CHURCHES FIGHT

Recently, it was our church’s turn to lead the weekly worship service at a local nursing home.  It was my first time doing this since starting at the church but some of the choir had been there before.  I arrived early as always and chatted with some of the staff and residents as they gathered in the multi-purpose room that was our sanctuary for the afternoon.  One of the staff people had heard I had been doing some fill in preaching at another congregation, which prompted her to ask how things were going at that church.

That quickly lead to her talking about the recent struggles the congregation had, which lead several of the residents to talk about struggles that other congregations were having.  In the midst of the back and forth, a young woman staffer brought another resident to the room and as she was positioning the wheelchair, was obviously listening to the conversation.  Picking me out as the obvious pastor, she asked, “Do churches really have fights?”

I immediately thought that she was being ironic, since everyone knows that churches fight.  But it quickly became clear that she didn’t know this.  She didn’t have a church background and said that she just assumed that churches were supposed to be places where stuff like that didn’t happen.  It was difficult to follow up with her, interact with the others having the conversation and greet new patients coming to the service so all I was able to do in response to her question was assure her that although churches do fight, they are not supposed to.   With that, she headed off to other duties and I began the worship service.

Given the nature of life in small communities, I may or may not get another chance to talk with this woman–there is so much I would have liked to say about the church and its potential as well as its propensity to fight.  I do have a concern that she might write the church and the faith off because of this chance conversation–I hope and pray not but the reality is this may be what happens.

Churches do fight–and in rural areas like ours, everyone soon finds out about this reality.  Although only a minority of people in Canada actually attend worship or are actively involved in churches, we are all related in some way, shape or form and being human, we love to trade stories–I won’t call it gossip because that might be a good topic for another blog.  The woman at the nursing home who didn’t know that churches fight obviously hadn’t been a part of any such relationship net but I am sure that she will eventually know people who have been involved in and hurt by a church fight.

What bothers me is that in spite of this woman’s lack of knowledge, many others do know about church fights–and often, this is the only real knowledge of the church that they have.  This becomes the public witness of the church and the faith–we fight.  I know lots of churches in our area that are doing all kinds of good ministry, have good worship services, provide their communities with support and service and so on but mostly, if I hear about a church, it is because they had a fight, are having a fight or look like they are getting ready to have a fight.

I can’t stop churches from fighting.  I can’t stop the stories of church fights from spreading.  I can’t give everyone a long explanation of why churches fight and why they shouldn’t. What I can do is work with the churches I am called to and help them learn better ways to deal with their disagreements.  I can work with myself and learn how to better deal with myself in the context of the disagreements that I am involved in.  I can write and teach and pray things that will encourage the wider church to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable.

To me, the church is the place where people of faith are supposed to be–the gathering of believers called together to help each other grow and serve.  A church fighting itself is a complete denial of all that we are supposed to be and are called to be.  While I wish church fights were so rare that the staff person’s reaction was normal, that isn’t the case–but I can hope and dream and pray.

May the peace of God be with you.

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WHAT ABOUT MY CHURCH?

Although I have done many things in ministry–prison chaplain, missionary, theology professor, I have basically spend most of my life as a pastor, working with small rural congregations.  And although every congregation is different with its own dynamics and quirks and strengths and weaknesses, I think I have discovered a few things that are shared at least by all the rural congregations that I know.

The first is a generalized sense of doom.  Small congregations are always struggling.  They don’t have much money, the membership and attendance are dwindling, the average age is increasing, internal quarrels are getting more frequent and nastier, it gets harder and harder to replace key leaders like musicians and pastors, the building they meet in is getting older and older and needs more and more work.  Most such congregations feel that they are living on borrowed time, a condition that is expressed by a grim comment I hear now and then: “We are just one or two funerals away from closing.”  Normally, that is followed by the names of the one or two people whose contributions keep the congregation afloat.

That is the first and most obvious thing I see in the small churches I work with and know of.  At one point in my ministry career, I tended to get worked up and worried about the realities that the church was worried about–maybe not for the same reasons.  If I was the pastor, the imminent closure of the church meant that I would be unemployed.

I don’t worry about that sort of thing as much anymore.  Partly, it’s because the closer I get to retirement age, the less unemployment bothers me.  But mostly it is because I had discovered something else that all these congregations have in common.  If you can find the minutes of old business meetings of some of these congregations, you will discover that the church members have been saying the same things almost from day the church began–and for many congregations in my geographical area, that beginning can be anywhere up to 200 years ago.

