BEGINNING AGAIN

September has arrived. The days are noticeable shorter and even though they can still be quite warm, mornings have a fall feel. The air is cooler and sometimes, there is a vague hint of frost in the air. Summer is over and for most people, the year is drawing to a close. We look ahead to the coming of really cold weather, snow and winter. The next big bump in the year is Christmas and then it is over.

Except for me and many other clergy, September really marks the beginning of the year. For many of us, the church year actually runs from September to May or June. I make my plans based on that year and most of the people I know in ministry follow the same pattern. So, for me, that means the coming of September means the start of a new year. The programs and groups we shut down in May or June start back up. The new initiatives and plans start to unfold. We will turn on the engine and get things moving as we begin another church year.

This is generally a hopeful and enjoyable time. When Bible Study starts up, we will reconnect and rekindle our exciting process. The new ideas we have been planning for get brought online. Our numbers stabilize after the summer fluctuations—summer visitors go home, regulars come back and preaching can focus on more in-depth themes. For the next eight or nine months, we will be full steam ahead, being the church the way we interpret God’s calling on us, with the Christmas shift and the anticipated snow days.

I have been involved in the September New Year activities for a long time—I began serving churches as a pastor a long time ago and consider myself a seasoned veteran of the church New Year process. I have made a few changes over the years to cater to cultural shifts and ministry trends—we start a bit later in September than I used to because of the summer creep that has pushed the summer slump further into September. Some programs have disappeared—when there is no Sunday School, there is no need to plan and push the Sunday School opening.

I have generally approached September with a positive outlook. I work with the church leadership to make plans for the new year which will help us as a church. I see each year as an opportunity to help the church become more and more the church. Sometimes, we are using our new year to clean up and repair some problem whose time has come. Sometimes, we use our new year to look at ourselves and explore God’s leading and grace. Sometimes, we are looking beyond problems and using the new year to try something new and different that will help us become what we feel God is leading us to become. Every now and then, there has been a new year when we haven’t had to do clean up and haven’t planned new initiatives—those have been rest years, something like the Jubilee year the OT sets for the people of Israel.

Each of these approaches to the new year has its excitement and requirements and blessings and setbacks. Each requires pastor and church to focus and work and gives us a direction and goal to properly harness our energy. Each helps us define and express our nature as believers and churches. Each helps shape not just our present ministry but also our future ministry.

As pastor, I have a vital part in the whole process. I am paid to focus on the church. My calling and my position give me the luxury of being able to focus most of my time and energy on the work we are doing together. I become the cheerleader, the analyst, the encourager, the teacher. And so the new year always brings new demands, new directions, new things to do and try. Since a healthy church isn’t just doing the same old stuff every year, my role as pastor means that each year, I have to be looking at new and different stuff, challenging myself and the church to make the best of the year to come.

I know that by the middle of next May, we will all be ready for a break—but right now in September, we are at the beginning of a new year, filled with excitement and possibility. Happy New Year!

May the peace of God be with you.

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HONESTLY

We were discussing a possible addition to our church’s official board. One possibility was mentioned. Since I was relatively new and didn’t really know people, I let the others carry the discussion. In the course of the conversation, one of the people suggested that we not include that person because they had two personal habits that might cause problems: they liked to gossip and liked even more “telling more than they knew.” I suspect these days, they might have been described as purveyors of fake news.

I do have to be careful here. I am a preacher—and preachers make a lot of use of stories. I confess to tailoring my stories to some degree. Sometimes, details need to be obscured so no one recognizes the people involved—because most of my ministry has happened in a limited geographical area that is a big consideration. Sometimes, though, I edit the story to make it fit better with the sermon theme or to make me look a bit less inept or stupid. There is truth in the story as presented but how much depends on the sermon needs and how much sleep I had.

There have always been issues with personal honesty, even within the church. People make claims that are blatantly false to anyone in the know and go on to defend those claims vigorously, even to the point of attacking those who disagree. I like to think that some of the people doing this sort of thing aren’t actually lying—they are just mistaken and because of their personality, they need to defend what they believe it right.

But there are others whom I am pretty sure know what they are saying is wrong and keep saying it and defending it because doing so advances them. They might gain power, followers, notoriety, money or some other benefit. When the person doing this is an advertiser or a politician, I can almost understand the dishonesty. They are getting paid to be dishonest and most of us don’t actually believe what they say anyway.

