It is once again a season of growth for our community and our congregation. So, I find myself out visiting a lot of individuals and families who have come to worship with us and expressed an interest in our church. With at least two first-time guests each week, this is keeping me pretty busy and pretty much out of trouble. For now.
In the course of conversation, folks will share their church background and experiences with me, including what their last pastor was like. Sometimes he or she was awesome. But more often than not, I hear a lot of disparaging comments about ministers and ministries. Some of the stories are unsettling, including tales of affairs, embezzlement, addiction and fraud. Others are filled with disappointment, discouragement and disgust.
These conversations always make me feel a little uncomfortable. I do not need to be reminded that every single pastor is a sinner in desperate need of grace. I already know that from personal experience and reminders from those who know me well. I also feel sad as I sit and listen. I’ve had great relationships with a lot of people in the church. I wish more had similar experiences.
The thing that occurred to me the other day was that on any given day, someone is probably talking about me that way. No, I haven’t done anything illegal. But I know I’ve angered, disappointed, aggravated, irritated, ignored, dismissed, insulted, and confused many who have come through our doors. They’re not telling their next pastor nice stories about me. I’m the one who let them down.
It’s good to keep this in mind. It’s humbling. It reminds me not to think too highly of myself. It also sternly reminds me that my self esteem is not built on the failings of others. My worth comes from Christ’s love for me.
The first two weeks were great. Five high schoolers came for week one when we tried to smash coconuts. The bible lesson was about Deborah, and Jael who drove a tent spike through the enemy general’s head in the book of Judges. It wasn’t so easy to drive a spike through a coconut, so we simply smashed it with a sladgehammer.
Seven middle and high schoolers came on week two for feats of strength and airing grievances. We talked about Samson and wise vs. foolish choices. The discussion kind of lagged until we talked about the Festivus custom of airing grievances. The room came to life. That they wanted to do. Just lay it all out.
I was stoked for week three. This was going way better than I imagined. I am trying to revive youth bible class at church, which has lay dormant for the past eighteen Covid months. Emails, texts, letters, postcards. And then, they showed up.It was worth the effort. This could be done.
Week three came and I was confident. This would be a great year. There was just one problem. No one showed up. Zip. Zero. Nada. An empty room. Not one student showed up.
OK. Time to stop and think about the current situation. Joint custody means many can only come every other week. Jobs mean some have to work on Sunday mornings. Covid means some will not be feeling well or will be quarantining. Weekends means some will be traveling. Some are spending the night with friends. Others are dancing competitively in far away places.
I believe the empty room was the perfect storm of all of the above. The attendance of one week is no predictor of the next. The fun of one week does not translate into the enthusiasm of the next. The classroom of today says nothing about the future.
The only thing you have is now.
If they are there, in the room, you have a moment to listen, question, teach and pray. If they are not there you have a moment to pray, listen, plan and trust. You are not the only influence in their lives. But by grace, you will be an influence.
So, week four comes. One youth is there. We wait. And we wait. OK, no one else is coming, you can go home. Ten minutes later the text comes, “Was I late, or did you cancel class?” Oh, me of little faith. If I had just waited a few more minutes!
I should know. On mission trips, I learned about island time. The clock is not so important. The people are. Their presence determines the time. It’s not the when, but the who that counts.
Lesson learned. Zero attendance doesn’t mean no one is coming. An empty room doesn’t mean class is cancelled. Wait just a few more moments.
I had a colleague who had a very hard time sleeping on Saturday nights. He always lay awake, worrying about Sunday. So he decided to not even try. Sleeping, that is. He would stay up all night from Saturday into Sunday preparing his sermon, and then preach the following morning.
Good for him. I could never do that. I’d be dozing off during my own sermon! That never goes over well. I’ve got my sermon mostly done by Wednesday and go over it a few times sometime on Saturday. Some pastors have a Saturday night service. For me, that would be a drag. My Saturdays could involve any number of things.
Today I worked in the yard, visited a family mourning a death, ran a few errands and got a few chores done around the house. Other Saturdays I have gone to a movie with my wife, performed a funeral, painted a room in my house, played with grandchildren, had some extended family over for supper and built a play fort in the back yard.
My day off is Friday. If you suggest, “How about Friday?” I will typically answer, “No, that doesn’t work for me.” Saturdays however are flexible. Sometimes I had nothing going on. Sometimes my plate is full.
The one thing I never do is discuss the question, “Do you want to go to church tomorrow?” That’s pretty funny. With retirement on the horizon, maybe we’ll have that discussion. But for now, Saturday means I set my alarm for 4:30. Sunday’s coming!
