REAL MINISTRY

I am a pastor, which means many things: I get to be chief grace sayer at all kinds of meals; I am expected to know the meaning of every obscure word and verse in the Bible; I am able to conjure up food and money for every needy person and situation. In short, I am involved in ministry. While I am aware that others are involved in ministry as well, I have a tendency to forget that.

But recently, I was talking with someone who needed someone to listen while they opened up about something they were involved in—that is another of the many activities that go along with being a pastor. I actually knew a fair bit about the situation since it had been a topic of the church and our prayers for a while. I knew about this person’s involvement. As they talked, the story became more interesting.

The person was a bit frustrated with the response to the situation. The person we were all concerned about needed serious help financially, emotionally and medically. He needed major repairs on his house or he would spend the winter with a temporarily patched roof—never a good thing in a Nova Scotia winter where wind, rain and snow come regularly. But in spite of the fact that this was a small community, there wasn’t a lot of activity. Some work had been done and some money had been raised but not what might be expected.

The person talking to me was trying really hard to get things going and frustrated at the results. As we talked, the person acknowledged that helping this other person was difficult: the life choices he had made had tended to turn people away from him. His alcoholic life style, his sometimes difficult personality, his overly independent personality had all worked to create a situation where he was more tolerated in his community than appreciated. Nobody would actually wish his harm but nobody was very quick to step in and help either.

But the person was trying, which I thought was great. But as they talked to me, what I was hearing became even more significant. The person acknowledged that the person was difficult. And then they told me that they had been bullied and I suspect even abused by this person and had spend many years being afraid of the person. There were clearly painful and deep scars associated with this particular individual.

And yet the person talking to me was committed to making sure that the person had a safe and secure home for the winter. They were making arrangements, setting up processes, ensuring that money was accounted for, pushing community leaders. They had made a commitment to this person, a person whom I wasn’t even sure they really liked.

As I reflected on the conversation, I had lots of thoughts, one of which was that this person was engaged in real ministry. They were committed to helping someone others were rejecting for some valid reasons. They themselves had good reason to ignore the person and the situation. And yet, the individual in question needed help—and for some reason, the person talking to me felt it was their job to make sure that the help was delivered. I think what I was hearing from this person qualified as a call to ministry.

Not a call to ministry in the sense of committing to spending a life time working in and for the church, which is what we often consider a call to ministry to be. But this was a specific call to a specific ministry for a specific time. For some reason or reasons, I think God has asked the person talking to me to be his agent for a person they might not like but to whom they can be used as God’s hands. The results of this call are already evident: the man in need is slowly getting the help he needs and if the person I was talking to has anything to say about it, they will have a warm shelter for the winter. But there are other results of that call that are equally valid, results that have to do with the ability of the person talking to me to open themselves to God to find the resources needed to do what God asks.

May the peace of God be with you.

Advertisements

GOING TO WORK

The drive to my first worship service each Sunday is normally taken up with thinking about the coming service: how many people I can expect; what was the second point of the sermon again; did I get all the announcements; what hymn can we use if they don’t know the one I want. When I get fed up with that sort of pre-worship obsessing, I begin to play around with the car sound system, deciding if the one radio station that comes in clearly along most of the road is the what I want to listen to or do I need to stop and set up something from my phone to play on the car Bluetooth. On top of all that, I do focus most of my attention on the driving, which is important because there are a significant number of people who ignore things like speed limits, double lines and stop signs.

However, the last two times I have made the trip have been different. The second last began that way, sort of. I wasn’t actually going for worship but was heading for community banquet at which I was invited to be the official prayer giver. It was a cloudy evening but as the sun was getting close to setting, the clouds began to break up, beginning in the west. I was driving east with the sun low in the sky behind me, bright enough that I had to adjust the mirrors to keep it out of my eyes.

And then, ahead of me on the right, highlighted by the dark rain clouds still in the eastern sky, there was a rainbow. I don’t see all the colours of the rainbow but I still appreciate them. That was a serendipitous blessing for the trip—but it got better because I looked to the left over the water and saw the other side of the rainbow. For most of the trip, I drove towards the rainbow, enjoying the view—both ends of the rainbow in plain sight. The contrast of the rainbow against the dark clouds was both inspiring and somehow relaxing.

The next day, I headed out for the morning worship service along the same road. The sun was shining and there was a fairly strong wind blowing towards the shore that I was driving along. I know what that means and was prepared for it. An onshore wind with the tide coming in means that there would be spectacular waves beating the shore—and several stretches of the road allow for great views of the waves. Add to that the profusion of fall colours and I knew I was in for a great drive without much time or need to focus on the coming worship service.

