THE MEETING

Recently, in a moment of weakness, I volunteered to be on a committee.  Well, actually, in all honestly, I volunteered because I was convinced that being on this committee was something that I felt God wanted me to do.  I generally don’t like committees and meetings and all that but I had been working on stuff related to this committee for years and when volunteers were called for, it didn’t seem like I had much choice–this was God’s will.

So, like all good committees, we planned a meeting.  In order to attend the meeting, I would end up making an eight hour round trip.  The meeting itself lasted about three hours.  Because this was a denominational committee, something that counts as work according to my agreement with the churches I work for, I worked eleven and a half hours that day, most of it driving.

Since I did take two other people with me, the drive wasn’t all that bad–we had good conversation in the car and ended up helping each other out in several ministry related areas.  But the meeting did take a whole day and involve a lot of driving, which meant that as driver, I couldn’t work on my sermon, prepare a Bible Study, visit someone in the hospital or even take a nap.

Thanks to the Internet, our committee probably won’t meet again until our work is mostly done and we need to tie things together.  And this work is important–we are trying to address an issue that has become a drag on a lot of ministry but will involve making changes in things that have a long history in our denomination.

Since this committee was drawn from all over the geography covered by our denomination and many of us didn’t really know each other, we needed to have this meeting to get to know each other and understand each other, something that is harder to do when we are linked by electronic media that obscures a great deal of the all important non-verbal information that is so vital to real communication.

But even with all that, driving eight hours for a three hour meeting isn’t particularly efficient or cost-effective.  One of the things that I realized really early in ministry is that efficiency and cost-effectiveness are generally poor drivers for effective and efficient ministry.  And that actually makes sense.

Real ministry ultimately involves relationships with real people–and we human beings are generally not concerned with efficiency and cost-effectiveness when it comes to relationships.  Real ministry to real people is sloppy, time-consuming and often incredibly cost-ineffective.

Often, I find myself making the two hour round trip to spend 20-30 minutes with someone in the regional hospital.  A phone call to check on a possible hymn for worship can take 20 minutes.  A “brief” conversation after worship can become a half hour pastoral care session.  A walk for some needed exercise becomes an impromptu counselling session with someone I meet along the way. Ministry deals with people and people really can’t be placed in time slots and cost per minute schemes and efficient schedules.

I try to be as efficient and cost-effective as possible.  Both money and time are scarce commodities in ministry and I don’t like wasting either.  But as careful as I try to be, inevitably, I end up using more time and money for some things than might appear to be efficient. While an eight hour round trip for a three hour meeting is fortunately on the unusual side, a two hour round trip for a 30 minute hospital visit is fairly common.  But if I try for efficiency by waiting until there is more than one person in the regional hospital, I will end up not seeing someone who actually needs that 30 minutes more that I need to two hours for whatever.

The day after my meeting, I kind of regretted that whole thing, mostly because I was tired and had to catch up on the stuff I didn’t get done.  But that was a temporary regret not a comment on the whole process.  Ministry of any kind has a great deal of build in inefficiency–but the irony is that allowing the inefficiency actually makes for a much more effective ministry in the end.

May the peace of God be with you.

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THE POTLUCK

            One of our well-established traditions at both the pastorates I serve is the potluck.  At regular intervals, we get together after worship to eat together.  Such meals are a basic part of our church culture–not just our churches but most churches in our area.  More importantly they are a vital and basic part of our spiritual growth.

This is not an attempt to equate the inevitable overeating that goes with potluck meals with some sort of spiritual blessing.  I over eat at the potlucks because I have to try everything and have extra of some of the dishes that I really like and only get at the potluck.  There is no spiritual blessing in overeating–there is a physical blessing from enjoying the good food and the physical consequences that I need to deal with later.

The spiritual blessing comes from the fact that we are together, sharing food and fellowship.  We eat together; we talk together; we laugh together; we support each other.  This fellowship time draws us closer to each other in a safe, comfortable, warm environment.  The act of eating together is always a sign of a comfortable relationship.

Our potlucks at one of the pastorates even have a way of extending the fellowship.  When everyone has been through the main course line as often as they want, there is a pause in the process while the main courses are removed and the desserts are put out–our hall isn’t big enough for two separate serving tables.  This change over takes a bit longer than in some places because several plates are filled with food.  These plates are taken to community members who can’t get out–and it doesn’t matter whether they are part of our or any church.  Some of the plates are also given to people who are there but who we feel should have some take out from the meal.  A similar process happens after the desserts have been  sufficiently sampled.

