I have been involved in some form of ministry for my entire working life. While I have mostly been the pastor of small, rural congregations, I have also had the privilege of serving as a jail chaplain, a teacher of pastors in Canada and Kenya and a pastoral counsellor. Part of the reason I do what I do is because I am deeply conscious of the calling that God has given me to the various forms of ministry I do. There have been times I have resented God’s calling, times when I have fought against it and a few times when I have asked, begged and demanded that God rescind that call. But in the end, I do both accept and appreciate the calling that God has given me.

Another part of the reason why I do what I do is because in the end, I like helping people. Now, I am pretty sure that is connected with the calling–it is one of the gifts or qualities or attributes that God has given me as part of the tool kit that comes with his calling. When God calls us to anything, he also provides the equipment that we need to follow his leading. But whatever the reason, I actually like helping people.

That can be a mixed blessing. We who like helping people do a lot of good for a lot of people but we can also do a lot of harm to a lot of people. A lot of the difference can be attributed to our motives for helping.

If I am helping people to satisfy my need to help out, I am probably going to cause more harm than good because I am more concerned with what I will get out of the process than what will really help in the process. I will likely end up diminishing the people I want to help because I put myself before them.

When my helping takes away the individual’s freedom to make their own choices, I have actually ceased helping them. When I do counselling for example, it really isn’t my place to tell people they have to stop doing something, no matter how destructive it might be for them. I can help them see the consequences of their actions, I can help them formulate different ways of dealing with stuff, I can even be willing to help hold them accountable. In some situations, I can and have told people I will have to report them to appropriate authorities but I can’t make them change. But I can’t actually make them do whatever it is that we are talking about.

Learning and remembering that one basic reality has saved me and those I minister to a great deal of pain, confusion and emotional turmoil. A real helper is one who has real and realistic limits. I can’t live another person’s life–and I can’t make them live their life the way I think it should be lived. I can only help them as they seek to deal with their own stuff as best they can. I can offer tools, support, counselling, accountability–but I can’t make them.

That means that there are a lot of times when my attempts to help are frustrated. It means that there are times when the proper and best response are really clear to me and the people I am trying to help and they still chose a lesser response. There are times when I get angry because of how hard I have worked only to have someone make poor or even self-destructive choices. There have even been times when I have had to stop my involvement because of the frustration.

But learning that limit has also been liberating and enabling for me in my ministry and my helping of others. I like helping–but I need to begin with the reality of the otherness of the people I am helping. They have a right to be themselves, even if I disagree with their definition of themselves. I need clear and strong limits on my helping so that I don’t try to take over their life or their issues. I am there to help, not to dominate or command or take over. As one poet from another age put it, “Good fences make good neighbours”.

May the peace of God be with you.




Sometimes, when I am in a counselling session with a troubled individual, I will use a question to help them get a hold of what it going on in their lives.  I will say something like, “What are you feeling?” or “How did (does) that make you feel?”.  A significant number of people will answer the question by saying, “I think…” and then going on to give a reasoned response that tells me two things:  first, they know what they should feel and secondly, they have no idea what they personally feel.  Often, I will keep asking the question, pointing out that they are giving me thoughts instead of feelings until they either tell me to stop or begin to see their feelings.

There are significant and deep connections between what we feel and what we think but they are actually two different processes and two different viewpoints.  We all feel and we all think–and in the long run, it is good to know the difference between the two as well as how they are related and interact.

My feelings affect my thinking–and my thinking affects my feelings.  The less I am aware of my thinking or my feeling, the more complicated the process becomes and the less I am in control of any of it.  For many people, the difficulty is that we don’t recognize or acknowledge our feelings–and that opens the door for those unrecognized and unacknowledged feelings to dominate my thinking.

I am an introvert, a reality which means I tend to be uncomfortable in large groups of people.  The larger the group, the more uncomfortable I feel.  Unless I can be assured of a certain amount of physical and psychological space, I have serious negative feelings.  So, when the possibility of going to something where there will be a lot of people, I need to take that into consideration.

If I don’t consider my initial negative feelings, I can think myself into lots of good reasons for not going:  parking will be a problem; it will be late and I am tired; it will cost too much; a riot might break out; it will be a great spot for a terrorist to strike; someone there might have the flu–well, you get the idea.  When I don’t take into consideration my feelings, my thinking falls into alignment with my feelings and gives me reasons for not doing (or doing) what my feelings want.

Now, when the feelings are about a crowded concert, that is one thing.  But my feelings can have serious affects on all my life.  If I was abused by a school teacher, I can and probably will let those feelings affect my entire view of education–especially if I repress the feelings and pretend that the abuse didn’t happen or didn’t affect me or doesn’t matter.  My thinking gets distorted by the feelings that I haven’t been willing or able to deal with.