Congregations are persistent–and it seems like small congregations have this persistence in abundance.  Something about their church touches their lives in a very important, deep down way that keeps them going on no matter what the realities they face.

I was doing some supply preaching last year for two small congregations that were giving serious thought to closing down permanently.  Money was tight, buildings were in need of work, they had no musician and couldn’t find a pastor–but didn’t feel that they could afford to pay a pastor anyway.  This was not the first time they had been at this point.

And every time they reach this point, they find a way to keep going.  Their church is important.  The small gathering of believers provides something in their life that can’t be found elsewhere.  They could close and go to other churches and would probably find something of whatever it is that keeps them together.  But being together, even if it is just for a worship service, meets a need in their lives and they keep going.  Will they close?  Who knows?  For now, they are still meeting for worship and are exploring ways of becoming a more active congregation–one of the members said recently that part of the problem is that they have no real mission.  We are setting out to find our mission these days.

Small, struggling congregations do close–there are a lot of empty church buildings in our area and other spots where congregations used to meet.  But there are even more that keep going, defying the odds year after year, finding unique and interesting way to keep going.  Their persistence comes from deep within–they have made a commitment to God and a commitment to each other, commitments that they express through the church.  A local congregation will not die until those commitments disappear.

But while those commitments exists, the church will continue.  Wise leadership will focus on these commitments, fanning the flames that keep the church going.  If these commitments are the focus, the other stuff becomes annoying but manageable.  We learn that we can sing without a musician, we can make some sort of repair on the building, we can find someone to preach and teach, we can work out the interpersonal tensions–all because of the powerful commitments to serve God and each other through the church.

May the peace of God be with you

WHAT ABOUT THE CHURCH?

Recently, a friend who has been involved in pastoral ministry even longer than I have asked me what I thought the future of the church would be.  It may be that since he had spent his life working in and for the church and was now sort of retired, he was wondering if his life’s work had any value.  Or it just might be that he was making conversation.

Anyway, the more I have thought about his question, the more complex and confusing it  seems to become.  The state of the church today is not an easy one to describe and therefore, the future of the church is even harder to describe.

On many levels, the church, especially the church in North America, looks like it is in trouble.  Attendance is dropping and those who do attend are getting greyer and greyer.  I led worship in two separate congregations yesterday, one with 12 people and the other with 17 people.  Both these congregations used to have much bigger congregations, full time pastors, Sunday Schools and even youth groups.  Now, these small groups carry on, faithful but asking serious questions about how much longer they will last.

The church is also in trouble in terms of its image.  I know more people who don’t attend worship than who do attend worship these days.  Spirituality has become a popular trend in western culture but the church isn’t often seen as a valid avenue to develop spirituality.  Even many whose spiritual journey follows the Christian path feel that they don’t really need to church–and have no problem expressing that lack of need and even encouraging others to avoid the church.

Even the church’s traditional public ministries of weddings and funerals are being expressed in different ways–and more and more, the church and its services are being ignored as people develop new ways to celebrate these transitions.

It is relatively easy to find all kinds of information about the decline of the church, the irrelevancy of the church, the dangers of the church, the evils of the church even.  Thanks to the Internet, people wanting to show the dangers and difficulties of the church don’t need a pulpit–they just need a keyboard and internet access.

And the real problem facing the church today is that no matter how biased the article, no matter how poorly written, no matter how slanted the perspective, no matter how awful the claims made against the church, everyone who writes against the church is tapping a deep vein of truth–the church today, as always, is not perfect.

And while some organizations may get to hide their imperfections behind PR firewalls and confidentiality agreements, the church’s imperfections–both real and imagined–get shouted from the rooftops for all to see and hear and pass around.  Even the most dedicated church member probably has at least one bad story about the church and since we live in the Internet age, that story can be and probably will be made public.

When we look at the very negative images of the church that are so common today and couple that with the statistical reality that in Canada, less than 20% of the population actually attend Christian worship regularly, things don’t look too good for the church.   If I were a new pastor just beginning my career in ministry, seeing all the negative concerning the church might encourage me to get qualified in something else just to be on the safe side.