By the way, we are not giving people the ragged ends and skimpy leftovers.  Real potluck culture requires that everyone bring enough food to feed army battalion and so even after everyone has gone through the serving line as much as they want, there is still more than enough of all the food to feed everyone there again–or to share with lots of people who aren’t there.

And while the food is great, the time together is even better.  People talk.  Since I am a deeply committed people watcher, I spend a lot of time watching the groupings and connections and conversational groups.  The seating arrangements are open and who sits where tends to be random.  Couples don’t always sit together.  The same people don’t always sit near each other.  Visitors and new people don’t end up by themselves because they aren’t part of an established group.

We get our food, we grab an empty seat and we talk.  We might change seats in the lull between courses.  We might engage is a conversation with someone at another table.  We likely take a long time to get to the serving table for seconds because we need to talk to several people on the way there and back.

We eat and laugh and catch up on news and share stories and make plans and ask about families and offer help and discuss cars and recipes and grandchildren.  We spill coffee and tea and tease each other about the number of trips we make to the serving table and we offer to carry the empty plates to the cleaning area.  We spend time together and we enjoy each other’s company.

And in the process we grow as individuals and as a church.  We grow as individuals because we are discovering how to express our faith in the context of others, which is a basic Biblical requirement for real faith.  We grow as churches because we are getting to know and appreciate each other more and more, developing trust and closeness and understanding.  When we have eaten and joked together, it is somehow easier and more meaningful to worship together.

It is no coincidence that Jesus instituted what we now call Communion at a meal.  There is a powerful and profound connection between the process of eating together and our ability to express our faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT–AGAIN

Because I have two separate pastorates, I have two worship services.  I have already described the morning worship on the first Sunday of Advent.  After some lunch, a brief nap and a chance to read over the afternoon service, I left for the second service.  This was not our normal afternoon service.

To start with, we had scheduled a potluck supper after the worship, something we do several times a year.  That meant the service would start later so that the supper would happen closer to actual supper time.  It also meant some extra people who come because of the meal and the chance to visit with people over the supper.  It also means that things are more hectic before worship begins as we juggle final arrangements for the supper with getting ready for worship. We also had to get the Advent Candle stuff set up, which meant scouring the building for a suitable table.

It was also a cloudy, dreary day which made the burned out bulbs in over half the light fixtures in the sanctuary very obvious.  Since the fixtures are high and hard to get to, we tend not to pay much attention to them, until we all of a sudden realize half the sanctuary is in darkness and we need to do something–except the pre-worship discussion revealed that none of us had any good idea of how we were going to replace the bulbs,

With all that going on, I was kept fairly busy before worship began and didn’t realize until just before we began that in my worship preparation the week before, I had neglected to make sure my tablet and the bulletin were in sync.  I forgot to add in the hymns to the order of service on the tablet and also forgot to add in the second special music slot.  Fortunately, those were easy to remedy.

But things kept slipping.  I announced the Advent Candle reading and sat down while the reader did that part of worship.  And then, instead of standing to announce the offering, I forgot the offering, thinking the choir would sing, which they did–fortunately, other people seem to be able to pick up after me.  I eventually got the offering in and worship continued.  But when the choir did their next selection, I stood up, not realizing they were doing two pieces.  The congregation had a bit of a laugh as the choir told me to sit down.

I was not at my best during that service.  The activity and confusion before the service combined with a busy week leading to the worship meant that I was not as prepared as I should have been going into the worship and not as focused during the worship as I should have been.  I did manage to include all the required bits and pieces, even if the order of service I was following didn’t always connect with the order of service printed in the bulletin.

Eventually, we reached the end of the service and most of us went to the church hall for our supper.  But for me, the important thing was that in spite of all the confusion and my mistakes, we worshipped.  It might not have been exactly as planned.  I might have made more mistakes than normal.  People might have been a bit distracted by the enticing smells coming from the hall.  The dreary cloudy weather might have affected some of us, especially since the lack of adequate lighting made it hard to see the hymn books.