From my perspective as a pastor and occasional counsellor, the solution to the issue of feelings dominating thinking is simple.  All we need to do is admit and accept our feelings.  As a pastor and occasional counsellor, I recognize that this can be a very painful, difficult and time-consuming process that is anything but easy.  Sometimes, it can seem to an individual to be beyond their ability, which is why God has given us pastors, counsellors and therapists of various kinds–having someone there to help us through the painful process of coming to grips with our feelings makes a real difference.

In the end, the more we recognize and understand and accept the reality of our feelings, the freer we are to actually live our lives.  Rather than be guided and directed by what we don’t know and thus don’t control, we are able to think better because we know all (or at least more of) the factors that have been causing problems.  We can take into account our feelings but we can also think of ways around them and ways to deal with them and reasons why the feelings can be ignored or deal with in a better way.

Asking people how they are feeling is an important part of my pastoral and counselling processes–and it can be a valuable tool for any of us.  The more we understand our feelings, the freer our thought process.

May the peace of God be with you.


The only phone I have these days is a cell phone which is used for both work and private conversations so I always have it with me.  Normally, I remember to turn the ringer off before worship and Bible Study and other meetings.  But this Sunday, I was busy and forgot to silence it.  Just before worship was to begin, it started to ring.  Since I didn’t recognize the number, I sent it to the answering function and turned off the sound.  We began worship and it started again–this time, I could feel the vibration in my pocket.

After worship, it rang again as I was talking to one of the worshippers.  Thinking it might be important, I checked and when I saw who it was, I excused myself and answered the phone–the caller wouldn’t have called unless there it was important.  After the culturally appropriate greetings, he asked me if I had got a call earlier.  When I told him about not answering, he explained that someone had called him and after telling they had had a long conversation at the Easter worship service, asked for financial help.  He didn’t know what to do so he gave the called my number, for which he now apologized.

The interesting thing is that a couple of weeks before this, I had been at meeting with other pastors where one of the participants told us of a scam phone call he had received.  The details he shared about his call matched exactly with the details the caller had given the person I was talking to.  I was able to assure my friend that this wasn’t a real problem but was a scam and I wouldn’t be calling the person but if he called me, I would give it all the consideration which it deserved.  I think he was relieved that it was a scam–the story he was told was a real tear-jerker and while he was a bit skeptical, he wasn’t completely sure.

This call was easy to deal with–I had some warning.  But that is a rarity–over the years, I, like most clergy, have had my share of desperate sounding phone calls from people looking for help.  Some are legitimate–and while I sometimes struggle to know how to respond, I want to help and try to find ways to alleviate the problem.  But the depressing reality is that many of the calls are scams.

Some aren’t even good scams.  This particular individual had done no homework–our Easter attendance was up to about 30 but even so, a stranger would have been immediately noticed.  Another from a long time ago began his story to a Baptist pastor by saying he had been playing poker while drunk and lost all his money–not a story designed to tug on my heart strings.  Every pastor I know has such stories because we are seen as easy targets.

I think Jesus probably had situations like this in mind when he spoke the words we find in Matthew 10.16, ” …be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (NIV).  As believers we have an obligation to help others in any way possible, anything from a cup of cold water to a helping hand on the way to reconciliation to God.  Often, helping people is going to cost:  time, money, effort, increased stress and so on.  But when we step in and become a channel of God’s grace to someone in need of that grace, we can rejoice.

However, when the person is a scammer, we can get depressed and cynical–and begin to ask questions and wonder if we should even bother.  Well, I learned an important lesson a long time ago.  If I want to help people, I have to accept the fact that I am going to get taken.  My best response is to be shrewd enough to weed out the most blatant scammers but innocent enough that I don’t cut off people who actually do need help but have a terrible story or questionable presentation.

For me, if the choice is between getting taken sometimes so that I can help people or not helping anyone so that I avoid being scammed, I am going to accept the reality that I will be scammed sometimes–but that does bring with it the more important reality that I will help people receive God’s grace a lot of the time.

May the peace of God be with you.


I seem to be stuck on the issue of helping this week.  That is probably because I am a helper and a helper to helpers.  It is also probably partly because I have seen and experienced some very poor examples of helping in my life.  As a pastor, I spend more time than most involved in the painful situations of life and have therefore had ample opportunity to see the best and the worst of helping and helpers.

I am also in a position to hear many comments about helpers from the people on the receiving end of the help–and the truth is that many helpers aren’t really very helpful.  In fact, they are often a cause of problem and difficulty for the people dealing with whatever they are dealing with.

I remember officiating at a wedding one time.  I was asked to do the wedding because the couple had family connections with people in the church I was pastoring at the time.  The couple didn’t have a church connection of any kind and by default, I was asked to do the wedding.  The family members were excited about the wedding, pleased that it was to be in the sanctuary they worshipped in on occasion and thrilled to be actively involved in the planning of the event.