But after looking at all the negative stuff, I still have to deal with the reality of my pastoral charges–the 12 and the 17.  I have heard some of their stories and will hear more of their stories in the future.  Some of those stories will be about negative stuff associated with the church in general and our churches in specific.  But next Sunday, we will still gather for worship.  We will sing some hymns and choruses, maybe even with an accompanist, and pray some prayers.  I will preach a sermon that most will listen to most of the time.  We will lament the lack of numbers even as we are shaking hands, hugging and asking how the week has been, if the cold in getting better and offering condolences for latest tragedy we have heard about.

We will be the church–for how long, we don’t know.  But for now, we are the church and we will do church stuff, even if it seems somewhat futile in the light of the stats and reports coming from everywhere and everyone.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE ART OF ENCOURAGING QUESTIONS

In one of my part-time congregations, we are experimenting with some different approaches to worship.  One of them began almost by accident.  I had just begun the sermon when someone in the small group of people there raised a hand because she wanted me to explain something I had said a bit more.  She kept apologizing for interrupting but I assured her it was fine.  The next week, it happened again, from someone else who had a comment about something I was saying in the sermon.

It became clear to me that we had a really opportunity here.  We could make the sermon more than just a one-way communication where I talked and the people listened at least some of the time.  And so at a meeting designed to deal with where we were going as a church, we decided to add a couple of things to our worship to encourage such interactions.  First, we put in a space after the reading of the Scriptures to allow people an opportunity to ask questions and  make comments about the Scriptures before the sermon.  And then, we made it a policy that the sermon could be interrupted at any point with questions and comments.

Since I am a teacher at heart, I don’t have a need to preach an uninterrupted sermon–and since we are a small group, we don’t have to worry about being overwhelmed by so many questions that we lose focus and degenerate into a free-for-all.  But more importantly, creating a climate for asking questions opens the door for real spiritual searching and growth for both me and the congregation.

It also means that we sometimes end up going places that I hadn’t anticipated when I prepared the worship and sermon.  One Sunday, I was looking at forgiveness in the sermon when  one of the people asked a very important question that seemed to galvanize the whole congregation (all 10 of them).  The sermon time essentially doubled as we looked at the question and the comments.  The whole congregation was really working together to understand the reality of God’s forgiveness in Christ.  As I watched the congregation and moderated the discussion, I saw smiles as people got some point in a real way; signs of deep thought as people confronted their established theology and a willingness of the part of everyone to listen and think and follow the discussion.  We got more out of that question than we would have if I had just preached the sermon.

Now, I know that this approach isn’t for every church–it works for our small group but I know it isn’t for everyone.  But I do think that every congregation needs a forum where people are not only free to ask questions and make comments but also are encouraged to do that.  Not every person in a congregation is going to be interested–asking questions is hard and challenging work and some people want clear answers, not difficult questions.

But there are people who have questions or who could have questions who are often left out in the cold.  Sometimes, congregations and their leaders actively discourage questions.  Sometimes, the culture of the congregations stifles questions.  And sometimes, people just don’t realize that there might be questions that need to be asked.  Whatever the reason, people who have questions are sidelined.

And that is a tragedy, I think, because some of us need to ask questions about our faith in  order to grow in our faith.  I would like to say that all believers need to ask questions in order to grow in their faith but I know there are some for whom questions are too hard, scary and/or challenging.  Those of us who need to ask questions need a time and a place where it is safe to ask our questions.

I have always tried to make the Bible Study time a safe place for questions and as well have encouraged people’s questions during the various pastoral contacts I have.  I have often wondered what it would be like to have questions during the sermon time but could never find a way to make it happen.  I was grateful for that first hesitant question and even more grateful that the rest of congregation wanted it to become a part of our regular worship.  I think the questions are going to help our congregation grow in a lot of ways.

May the peace of God be with you.

RECYCLED

About 35 years ago, my wife, our two children and I left Kenya after working there for a couple of years.  It wasn’t a planned or happy departure and we were struggling in many ways when we arrived back in Canada in January.  Among our basic requirements were a job and a place to stay–we could only live with family for so long

Eventually, with the help of some friends and mentors, I was called to serve as pastor of four small congregations who had been through some painful times of their own.  They had need of a pastor and were willing to supply a salary and a big old parsonage.  We moved in and I began work.  We spend almost 10 years there, years that saw both our family and the church grow stronger.  Our third child was born there.  Both my wife and I entered and completed doctoral programs.  The churches came out of their slump and grew in numbers and faith.