But in  spite of all that, we worshipped God.  We prayed, we sang, we presented our offerings and we heard and responded to God’s word to us for that day.  We greeted each other, welcomed each other and enabled each other to be reminded of the reality of God in our lives so that we could together give him the worship he deserves.

I very much doubt that we will ever have a perfect setting for our worship.  I would hope that we don’t always have as many issues as we had this afternoon but there will always be something.  Our worship depends on our ability to remember the reality of God in the midst of the confusion of life.  We worship not when things are perfect but because God is present and loving and graceful in the midst of the confusion and reality of life.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

It was the first Sunday of Advent and I was ready.  The write up for the Advent Candle was done.  The sermon was ready and was what I thought was an interesting approach to the Advent season–at least it was interesting to me and that helps it be interesting to those listening, I hope.  I was ready for this.

Except, well, the reality was that I didn’t expect there to be too many people there.  We are a small group and with some of our group doing their seasonal migration to warmer climates, another being involved with a family event and others having other stuff going on, I didn’t expect too many there for worship.

I gave some thought to that during the week.  With the absolute best attendance I could expect being 4, I gave myself some options:

  • Four in the congregation would mean a regular service–after all, we have done that before and it works.
  • Two in the congregation would mean a smaller service with no sermon. We would do the Advent Candle, prayers and Communion.
  • Three in worship–well, that would be a bit harder to figure out and so I would ask them what they wanted to do.

I arrived early, as always. Someone was there setting up the Communion service.  She had also come the day before and decorated the building for Christmas.  It looked great.  We talked about a variety of things as we waited for others.  She let me know that one I had on my possible list wasn’t coming so that made three a real possibility.

Our regular starting time arrived and it was still just the two of us.  We wondered where the other almost definite member was–I tried to remember if he has said he was going to be away or something.  Just as I was thinking of suggesting we close up, we heard his truck in the parking lot.  He commented on the small numbers and took his seat.

I explained my plan, which they agreed to, including the part about no singing–the only real singer in the group really didn’t want to do a solo that day.  We worshipped.  Our worship included the Advent Candle, prayers, Scripture and Communion.  We received the offering, which really meant two of us gave our envelopes to the other person who was looking after the money that day.

The service was short and didn’t include many of the regular things we do.  There was no sermon.  We didn’t have a long discussion about the Scripture readings.  We didn’t sing.  We didn’t do the responsive reading.  But we did worship.  We spent time together, sharing our common faith and encouraging each other as we worshipped God.

Would I have preferred a large congregation, say our regular 8-9?  Definitely.  Did I feel I was wasting my time leading worship for 2 people?  Definitely not.  Fortunately for all of us who pastor small churches, God doesn’t have a quorum for worship.  He doesn’t require that there be a certain number of people present.  He just requires that we come together prepared to meet with each other and him.

I am and have been a pastor of small congregations for most of my ministry.  This was probably my smallest congregation in all those years but it was still a congregation of people seeking to worship God.  It was still my responsibility to lead them in the worship–maybe not the one that I had planned and organized but I was and am still called to lead them in worship.

I suspect that will be our smallest congregation this year–given that we have only a few services left before the winter shut-down and there are no plans for the regulars to miss any more of the services we have planned, except for the snowbirds who won’t be back until spring.

I really don’t know where God is leading us as a church or what will happen as we continue with our ministry.  We may grow.  We may continue our present slow decline.  We might, like many small congregations grow enough to keep going.  But I do know that this particular Sunday, three of us showed up to worship God and together, we did just that.

May the peace of God be with you.

COME LET US WORSHIP

            It might appear to anyone reading some of my last posts that I don’t spend a lot of time in worship actually worshipping.  I direct the service, seeking to use my gifts and abilities to help others worship.  I deal with interruptions either by ignoring them or working around them.  I am generally at least one step ahead of the congregation–while we are singing one hymn, I am making sure that I have the next one marked and ready.

And in some ways, it is true–I am not actually doing much that seems like worship.  But when I remember the times I have been able to attend English language worship services as a worship participant, I discover something interesting.  Often, when  I am just attending worship, I am less connected to the worship than when I am leading it.  I am less conscious of the flow of the service; I am less involved in the process; I have less sense of the other participants; I focus less on what is being said and done and I am less tuned in with the music.