But the drive got even better. I actually found another radio station that plays classical music and is clear all along the drive. And, because the fall fishing season had just begun, the Bay was filled with boats—well, there were half a dozen or so boats bobbing along as they braved the waves to haul their lobster traps. The music, the sun, the fall leaves, the waves and the boats made for a great drive. On both trips, I still gave most of my attention to making sure that I was driving safely but the extra focus wasn’t spent on needless worrying about the coming worship or who would or wouldn’t be there or stuff like that.

The lack of worrying and fussing about the coming events didn’t actually affect the events I went to. The meal was graced, the worship went well, I remembered the second sermon point (which really isn’t all that great a feat since the whole text was right there on my tablet). I could probably look around at the scenery on every trip and arrive just as well prepared as when I spend the trip fussing and worrying. Actually, I probably arrive in a better frame of mind because the scenery is more relaxing that anxiety and being relaxed means that I am probably better able to conduct the worship service.

I likely won’t change everything because of these two trips though—there are some things that just need to be worried about. But I do hope that I am able to be aware of what I am driving through so that I can enjoy the waves and rainbows and all the rest. God put them in place—the least I can do is see them and enjoy them.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE CHURCH SUPPER

While on vacation recently, we took a trip to another part of our province to see the fall colours. We have the same colours in our area but the grass is always greener somewhere else and so we thought the fall colours might be brighter there. Since we couldn’t look at trees and leaves all the time, we looked for other stuff to do while we were away. One of the things that we ended up doing was going to a church supper. I know—that seems a bit strange to travel miles and miles to attend a function pretty much like the ones we have regularly in our own churches.

But we do like church suppers and one of the real advantages of this one was that we had nothing at all to do with the supper. I didn’t have to say grace, we didn’t have to help cook and set up, we weren’t serving, we didn’t have to wash dishes. All we did was pay our money, take our meal and eat it—that was a really interesting and enjoyable experience.

The experience was more interesting because of a couple we ran into waiting for the supper to start. They too had come to see the fall colours—but they had come from much further. They live in Australia and don’t actually have fall colours where they come from so this was an interesting and exciting trip for them. Everyone was enjoying the fall colours. Even though it was rainy, drippy and cold, everyone agreed that the colours were great. The supper was great as well.

Back in the car the next day, my wife and I had a bit of a discussion about the colours. Given that I am colour blind, our discussion of the various colours we were seeing was marked by some confusion and uncertainty. I was telling her I was really enjoying the yellows that I was seeing—they seemed to me to be the brightest and most showy of the colours. She happened to like the oranges—which I really couldn’t see. Beyond the brilliant yellows, all the other colours were the usual mass of undistinguishable something or others that I couldn’t really name. And even the yellows that I liked probably weren’t really yellow—or at least that is what she suggested.

So why, you might ask, does a colour blind person make a trip to see colours that he can’t actually see? Well, it was a vacation week, I was spending time with my wife and the “yellows” were pretty. Some might suggest that I was missing most of the experience—and on some levels, I was. But I was born colour blind and so I have never actually experienced what some say I am missing—it is hard to miss what I never actually had.

Unless I am driving in an area with lots of traffic lights, I don’t actually pay all that much attention to colour. I like the colours I see and enjoy colour photography much more than black and white. But I will never see colours like “normal” people. On the other hand, “normal” people will never see things like I see them either. When I talk about colour with other people, we are often talking different languages—I can’t understand words like “purple” and “fuchsia” or even “orange”—and when I say “yellow”, I may or may not be using a concept they can understand from my perspective.

But in the end, what difference does it make? Our new Australian friends were enjoying the colours that they had never experienced before. My wife was enjoying the oranges in the leaves and lots of other colours that are just meaningless words to me. I was enjoying the drive, the company and the yellows. The church supper was great. Do I feel cheated that I didn’t get to see the full colour spectrum? Not really—I saw what I saw and I liked what I saw and since I really don’t know what I am missing, I am happy with what I saw and experienced. I know others see more but I expect that they don’t experience any more in terms of enjoyment—I can’t change what I can’t see but I can determine how I to react to what I do see.

