BUSINESS MEETINGS

I don’t like meetings. There are a few that have been tolerable, many that have actually been important and a whole lot that could have been shorter, tighter and more effective. Generally, given an even choice between attending a meeting or going to the dentist, I would pick the dentist, except for the fact that going to the dentist is a lot like going to a meeting.

I don’t dispute the need for meetings. They are important and significant and are a necessary part of church and denominational and even normal life. I am not an anarchist, a dictator or a megalomaniac. Getting people together to talk about stuff is often the only way we can discover God’s leading and figure out how he wants us to do the work he has called us to do. Over the years, I have become very good at enabling meetings to become places where people have the freedom and encouragement to share and grow and develop ministry. I have also tied to teach other church leaders how to make meeting more effective and more a part of the process of discerning God’s leading.

But for all that, I don’t actually like meetings. So, when a new year rolls around, I brace myself for the wave of annual meetings I have to deal with—these days, that means anywhere up to a dozen different meetings by the time I count finance meetings, deacons’ meetings, congregational meetings and pastorate meetings. Sometimes, I am the chair of the meeting and other times, someone else chairs the meeting (I prefer someone else to be the chair).

Typically, church business meetings have been somewhat restricted to church members but because of the nature of our churches, we have been having open meetings and specifically inviting our non-members to be part of the process. I jokingly tell them during the announcement of the meeting that they are really a part of our fellowship and if we members have to endure the business meeting, they should have to as well.

One pastorate just wrapped up our season of annual meetings. And in spite of my antipathy to meetings, I felt that all the meetings in the process had a positive flavour. We did more than look at financial statements and hear reports. We spent time together, sharing about family and friends, passing on information about absent people, joking about who did what when. We were comforted by the fact that we didn’t go into debt over the past year and that we actually did some good stuff over the past year.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses—we talked about those who had died or had to move in the past year. We wondered how our aging creaky membership could look after our aging creaky buildings—none of us is able anymore to grab a hammer and fix the rotting sills that make the floor sag around the front door. But there are ways to deal with that, especially since we do have some money in the bank.

As pastor, I had some good things to report. Our churches grew over the year—not so much in numbers but definitely in faith. We have a sense of confidence in our churches. We have a developing understanding of how we are being salt and light in our communities; we are seeing some positive response from the community to the ministry we are doing; we have encouraged and enabled people to try a variety of things; we have experimented with worship and mission; we have shared life and all its triumphs and crises with prayer and support and casseroles. We have been the church.

So, I still hate meetings. But this meeting cycle has been worthwhile because it allowed us to take a look at ourselves and see where God has been working, what he has been doing and how he is leading us into the future. We have a bit of money, enough for our needs. Our buildings need some work but we can handle it. We have grown in a lot of ways—and we can all see it. We might have seen all that stuff without the meetings but then again, without the meetings, we wouldn’t have had the chance to get it all together at the same time. I won’t actually say “Thank God for meetings” but I will thank him for what he has shown us through the meetings.

May the peace of God be with you.

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BEING A PARENT

One of my granddaughters got a bit upset with me during our recent visit. We were reading a book snuggled together on the couch or engaged in some equally grandparently activity when I called her my baby girl. She indignantly told me that she was five and wasn’t a baby—she was a big girl. That sparked a short discussion of parenting (and grandparenting) that sort of satisfied her and allowed me to continue sitting with her.

I told her that her aunt, whom she likes but is older than her father is still my baby girl because children—and grandchildren—will always be baby girls (and baby boys) to their parents and grandparents. I wasn’t joking or trying to cover a mistake. Parents and grandparents have a hard time letting children grown up.

On the whole, I think I have done a pretty good job of letting my kids grow up. I have always encouraged them to think for themselves; to make their own decisions; to take responsibility for themselves. I have rejoiced at their successes; grieved with them over their failures; supported even their questionable decisions. I enjoy having an adult coffee time with my kids much more than I enjoyed reading Dr. Seuss to them.