That might indicate that I have some spiritual difficulties.  And that is probably true–like every other believer, I am not perfect and have lots of stuff that needs God’s help to make it better.  But I think when it comes to worship, I may not be doing as badly as I sometimes think I am doing.

For me, the point of worship is to help us re-connect with God.  God is present and active in our lives all the time but in the hectic, stressed and busy lives most of us lead, we lose sight of God.  We might feel that he has gone away but he is still present and active–we are simply not willing or able to focus on him.  Worship, both private and public, provides us with the chance to open our eyes and see the reality of the presence of God.

My job as the worship leader is to help people make this reconnection.  As I design worship, I am looking at how best to enable the people I serve remember the reality of God’s presence in their lives.  I choose Scriptures to enable this; I help select music to facilitate the connection; I develop prayers to help open hearts and minds to God; I prepare sermons to touch those things which will bring the awareness of God to the front.

And in the process of all this, I am offering myself to God to be used by him in the process of helping others worship. As I stand at the front and announce hymns and read Scriptures and lead prayers and preach sermons, I am working hard–but I am also conscious of the deep and powerful reality that I am leading God’s people in their worship of him and the only way I can do that is if I am willing to submit myself to him in the process.

My worship experience is different from that of the people I lead–but it is still worship.  I am recognizing the presence of God and my need of him in the process of leading others in worship.  That is probably why I struggle when I am simply a participant in  worship.  I am out of my element.  I haven’t had enough experience being a lay person in worship.

For now, I am the worship leader, responsible for leading others in the process of reconnecting with the God who never left.  I am also responsible for my own worship, seeking to make sure that as I lead others, I am worshipping through remembering that I need God’s help to do what he has called me to do.

Someday, I will need to learn how to worship like the people I am leading.  I am planning on retiring someday and will then be someone sitting in the pews seeking an opportunity to reconnect with God.  At that point, I will become a student, learning how to do what others have been doing for years.  But for now, I offer to God my time, gifts and abilities to be used through the power of the Holy Spirit to help others worship God.  For now, this is my act of worship.

May the peace of God be with you.

NUMBER 80 AGAIN

Being the 80th pastor in a pastorate that goes back 185 years puts an interesting perspective on ministry.  Like most pastors, early in my ministry, I tended to see what I do in a church as an isolated segment of time and space.  Most of us, I think, discount much of what happened before we arrived and aren’t overly concerned about what happens after we leave.

Very quickly, I learned that a smart pastor needs to know something about what happened before they arrived.  The present is shaped by the past and unless we know the past, we can’t work effectively.  I was pastor in one congregation which insisted that they didn’t want anything to do with evangelism.  Given that being evangelists on one of our basic tasks as believers and churches, I was somewhat surprised at this revelation.  After some digging, I discovered that the real difficulty was a certain approach to evangelism that was part of some painful experiences for the church.

Based on that historical understanding, I helped the church develop an outreach program that was actually quite beneficial to the church and community.  As long as we didn’t call it evangelism, the church was enthusiastic in their support.

As a result, I discovered that it is good for a pastor to know what happened in the past.  The past helps shape the present ministry.  Sometimes, the present ministry needs to work to correct or modify the past.  Other times, we can build on the past–rather than re-inventing the wheel by doing all the stuff that has been done before, we get to build a cart on the wheels prepared in the past.

And when you are the 80th pastor, there are a lot of things from the past.  It might be easy to dismiss anything beyond last year as ancient history but listen to people long enough and you will hear and see the effects of those long ago events.  At a Bible study recently, some of the members recalled the pain and turmoil associated with the ministry of a previous pastor, pain and turmoil that still hurts a bit after forty years.  At some levels, I have to be aware of this ancient pain in my ministry.

In another Bible Study session, someone talked about the love and compassion they experienced from a former Sunday School teacher.  Heads nodded from the others who remembered that teacher–and several were eager to tell her story to the relative new-comers in the group whose experience didn’t go back the necessary 50 years.

So, I am the 80th pastor in one place–and in the other set of congregations, I am at an even higher number although no one I know has a complete list.  But given that this other pastorate goes back to about 1780, that should put me into the low 100s, based on the 2.3 year average of the younger pastorate.  While it might make sense to say I really only need to be concerned about the former pastors up to the age of the oldest members, that isn’t really true

Occasionally, I talk to someone who passes on the family story of old Rev. So and So whose actions in relation to their long dead grandparents kept their family in or out of the church, depending on the nature of that long ago event.

