort of began looking at my watch, wondering if it we could graciously break off the conversation and head for the groceries and then home.

Our friend’s observation, delivered with such conviction, was the perfect example of armchair pastoring. I am not sure but I suspect that his comments about closing buildings were delivered as if I had never thought of that. He likely felt that he was giving me some important advice that would change the course of my ministry.

Certainly, on the level of simple logic, closing buildings makes perfect sense. But the practical realities of closing get twisted together with social, cultural, personal, family and theological ties that create a knot with deep and powerful roots. Closing church buildings isn’t an easy process—it is a Gordian knot that even Alexander’s chopping solution won’t work for.

There are valid reasons and effective processes for closing church buildings—but the process is long, slow and inefficient to the extreme. And that is because the process doesn’t involve economics and efficiencies and logic. It actually involves feelings and traditions and hopes and dreams and a bunch of other non-logical and hard to measure stuff. Any pastor who approaches the process of closing a building steps into a mindfield protected by lasers, machine guns, trained attack scorpions, dive bombers and super ninjas—and that is just the normal level of protection. Threaten the building and the people really get serious about its defence.

I learned a long time ago that ministry in rural areas and small churches is going to have to be done in the context of too many and too much building. The demands of buildings are going to consume lots of time and energy and money. Long term, some of them must and will close. But in view of the difficulty and poor return on time and energy investment, I decided to ignore buildings and focus on ministry. I use the buildings, I appreciate the history, I even try to take part in repaid and clean up days—but the building isn’t the focus of my ministry. The people are—and if they want to continue with too many and too much building, that really isn’t a big issue for me. I will encourage them to look at their building status, I will encourage them to think seriously about their buildings, I might even suggest that the church isn’t a building—but I will do that in the context of trying to remember which building we meet in this week and which building is going to need repairs this week and all the rest.

My friend’s suggestion was a much too simple solution to a much too complicate issue that I generally choose to ignore because there are better ways to spend my ministry time.

May the peace of God be with you.