THOUGHTS DURING WORSHIP

Because of the fact that I am a pastor, I rarely get to attend worship where I am not involved somehow in the leadership of the service.  That means that my involvement in worship tends to focus on what is going on and what I need to do next and how the worship is flowing.  In addition, because I am a pastor, I am also watching the congregation picking up clues and hints and indications about how they are reacting to the worship as well as how they are in general.

However, that isn’t all that I think about during worship.  At one recent worship, I came to worship in pain.  I am not sure if I overdid walking or the change in weather affected me or I was sitting too much but my knees and shoulders were seriously painful.  Standing to lead worship was tolerable, although I took the two steps up to the pulpit area a bit more slowly than sometimes.  But when I announced the offering and sat down, I noticed something.

The pulpit chair is really low–and the creaky knees that I currently possess did some severe protesting at the extra distance to sit down.  Normally, I grab the chair arm and use that to take some of the strain–but the shoulder taking that strain decided it was going to lodge a protest.  I did set down but to be honest, it is more like I fell the last inch or so.  Since the choir does their special right after the offering, I had a few minutes to recover–and wonder if I would be able to stand up after the special.

Now, I am not alone having such issues. There were at least 3 canes and one walker in use during that worship service–remember, we are an older congregation.  I know for a fact that I am not the youngest person there but that particular day, there were only about 4 people younger than me there.

But as I was sitting in that way too low chair, listening to the choir and wondering if I would be able to stand without looking like my knees were in open rebellion, I wasn’t thinking too much about the others in the congregation.  I was thinking about my knees, my shoulders and the fingers on my left hand, all of which seem to have decided that arthritis was a good choice.  I was conscious of being 65, conscious of not being able to do what I used to do, conscious of having to think through even simple physical activities like standing up from a too low chair without further upsetting my knees.

I am getting old.  Now, I know that aging is a state of mind and that we are only as old as we think we are and that my attitude makes a difference and that 65 really isn’t old anymore.  I have heard all the platitudes, I may actually have used them now and then, hopefully not to shut someone up as they talked about their struggles with aging.  But in spite of all the propaganda to the contrary, aging isn’t a picnic.

I hurt–and that is a direct result of living for a certain number of years. I am tired a lot–and that is a result of just not having the energy I used to have.  I forget things–well, to be honest, that has always been a problem and has stayed about the same over the years.  But I do notice a decline in what I can do and in my level of physical comfort.

What am I going to do about all that?  Well, when the choir finished their selection, I grabbed the arm of the chair, put my painful knees under me and levered myself up to begin the prayer time that came next in the order of service.  I carried on with the worship, preached my sermon, concluded the worship service, carefully stepped down the two steps and then, at the impromptu meeting to arrange our annual tea and sale, volunteered to be there pretty much the whole day.

Which is to say that I am getting older, I have more aches and pains, I am slower and more limited in what I can do but I am adapting and I am going to do what I can while I can as much as I can.  Learning to live with and around my limits just might be a sign that I am developing some maturity.

May the peace of God be with you.

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NUMBER 80 AGAIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

NUMBER 80

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

WALKING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING TIRED

One of the interesting dichotomies I see among pastors who have been in the business for a long period of time concerns what happens after retirement.  Some never seem to really retire.  They announce their retirement, leave the church and then within a few days, are announcing that they are now the interim pastor or permanent supply or part-time pastor somewhere.  When they are done there, they announce another retirement and then within a short time, are announcing another interim or supply or part-time position somewhere else.  I occasionally joke that such people just love retirement parties.

Another group retire–and they actually retire.  Some might do some occasional supply preaching but they even set limits on that.  They turn down requests to be interim or part-time.  They avoid long term supply preaching.  Some actually stop everything associated with public ministry.  They attend worship but avoid teaching Sunday School, becoming deacons or anything like that.

Because my favourite all time question is “why?”, I wanted to know what the difference was.  My initial working hypothesis was that somehow, the stop group were better and gave more of themselves to the ministry and therefore were spiritually and vocationally worn out.  That would mean that the keep going group probably didn’t give as much of themselves and therefore weren’t affected as much.

But although there was some evidence this was the case, there really wasn’t enough to prove the case conclusively and there was enough lots of conflicting evidence.  Two good friends who have recently retired are in the stop group and they were good, caring and hard working pastors.  But others, equally hard working and caring, are on their second or third retirement.  There was also the example of two equally good, equally caring people in identical high profile ministries.  One retired so many times he is probably listed in the Guinness book  of records.  The other rarely did anything ministry related after retirement.