When it is a member of the faith doing this, whether pastor or layperson, I tend to be more upset and even angry. Honesty is one of the basic requirements of an ethical and faithful life. If we can’t trust a person to be honest about one area of their life, how can we trust them to be honest about their claims about their faith?

But the painful truth is that our whole culture suffers when people are knowingly dishonest. No matter what the purpose of the lie, it undermines the basic trust that a culture depends on. When a culture allows whole groups of people to lie with impunity, it allows itself to drift into a state where anything goes. Soon, we come to the place where we prefer the lies to the truth. We want to be lied to, since the lies are generally prettier and more comforting than the truth. We might know that it is a lie, but it is a nice lie and we begin to prefer the lie to the truth.

When people who speak the truth become the targets of anger and even persecution; when those who knowing lie are seen as heroes; when right becomes an inconvenience to be hidden behind a more convenient lie, we are all in trouble. The lie works in the short term, but eventually, the sea will rise, the air will choke us, the economy will collapse, the preacher will be caught in immorality, the victim will demand revenge, the pyramid scheme will collapse, the partisan manoeuvring will be seen for what it is.

While more painful and difficulty, honesty does work better. The Truth is not just one of the foundations of the Christian faith—it is also a foundation of a healthy culture. Unfortunately, our western culture seems to have abandoned both the Truth and truth itself, preferring the temporary comfort of the lie and the liar. We are paying for this, we will pay even more for it. The price we pay and will pay isn’t worth it.

When liars become our leaders and when lies become our vision, we are doomed. Whether it is the church, the club, the local council, or the nation, when we build on lies, we are building on sand and what we build will collapse. As cliché as it might sound, long term, honesty is the best policy.

May the peace of God be with you.

ANONYMOUS

I am not particularly surprised by what the guy in my office is saying. He and I have disagreed on many aspects of my ministry since I began working for the church. He doesn’t like some of what I am preaching and teaching. But the reason for this particular visit grows out of a complicated situation that I have been providing pastoral care for. He doesn’t know the whole story and feels he should. Furthermore, he says, there are a lot of people in the church who feel the same way. “They” are saying that I am a problem and that I am going to cause serious harm to the church. “They” are talking to him because he stands for right and I don’t.

I have always had a very strong response to anonymous reports. On the one hand, I do like knowing what “they” are saying. Any organization, including the church, has a background level of discontent that generally doesn’t often become serious enough that people feel obligated to take a stand but it serious enough that they talk about it, as long as “they” don’t have to become identified with the talk. Part of my pastoral responsibility to the church is being aware of this background discontent. That generally only happens when someone tells me what “they” are saying. Sometimes, people tell me what “they” are saying as a favour because I need to know and sometimes, as in this particular situation, because the person speaking somehow hopes that what “they” are saying will reinforce their comments. Whatever the reason, I think it is good for me as pastor to know what “they” are saying.

However, I am also very aware of the reality that whatever “they” are saying isn’t important enough for them to take any real risk. “They” generally want to be able to complain without dealing with the responsibility that comes from taking a stand. Comments like this may sound serious and may even have a serious base but in truth, when “they” lack the conviction or courage to make their comments openly, I have difficulty taking them seriously and even more difficulty basing my actions on what “they” are saying.

I am aware that there are some times when being anonymous is necessary to protect the life of someone. I can understand that and approve of that. But in general, anonymous comments, no matter how strong or how pointed or how serious don’t overly affect my decisions. If I hear that “they” are upset by the new tie that my daughter gave me for my birthday, I am not going to stop wearing it.

So, back to the session we began this post with. When the guy told me that there were others who agreed with him and that “they” were equally upset with me, I responded in the way I learned a long time ago. I told him that I don’t respond to anonymous comments made by “they”. If “they” had something they think I needed to hear, “they” needed to come to me personally. If and when “they” came to see me, we could and would talk about their concerns openly and directly. But until then, I would listen to his complaints and respond directly to his concerns but I would neither listen to nor respond to any comments from the anonymous “they”, no matter how many of them he claimed there were.