When we left, I think both sides had benefitted from that ministry.  I went on to other ministry, including more pastoral ministry, teaching part-time at a nearby seminary, and several  more trips to Kenya of varying lengths.  We always lived in the same area no matter what I was doing, except for the extended stays in Kenya so I was always in contact with the churches–we would run into each other in town; I was on call for pastoral emergencies when the pastor was away and spoke now and then at special events.

Recently, their pastor got married, resigned and moved away and the congregations were suddenly without a pastor.  A lot had changed since I left 25 years ago.  Numbers were down, the congregation was aging, the church buildings were showing signs of severe age–the “newest” building is over a hundred years old.  With the numbers being down, giving was down and the churches discovered that they really couldn’t afford full-time ministry any more.  If they were going to continue, they would need to down-size their ministry and maybe even sell their parsonage.

The pastor who was leaving passed my name along to the church leadership as someone who could help them design part-time ministry.  I have been doing part time pastoral ministry since the early 1990s and had even written a handbook to help congregations make the transition from full-time to part-time.  Since I knew a lot of the leadership, I was quite willing to volunteer my time to help them with their transition.

I was surprised at the meeting to discuss part-time ministry–they didn’t so much want to pick my brains about how to set up part-time ministry as much as they wanted to know if I would be their part-time pastor.  They were willing to change their time of worship to accommodate the other part-time position I was beginning and didn’t much care how the eventual ministry looked if I would be willing to accept a call to their congregations.

So, almost exactly 35 years after I began there the first time, I again stepped in the pulpit as their pastor.  A lot has changed for both of us.  While there are some familiar faces, there are also some who are conspicuously absent.  There are a few new faces, but not all that many.  All of us are showing the signs of the passing 35 years.  I used to hop onto the platform in one of the buildings, ignoring the steps–now, the steps are a necessity and a railing would be even nicer.

But I am there–recycling even works in the church.  I don’t know where God is going to lead us as we serve together.   I don’t know how long we will be together.  In fact the list of things I don’t know keeps getting longer and longer.  But I do know that for now, God has brought us back together and obviously has some plans for us.

Did I expect to be back when I left there 26 years ago?  No–but then, one of the wonders of following God’s leading is that we really don’t know where things will go.  But if we follow in faith, it is always an interesting trip.

May the peace of God be with you.

FOUR PEOPLE AND ME

            Just recently, I began a new ministry.  I am serving part-time as pastor of two small congregations that have been struggling for the past few years.  Last year, I began working with them as a supply preacher–showing up on Sunday to preach.  But of course, ministry can’t really be done like that or at least, I can’t do it that way.

Before too long, I was focusing my preaching on the congregation, helping them look at themselves and their real potential in the faith.  I did some funerals and made some pastoral visits.  As the months passed last year, the small group of 12-16 got re-motivated, began to see that they didn’t have to close and even began to see a future for themselves.

So, we met together and talked together and planned together and prayed together and worked out a plan that would have me working with the congregations 2 days a week.  The plan called for Sunday worship, a Bible study and some pastoral visitation.  The congregations closed for the winter with the service on Christmas Eve, filled with excitement for the ministry that would begin again on Easter Sunday.

And so we started.  And immediately, we hit our low point.  I showed up on Sunday morning, early as usual.  One member arrived–and since we have been friends for years, we had a chance to talk and catch up as time for worship got closer and closer.  Finally, another arrived and the three of us chose some music they could do without our musician.  Eventually, another arrived–by himself since his wife was sick.  As it approached time to start, a fourth arrived–by himself since his wife’s disabilities sometimes make it impossible for her to get out.

So, there we were–four people and me.  Now, I know exactly where all the others were:  some were not back from extended stays in places warmer than western Nova Scotia.  Some were sick and some were there every other weekend, and this wasn’t the every other weekend. Some were scared of the 2 cms of snow we received during the night.

I had worked hard on the worship service and sermon, seeking to build on the momentum and enthusiasm that had been so evident before we closed down last year.   But–four people and me?  How can you build on that?  Even knowing the reason for only four people and me and knowing that soon the others will be back and the numbers will climb, I couldn’t help but feel a bit down and discouraged.

But I started the service.  With just four people, I didn’t bother with the pulpit.  I stood in the pews just in front of the four people and we worshipped together.  We have been developing our own unique worship style and so there is lots of back and forth, discussion and questions, comments and laughter during our worship and even during the sermon.  And with only four people and me, it is much easier to have that kind of informal but meaningful worship.