So, why am I looking at this and thinking about this?  Well, I am retirement age but not retired.  It is coming, though.  I can’t see the handwriting on the wall but know that the pen is probably in position.  Then I will have to decide if I am going to retire once or become a serial retirest. (I know that isn’t a real word but it works–my blog, my choice).  Right now, I can’t imagine wanting more than one retirement.

The best answer I can give to the whole issue right now is that we are all different and therefore our response to ministry is going to be different.  Just as we all have different levels of physical, emotional and spiritual energy, so also we have different levels of vocational energy.  The demands of ministry are going to affect us differently, depleting our stores of energy at different rates.  The cycle of our ministry is going to have an effect.  I am pretty sure that if I hadn’t had a break from pastoral ministry in the form of a couple of years teaching in Kenya followed by a depressing year of unemployment, I would have been ready to retire and retire in the stop category by now.

Since I probably lean towards the stop category, I think I understand the need some people have to finish and not go back.  This doesn’t mean we give up on life–a retirement with no focus and no activity and  no reason to enjoy life will be a short retirement.  The statistics suggest that people who give up everything on retirement tend to die early.  But for some of us, that point and focus of life will likely have to be something very different from whatever we did in our working life.

Ministry, because of its demands and stresses is going to make some people really tired–and that vocational fatigue isn’t the sign of a lack of faith or doing too much or too little.  It is simply one more sign that God has made all of us different and that one size (or plan) doesn’t fit all.  In the end, I really don’t know for sure when I will retire and I don’t know how many retirements I will have.  But I do know that when I am ready, I will listen to myself and to the Holy Spirit and do what seems right at the time, based on my needs and the leading of the Spirit.

May the peace of God be with you.

CYCLES OF LIFE

Fall has arrived, at least unofficially.  That means that life in the churches I serve shifts into another pattern.  Our summer pattern is being pushed aside by the demands of the fall pattern.  All churches that I know have different patterns depending on the time of the year.  Most, for example, have a more relaxed and less structured summer schedule–with people going away for vacations and so on, summer definitely isn’t the time to be introducing new ideas, new programs and new deeply significant sermon series.  Fall–well, generally people are ready for something new and different and even challenging.  But it has to be something that will fit nicely into the time frame allowed before the Christmas season overtakes us.  And of course, after Christmas, we are in the midst of the winter season where we can’t really predict which program or Sunday sermon will get wiped out by the coming blizzard.

I have always been a pastor of churches whose members are connected to farming and fishing.  That means we generally have to consider the cycles of those activities in our church planning process–there is really no point in planning a men’s retreat at the beginning of fishing or farming season.  It probably isn’t all that wise to plan the retreat for the first weekend of hunting or sport fishing season either, at least in the rural areas that I work in.

When I worked in Kenya, I had to learn to become familiar with the rainy season cycle and its associated activities–and since Kenya has two rainy seasons, that meant switching gears twice a year.  I learned not to plan road trips to rural congregations during the rainy season because good rains means good crops and bad roads.

There are other cycles that are less frequent but which also need to be taken into consideration.  Election cycles have some effect on our lives and therefore our churches.  Child bearing and raising cycles affect what we do.  The school year makes a difference as does the boom and bust cycle of some resource based jobs.

In our lives, we live through some significant cycles.  Education, dating, starting families, changing jobs, aging and its related issues all are part of large human cycles and all affect what we do and when we do it.

Sometimes, when I look at all the cycles and patterns and so on, I actually wonder how I am going to get anything done at all. Fall is here–but my fall planning will be interrupted by Thanksgiving (here in Canada, Thanksgiving is in early October).  Post Christmas planning is always iffy and many people don’t even want to think about doing anything beyond basic programs until March–because you never know when there will be a snow storm.

In the end, all of our lives are tied up in a variety of cycles.  There are repetitive seasons and events and times and the best thing we can do is remember then and consider them and work with them.  It tends to make things a bit more complicated by ignoring the cycles becomes even more complicated–the men’s retreat at the beginning of the spring planting cycle really isn’t going to be particularly well attended event–nor is preaching a critical sermon on a warm dry Sunday in the middle of haying season.