Eventually, “they” showed up in my office. “They” consisted of this guy’s wife, who had already made it clear that she agreed with her husband. There were no other “theys”, or at least there were no other “theys” concerned enough to take a public stand. And if “they” were not willing to stand openly for what they were saying, I have no obligation to take them seriously.

Being anonymous allows too many people to say too much too often without having to be responsible. Hiding behind anything or anyone means that I don’t really have much invested in my stance—I have courage enough to say it anonymously but not enough courage to say it in my openly. But if I am not willing to say it openly, how committed can I really be to what I am thinking and saying?

May the peace of God be with you.

THE CHURCH MEETS

I am sitting in a coffee shop with a friend. He is drinking real coffee but I have been good and ordered a decaf so I don’t have to pay the extra price of regular coffee later. We have been friends for a long time but haven’t connected for a while so the conversations hops back and forth, covering a variety of topics as we try to catch up and move along at the same time. Because we are both believers and both fairly heavily involved in the work of our respective congregations, part of the conversation concerns our church life and our faith.

I have had this meeting a great many times with various people over the years, in several countries and two languages. And somewhere along the line, a question about the nature of the meeting popped into my mind—not during the meeting because the conversation is too free-flowing and jumps around so much that most of my attention is required to keep up. But after some meeting somewhere sometime, I began to wonder about the nature of the time together.

I wondered if I could properly say that the two or three of us sitting there drinking coffee and sharing and talking could be called a church. On one level, the answer is easy: No way. We were people drinking coffee and talking. We have none of the commonly recognized attributes of a church. There was no order of service, no sermon, no offering, no singing, no membership list. We don’t meet regularly, we don’t have an administrative structure, we have never developed a constitution and bylaws. We have never developed a program, run a Sunday School, conducted a baptism—although in fairness, I do have to say that at some point all of those things have likely been topics at the coffee shop.

That isn’t a good enough answer for me—I tend not to like pat and quick answers. Actually, to answer the question, I needed to ask another question, “Just what is a church at its most basic?” That is a question my analytical, research loving self can really dig into. Obviously, the best place to start is the New Testament, where our faith is explored and described and explained. There must be somewhere where there is a simple, clear definition of what the church is.

Except there really isn’t. It seems that the New Testament is based on several assumptions about the church: it will be made of believers, the believers will join together, they will have problems and they will be filled with the Holy Spirit. The New Testament has a lot of good advice for the church but no real definition of the church, which probably goes a long way to explain the incredibly diversity in churches around the world and throughout history.

But there is one place where I think we have something that comes close to a basic definition of the church. Matthew 18.20 records Jesus as saying, “… where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” NIV And maybe that is what I am looking for, a basic, elemental definition of the church, stripped of all the cultural, theological and ecclesiastical qualifications and requirements and all the rest.

The church exists when two or three people come together conscious of their shared faith. Their shared faith means that they aware of the presence of the risen, living Christ with them and that makes them the church or at least a church. For that time and that space, they are a church, a part of the universal gathering of God’s people of all time and space. I think this provides a very important definition of who and what we are as a church. It takes no more than a couple of people coming together conscious of their shared faith to be the church.

So, whether we need to share a consecrated Cup of wine, a blessed single serving of grape juice or a cup of coffee (even decaf), we can be the church. In this definition, the church is much more widespread, much more pervasive and much more involved in the world than if we see it as only a specific gathering meeting in a specific place conforming to all the specific requirements.

Two or three conscious of the presence of the Spirit—that gathering becomes a church. I like that lot. I will have to give that idea some more thought.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT MAKES A CHURCH?

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day that touched on my career as a pastor. I have spend my whole ministry career working in small congregations—and given the realities of my age, ministry gifts and so on, the chances of my being called to be the pastor of a big church are about as slim as the chances of either pastorate I serve mushrooming into a mega church. I am deeply aware that God can and does do great, wonderful and unexpected things so I can’t really close the doors on either thing happening but practically, I will in the next few years be retiring, having spent most of my ministry pastoring small congregations.

And that isn’t written with a tinge of sadness or wistfully wondering “what if?”. Being the pastor of small churches has been good for me for a variety of reasons. One of the reasons I appreciate is that I have learned a great deal about what the church is and can be because I have always worked with the church at its most basic. We who live in the small church are sometimes forced to be much closer to who and what we are called to be by virtue of the fact that most extraneous stuff is stripped away.