The service finished, the four people and I talked a bit before we left, all of us sending greetings to the two wives who hadn’t made it to the service.  I was the last one out, making sure to slam the door (it doesn’t always close and lock properly unless it is slammed).  As I was driving home for a quick lunch and short rest before the service at another pastorate where I also serve part time, I realized that although I was disappointed that there were only four people and me, I wasn’t depressed nor was I discouraged.  Part of that was because I knew where all the non-attendees were and why they weren’t there.  But a bigger part was the realization that I had actually counted the congregation wrong.

It wasn’t four people and me.  It was actually five people and God–and God was the most important.  We were there because we believe that God wanted us to begin this ministry and if he wanted us to begin it, there has to be something there.  I don’t know where this is going but I do know that five people plus God is much better than four people and me.

May the peace of God be with you.

GROWING IN FAITH

As human beings, we like to count time–and on the basis of that count, assume certain things. For example, we tend to assume that a 30 year old will be more mature than a 10 year old. Someone who have been a sober alcoholic for 10 years is probably doing better than a person who has been sober for ten days. A Christian who have been a believer for 40 years is likely more mature in the faith than a believer who started in the faith 4 days ago.

In some cases, our assumptions based on time passage are true–yet there are enough exceptions that I have spent a lot of time thinking about this issue. For example, in working with families in crisis, I have seen 10 year olds who are much more mature in their handling of the crisis than their 30 year old parents. Almost any alcoholic will quickly say that the struggle to stay sober is just as difficult after 10 years as it is after ten days. And, honestly, some Christians have less spiritual maturity after 40 years than some who have been followers for 40 days.

The thing we have to realize is that the passage of time indicates the passage of time, not the development of character and wisdom and things like that. Character, wisdom, understanding and spiritual growth take more than just time.

One of the first requirements of spiritual growth is a clear understanding of exactly what spiritual growth is. And that is where I think we often run into serious trouble because many believers don’t have a clear idea of what spiritual growth really is. In fact, many of us whose roots are in conservative groups like the Baptist may not even be aware that spiritual growth takes more than just the passage of time.

I grew up during the age of Billy Graham. One of the ways the Billy Graham organization used to reach people for the faith was through film. There were a great number of professional quality films that churches and Christian groups could rent as part of their evangelistic outreach. I faithfully attended many of these films when they were shown in our building.

The movies were well made but somewhat predictable after the first one. The central character wasn’t a believer and the movie followed his/her life and the issues and difficulties and plot twists until that character ended up as a Billy Graham crusade and walked to the front in response to the sermon. Everyone involved with the central character would rejoice, the credits would roll and the group watching would be given an alter call as well.

After the first one or two, I began to feel that something was wrong with the movie and eventually realized that I was dissatisfied with the ending. For me, the movie ended in the wrong place. Becoming a believer should be the beginning, not the ending.

But for many conservative churches and their leaders, becoming a believer is the end. We tend to be focused almost exclusively on evangelism. But once people make a commitment, are baptized and counted in our annual report, we seem to forget them and move on to the next evangelistic event, hoping to bring even more in.

We generally don’t have plans and procedures for helping people understand their new faith and its effects and implications on their life. There might be a Bible study in the church but no real effort is made to encourage people to attend. There is likely some sort of training class for new believers but once they are baptized, there is nothing.

The end result is that a high percentage of people who are brought to faith end up drifting away from the faith. A few end up in other congregations but most simply drift out of the church. Those who stay are often faithful but not always faithful to Christian truth, mostly because they don’t really know what the faith stands for.

I remember growing up in the 60s when long hair for males was just beginning to become a cultural trend. Many in the church were convinced that long hair on men was a serious sin and churches and families had major battles over hair length–good Christian males sported a military style haircut, just like Jesus did. The historical fact that Jesus, like almost all men of his day, had relatively long hair was totally overlooked.

We do need to spend time as believers seeking to understand what Christian growth actually is and how it happens.

May the peace of God be with you.

CALLED BUT NOT READY

I began my involvement in pastoral training in 1970 and since then have been associated with the process of theological education of both pastors and laity in a variety of ways in several countries and several languages–some I understand and some I don’t (trusting an interpreter is an interesting experience). On a regular basis throughout that time, I have seen and heard several variations of a common misconception of the call.