As a pastor, I need to keep track of all the seasons and cycles and repetitive things–but I also need to be able to look beyond all of them and have a sense of where this is all going.  It become a bit like following a compass course in the woods.  If you spend all your time looking at the trees close by, you quickly get off course.  To get to where you are going, you need to look along the compass course and ignore the close trees to find a distant landmark that can be clearly seen and head towards it.  Then, you can circle around tress and swamps and holes and rocks and whatever else it in  the way because you can see where you are going.

As a pastor, I see and know the cycles of life in the church–and then try to look beyond them to see where God is leading us.  That landmark helps all of us keep moving the right way.

May the peace of God be with you.

TOMORROW

When I got my first job after graduating with my Masters, I discovered that I was enrolled in a pension plan–well, actually two of them if you count the government pension plan that was also reducing the take home portion of my pay cheque.  I have to confess that in my early 20s, the idea of a pension plan was only mildly interesting.  The demands of student loan repayments, married life and the expenses of starting out after university meant that if I had been given an even choice, I just might have tossed the pension plan for a few extra dollars every week.

Fortunately, I didn’t have an option about making that choice–both the government and my employer required that I give them money every pay period.  Without any attention from me, the pension money disappeared from the pay cheque and showed up in a statement that came once a year.  Since I was young, busy and couldn’t do anything with or about the money, I tended to ignore it, at least until a few years ago when the state of my pension became important.  As I got closer and closer to retirement, I paid more attention to the annual statements and now that the fund is computerized, I occasionally peak at the accumulating amount.

For all my working life, that pension has been there, generally growing (except for years with economic downturns) and sitting there having an effect on my future without my paying much attention to it.  But when the time comes that I actually decide to retire, I am going to be very glad that decisions about my future was made a long time ago.

Now, in a lot of other areas of my life, I have been concerned about my future and have  taken a fairly active part in preparing for tomorrow.  I choose university courses and programs with an eye to the future.  I decided on advanced education because I was looking ahead.  A lot of my work in ministry involved and involves looking ahead and trying to structure the present to enable certain things to develop in the future.  I chose to begin  a serious exercise regime early in  life to prevent certain health issues in the future.  We began putting money away for our kids’ education shortly after each was born.

In short, I, like a great many people, was living partly in the future.  I was and still am willing to defer things now because of some future benefit.  Less money now meant more money in the future.  More exercise now meant better health tomorrow.  This meeting in the church today meant we could begin that ministry next year.

Well, actually, the best we can actually say is that if we do this stuff today, it might have an effect on tomorrow.  I can’t actually guarantee that I will live long enough to spend my pension money.  I can’t guarantee that this sermon series will produce a healthier church in five years.  I can’t guarantee that my kids will want to go to university.  I can’t even guarantee that  the lawn mower will start in an hour or so when I run out of excuses to avoid doing the lawn.

With no guarantees, why plan?  There are actually lots of people who live for today and who seem to be doing quite well.  Living in the now is something of a mantra for a lot of people today.  The idea of pensions, educational saving plans, exercise plans and ministry plans is something of an anathema to many people, some of whom are quite willing to quote Matthew 6.34 as support, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (NIV)

And, as with all Jesus’ words, there is a powerful truth here.  We can only live right now.  But right now does become tomorrow and because most of us will inhabit tomorrow or a certain number of tomorrows, we really can’t ignore tomorrow.  Statically, the likelihood of tomorrow coming is pretty good and the likelihood of our being around tomorrow is equally high so it makes sense to give it some thought.  We can’t live only for tomorrow–but we do need to keep an eye on tomorrow since we are likely going to get there.  It is likely better to have the pension and not get to use it than not have it and need it.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE PLANNING PROCESS

            I make a lot of plans.  I am an organized, structured person and like the sense of security a good plan and effective schedule provides me with.  My daily schedule promises me that I can get the things done that I need to do and want to do and allows me to work and play well.  I have parts of the plan on my phone calendar, part of it in my mind and part of it is so automatic that I don’t even think about it or write it down.

When it comes to my work, I like to have structure.  I don’t like having to decide on Tuesday what I will be preaching about on Sunday.  I like to have at least three months of sermons planned ahead, with at least Scriptures, themes and a sense of how the sermon fits into the overall ministry of the church.  Big events, special events and so on all get entered into the plan and I can work on them as I have time.  I have a daily schedule, a monthly schedule, a seasonal schedule and a yearly schedule.