But they are still my kids—and grandkids. I will always have a part of me that feels that I have to look after them and be concerned with their welfare and future and wellbeing. I don’t express that parental reality by trying to run their lives. I am not an overzealous parent who thinks my kids and grandkids need my advice and guidance and control in every aspect of their lives. If asked, I might give an opinion but I am much more comfortable listening to them as they talk out some decision or another without my specific input. I work hard at respecting their independence and freedom and seeing them as mature adults and maturing grandchildren. I work hard at giving them the respect and relationship their situation requires: reading books with the pre-schoolers; pushing the swing for the toddlers; enduring the emotional swings of the second grader; listening to the child turned parent as they deal with some issue or another.

But in the end, they are still my children and grandchildren. I have relationships and responsibilities with them that I have with no others. I am a pastor and counsellor and have a great many relationships where I am involved in helping people. But as significant as those relationships are, they can never be the same as the one I have with my children and by extension with their children. My wife and I have been involved in their lives from the moment of their conception and the relationship is a basic part of our whole being.

Our sons and daughter are fully grown, mature adults all of whom have become responsible and capable human beings. They are caring and helpful and are all making a positive contribution to society. They are in stable, healthy relationships and live good lives. But they are still and will still be my babies as long as I am alive.

The fact that my baby boys tower over me and my baby girl is highly respected in her profession doesn’t change the fact that they are still my babies. The fact that I am proud of the adults they have become and marvel at their abilities and sensibilities doesn’t alter the reality that they are still my little ones. The fact that all of them are providing significant care and support for others doesn’t alter the fact that I am and always will be their (very proud) father.

So, when I sit snuggled on the couch reading a book with a five year old or in a coffee shop talking life with a 30 something or follow a 40 something around her work, I am honoured and happy to be the parent and grandparent of my baby girls and baby boys. Some are definitely well past the official baby stage—but as any parent or grandparent knows, that is only a chronological thing. Baby boys and girls are still baby boys and girls no matter what their age or stage.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT LIMITS?

Recently, I have been suffering from a painful medical condition. It is not a condition that is written up in any medical textbook nor it is one that any doctor is likely to diagnosis. But it is nonetheless a real condition that I am currently suffering from. It is called “Grandchildren knees”. The condition develops when old, in need of replacement knees are subjected to 10 days of playing with grandchildren. The walking, carrying, getting up and down and so on associated with a visit to children and grandchildren seen too infrequently results in some serious mobility limits once I arrive back home.

There is actually no realistic way to avoid the medical condition. My knees have aged much faster than the rest of me and simply refuse to stay quiet when they are pushed beyond their limits. Normally, I have a good sense of those limits and have a well established process and procedure to take care of them. But when I am visiting our family in their geographically distant homes, the awareness and process disappear.

Certainly, I have the freedom to tell two pre-school grandchildren that I am not going to walk to the park with them because it is hard on my knees. I have the freedom to sit out the family outing to continue the exploration of the ravine and brook behind the new house. I can demand that we only visit attractions that bring displays and exhibits to us, rather than tramp around on wobbly knees. I can ignore requests that I get down on the floor to play trains or cars or colour. I can do all that—and actually, I occasionally do some of that.

But the reality is that I am with children and grandchildren I don’t see often enough and I am not going to sit back and follow the demands of my aging knees. I am going to do as much as I can, which is going to be more than I probably should. I will avoid the blatantly dumb stuff—skipping rope is just not going to happen. Jumping off anything just doesn’t make sense. But slipping and sliding down a muddy ravine wall—that is going to happen. The rope and walking stick help, as does being the last one down so as not to slow anyone down but it is going to happen. The knees might not like it but the rest of me is quite happy to frustrate their desires to sit and watch.

I know the consequences of my actions. In fact, before the trip is over, I am deeply aware of the consequences. The swelling, the restricted motion, the increased pain, the occasionally knee collapses—I notice and cope with all of them. But that isn’t going to stop me. It may slow me down—there is a reason why I am always behind the group, especially going down stairs.