May the peace of God be with you

I CAN’T SEE CLEARLY

I have been wearing eye glasses since I was about 16. At the beginning, I needed them for sustained close up stuff like reading but over the years, I have progressed to needing glasses pretty much all the time. I went from wearing them now and then to wearing them most of the time to getting bifocals and now putting on my progressive lens glasses when I get up and taking them off when I go to bed.

One of the interesting discovering I have made is that the more I wear my glasses, the less I pay attention to them, especially how clean they are. Right now, I am aware that there are smudges on the glasses—but because I don’t want to get up and find the cleaner and cloth to clean them I am ignoring the smudges because I know that after a short time, my mind will adjust my sight so that I don’t see the smudges. Somehow, the photo editing system that is part of my vision process clears up the smudges, spots, specks and skin oils that collect on my glasses and I carry on. Of course, once I actually clean the glasses, I am amazed at how much better I am seeing that I was before.

But the truth is that I get used to the poor vision. It becomes normal. I forget what could be and accept something far less. The glasses that make it easier for me to see the world become something that blocks my ability to see. Wearing dirty and smudged glasses limits my vision—but I keep wearing them that way because even the limited vision I get with them is still better than the vision I have without them.

What does that have to do with anything aside from the fact that this is Monday morning, I am just back from vacation and need to write something? Well, using my preacherly licence to find an illustration in anything, I think there is a message in my willingness to continue to wear dirty glasses. It seems to be that we human beings are very good at accepting and living with less than optimal situations.

As believers, for example, we have before us the high and inspiring standards set out by our faith: things like loving one another, caring for the poor, helping the hurting, dealing with injustice. Our faith calls us to be involved in the world, seeking to work as God’s agents in making a difference. But while we might all openly acknowledge this, we all manage to find ways to avoid engaging in the task.

The street person sitting on the corner isn’t really one of those people whom God has called us to care for—he (or she) is just some lazy beggar whom we can ignore. The person down the street whose lawn isn’t mowed isn’t someone with physical limits whom we are called to help out—she (or he) is just some uncaring resident bringing down all property values. The kids who throws rocks at vacant buildings aren’t struggling with abandonment and social issues—they are delinquents who need to be taught a lesson.

On the larger scale, the millions of starving in the world aren’t hungry because of geo-political policies and climate change that we help cause and sustain and who need our help—they are just a bunch of unimportant people living somewhere we will never go and therefore don’t have to worry about.

The faith we claim somehow gets smudged and spotted and dirty enough so that we look at the world through a distorted lens that allows us to ignore the very things that God has called us to see and engage with. The streaks and spots and smudges we allow to accumulate on our faith allow us to ignore the obvious and continue to see what we want to see—and sometimes, in fact, the smudges even allow us to convince ourselves that what we want to see is actually what God wants us to see. But in the end, our glasses are dirty and until we clean them, we are not really seeing what God wants us to see.

So, I am going to clean my real glasses—that is something I can do quickly. But I also need to work at clearing up my spiritual vision so that I can actually see what God wants me to see.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHOM SHALL I SEND?

Recently, my wife and I gave up one of our Saturdays to attend a seminar. The topic looked interesting and timely and we both decided that it was worth the loss of a leisurely day that normally includes sleeping in and breakfast somewhere. We did get breakfast out but it was eaten in the car on the way to the meeting, which wasn’t quite the same.

Anyway, the seminar was interesting and I did learn some stuff about the topic that helped me understand the issue better. The speaker was interesting, her comments provocative, here small group questions produced good discussion. But as the sessions progressed, I realized that the agenda I thought we were going to focus was different from the agenda that the seminar leader wanted to focus on.

The initial announcement seemed to suggest to me that the seminar would look at ways that I as a pastor could approach the issue in my ministry. I was expecting practical and specific approaches that could affect my preaching and my pastoral contacts with people affected by the issue. There was some mention of this but the speaker chose to focus on the larger cultural and social aspects of the issue, seeking to elicit support for a larger, more political response to the issue.

As she talked and explained, I realized that she was making some very valid points. There were some serious dangers in the processes involved that needed someone to speak up—or rather, that needed many someones to speak up. The issue has political implications and in politics, the number and volume of voices are decisive factors.

This is not the first time I have been in the position of seeing the need for a larger action process. Sometimes, the calls have come from dedicated, committed people like the speaker at this seminar. Sometimes, they have come from our denominational staff who identify a problem and suggest a solution. And occasionally, I personally see the vision for what could be if there were just enough of us squeaking the wheel.