I saved the lion’s share of my visiting for Wednesday and Thursday this week. My rounds included a hospital, two nursing homes and one family’s residence. I’ve been doing this for over thirty years, but at the end of the day, I have to admit I was weary. As I reflect on the day, I can’t help but wonder why. I got plenty of sleep the night before (about 8 hours) and ate well. I exercise and am fairly fit. But I didn’t do anything physically demanding. Why was I so tired?
When I left my study at church, a crew of seven was tearing out and installing huge new AC units for our sanctuary. When I stopped home for lunch, a crew was reroofing my neighbor’s house across the street. My wife was working a twelve-hour shift in the hospital ER. My daughters chased their toddlers around all day. They all had plenty of reason to be tired at the end of a shift. Me? Not so much.
Yet I still felt a different kind of fatigue, one that still surprises me. It’s a spiritual weariness, one that follows a day of preaching, teaching or in some way caring for people. It isn’t something that’s easy to put your finger on, but it’s real. A tired spirit is just as real as a worn-out body or brain.
My first visits took me to the hospital. I didn’t know how these folks were doing, so my half-hour included prayer for them and thoughts about them. by the grace of God, both were doing really well. In fact, the first one was doing better than he had for a long, long time. His relaxed smile and clear speach filled the room with hope. Though completely out of context, his wife shared the story of how they met some sixty years ago. My visit was about twenty minutes and my prayer was filled with gratitude.
One floor away, another was recovering from successful surgery, and was looking forward to going home in the next day or so. He and his wife also spoke of their sixty years together and an upcoming cruise they had to put off for a few months. This conversation also lasted about twenty minutes, concluding with a thank-filled prayer.
From here, it was on to a nursing home. I stopped at the front desk to get the room, but when I walked into a large common area, I spotted them as she finished up her lunch and he sat there chatting with her. In the course of the conversation, I learned that he had been working on long term care arrangement for his wife, who really wanted to go home. I could see the pain on his face as he hinted at what was to come. When she finished eating, we went to her room and I read scripture, gave them communion, and also prayed, thanking God for the good care she was receiving there.
My final visit yesterday was at a another nursing home, but she wasn’t in her room. I couldn’t find her in any of the common rooms, so I just left a flower arrangement from church in her room. I would have to try another time on another day.
I had one visit today at a member’s home. He slept through most of it while she and I caught up on all kinds of events in their lives and mine. She spoke of many challenges and a few glimmers of hope. He woke towards the end of my visit so I could also give them communion.
So what did I actually do? I sat and listened. I read a few verses and prayed a few prayers. No big deal. Or is it. Caring for souls is no small task. In my role as pastor I get invited into the lives of families who are dealing with significant changes and challenges. When they share some of their burdens with me, I help them shoulder some of the load. They will not have to carry them alone. I freely share with them the hope I have received from God, too. I may not have all the answers, but I give them what I have.
I guess over the years I’ve learned what helps me rest and recover from such days. I find that gardening or working in the yard, cooking a meal or playing with the grandkids recharges me. These simple tasks and precious lives reconnect me with the one who takes all my burdens and gives me all that he has.
So, if I weren’t a pastor and I went to a church somewhere, what would I expect of the pastor?
I think that’s a heck of a question, one worth asking from time to time when I wonder where my time went. Am I doing more than I need to do? If so, then why? How much time am I spending on unimportant tasks? Why am I doing that?
OK, here is my list. Yours may be different, but that’s OK.
I would expect the pastor to proclaim God’s Word to me. Preach the word. What is God saying to us through his word right now? I expect that the pastor has studied and prepared some good news for the congregation from scripture.
I would want the pastor to be a regular person. Wife, kids, hobbies, joys and frustrations. If I stop by his house, it’s not perfectly kept. If he comes to my house, he’s right at home.
I would want the pastor to baptize, marry, and bury those whom I love. In those very special, emotional moments, please remind me that God is a part of those moments, too.
I would want the pastor to project grace. I don’t need someone to tell me what to do or how to do it. I already have plenty of people in my life who do that. But grace is hard to find. Maybe the pastor can bring it.