We don’t have much money so we can’t simply buy ministry. We don’t have many people so we can’t do stuff just because someone else is doing it. We often lack gifted people so we have to be selective about what ministry we do. We share our leadership with every other group and organization so we have to limit the demands we make on our member’s time. We are generally located in the midst of people who know us and our church from way back so we can’t do generic evangelism. In older congregations such as I serve, our history is well known, so we can’t pretend to be better that we actually are.

Within those real constraints, along with many others, we work at being the church. We work at being the embodied expression of God’s people here on earth. Because we don’t have the trimmings and options and bells and whistles, we have to learn how to be the essential church. And the real essence of the church is a group of people who share faith in God through Jesus Christ seeking to use the presence of the Holy Spirit to relate to each other and the world in ways that are congruent with the faith we proclaim.

And because we are small and live in the reality of the wider community, we need to do this in a context where everyone is aware of our failure to actually live up to the claims that we make. In small churches, our sins are more visible and more quickly pointed out. I joke with my churches that when something bad happens in our churches, it is being talked about in the local coffee shop before the benediction is finished. The talk may not actually get the story right, but that isn’t the issue—the issue is that we live church much more publically and openly when we are a small church living in a bigger community.

I think at our best, we in small churches learn about giftedness early—when there is only one person who can actually sing a solo in the congregation, that gift is seen, appreciated and valued. When there are only two people who can actually minister to pre-teens, they have an assured ministry spot.

We learn about grace and forgiveness—when the sinner is also a friend and a family member, it is harder to shun and condemn. It can be done and is done in some small congregations but more often than not, we discover the reality of grace and love and forgiveness as we grapple with the pain of our shared imperfection. Not many of us are willing to cast the first stone when we know and are known as well as we are in small churches.

We learn that effective evangelism doesn’t involve a program or a canned speech. Instead, it comes as a result of our hesitant and uncertain attempts to live and share our faith in the wider community. Both our successes and our failures are part of our evangelism.

I am not suggesting that large churches can’t learn these things—rather, I am saying that as the pastor of small churches, I have learned these things in this context and have tried to help others learn them as well.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE VISIT

A recently retired friend invited me for a visit because another friend we both know was visiting them. I was happy to spend some time with all of them—the retired friend is living part-time in the area I serve as pastor and attends worship so I could multi-task. With that one visit, I was both improving my pastoral visit statistics and spending time with friends. That sounds like win-win to me.

All of us are or have been involved in ministry, either as pastors, missionaries or spouses of pastors. Inevitably, then, the conversation turned to ministry and we began telling stories. The friend of the friend was the most extroverted so managed to tell the most stories but we all go a chance to tell stories. Because I can’t do much in life without analysing and studying, I was keeping a sort of mental record of the stories—who told which story, which themes kept coming up, who responded to which story in which way.

The results were interesting. We were all telling stories about things, events and incidents that affected our ministry and that enhanced both our faith and our ministry. One of the people kept referring to times when God called him spend money he didn’t have—his faith commitment was always to help out someone who needed serious help. All of his stories ended with his amazement at how God had honoured his faith be ensuring that the money he spent and didn’t have was returned to him.

One of the other people present had obviously heard some of the stories before and really wanted to hear them again, to the point of asking someone to retell a particular story. It seemed that the retelling of the stories was an important part of their faith. This person also had their own stories, stories that focused on how God provided the support and help needed when they were facing scary times in ministry, like when God showed them that their step of faith in attending seminary wouldn’t result in their family starving.

I tended to tell stories of how God worked to make up some deficit in my life so that I could do the ministry I was called to or stories of how people I had taught or mentored went on to do what I considered significant ministry. Another told stories that indicated how God had provided the faith to enable them to follow in the scary footsteps of a partner whose faith was often several steps ahead of them.

At first, my analytical side was tempted to rank the stories. The temptation was to see the stories about money as less significant than my stories about real ministry or to see stories where the teller was the hero as less important than the ones where the teller didn’t look good. But I realized that this wasn’t actually a very productive avenue of thought (NOTE—I do actually process at several levels during conversations and can still maintain focus on what is being said).