Some things just cry out for large involvement. Some things need not just a one on one solution. They need a group of dedicated and committed people who will give a lot of time and effort, people who will take on the cause and make the noise and offend the settled and upset the established and rattle the cages. Such a process needs one or two or a very small inner group of deeply committed leaders; a larger group of less committed but very active supporters and an even larger group of sympathetic listeners. All need to be prepared to go outside their routines, change their priorities, make sacrifices—stepping onto the political process in any organization and at any time is demanding.

And it is a part of the Christian process. God can and does work through such people and their supporters. He can and does call people to commit themselves to this mission. I am pretty sure that the speaker at this seminar was one of the called, a missionary from God to seek others to help deal with this significant social and political issue. The need is there and it is a clear and demanding need, one that if left unchecked will contribute to the increasing disrespect for individuals.

And so as the speaker taught and challenged, I was listening to an Isaiah moment—God pointing out the problem and calling out for people to respond. (Isaiah 6.1-8). Now, this call wasn’t as dramatic—there were no seraphim flying and praising. There were just 60-70 of us packed in a room that would have been more comfortable with about 50. But there was still a call from God for people to follow his leading and step into the arena to help protect people from the less publicized and more unpalatable aspects of a current social issue.

I hope and pray that there were some in the room who heard the call and discovered that this was a specific call from God to them, that this was their Isaiah moment, the time when God speaks and their place is confirmed. I hope and pray that for two reasons. First, someone needs to do it—this is an important issue. And second, I hope and pray someone responds because I am not going to respond. This was not my call—and why I can say that is the topic of my next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHY DO I HAVE TO BE THE LEADER?

One of the best paying jobs I ever had while a university student was as a reserve army officer. For a couple of summers, I was an active duty officer, working as a cadet instructor. The pay was great and as an added benefit, I got to play with some neat toys and even run around in the dark firing off blank rounds and throwing flash-bangs.

But those summers weren’t all fun and games. I discovered a few things about myself in the process. I was an officer, someone who was given a great deal of authority. True, I was pretty much the lowest level of officer but most of the time, I was actually with people who were lower in rank than I was, meaning that what I wanted tended to be what happened. I discovered that I liked having that power—and at the same time, I realized that that kind of power can be seductive and extremely dangerous.

I also discovered that in the end, I don’t need that kind of power in my life. I liked it and probably would still like it—but the truth is that having power over other people is as addictive and destructive as any drug. There are people who seem to be able to deal with the dangers of this power but I realized that I am not one of them. I have also seen that many others probably aren’t the ones who can deal with it either.

I think that experience was important for me as I prepared for a career in ministry. I got into ministry just as the ministerial culture was shifting from a pastoral orientation to a leadership orientation. I began ministry understanding that I was to provide spiritual care and guidance and teaching to the people God had called me to shepherd. But more and more, I was being encouraged to lead these people: to tell them what God wanted them to do and then use my leadership to make sure that they got the job done. The books and seminars used words like “vision” and “visionary” and so on, but the whole idea was that I was responsible for leading the church to where it needed to go—and even more, I was responsible for deciding where it needed to go.

Being an introspective introvert, I couldn’t just buy into the books and trends. I needed to know why—and so began my study of leadership as it applies to the faith. I quickly discovered the real question, at least for me. The church, like any organization, needs leaders—but why did I automatically have to be the leader? Why does being given the title “Rev” also confer the supreme leadership of the church on me?

I have yet to find a good answer to that question. I have not yet found any convincing theological or Biblical reason that allows me to automatically equate pastor with leader. In fact, I have discovered a lot of reasons why too much leadership takes away from the ability of an individual to be a pastor. If I am the leader pushing (and even fighting) to get my vision accomplished by the church, I can seriously damage my ability to actually provide pastoral care to someone who might disagree with my vision. Or what of the people who have been slighted by my push to move the reluctant church in the way I see them needing to go? Are they going to be as open to my teaching at Bible Study or my preaching?

The church needs leaders—but why do I automatically have to be the leader just because I am the pastor? There are certainly times and situations when I provide pastorally oriented leadership but I am first of all a pastor and secondarily a teacher. I needed to learn to work from my strengths—and that means that I don’t need to be the leader. The God who called me and gifted me with the pastoral gifts I need also calls and gifts the leaders the church needs. I have discovered that I am at me best when I work my real gifts and calling and encourage others to work their real gifts and calling. I need to be a pastor and teacher—I don’t need to be a leader.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHICH DIRECTION?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

THE BRANCH

For the past few weeks, I have been watching a particular branch on one of our neighbour’s oak trees. When I am sitting in the living room (which is my office these days), I can look out the window and see the tree and branch—and since my creative process tends to involve a lot of staring out the window searching for inspiration, I see the branch a lot.