But I am back home now. The visit is over and with it, the need and desire to be an active participant. Now I need to slow down and behave like a senior with knees in need of replacement. I will consciously walk less—the short walk I had been doing will be replaced with more time on the exercise bike for a while. I definitely won’t be getting down on the floor for anything—if I can’t reach down for is, it belongs to the dog or vacuum cleaner. I will sit a bit more, at least until my knees get back to some sort of equilibrium. That won’t be a problem—I have to sit anyway to write sermons and Bible studies and blog posts. In fact, most of my work and a lot of my relaxation involves sitting.

Long term, I have started the process that will eventually lead to knee replacement surgery but since I live in an area with one of the longest wait times for such surgery, I will likely have at least one more knee unfriendly trip in the future. I can live with that—the pain I deal with when the trip is over is well worth it because of the enjoyment of being with kids and grandkids whom I really don’t see enough. I might be the last one down the ravine but I will be there.

May the peace of God be with you.

FAMILIES

I have been in ministry for over 40 years. I have the sermon pile, the pastoral weight gain and the grey hair to prove all that. But there are a great many people who don’t seem to understand the full implications of 40+ years of ministry. Either they think that clergy are the most sheltered people in the world or we are the most unobservant and unintelligent people around.

I say this because there are a great many people both inside and outside the church who feel it necessary to clue me in on things that they think will surprise me, upset me or shock me. It is not uncommon, for example, for someone to drag me aside to give me vital information about the family I am working with during funeral planning. In the corner, speaking quietly, they inform me that there are tensions within the family that might make the whole funeral difficult. Or the wedding planning process that someone feels they need to talk to me about because someone won’t like it if someone else is involved.

Then there are the shocking moral issues that people feel they need to bring to me, perhaps thinking that I need to be warned so that I don’t pass out when I discover that the couple I am going to marry are already living together and have a child or that the older gentleman I am conducting the funeral for was an alcoholic. Or perhaps they feel I need to know that the child of one of the church members is actually gay and that is causing some problems in the family.

I listen to all these insights and revelations and nod pastorally. But inside, I have to confess that I am thinking something like, “Do you actually think I am that stupid/naive/out of touch?” I am a pastor, which means that I know almost as much about people and their families as the village gossip—and I gained my knowledge legitimately and know what is true and what is made up. I am also because of my training, my experience and my nature, as capable social observer. I am rarely surprised and even when I am, can actually see the reality of the new revelation pretty quickly.

It is actually a major part of my calling to understand and know people. I think it is also a major part of my calling to know and understand and accept the realities that I am working with. People are people and families are families. We all have good and bad, positive and negative, inspiring and sordid mixed together in a tangled and confusing mess that makes us what we are. To find a family where some members are at odds with each other isn’t a surprise to a pastor—actually, the surprise is finding a family where that isn’t true.

As I have thought about this, I think that part of the problem lies with clergy. Some clergy have been and perhaps are guilty of pretending that the darker side of life is beyond them. As a body, we have perhaps been too eager to condemn the failings in individuals and families. Rather than accept and work with the realities, we have condemned, which has caused people to try to hide things and cover them over. But that isn’t a very effective way of dealing with the negatives of life.

As a pastor, my job isn’t to encourage people to hide stuff from themselves, others and me. I see my job as helping people accept their reality as a first step towards dealing with it. If I can accept their reality, it helps them accept their reality—and if I can accept their reality and them, maybe they can find the courage and insight to deal with the painful darker stuff that they, like everyone has. My model for this, of course, is Jesus who saw the darkest and deepest and most hidden realities in every life and still loved and accepted and offered the fullness of his love and grace. He did get somewhat testy with all those trying to put on a false front but for the rest, he knew, accepted and loved.

So, I listen to all the revelations that a delicate pastoral personality could never expect, thank the revealer and keep on doing what I always do—helping people discover God’s love and grace no matter what their reality is.

May the peace of God be with you.

OCCUPATIONAL HAZARD

Although I am the pastor of small churches, both the pastorates I serve are active with a variety of events going on. Besides the regular and expected activities like worship and Bible Study, we also have a lot of special events. And because of our unofficial denominational traditions or deeply rooted cultural traditions, special events require food as part of the process.