Among theology students, for example, there is always at least one who will voice the comment, “I was called to preach, not to study”. Church members are often recruited at the last minute for some ministry and shoved into it with little or no training. When I was asked to teach Sunday School as a teen, I was handed a teachers’ book and shown my classroom full of 8-10 kids and went to work. I have known pastors who look at the congregation and arbitrarily call upon someone to pray or do some other part of public ministry with no preparation or training. While many professions have strict requirements for upgrading and continuing education, clergy, especially in the evangelical denominations have no such requirements at all, although to be fair, a few recommend continuing education and try to provide opportunities which tend to be underused.

It seems that many Christians believe that being called is the same as being ready. A person called to teach Sunday School, for example, just needs to dive in and get to work. A person called to preach only needs to stand in the pulpit to activate that ministry. Time spend on things like training and preparation and upgrading is time stolen directly from the ministry. In fact, there is a strong feeling among some conservative believers that education in any form is a satanic plot to destroy ministry.

The painful reality is that I was a terrible Sunday School teacher as a teen–I had no idea how to prepare a lesson, didn’t know how to deal with the problem kids in the class, expected them to listen to every word I said and know the answers to questions immediately. As a teacher of preachers, I have listened to more first sermons that is probably healthy and know very well that there is more to preaching than just standing behind a pulpit. Being called is not the same as being ready.

Most denominations recognize the truth of this when it comes to their professional leadership–there are various programs and requirements for ordained ministers to ensure that they meet certain standards. In spite of complaints from students and graduates of such programs, the denominations hold to the requirements in most cases.

But at the local congregation level, that is generally not the case. Very little effort is put into training people in their calling. Getting people into positions is the focus–as long as there is a name to put on a annual report, it seems that the church doesn’t care if the teachers can teach, the treasurers can count, the deacons can “dece” or the trustees are trustworthy.

While recruiters operate on this principle, it appears that members of the congregation operate on a different one. The most common excuse for not doing something in the church is “I couldn’t do that”, a comment that comes not from an unwillingness to do ministry but from a lack of knowledge.

Calling isn’t generally sufficient preparation for ministry. The calling, coupled with the gifts from the Holy Spirit, provides the individual with a clear understanding of their place in the ministry of the church. The calling and gifting will together provide the person with interest, some abilities and insights. But there is still a need for more information, more knowledge, more skill development before the individual is able to do effective ministry.

Congregations need to recognize the need for training for those who are called in order to help them develop the gifts they have so that the ministry they are called to can be done well. That doesn’t mean that every congregation needs to provide training for everyone–congregations can work together to provide that training.

Training can also become a required part of the process for involvement in a ministry–Sunday School teachers, for example can be required to take part in training events which the church supports through covering the costs for example.

It is vital for congregations to recognize that all are called to ministry of some form. But it is just as vital that congregations recognize the need to provide for proper training for those who are called. Just as a lack of response to a calling can cause serious problems to a church, so poorly done ministry can cause equally serious problems to the church’s ministry.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHEN ARE WE CALLED?

Some people knew what ministry God called them to very early in life–I was in high school when I first began to believe that God was calling me to s specific type of ministry. I had been a Christian only for a couple of years at that point but was aware that God wanted me for something particular–and began to fight against that calling at the same time.

I know other people whose call to a specific ministry came much later in their lives. Some of the became believers later in life so the lateness of their call can be understood in that context–God can’t really call someone to ministry if they haven’t first answered the initial to come to him. But there have been others whose calling seems to have been delayed until much later in their lives. Although he was in a very different situation from Christians seeking a call, Moses experienced his call to a specific ministry when he was 80.

This raises a question for me about when God calls people to their ministry, a question that is a bit complicated by a quotation from Jeremiah 1.4-5:

The word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart….” (NIV)

Theologically, this verse does reveal a reality that I believe–God knows what is going to happen in every life and so he not only knows who is going to be called to what but also how they will react to that calling. That doesn’t really answer the question of when people are called though. It does form part of the background in my thinking though.

I would suggest several factors are involved in the answer. First, we remember that God calls every believer to some form of ministry. Those who don’t know or believe this may not recognize God’s calling, somewhat like Samuel in I Samuel. He was called but didn’t recognize the call until it was explained to him by Eli. There may be many believers who claim not to be called who actually don’t recognize they are being called.