This particular branch broke sometime this winter, maybe because of the snow load or the wind or whatever—oak branches don’t always seem to need a clear and visible reason for breaking. The break wasn’t complete and the branch has been hanging pretty much straight down for weeks. Initially, it was attached by a fair amount of wood but that has been getting less and less which each windy day we have. Since we live in south-western Nova Scotia, we get a lot of windy days.

I am not sure exactly what is holding the branch these days. It swings freely in any breeze and looks like it should have come down days ago. But it hands on, swinging and twisting slightly all day and providing a something for me to look at when the sermon or Bible study or blog post isn’t coming together like it should. I am pretty sure it is going to fall one of these days—I am hoping that I will actually be watching when it falls.

Now, I am going to resist the temptation that all preachers face, the temptation to turn that hanging branch onto a sermon illustration. Sure, it can be a great story about persistence or doing your best no matter what or—well, you have probably heard enough sermons to know what we preachers can do with a branch hanging from a tree.

Mostly, I like watching the branch because it is something to focus on when I need a short break from the keyboard. If the deer and squirrels aren’t playing around and my neighbours aren’t doing anything much, the branch provides something to focus on that occupies my conscious mind so that the deeper layers of my thought process can shove the needed idea up to the surface. When the branch falls, I will find something else to look at. The added benefit is that since it is on my neighbour’s lawn, I won’t have to pick it up.

The branch is important right now and as long as it hangs there, I will watch it. It isn’t particularly important—it’s not big enough to do any damage when it falls; it isn’t going to fall on anything; it’s loss isn’t going to affect the tree. I personally have nothing invested in the branch aside from its temporary value as a distraction. That distraction value will be easily replaced when it actually falls.

I think the branch is important because it isn’t important. Most of my work involves me in significant and important stuff. I am a pastor, called by God to help people grow in their relationship with themselves, with each other and with God. I am called to help the churches I serve become healthier and be better witnesses to the wonder of God. I work with people on an individual and couple basis as they try to work through various crises and issues and problems. I have my own issues to deal with: the effects of aging, decisions about my future after retiring someday, figuring out when to schedule surgery for my bad knees.

In short, like most people, I deal with a lot of stress, both my own and others. And while I think I deal with that stress fairly well most of the time, it is stress and it does have an effect. The tree branch, well, it has absolutely no effect on my life, I have absolutely no responsibility towards it. It is just there, hanging and swinging where I can see it. It provides a distraction, a brief interlude where I can ignore the pressure of the sermon, the stress of the upcoming counselling session, the concern for the future of the church. I can look out the window, look at the branch and let everything else go on hold for a few seconds. And even better, when it finally falls, there will be something else equally unimportant to provide the necessary distraction.

May the peace of God be with you.

A DILEMMA OR AN OPPORTUNITY?

I like structure.  I like order and predictability.   I am an organized person.  My workshop has a place for all my tools, a place where I expect them to be.  Now, I am not obsessive about the order and structure–I haven’t drawn the outline of the tool on the wall behind its place on the wall.  But I do know where the tool is because I put it there in the first place and return it to its place when I am finished using it.  Tools don’t  lie around on the work bench partly because I don’t have a lot of workbench space but mostly because I put them away when I am done with them–one of the rituals I have when finishing a session in the workshop is making sure all the tools are back where they belong.

I have friends whose tools tend to get deposited here there and everywhere.  When they want a 15/64s drill bit, they have to think about the last project they used the drill bit on and search that work area–or go buy a new one.  I might not remember when I last used the 15/64s drill bit but I do know the bit will be in its container where it is supposed to be, unless I broke it the last time I used it, in which case, the replacement is in the proper place in the container.

My books are organized–now, the organizing principles might not be readily understandable to anyone else, but I understand it and can find the book I want when I want it because it is where it is supposed to be.  Even my computer and tablet files are structured and organized so that I can find the file I want when I want it–I know the topic of the file and can quickly find the appropriate folder and sub-folder.

So, with that in mind, I approach the church, where as I have already mentioned, there is more chaos than structure;  more confusion than order; more questions than answers.  About the only thing that is predictable about the church many times is that if a person who attends regularly shows up, they will sit in their particular place.  Almost everything else, well, it is probably easier to herd cats than get everyone and everything in its place in the church.