Normally, the special events that we do in the separate pastorates happen at different times and so my attendance at food events is staggered, allowing me some time to work off my indulgence before another one happens. I could, I suppose, set severe limits on how much I eat at special church events but the reality is that I pastor two pastorates full of really good cooks and food events are therefore one temptation that I really can’t resist. Both the old favourites and the new offerings are all so good that I struggle to resist going back the third time. Some separation between the pastorate special events is therefore a blessing.

However, the inevitable happened recently. Both pastorates had special events on the same Sunday—and both events were special enough that we had to have food. The first event was a community blessing service at the local wharf, followed by a potluck lunch at a community hall. That was followed by a hymn sing at the other pastorate, which included a pot luck supper. I did manage to get a break between the two, long enough to bring home one set of church stuff and dishes, take a quick nap and grab the second set of church stuff and food for the second service.

The services went well. The community blessing did bring a few community members to our service and hopefully raised our profile a bit in the community. The second, the hymn sing, was a regular part of our church schedule there and was well attended, including people for whom the hymn sing is an opportunity to check in with our congregation.

The first potluck was everything I expected: a new dish from an experimental cook that was both interesting and delicious; a soup from another that was great; some salads that fit well with the warmth of the day and some tasty deserts. In spite of my well thought out plan to pace myself in view of the next potluck, the table temptation won out and I had more than I needed—but it was really good.

After the quick stop at home, I was off to the second. As the sanctuary filled up, the hall also filled up with tantalizing smells and appetizing dishes. As I ran around between the sanctuary and hall doing all the stuff that pastors do before a special event, I can’t actually say that I was feeling hungry but the smells and visual presentations were interesting and actually tempting.

The hymn sing was good—everyone enjoys the opportunity to sing their favourite hymn and experiment with some new ones. And after the hymn sing, as I pronounced the benediction and the blessing, we headed for the hall. As usual, I hung back to greet people and do some pastoral stuff and that sort of thing. That is normal—but this time, there really wasn’t all that much pull to the food table. But eventually, I got in the line and grabbed a plate.

And then, well, that looked really good and I know this is always good and I have to try that and isn’t that interesting and is that really curry—and before I knew it, I had a plate full and was wondering if there was room for just a bit of that, which of course there was. Once again, I celebrated the giftedness and generosity of the people I serve—or I gave in to temptation. I prefer the first version of events, although I know there are some small minded people who would insist on the second explanation.

I did actually spend an hour on the exercise bike when I finally got home. That really didn’t erase the effects of the two potlucks but it did help me feel a bit more virtuous after the indulgence. Add to that the fact that the next potluck is a month away and that will only be one and I should probably be okay.

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 FAMILY OF GOD

One of the suggested activities for our family reunion was attending a worship service at the church where we all spent a lot of time while we were growing up. Given that there were 40-50 of us at the reunion, this could have the potential for being a major influx of people for a mid-summer worship service. I have to confess that I was hoping that no one organizing the reunion thought to let the church know that we were coming for purely selfish reasons—I was pretty sure that if they knew we were coming, I would be asked to preach, which I didn’t really want to do since I was going to be on vacation.

No one told the church and I didn’t get asked to preach. So, Sunday morning, we ended up walking from our hotel to worship since both our cars were needed by our children not to attend worship. It was a nice walk, just at the edge of my aging knees’ limits. Unfortunately, we arrived just as the church bell was ringing, not my usual 10-20 minutes early. We were almost the last of the family to arrive—I managed to jump head of one of my sisters on the steps.

The pastor greeted us, members of the congregation greeted us and just before worship began, the pastor asked if I would lead the pastoral prayer, which I declined, and if we would introduce ourselves once things began. Although we had all grown up in the church, if had been a long time since most of us were there and a lot of the congregation had changed.

We were well received by the congregation—the “new” people were pleased to have a larger congregation and to have some connection with the past. But the reaction of the people who were there when we were there was significant. There was genuine joy and appreciation. Some of these people had taught most of us in school and in Sunday School. Some had attended school and Sunday School with some of us. All of us had a significant set of memories and connections and emotional responses.