At the end of the service, I breathed a sigh of relief and was secretly praying that there would not be another wedding in that family, at least until after I was called to another church far enough away that I would not be the default option for the service.   The problem wasn’t the couple–they were easy to work with and we developed a good relationship.  However, the family members in the church were significantly over-functioning in the process.

It was hard to schedule pre-marital sessions with the couple because the family members felt they should be involved–they has insights and ideas that would be helpful in the process.  The rehearsal was somewhat difficult with the family members telling everyone who was to be where, when they were to be there and what they were to do. Given the fact that they didn’t always know what they were talking about, that created some tension, as did the fact that I often specifically asked the prospective bride and groom about their preference, bypassing the family members.

At the wedding itself, I realized just how frustrating the help was when the family members tried to take over the signing process, grabbing for the various papers that needed to be signed before I could systematically point out to each signer what they were to sign.  After the ceremony and reception were over, the family members were so excited about how much they had been able to help in the process.

As for the couple–well, they were less impressed with the help and thanked me for dealing with the “help” and for giving them some control of their own process.  Me–well, I was glad the thing was over and that no wars broke out over the help being provided.  I also decided that I would definitely not be recommending them as wedding planners, at least not for weddings I was involved in.

I also realized again that we all need to think more carefully about how–and why–we are helping people.  The help we think we are providing may well be something we are doing to meet our own personal internal needs, needs that we may not understand or perceive.  But in meeting that need, we end up walking all over other people and in the process, complicating whatever process we think we are helping.

To really help people, we need to understand our motives and internal emotional drivers.  We are helpers for a variety of reasons, some of which are due to our own internal needs.  But we need to keep those needs in balance–when our needs become more important in the helping process, we have actually stopped helping and likely become a hindrance in whatever is going on.

Helpers are a vital part of life–all of us need help at some point.  But good helpers have learned how to respect the freedom of those being helped following the pattern set before us by God, who offers us all the help we need but respects our right to accept or reject the help.

May the peace of God be with you.


                        When I used to have an actual office, I frequently had people show up asking for something. Sometimes, it was fairly innocuous stuff:  someone wanting me to perform a wedding or borrow a hymn book or a get a photocopy made or needing some money for groceries.  Those were easy to deal with:  the wedding is fine as long as I am not on vacation; help yourself to the hymnbook; pass on the key to the photocopy room; make sure the person meets the church criteria for groceries.

But some requests were of a different nature.  Someone would come in or call and tell me about a third person who needed counselling desperately and would I see the person, preferable right now and with no previous contact.  The person making the request was trying to help–their friend was obviously in trouble and they were trying to help out by making arrangements for them to see me.

Often, the petitioner was surprised and even upset by my response.  I would tell the person that I would see the person–as long that the individual in question personally contacted me and made arrangements.  I would be treated to a recap of how serious the person’s problems were, of how they really needed to see someone now, of how this was the best way of getting them the help they needed.  Occasionally, there would be some anger and accusations that I wasn’t doing my job.  I would listen, tell the person I would be glad to see the person as long as they would make contact with me themselves.

This wasn’t just a ploy to avoid work.  I have lots of those and don’t really need more of them.  This was an attempt to make sure that the person in question wasn’t being railroaded into seeing me or didn’t need or want help.  Too many “helpers” end up trying to put both me and the person they think needs help in a very awkward position.  I decided a long time ago that it is much better to seek permission before stepping in to help someone.  So, while I am generally willing to see people and provide counselling, I want their permission first and that can only come from the individual, not from their concerned friends.

I sometimes run into people who obviously need to listening ear or a shoulder to cry on–I am, after all, a pastor and tend to spend a lot of time in situations where people are struggling.  And while I have been trained as a counsellor and find that counselling techniques come in very handy in my pastoral work, I don’t provide counselling without permission.  I can and do offer counselling to people but I never expect an immediate answer and I don’t counsel covertly.

There are occasions when I need to break this rule.  The day someone passed out in the worship service, I didn’t bother asking their permission before I ran to the office to call an ambulance.  When a parishioner suffers a loss or celebrates a milestone, I don’t ask permission before connecting with them–although I will call them first to see if it is a good time to see them so maybe I am actually asking permission more often than I realize.

I think it is important to have respect for the freedom that God has given us all–and that respect includes respecting an individual’s freedom not to get the help we think they need.  As I read the stories of Jesus’ encounters with people, he seems to have approached everyone with this kind of respect.  Rather than just broadcast help, he entered into a relationship with people and sought their permission before helping them.  In fact, he clearly asks one disabled person, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5.5, NIV). This, I think, becomes the pattern for the way we help others.  As long as they are conscious and able to make decisions, we get permission before we help.  To do otherwise it to reduce the other person to a less than human status.  We might see it as just helping out someone who clearly needs help but if we trample their freedom in the process, our help becomes a hindrance to them and  them and their continued development as beings created in God’s image.

May the peace of God be with you.