My ministry in both places is built on the foundation of all these previous ministries.  Sometimes, I have to apologize for and undo some of what came before.  Sometimes, I get to renovate and update what came before.  And occasionally, I inherit a really good working thing that I don’t need to touch but which makes my ministry much better.  My ministry is also built on the foundation of all the elders, deacons, choir members, organists, Sunday School teachers, ordinary members and community members affected by what went on before.

I am the 80th in one place and well over the 80th in  another.  I have been called by God to serve these congregations for a time.  What I do will become part of the next pastor.  It makes sense to me now to be aware of the past–remembering where the church has been helps is determine what to do now to get to where God wants us to go.

May the peace of God be with you.

NUMBER 80

One of the collection of churches that I serve has connections with a couple of buildings that were formerly used as part of our pastorate.  One of them we still own and the other is sort of collectively owned by the community.  We hold occasional services in the buildings but neither has been in regular use since I have been in the area and my history here goes back a long time.

For a variety of reasons, some major renovation work was done on the community owned building this past summer.  Part of the reason for the work was that it was needed but the primary impetus for the work was the desire to have it looking good for the wedding that was happening there this summer.  We decided to hold a re-dedication ceremony for the building as one of our special events this fall.

In the course of preparations for the service, several of us got involved in historical research.  Through a friend, I got a copy of a letter to a Christian magazine describing the dedication of the building when construction was completed in 1855.  Another church member dug through some records she had and came up with a list of pastors.

She brought the list up to date and then informed the Bible Study group that I was the 80th pastor for that collection of churches.  Given that the churches were formally established in 1832, that means that the average pastoral stay was 2.3 years, according to my calculator.  Practically, the average stay would have been less–there were several periods when the churches didn’t have a pastor.  When the building whose renovations we  were celebrating was dedicated for example, there was no official pastor–the church members looked after the pastoral duties.

In the 185 years of existence, this collection of churches has had ups and downs.  In their early history, they had some serious expansion.  From a group meeting in one community, they planted congregations in at least 5 other communities, complete with buildings, Sunday Schools, choirs and all the trimmings that go with active, growing congregations.  While none of the buildings are huge, most can seat 80-100.  I won’t say they can do that comfortably because anyone who has ever spent time on old rural church buildings knows that old church pews are not known for comfort.

Early Baptists seemed to believe that comfort was somehow vaguely sinful.  Couple that with the fact that most people worked hard and if they sat down for any length of time on a comfortable seat, they would fall asleep and you get a pretty good understanding of why the pews were so uncomfortable.

So, for 185 years, there have been Christians meeting in these buildings, discovering and showing their faith.  Sometimes, they had outside leadership–but never for very long and therefore never with any real consistent direction and vision.  When the average stay of a pastor is less than two years, there is a lot of changing emphasis as each new pastor comes in with new ideas to set the church and the world on fire for the Lord–or at least catch the eye of a bigger congregation.

In the end, that means that most of the credit for the survival of these congregations belongs to the people who sat in those pews week after week and whose faith expressed itself in a variety of ways.  Sometimes, they got stuff wrong.  Sometimes, they got things right.  Sometimes, they did the right thing because it was the only choice.  This particular group of churches, for example, were one of the first to call a female pastor which was a pretty innovative step for a small Baptist congregation when  it happened in 1974.

So, I am the 80th in a long chain of pastors.  I don’t know how long I will be here–I past retirement age recently and so I know that there is a limit to how long I will be here.  I hope to stay beyond the average stay.  But regardless of how long I stay, I need to remember two things.  First, the church survives because of the church, not because of the pastor.  And second, both the church and I are doing what we do so that God may be glorified and his light shine in the world.  If we do that, not much else matters.

May the peace of God be with you.

RANDOM NUMBERS

Because I like to read a lot of different things and pay a lot of attention to the news, I end up with a wealth of facts, figures and bits and pieces.  Sometimes, this data has a point–it ends up in  a sermon or adding another piece to some other issue I am thinking about or all by itself, it explains something else.  But more often than not, these facts and figures just sit there in my brain, occupying memory cells and often sticking in place much better than other, more important things like the name of the person I just met who would like some pastoral counselling.