This wasn’t a contest. This was a group of friends who had all spent serious time in ministry talking about the wonder of being a part of God’s work. We all approached ministry from our personal perspective; we all had different needs in our faith and ministry; we all had different skill and gift sets—but we were all still amazed that God had chosen us, equipped us and was willing to work through us. The stories were our expressions of amazement and gratitude.

And because we were all different, it is no surprise that the themes of our stories were different. God celebrates diversity. He encourages diversity. He created humanity to thrive on diversity. I don’t need other people to tell the same kind of stories I tell—I need to listen to their stories and hear how God is working in their lives so that I can grow in faith and my understanding of God, just as they can grow and develop in hearing my stories. If we all told the same story, what would be the point?

I enjoyed my visit so much that I felt a tiny bit guilty including it in my visitation statistics—not guilty enough to leave it out of the list, though. It was good to share time and stories with people I have known for years and whose lives have followed similar paths as mine. In our diversity, we enabled and encouraged each other.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SERMON

In one of the collection of churches that I serve as pastor, we have an interesting twist in the worship service. At the request of some of the people attending, we pause after the reading of the Scriptures and have time for questions and comments about the Scriptures, although that sometimes broadens to include questions about the rest of the service and things that the people attending that day are thinking about. Most weeks, we have a question or two, a comment or two and then we move on to the sermon.

Before I continue on, I need to mention here that I work hard on sermon preparation. I believe that a sermon is a specific message from God for a specific group of people at a specific point in time and my role is to be God’s messenger, discovering and understanding and delivering that message. I serve two different sets of churches and their needs are different enough that I generally can’t use the same sermon.

So, in one order of service, we have a Q&A session just before the sermon. Normally, I open the process, there are a couple of questions for clarification that I explain as best I can (sometimes, I have to postpone the answer so I can get the information needed to answer the question), a comment or two about some part of the Scripture and then we move on.

Now and then, the discussion really gets going and eats into the sermon time, so much so that I end up having to edit the sermon on the fly, shortening the message to fit into the shorter time frame that results from the extended discussion. That is okay—it is kind of an interesting challenge to condense the sermon while still getting across the basis points.

And then, there are those rare weeks when the discussion takes off and the questions and comments begin feeding off each other and the congregation really gets engaged and involved and time flies by. As the pastor and worship leader, I stand in the pulpit, moderating the process, enabling people to talk and making sure that everyone has an opportunity and sometimes helping people clarify their remarks, all the while keeping an eye on my watch lying on the pulpit (the really nice antique clock at the back hasn’t worked in the memory of anyone there).

And at some point, I realize that there will be no sermon this week—there is no way to shorten the message for the time remaining and the discussion is going so well that it can’t be stopped. The message I worked so hard to prepare is dead, at least for this week. The sermon is being delivered but not be me. It is coming from the congregation, as we share and talk and riff off each other. The discussion isn’t a distraction; it isn’t a diversion; it isn’t a waste of time—the discussion is the message that God wanted delivered that day. My calling on those days isn’t to be the preacher—it it to be the moderator as the sermon develops through the wonder of the Holy Spirit speaking in and through all of us gathered that day. The sermon I worked so hard on, well, I will deal with that later because right now, the sermon is developing in real time.

These Sundays are rare occurrences. I can’t predict them. There is no way to anticipate them. There is definitely no way to make the occur. But when they do happen, they are wonderful, powerful, spontaneous movements of the Holy Spirit speaking to us directly by speaking through each of us. We talk and share and open ourselves to God and each other and we grow. We grow because of what we are hearing; we grow because of what we are saying; we grow because we are letting the Spirit be free.

We eventually finish and I close the meeting—but the wonder of the movement of the Spirit stays with us. We all treasure these Sundays. We don’t try and make them happen but when they do, we embrace them and the blessing that they bring to us. I can and likely will preach the prepared sermon another Sunday—but the best sermon for that Sunday was provided directly by the working of the Holy Spirit.

May the peace of God be with you.

A VERY LONG WEEK

I woke up Sunday morning and stumbled into my usual morning routine, heading for the exercise bike for an hour of exercise, Bible reading and worship preparation. As shuffled towards the basement, I was thinking about a family funeral I had attended and idly thinking about how long ago that had been. I woke up a bit more when I realized that the funeral had only been 5 days ago—it seemed like it had been weeks ago.

