The real reason for the visit

I thought I knew why I was there.

I mean, I go to visit people all the time. I visit folks who are first time worshipers with us. I visit others who are struggling with problems. I visit some who are recovering, sick or dying. I visit some just because that’s what pastors do. On site pastoral care is part of the job. But sometimes I learn the reason for my visit after I arrive.

I recently thought I was visiting a couple who had decided to join our congregation. Because of travel, hurricanes and family deaths, our meeting had been postponed for a while. We finally got together and had a really good conversation about church, ministry, the future and some of the uncertainties of life.

As often happens, ninety minutes passed like a moment. As I prepared to bring the conversation to a close and head home, something blipped on my radar. We had both lost a father in past three months. Her brief comment about grief, stress and sadness made me pause. I believe the Holy Spirit nudged me to stay, inquire, and listen to my friends talk about their loss. That’s the reason I was there.

Everything else we talked about, everything else on the agenda faded away as we shared stories about the last days of our fathers. She needed to speak. I needed to listen. Stories needed to be told. Stories needed to be heard.

I am thankful that I decided to simply listen. I wasn’t there to process a new member. Or answer their questions about our church. Or find out how they wanted to be a part of their ministry. I was there to listen to a grieving daughter mourn, remember and thank God for her father.

And I was there to mourn, remember and give God thanks for my father, too. Sometimes I forget that I am still processing this life-changing event from just a few months ago. Life moves on at such a fast pace that it’s easy to forget that we need time to figure all this out.

So, was this visit more for me or for them? Who knows? Probably both.

Ghosted.

Yep, it happened again. Been there. Done that. And it won’t be the last time, either. But now, I have a word to describe the experience: ghosted. You’ve been ghosted when someone you know suddenly breaks off all contact with you and disappear, like a ghost.

My most recent experience was with an older woman who worshiped with us for about four weeks. A few weeks gets you a phone call and a post card. Three or four weeks, and I call to thank them for coming and ask for a visit. this person, pretty quiet on a Sunday morning, was hyper-talkative when I called. I learned so much about where she’s lived, her husband who died about nine years ago, and her recent experiences with churches that prompted her to visit us. She had grown up Lutheran, felt at home, and asked me, “Can I join the church?”

“Sure,” I said. “We’d be glad to have you. I’ll see you Sunday.”

That was the last time I talked with her. She never returned to worship. Did not answer phone calls or reply to voice mail messages. I had been ghosted. Just like that.

Her elder said to me, “I talked with her. She isn’t interested in coming to our church anymore.”

On my side of the equation, I was puzzled. Confused. Annoyed. Okay, I’ll admit it, angry. Why would you say that? Why would you do that? If you don’t want to worship with us, that’s fine. Go where you feel comfortable. I’m OK with that.

Maybe I need to imagine myself in her shoes. Her last church hurt her. We were her “rebound” church. Nice for a time, but certainly not for a lifetime. We were just a rest stop in her spiritual journey.

And that’s OK. We are here to proclaim, to serve, and to minister to all sorts of people looking for hope, light, peace, forgiveness or direction. They may stay for a long time. They may just stop in for a moment. We may simply be a stepping stone. A motel.

Some church will be blessed because we preached the gospel, we made her feel welcome, we recharged her batteries for her next endeavor. They will be blessed by her presence, her worship and her prayers. It’s like an assist in basketball or hockey. People keep close track of those things, because you can’t win without them.

Top ministry moments – a few that didn’t make the cut

rosette-award-ribbons-yghvBvAfter writing about ministry moments from the past thirty years, I thought of a few more that didn’t make the top ten list.

  • Representing the circuit at the 1998 LCMS Synodical Convention in St. Louis, MO. It was very interesting to see the synod at work, and a great opportunity to meet up with friends from all over the country.
  • Giving the opening prayer for the opening session of the Iowa state legislature. Our church was issued an invitation, the senior pastor had done it before, so I got the nod.
  • In 2004, while our sanctuary was under construction, my good friend and Embry-Riddle flight instructor Jim Petrucci took me up in a single engine training airplane and we flew over the nearly completed building where we worship today. I got some cool pix.
  • For several years, my dear homeless friend Eric Zimmerman would meet me when I arrived to open up the church at 6:30 am on Sunday mornings. Intelligent and inquisitive, Eric still reminds me that the homeless have a name, a face, a family and faith.
  • Sharing a year of ministry with vicars from the seminary 2005- 2008. Thank you Brett, Eric and Brian for letting me be a part of your seminary education.
  • Getting “pied” several times over the years, including Lauren and Kirsten Perrotta’s first Sunday at our church.