There is another use for these random numbers–I get to throw them out at random intervals in conversation or I get to use them when I am a bit stuck about something to write for this blog.  So, here are some totally random numbers that I have picked up over the years.  Some I have verified, some I can’t guarantee and some may sound fishy.  Some come from reliable sources–but the sources don’t stick in my mind as much as the numbers.  Some, I have no idea where they came from but here they are:

  • There are currently an estimated 30 million slaves in the world. While the majority are in faraway places, there are a significant number in North America–think poorly paid transient agricultural workers and sex trade workers.
  • Several sources suggest there are something like 40 million refugees in the world. Refugees are people who fled their home land primarily because of armed conflict but also because of drought, famine or some other natural disaster.  There are also millions more people who had to flee their homes but because they are still in their own country, they are not counted as refugees.
  • Something like 80% of the world’s churches have less than 100 people in attendance at worship–and 50% of the world’s churches have less than 50 in worship.
  • About 2 billion people in the world suffer from hunger. They either don’t get enough food or they don’t get the right balance of food.
  • About 2 billion people in the world are overweight or obese. They get too much food or too much of the wrong kinds of food.
  • At one hospital in an urban Canadian setting, two people were diagnosed with scurvy in one year. Neither of them was poor and neither was a 17th century sailor, the more traditional victims of scurvy.
  • In the part of Canada where I live, 20% of children come from homes that are too poor to provide the kids with breakfast, meaning that the majority of schools in our area have developed breakfast programs.
  • The Bible has been and continues to be the best-selling book of all time. My admittedly biased observation is that is also the most unread book of all time.
  • A conservative estimate suggests that 20% of males and 40% of females have been sexually abused before they reached adulthood.
  • Something like 75-80% of the North American population suffers from anxiety or depression.
  • According to some sources, the amount of money spent on armaments around the world in a year could effectively end poverty and hunger forever.

That is probably enough. If I go on, things will probably get depressing–I seem to remember a lot more depressing and gloomy statistics than positive ones.  That may be because positive numbers tend not to be reported in the places I get my numbers from.  It may be because I have a somewhat dark memory process–I recognize that sometimes, I am out of step with my culture.

These numbers that float around in my head do one thing.  They help me see why my faith is so important to me.  While there are some really great things in the world, there is a lot that isn’t right.  And for me at least, the source of hope comes from my faith.  My faith tells me that in spite of the dismal numbers, God is at work.  And even more, he has a place for me in that work.  My faith tells me there is hope both here and now and in the afterlife because of God and his love and grace.

May the peace of God be with you.

WALKING

For about 20 years, I was a regular fixture in our small town, known as much for my almost daily walks as anything.  Some did know me as a pastor; a few knew me as someone who had spent time working in Kenya, a smaller number knew that I sometimes taught at the nearby seminary–but almost everyone in the community and beyond knew that I walked.  No matter what the weather, I was out for my daily walk.  People saw me, got to know me–and more than a few would get worried if they didn’t see me for a while.  I was often telling people that I had been on vacation or had been away for a meeting or something like that.  Everyone knew my route and knew when I changed from the summer route to the winter route.

But then a couple of years ago, the arthritis in my knees reached the point where long walks were not possible.  I played around with different foot wear, using a walking stick, experimented with various creams and potions–but in the end, I had to accept the fact that my serious walking days were over, at least until after successful knee replacement surgery which I didn’t and don’t want right now for  variety of reasons.  So, I stopped walking, except for a couple of short walks a week.

The interesting thing is that most people in the community haven’t realized that I am not walking any more.  I regularly find myself talking to people who compliment my on my commitment to walking.  Occasionally, some will obviously have noticed something because they will ask if I have changed the time when I walk.  But in spite of the fact that I haven’t seriously walked either the summer or winter route in at least two years, people still assume that I am walking away.

Most people are surprised to hear that I don’t seriously walk anymore.  A few don’t seem to believe it–they want me to be joking.  It seems like my walks were important to them for some reason.  Or  more likely, the consistency of my walking was important to them.

What it says to me is just how much we allow ourselves to assume we know people and their lives.  We act as if things that we see are never going to change.  Couples will stay together, children will never grow up and I will always be walking.  But it seems that our assumptions depersonalize people.  We begin to see them as static, unchanging icons populating our lives and providing a constant backdrop that we can count on no matter what.