To say it had been a busy week somehow misses the reality of that week. Vacation had been over for a week and so this should have been a normal, get back into routine week. But there was a family funeral, a niece whose death while somewhat expected was still sad. This is the second death in the immediate family, a bit of an unusually low number given the number of us, our advancing age and the number of health issues we all face. Attending the funeral involved an eight hour round trip for me, which did allow a lot of time for thinking. Part of that time was spend thinking about the fact that our family will probably be doing a lot more of this as the years progress.

The next day, I tried to make up for the work I didn’t get to because of the funeral. There was some pressure because it was the only real study day I had that week. The rest of the work week and then some was taken up with our regular Bible study and the annual meeting of our denomination. I have a definite and strong aversion to meetings but I have always felt that attendance at denominational meetings is something of a duty—I am part of the organization, I receive some benefits from the organization, I want certain things from the organization and so I need to be there. There is the added benefit of getting to see some of the people I only get to see when we meet as a body.

So, for three days, I attended meetings, talked to people, attended meetings, looked at promotional displays (some organizations have really neat give-aways), read reports, attended meetings, took many unscheduled breaks, attended meetings—well, you get the idea. Almost the last thing on the program was a brief panel discussion that I was part of, which meant that there was no chance that I might get away early.

So, after that week, there I was, sitting on the exercise bike, opening my Bible and trying to make the exercise bike go and my mind work to read the Bible, while all the time, I was thinking and feeling that I should have stayed in bed and maybe even called the church deacons to tell them that I was sick. When the previous week feels like it had been two months long, there must be some ethical loop hole that allows for something like that.

There are of course some who would suggest that every week in ministry is like that. But the truth is that for me and most people I know, ministry is fairly predictable and we can establish comfortable and effective week to week routines. I happen to like routine and predictability. I like knowing that at 7:30am on Tuesday, I will begin working on one of the two sermons I need to write. I like knowing that when I finish that, I can move on to item two and so on. The predictability helps me keep on track and keep organized and allows me to know that I can get things done.

Interestingly enough, that predictability and organization also come in really handy when I have unpredictable and disorganized weeks like the week that this post focuses on. This was not a normal week—but I could and did cope with it because there is some structure to my work, a structure that is flexible enough to allow for funerals, meetings and other assorted emergencies by allowing me to see just where the stuff I missed from the structure can be fitted in and accomplished at some point.

I like my weeks to be comfortably predictable—but because I know that ministry is rarely that predictable, I have learned to develop schedules and structures that allow for both the predictable and the unpredictable, although more and more, I am preferring the predictable.

May the peace of God be with you.

A BIBLE STUDY QUESTION

Part of my pastoral responsibility involves spending some time thinking about and praying about the church, trying to figure out where God is leading us and what he is asking of us. This isn’t exclusively my job but because I am actually paid to focus on the church, I tend to have more time to devote to the process. This process works best when I base my thinking on what I am hearing and seeing from God and the church.

So, with that in mind, come with me to the first Bible study after vacation. As I drive to the study (about 30 minutes away from my home), I am thinking about the church and its direction and its future and what I could/should be doing. I don’t have a lot of ideas since it is just after vacation but I am thinking.

I arrive and Bible study begins. As usual, I ask about their response to last Sunday’s worship, joking that for a change, I couldn’t say anything because I wasn’t there. Those who were there made some positive comments about the worship and the supply preacher and then the discussion took a different direction, something that happens regularly at our Bible study.

One of the members was obviously trying to formulate a question. Since he normally doesn’t have a lot of trouble putting his questions together, I asked him what he was working on. His commented that while the visiting speaker was great, he was wondering is maybe the next time I went away, the congregation could take responsibility for the service. He was quick to point out that this wasn’t a comment about the fill in speaker but rather a real question that he had been looking at.

The response around the table was interesting. One member of the study reacted a bit negatively—she had been responsible for doing just that in the past and didn’t really enjoy the process. Speaking in public just wasn’t her thing. But most of the others looked sort of interested.

So, as always happens with our Bible study when an interesting topic comes up, we followed it. I assured the group that there was absolutely no reason why they couldn’t lead the worship service, including the message. And, to help the person who had obviously been pushed into the preacher role unwillingly, I talked about leading worship in accordance with the gifts that God has given us. As we talked, various people got more and more excited as they began to see things that they could contribute to a worship service.