One of the women got up to read Scripture but prefaced the reading with an appreciation for our family, including some memories and her personal appreciation for being a part of helping us become who we were now. That triggered a lot of thoughts for me because I began looking at all the connections with those present and those not present. The woman reading the Scripture had been one of my school teachers. Her father had been Sunday School superintendent and had also hired me to help work on the extension to the church building while I was a teen.

One on the men whose presence I deeply missed had been the Sunday School teacher who happily volunteered to teach our group of teenaged guys all through our Sunday School tenure, a task that I know now was demanding and onerous but which he loved because he cared so much for each of us. As the pastor preached, I couldn’t help but remember the pastor whose ministry had covered my whole time at that church and who baptized all of us.

Going to worship that day was another family reunion. The Family of God is a deep and significant part of my life and my involvement in it really began in that congregation in that building. The reality of the Christian faith, which has been the basis of my career and my life, began for me in that congregation as people accepted this large poor family that started filling the middle pew one Sunday long ago. They took us in, found us a place in Sunday School, youth group, VBS, worship. They picked us up and took us home when Dad was working and the weather prevented us from walking. They nurtured and taught and played and corrected and made us a part of the family.

And so when we arrived on Sunday morning, we were as welcomed at the church as we were at the reunion site—and for similar reasons. We were family and we belonged. We might not have been there for a long time but we were family and when family shows us, everyone is happy.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE FAMILY REUNION

I come from a large family—I am the second oldest of nine. These days, we are scattered all over Canada, which is something of an improvement from the times when some of us have had international addresses. For a variety of reasons, we haven’t been together for a lot of years. A major factor in that has probably been that we have had no real family base for many years. Everyone in the family has moved out of the community we grew up in, the house has been sold and there was really no reason to go there.

But one brother has bought a house nearby and so this year, we had a family reunion. All but one of us attended, along with various partners, children, grandchildren, cousins and some whose relationship I am not totally sure of. For three days, we gathered, talked, laughed, ate and remembered. The hot, muggy, rainy weather didn’t create too many problems, although it made the family picture a bit more difficult and interrupted the camp fire.

Sometimes, as I was there, I was an observer. I love watching groups of people, seeing how they interact and fit together and structure themselves. I enjoyed the process of seeing who was being the extrovert; who was doing the work that needed to be done; who was talking to who; how the groups formed and reformed and all the rest. All the skills and abilities I have developed with groups of people over the years had a field day during the reunion. At one point, I was joking with my wife that maybe we should write an academic paper about the dynamics of the reunion.

That paper will never get written because although I can’t help but watch and analyse, I was a serious part of this group and so most of the time, I was participating. Well, I was participating in the stuff that a 66 year old with bad knees could participate in. I left “Capture the Flag” to the family members who have functioning knees. But most of the time, I was talking and joking and sharing with the rest of the family.

I was part of the ever shifting groups that spontaneously popped up as we caught up with each other, shared about the triumphs and tragedies of the past few years, reminded each other of this or that event. I got to know the next generations, many of whom were much older than they were when I last connected with them—some of them even have children of their own who were about the same age they were when I last saw them. I also had some time to connect fairly deeply with some of them.

At one point, one of the brothers brought the last contents of our mother’s apartment. While all of us had helped in the clearing out, these things were somehow missed and we needed to go through them, picking and choosing. That was a very mixed activity for all of us. The old photo albums were filled with funny pictures—my 70s and 80s hair was a source of much comment and laughter. But the other bits and pieces in the box brought other, sadder emotions—I found the watch that Dad had been given for 25 years at his work place which was exciting and sad at the same time.

At one point, I found myself sitting beside a great-nephew I didn’t know too well explaining who the people in the pictures were, helping him see where he fit in this collection of people—seeing a picture of his great, great grandparents helped him see more of the context of his life. Helping him see that helped me see more of the context of my life as well.

I don’t really know when or if we will get together again. Most of us are getting on and some health issues are beginning to show up. We talked about getting together again and I expect we will once someone is willing to take on the task of organizing and arranging the whole thing. I am not sure that as many of us will make it to another one (a sad idea) but I will look forward to the next one—maybe even I will help arrange it.

May the peace of God be with you.