And with that, you might begin to think that I am an overly structured, somewhat rigid individual who tries to make the world fit my schedule.  You might be right, except for the fact that I am also a pastor, a part of a profession that is notorious for its assaults on carefully planned schedules.

Certainly, there are parts of ministry that are rigidly scheduled.  Worship takes place at a certain time every week, barring snow storms.  Bible Study occurs every week at the same time and generally at the same place.  Certain people are going to call or drop in at pretty much the same interval month after month.  These predictable and scheduled things are like the footing wall around ministry.

But beyond that, predictability goes out the window.  Real ministry involves working with real people who have real issues at real times–and they don’t pay much attention to the schedules and structures of the pastor.  I have come to expect that unexpected at the most inopportune times.

I might schedule the few minutes before people begin arriving for worship as a time to mentally and spiritually prepare myself for leading worship–but once people get used to the idea that I am there early, those who just need a minute or two show up early, sometimes just to chat and sometimes to drop the bombshell that they have cancer or are moving away or are getting a divorce.

I might schedule the early morning for study and writing–but the person worried about their spouse in the hospital just wants help now.  The family that suffers a death in the night doesn’t really care that my schedule calls for me to be asleep at 2:23am–they need a pastor right now and don’t consult my schedule before making the call.

Ministry is conducted in the context of some rigid and scheduled events and a great many unpredictable and therefore impossible to schedule events which often must be dealt with right then in spite of what the schedule says.

This can be a recipe for chaos and all of us in ministry probably struggle to deal with the chaos.  Some approach it by ignoring schedules.  Ministry becomes a series of opportunities that require the pastor to hop from one thing to another, finishing the sermon during the second hymn and choir selection and doing Bible study on a wing and a prayer.  They hop from one thing to another and somehow, everything gets done, sort of.

Me, well, I prefer to schedule and structure and then revise the structure to account for the emergency.  I can flow from event to event, coping with the emergencies and still have the sermon done before the worship actually begins.  And because I am scheduled and organized, everything gets done, somehow, sort of.

Working with people is inherently chaotic.  Human life has twists and turns and surprises and the unexpected all over the place.  I find it easier to cope with the unscheduled by having a schedule to provide a foundation.  Others find it easier to forego the schedule and get right to the chaos.  In the end, as long as we end up helping people discover the love and grace of God, which approach we take depends more on who we are and what we need to feel at peace.

May the peace of God be with you.

SUMMER IS OVER

            The other morning, I work up at my regular time and as I headed for the exercise bike in the basement, I stopped as I always to check the outside temperature.  The thermometer told me that while it was slightly warm 22 (Celsius) inside, it was only 11 outside.  Later, I was outside and the air had a fall feeling to it, that almost indescribable combination of coolness, a hint of moisture and a slight promise of frost in the next few weeks, overlaid with a touch of fog.  I enjoy that fall feeling–but that morning, it bothered me because it meant that summer was coming to an end.

Now, I know that summer isn’t over and that here in Nova Scotia, we can and will get some really nice summer weather for another month or two but the reality from a work point of view is that summer is pretty much over–in a couple of weeks or so, the churches I serve go back to their regular schedule.  Generally, for someone like me who likes schedules, that isn’t a problem.  The predictability and regularity of the schedule helps a lot in ministry where the unpredictable and irregular keep popping up.

Nor does the end of summer upset me with its hint of colder things to come.  I am not a summer worshipper.  Hot, sunny days are nice but cold, snowy days with some wind and double digit wind chill are better.  Shovelling snow beats mowing lawns any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

The reason that fall feeling bothered me was that I had planned on accomplishing some things this summer that are going to be pretty much impossible to accomplish in the short time remaining before the regular fall schedule starts up.  Normally, I use the summer to accomplish a couple of things: to repay myself for all the extra time I put in during the regular church year and do some advance work for coming fall season.

I am a part-time pastor but ministry is full-time and can’t really be done with an eye on the clock.  But normally, there are times when nobody cares if I goof off instead of visiting them or go for a long bike ride instead of working on the Bible study or skimp a little (or a lot) on sermon preparation so I can work on the preaching plan for the fall.   The sleepy, warm days of summer are perfect for constructive goofing off and planning and preparation.