Those are some that immediately come to mind. I reserve the right to add to this list in the future as I remember some more.

 

Visionless?

David Hayward recently wrote a few blog posts about being visionless. The way I read this, rather than being a church that is driven towards goals by mission and vision statements, a church could instead just be the people of God who freely shared forgiveness, compassion, mercy and the gospel.

One of the reasons his posts struck in my mind is because I’ve never been good at “vision casting.” I don’t feel like I’ve ever been able to express a compelling vision around which the church can focus its ministry. However, I am very good at identifying when the church is being the church, when it is reaching both in and out, ministering to people in an amazing variety of ways.

For me, the most amazing part of this is that I had little to do with it. Recently, I made myself a list of the outreach ministries our congregation was involved in, ranging from stocking the shelves of a local food pantry to leading after school Bible clubs to distributing quilts and prayer shawls. I had very little to do with starting these ministries (which number somewhere abound a dozen), and I’m not a part of their ongoing work. This all comes from the hearts and souls of an amazing collection of people.

The only thing I can remember communicating was that if someone had an idea for ministry, they had to make it happen. If it wasn’t heretical or illegal, they pretty much had my blessing and support. Slowly but surely, they took me up on the offer. And maybe that’s what my vision was all along.

Now what?

I remember reading somewhere that your most productive years as a pastor come during your seventh through fourteenth years with a congregation. I’m coming up on my fifteenth anniversary at this congregation this year, and my twenty-fifth in pastoral ministry. Hence my question: now what?

Lately I’ve been asking questions like, “Do I have anything left to say?” or “Is there anything they haven’t heard?” Other questions include, “Is anyone actually listening?” and “Are my messages becoming predictable?” How about, “At what age do you begin to lose the ability to communicate with younger generations?” and “Can they tell how much I don’t want to be at this extremely boring meeting?”

In the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, you don’t leave a congregation until you receive a call to another congregation, retire, die, or get kicked out for doing something immoral. I haven’t had a call for over 12 years, am a bit too young to retire, and am trying to avoid the last two. So it looks like I’m going to be here for a while longer, hence the question, “Now what?”

One obvious answer might be, “Just keep doing what you’re doing.” Sundays and seasons of the church year will continue to come on a regular basis, and so will planning and preparation for worship and preaching. There will be meetings to attend, visits to make, classes to teach, and special occasions like weddings and funerals. Much is predictable.

But another answer could be, “Do a little less.” By that, I mean be sure to get others in the church involved in teaching, visiting, meeting, planning and preparation. Step back so that the church is more about participating than spectating.

Yet another response might be, “Try something new.” Last year I got to accompany a medical team to Haiti. I stopped writing out my whole sermon and began using a storyboard method to compose my messages. I also began uploading the audio files of my sermons to the Internet. I know there will be some new opportunities this year. I just don’t know what they are yet, so it makes sense to leave a little room in my schedule for them.

I guess the religious sounding answer would be, “What God wants me to do.” Which on any given day could be any combination of the above. In some ways, you don’t know what that is until you get there, so “What’s next?” might be a question I need to ask each day.

Why doesn’t our church do that?

“Why doesn’t our church do that?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that question. Another church, near or far, does something newsworthy, and the first question is, “Why aren’t we doing that?” It’s a good question, and I’ve thought about a few responses, some better than others.

When I first hear a question like that, I’m tempted to think, “Great, something else I have to do.” That is not at all true. It is just an opportunity, and more specifically, an opportunity for the person who brought it up to get involved. We should assume that if someone notices a need for ministry, then God is moving them to get involved in that ministry. So a better response is, “That’s a great idea. What’s your plan? Who are you going to get involved?”

But as I think about it further, I believe we also need to stop thinking about competing with other churches. If a congregation is doing a ministry, then we are too, if we truly believe that the “church” is just more than our local congregation. In effect, if another church is doing it, then our church is doing it, too, and the question becomes, “How can we can join them in their efforts?” We do not need to reinvent or clone every ministry, but can enhance what God is already doing. Maybe that’s part of the message he’s sending when we wonder, “Why aren’t we doing that?”