So, I go from the structure of my workshop and study and computer to the chaos of the church.  I carefully put my tools away, replace the books in their proper places, save the files in their proper sub-folders, put everything I will need in the proper brief case, check the phone calendar to make sure I am on time and going to the right place and step into the chaos of the church.

On some levels, my structured personality should find the church difficult and frustrating–but the truth is, I don’t find it that way.  Certainly, I can and do get frustrated with some church stuff.  I occasionally get frustrated with some church people.  But on the whole, I enjoy the church and its chaos.  My love of structure doesn’t mean that I approach the church with fear and trembling.

And as I have thought about that, I realized that my appreciation for structure isn’t one of the driving forces of my life.  What is a driving force is the gift that the Holy Spirit exercises through me, the gift of helping bring structure and sense to what appears to be chaotic.  I don’t have an obsessive need for structure–rather, I have a Spirit given gift of being able to make sense out of chaos for myself and others.  Having structure isn’t the goal of my life either in the workshop or the church.

Helping create an appropriate and workable structure out of what seems chaotic is one of the goals of my life.  And it is a goal not because I need the structure but because God has been and continues using me to help congregations see their underlying structure and order that their chaos both hides and reveals.  This is important because as the divine structure and order become visible to the church, they can become much more effective and comfortable with their place in God’s work and his kingdom.

May the peace of God be with you.

ENDING WELL

I am a pastor who has spent my entire career working with small congregations.  The largest average attendance I ever remember having was in the neighbourhood of 50 or so, depending of course on the proximity of the latest blizzard, the season of the year, the opening and closing of various cyclical events and so on.  The smallest congregation I ever served averaged 4–although we did eventually have a 50% increase and average 6 in attendance.

Although I am comfortable working in small congregations and can do a lot of ministry there, I am also aware that congregations of the size I work with are always aware of the possibility of closing down.  In the area where I live and work, I regularly drive by up to a dozen buildings that used to house churches–or the spots where the building used to stand.  Some were closed by decisions made outside the congregation–presbyteries and bishops and other bodies crunched numbers and issued decisions and churches ceased to exist.

Closing churches is a bit harder in my denomination.  We Baptists don’t have an outside agency that can close a congregation down.  As long as there is one member alive who wants to keep the church going, the church–and its building–keeps going.  Things get a bit more complicated, though, because often, people in the community whose great-grandmother was married in that church’s building get involved in the process and don’t want to see the church shut down.  Of course, they are actually trying to preserve the building–the church that inhabits a building is the people.

And so the reality is that many of us who are part of small congregations are living in a paradox.  On the one hand, we seek to be faithful to God, doing the best we can to ministry with the limited money and people and resources that we have.  We worship, we fellowship, we organize fund raising events, we minister to the wider community, we experiment, we pray, we hope.

But we are also aware that being a church takes money–and that is always in short supply.  If the building needs major repairs or Aunt Emma goes to a nursing home or dies or the big church in the next community attracts the family with our youth group, we face an inevitable financial crunch, which often gets expressed in very simple and graphic terms:  If we pay the pastor, we can’t afford to pay for the heat for worship but if we heat the building for worship, we probably can’t afford to pay the pastor.

Small congregations are very adept and very resilient and very good at finding and stretching money.  They are very good and adept at getting people to multi-task.  They are not so good at making tough decisions about their future, especially when those decisions seem to represent a step along the road to closure.

When the income won’t support full time ministry, it is hard to make the decision to move to some form of part-time ministry.  When the income won’t really support heating a very energy inefficient sanctuary in a Canadian winter, it is hard to consider moving or closing worship down.  When the church owned house the pastor lives in needs too many repairs, it is hard to consider getting rid of it.

The end result is that many small congregations keep going, dealing with the potential reality of closure by trying to ignore and avoid and pretend isn’t there.  Occasionally, the church must deal with the reality–when the sills rot out or the pastor moves on, the church has to look at the present realities and future possibilities.

And generally, the church will worry and stress and pray and come up with a solution that replaces the sills and finds a pastor.  That happens because we are talking about the church and the church has a resource that no other organization has.  We have the Holy Spirit and when we open ourselves to the Spirit, the results and consequences are completely unpredictable.

We who are part of small congregations live with the reality of closure looming over us.  But we also live in the presence of the Holy Spirit–and that means that we open ourselves to the Spirit, follow his leading and minister until we can no longer minister.  Because of the Spirit’s presence, we can live until we die.

May the peace of God be with you.