One of the lessons I have learned in my years of working closely with people in all stages of life is that the only constant unchanging reality is that things will change.  And one of the basic, important and loving things we can do for people is to be willing to see, understand and accept the changes that happen in their lives.  When we are willing to do that, we are actually relating to real people, not the assumed people we think we know.

That means, for example, that when I meet half a couple I know but haven’t seen in a while that I don’t assume they are still together.  I listen for clues and indications of what is going on in the life of the individual I am talking to–I don’t ask how the partner is doing until I am sure they are still together.  I don’t ask about children unless I know they are healthy, not in jail and relating well to the parents.  I don’t ask about parents either until I get a sense of what is going on.

I am trying to focus on the person I am with and that means trying to avoid letting my assumptions get in the way.  Some may think it strange that I don’t ask about partners or kids or parents–but those who have experienced major changes in those areas seem to appreciate the fact that I am focused on them and am allowing them to have changes in their lives, even if they are painful at times.

I get kind of tired of explaining that I don’t walk much anymore–can’t people recognize that if they haven’t seen me walking in a couple of years, I probably don’t walk anymore and they should likely change their assumptions?

May the peace of God be with you.

THE LETTER

I got a letter the other day.  I almost didn’t bother opening it because it came from a large, international Christian organization and so I assumed that the letter was a begging letter, especially since it wasn’t actually addressed to  me personally.  Letters that come addressed to “Pastor” or even “Senior Pastor” tend to have a request for money somewhere in them.  But I did open it and was a bit surprised that a return envelope didn’t fall out when I pulled the letter out.

The letter was a letter of thanks to me for being a pastor.  The letter arrived in the middle of October which someone has decided is “Pastor Appreciation Month”, one of the many special days and weeks and months throughout the course of the year which I tend to ignore.  But this letter from this large international organization was thanking me for my work as a pastor.  I confess that the letter didn’t do a whole lot for me.

While it might have seemed like a good idea to someone at some point, it really didn’t  make me feel appreciated because it really wasn’t addressed to me.  The fact that it was a computer generated letter with a generic “Dear Pastor” salutation and talked about ministry in such vague, general terms didn’t help.  Nor did the fact that I got two other copies of the same letter with others probably coming as the various congregations I pastor get around to passing along the mail they have collected since they last saw me.

I will take some of the blame for the lack of appreciation.  Most of the mail I get from this organization is asking for money and I expect that this letter is part of a well thought out campaign to make me feel better about them than about all the other organizations that didn’t send me a letter.  If I feel better about them, maybe I will send them money.

But generic appreciation really doesn’t do all that much for me.  A letter from a huge organization which doesn’t know or care that I pastor several congregations, which doesn’t know the specifics of my ministry, which doesn’t know the particular stresses I deal with really doesn’t make me feel appreciated as a pastor.

I do feel appreciated as a pastor–but not because it is pastor appreciation month and not because some organization sends me an appreciation letter.  I know that my ministry is important and helps people.  Some of them actually tell me now and then.  But I can also see and hear the appreciation in the way people respond to my ministry.

Ministry is demanding and doesn’t always provide a whole lot of tangible appreciation.  A lot of the people I minister to are dealing with serious stuff that takes most of their focus.  People struggling with death, people excited about their wedding, people dealing with life crises don’t always have the emotional space to tell me they appreciate what I am doing.  Church members who take part in the weekly Bible Study and who listen to the sermon every week don’t often feel a need to tell me how much they appreciate what I taught and preached.  When they do, that is great.

But when they don’t, which is more often the case, it isn’t the end of the world.  I actually am pretty independent and can function without a lot of thanks and so on–a very helpful character trait for a pastor.  I don’t do what I do to get expressions of appreciation.  I do it because it is part of who God is helping me become.  He had given me gifts and abilities and desires and following those is important to me.  If people along the way thank me for it and let me know they appreciate it, that is great but I will be doing what I do anyway.

As for the multiple copies of an impersonal letter of generic appreciation, well, that didn’t do a whole lot for me.  I tossed two of them unopened into the recycling and might do the same with any others that arrive, although maybe not.  The letter did have one redeeming feature.  It was a one page letter with nothing on the back, which means that it can also go in my scrap paper pile to be used as scratch pads or working paper for church meetings.  I do appreciate that, a bit.

May the peace of God be with you.