At some point in the discussion, I realized that I definitely didn’t want this to happen while I was on vacation—given the level of interest and developing excitement, if the congregation was going to lead the service, I wanted to be there, at least the first time they did it. I wanted to be able to share in and benefit from the spiritual process that was obviously going on here. I suggested we look at having the congregation arrange and lead the service sometime soon and I would be there. Before the service, I would be there to help people develop and understand their gift and contribution.

That was where we left the discussion—the congregation is going to lead worship, with various people who are gifted using their gifts. I will help out with advice and suggestions and moral support. In the next week or so, I will look at the church schedule and come up with some suggested dates for the worship.

I think we were all excited by this discussion. I may have been even more excited than the others because this question and the discussion ties into my thinking about overall direction of my ministry. This is a small congregation which may have some difficulty finding a regular preacher when the time comes that God calls me to something else. But if they discover and develop their gifts and abilities, they are not as dependent on finding someone, anyone to fill the pulpit.

I saw this question and the discussion and the plans coming out of it as part of God’s answer to my questions about ministry direction. He was not only letting me know where he was leading us but also reminding me once again that he speaks to and through the whole congregation so that together, we can find and follow his leading.

May the peace of God be with you.

BACK TO WORK

After a two week vacation, I am back at work—well, I have actually been back at work for a few days now. After two weeks of sleeping in, playing with grandchildren, visiting and all that fun stuff, getting back into the process of writing sermons and all the other stuff that I was supposed to do was hard work. For a variety of reasons, my first week back didn’t include much time with church people, beyond some phone calls and emails, although I did do one Bible study. It was mostly preparation, dealing with stuff that I put off until after vacation, planning for the fall church season and resting my knees from too much time spent with busy and active grandchildren. (In the interest if clarity, the too much time was just on the part of my knees, not the rest of me.)

So, the first real contact I had with church people was Sunday worship. They had had a substitute preacher for two weeks and I has two weeks off, including one Sunday where I didn’t actually attend worship at all. Driving to both worship services, I did my usual contemplation about who would be there and who wouldn’t—in small congregations like ours, it is fairly easy to remember who is going to be where when. I actually don’t know why I do this to myself because my anticipated numbers are always smaller than the actual attendance.

But when I arrived and as people started arriving, we got to the real point. We had missed each other. I was happy to see them and they were happy to see me. We talked about my time off (the family retreat was great, the grandchildren were even better, I needed to get back to work to get a rest from my vacation); their time while I was away (We really appreciated hearing the supply preacher, we miss Bible study, did you know she is having surgery tomorrow, isn’t is great that it isn’t as hot, we need to have a business meeting to discuss this); and anything else we could think of.

It was good to be back. I have to confess that during my vacation, I spent some time wondering why I am still doing what I am doing. I have passed the accepted retirement age, I have sufficient funds available to retire, I have lots of things I would like to do that I don’t have time to do because of work, writing sermons is getting to be harder work that it used to be—I thought of all sorts of things in an attempt to figure out why I am still doing what I am doing.

And while I don’t yet have a complete answer, I do think I found part of the answer at those two worship services the first Sunday back. I am a pastor, called by God to be in a special relationship with a specific group of people. We are in a God ordained relationship where we work together to help each other in our common journey through life and towards God. I am the pastor, called to give whatever it is that God has called me to give. As the church, they are called to receive whatever it is that God has ordained that they receive.

But it is more than that because the roles are flexible and changeable—often, the church is the pastor and I am the recipient of the pastoral input. I teach and preach—but often, the church teaches me and preaches to me. Our relationship is deep, complex and multifaceted. We are joined together by our common faith and by God’s calling. Working in and through all of us, God has something to accomplish in the church, the individuals who make up the church and me.

And so part of the answer to the question of why I am still doing what I am doing is that God isn’t finished with this particular pairing of pastor and church. He still has things to accomplish through us. Church and pastor are still united by God because we both still have stuff to give and receive from each other. This relationship is a powerful and profound one and while I know that someday it will end, that day isn’t right now. We all have more to do.

May the peace of God be with you.