Some people who are called may recognize the call for what it is–but as happened in my case, the called one resists that calling. My personal resistance didn’t last longer than a few months, although it flares up now and then even today. But others I have talked to report resisting for years and years. To them and others, this could be seen as a delayed call–but the reality is that the answer is delayed, not the calling.

Another part of the answer is that we sometimes conceive the call to ministry in the wrong way. There is a tendency to see it as a lifetime commitment to teaching Sunday School or being the church treasurer or becoming a pastor. I and others have been known to joke that the only way to get out of a job in the church is to die.

But I have realized that the commitment we need to make is a commitment to following God and answering the call to ministry as a general commitment rather than a commitment to a specific ministry. God can and does change the specifics of the call to ministry. We see that clearly in those called to paid ministry–very few pastors spend their whole ministry in one congregation. As well, those of us who are wise in ministry realize that no matter how well what we did in one congregation worked, we will probably have to do something very different in new congregation. God calls us to ministry in general–but there may be several calls to different specific ministries.

I have also realized that some of the ministry I have been called to I like more than others. Some people may feel that being called to something they really like is their first call, while in fact they have been answering the call but just in a ministry they weren’t as excited about.

For all these reasons, I think the answer to the question of when God calls us is simplified. If we are believers, we are called to ministry. We may resist but that doesn’t mean there is no call. Our commitment as believers needs to include a willingness to answer God’s call to ministry and seek to serve him as he leads.

May the peace of God be with you.

IGNORING THE CALL 2

More than a few times in my ministry I have seen a situation develop in congregations that threatens actual existence of that congregation. There are many reasons for such situations but today, I want to look at one in specific. I don’t know how common this particular situation is–I think I have had personal experience of it once and have heard of a couple of others that may have had the same cause.

Since the title of this blog says we will are still dealing with people who ignore the call of God, it doesn’t take a great leap of logic to think that this particular problem grows out of someone ignoring their call from God. Some believers, as we have seen, are given a call to engage in what we know as full-time or professional ministry. I know very few people who actively seek such a calling. Almost everyone called to this form of ministry ends up following Jonah before we end up doing what we are called to do.

There are some, however, who manage to maintain the Jonah position for many years. This puts a great deal of strain on their life and faith. Some people I know who have done this have ended up drifting from job to job, church to church, cause to cause. It is hard to settle into a life when underneath it all, your spirit has been called and prepared for something else.

Many who are ignoring this call from God end up abandoning the church. They may also claim to have abandoned the faith as well. It is very hard to maintain a good relationship with God and his people when every moment in God’s presence is a reminder that he has something for you to do that you are trying to ignore.

If these were the only consequences of ignoring God’s call to full-time ministry, that would be bad enough. The emotional and spiritual pain of running from God is severe and serious and the resulting spiritual unrest will affect all of the individual’s life and probably affect their relationships as well. This running from God also affects the church because these Jonahs are not available for the ministry God has called them to do.

But there is another consequence that has even more serious effects for the church. A few of those trying to ignore their call try to continue in the church, perhaps reasoning that if they stay in the church and become active in a local congregation, God will leave them alone. While the thought process might sound reasonable, the result is something like allowing an alcoholic to become a bartender.

This individual is called by God to be a pastor of a congregation. By virtue of the call and gifts that go with the call, he/she looks at the congregation like a pastor would, seeing the needs and possibilities and challenges that many in the congregation might not see because that is not their calling. If the person running from the call were the pastor of the congregation, he/she would be the one called to deal with these things.

But in most cases, the congregation already has a pastor, whose calling and gifts are probably slightly different and whose understanding is probably a bit sharper as a consequence of being where he/she is supposed to be. In the best case scenario, the called pastor and the running pastor find a way to work together.

In the worst case scenario, the running pastor tries to take over the congregation in order to fulfill the call he/she has been running from. The congregation ends up being pulled between two pastors–one called by God to be there and one called by God but not to that congregation. The competition and conflict can easily overwhelm real ministry and result in serious harm to the congregation and its ministry. Results can include defections from the congregation, a nasty split, long term reputation damage, legal entanglements and serious damage to the work of God’s kingdom.

I don’t know how common this is–there are lots of congregational battles that don’t come from people ignoring their call to ministry. But I think I have seen it and the fact that it does happen makes understanding the nature of our calling and the need to follow it all the more important.

May the peace of God be with you.