So, last June, I looked at my large accumulation of overtime hours and counted the days until summer when I could do something about that.  Early in July, I was actually on track–we took a week’s vacation and then added another few days to work off some overtime.  But that was as far as it got.  The rest of the summer was hectic–illness that required pastoral care, special events that took more time to prepare and attend, pastoral visits that couldn’t wait until fall.  The opportunity to take time off got pushed further and further into the summer, the time to prepare for fall kept getting pushed to next week–and then suddenly, I woke up one morning to the smell of fall and the calendar bluntly telling me that there was no more room to push ahead what I was planning on doing this summer.

I can, of course, tell myself that with the coming of fall, things will get back to a regular routine and then I can find some space to accomplish what I didn’t accomplish over the summer.  And that will happen–my advance planning will get done, although advance planning might be one day before I actually need it.  And the time off will come–we might get an early winter and have some snow days in November and I seem to remember once in the distant past when we actually has a snowstorm in October.

I am bothered–but not deeply bothered.  I am doing what I am doing because I believe this is what I am supposed to be doing.  While I might end the summer a bit more tired than I planned on being and a bit less prepared for fall than I planned on, I am still doing what I am supposed to be doing and enjoying the sense of still being able to respond to the God who loves me and calls me to this task.  Eventually, I will find time to take time off and I will get the prep work done–and in the meantime, I am comfortable with where I am.

May the peace of God be with you.

LEARNING TO HEAR

Like most people engaging in a new career, I made a lot of mistakes in my early years of ministry.  I still make mistakes at this late stage of my career but hope that I have learned to avoid some of the more serious ones from the early days.  A lot of the early problems came from not knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore–I hadn’t developed a sense of ministerial selective hearing.

I was noticing and seeing all sorts of things.  This couple was obviously having a struggle in their marriage.  That individual has an addiction problem.  That teen is heading down the wrong road.  Those parents are going to cause their child serious problems.  This congregation really needs to understand their faith.  That deacon is terrible at his calling.  These people need to make more effort to share their faith.  The things I was hearing and seeing were endless and with very little effort, I could easily have waded into the deep, murky waters of ministry and quickly been overwhelmed.

Fortunately, I had some fantastic mentors who helped me discover that seeing or hearing something wasn’t the same as being responsible for it.  I learned that what I was hearing and seeing needed to be processed through some important filters that would help me determine what needed attention and what kind of attention it needed.

Among the filters I learned to use was an awareness of my limitations.  Early in ministry, as a single pastor with no children, I might notice issues in marriages and in child rearing, but the real truth is that I had no experience with either and no credibility beyond that course I took, a course that really didn’t qualify me to intervene in such things.

I also learned to make use of the filter described in the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink”.  Some people are deeply attached to what I consider problems.  They may be unwilling or unable to deal with them or give them up.  While I might be able to help them, I really can’t help them until they want help–to try and “fix” things when they don’t want them fixed creates problems for all of us.

I learned another filter.  This filter involves the reality that other people likely see what I see and may already be involved and my help, no matter how well meaning it is, probably does nothing more than get in the way of what the other people are doing.  If the other helpers are making a difference, I need to help by allowing them to do their job.

I also learned to filter by time.  In any given congregation, even small ones like I serve, there are lots of issues and problems and things that would benefit from someone doing something.  If I see and respond to everything, I could be busy 24-7 and arrive at worship on Sunday morning with nothing to say during the sermon time because I was busy helping people.  Of course, that would only be a short term problem because the ensuing burnout would do away with the need for sermons.

Not everything needs to be dealt with right away.  Certainly, there are some critical issues that need to be deal with immediately–but sometimes, I need to be the person who defines criticality, not the nosey neighbour down the street or the well meaning friend who tends to make mountains out of a grain of sand.  And sometimes, I even need to avoid buying into the individual’s sense of how critical their situation is.

The end result of all this filtering is that I hear a lot and act on a lot–but sometimes, the action is to postpone, delay or ignore.  This isn’t because of a lack of concern or laziness or unwillingness to do my job.  It comes because I have learned to be strategic about ministry. Not everything I perceive needs to be dealt with right now by me.  In fact, I have learned that in the end, some stuff doesn’t need to be dealt with anytime by anyone.

I have also learned to trust the leading of the Holy Spirit–opening myself to this leading has proven to be the best filter possible for me.

Because I have learned to use some filters, I am more able to respond appropriately to the things that need a response when they need a response.  I may have selective hearing in my ministry but I think it makes my ministry more effective for both me and the people I am called to serve.

May the peace of God be with you.