That doesn’t sound too tough, does it? Yet, when you are the pastor, you feel like everyone expects a whole lot more from you. You feel like everyone is expecting you to
keep the church sanctuary at a comfortable temperature
go after those people who don’t even want to be a part of the church
make people behave better
tell people how they ought to vote at election time
visit people in the hospital who didn’t tell you they were in the hospital because they thought somehow you knew
perform a funeral for someone who never came to church but was a pretty good person most of the time
conduct a wedding for a couple from out of town who wanted to be married on the beach because you live at the beach
remember who can’t drink wine, eat gluten, or likes to drink from the common cup
I don’t know if everyone really expects those things. It’s just that I think people expect those things. We should be able to reach a compromise here. If you expect grace and I expect grace then I can let go of many expectations and simply give you the best gift of all. Grace!
For this post I am going to try and put myself in your shoes. The shoes of someone who is a member of our church, who has come faithfully for a number of years, but recently begun to waver in regularity. What is that like, what do you expect, and what’s your vision of the future?
You see, I don’t have that option. Not yet, anyway. I have to be there every week whether I like it or not. Hey, when the preacher is absent, people notice! But one day I won’t be the preacher. I’ll be an attender, a worshiper, a statistic, a member, or whatever.
What if I just stop attending? Will someone call and ask, “Hey, where have you been? We’ve missed you.” Do I want someone to call? Or do I just to be able to do something else? Do I just want to be left alone?
This is such a good question for pastors and laypeople alike. I was taught that you must know who is not there and follow up with them. Absent from worship for three weeks? You better be on the phone or at their door. One more week and they are gone.
But what if those folks don’t want to be called? What if they just want to be left alone? What if they just need a break? I know, I shouldn’t be taking their side. But if I didn’t attend, and didn’t want to get up on a Sunday morning to attend worship, would I want a pastor chasing me down? Some might. I’m thinking many wouldn’t. I’m not sure I would.
Which leads me to my next question. How much time should I (pastors) spend chasing down people who don’t want to come to church? Oh, come on, you know there will always be families and individuals who considers themselves “members” who never actually show up. Are they lost sheep? Or are they not sheep at all?
When the crowds walked away from Jesus, he didn’t pursue them. He wanted willing followers. Some followed him, some who were a part of his flock, some who knew his voice. And some of them had their issues, like Peter and Judas.
At a recent pastor’s conference, I heard a brother say he spent Sunday afternoons going around to the homes of those who hadn’t been in worship that morning. Holy cow. I appreciate your commitment. But I’m not doing that. Maybe I’m not doing my job. So be it. But maybe you are taking yours too seriously. Either way if the kingdom of God is all about righteousness, peace, and joy, I think we can all relax a little, go out to lunch, take a nap, and let God do the heavy lifting.
Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending and speaking at an awards ceremony for a long time friend and member of the congregation. After the formal part of the ceremony, the other guests and I gathered for a meal. I had a chance to sit with the other guest speaker for the occasion, the mayor or our city. I looked forward to talking with her and hearing about her first year in office.
However the gentleman sitting to the other side of her hijacked the conversation. I listened carefully as he held forth on many of his own experiences and opinions on the future of our city. I was impressed with the mayor’s capacity to sit and patiently listen to his expertise in economics, civics, politics, and local government. As I sat there, I realized that her job and mine aren’t much different in that respect. We both attract volumes of advice from those who have all the answers, but don’t hold the office.
It is no different from fans who know exactly what the coach and quarterback should be doing, but aren’t on the field. Or those who have much to say about managers and pitchers, but they aren’t on the roster. Or for that matter, those who complain about their doctors and nurses, but have not studied and have never practiced medicine.
I am not immune to this nor am I above this. I need to be careful before I jump all over someone who works a physically demanding fifty to sixty hours a week and doesn’t make it to church. I need to remember the challenges of raising a bunch of kids, any one of whom may be sick on a given weekend. I don’t really now what it’s like to be a deputy walking up to knock on someone’s door, not knowing who or what is on the other side. And I certainly don’t know what it’s like to have the responsibility of governing a local community or in our nation’s capital.
Similarly, you may know exactly what the church (or the pastor) needs to do. And you may be one hundred percent correct. But keep in mind that you don’t hold the office. You’re not the one keeping watch over a flock. You’re not the one who knows too well the dark underside of those who seem just fine on a Sunday morning. You’re not the one they call when they’re hungry, dying or scared.
I am more than happy to listen to your suggestions and solutions. But they may not rise to the top of my to do list. They may not be feasible. They may not even be possible. Don’t take it personally. I’m just doing my best.
In 1979, I had just moved to New Jersey into my first apartment to begin my first job out of college at Bell Labs. After a few visits, I found the congregation who would be my church family for the next three years, Luther Memorial in Tinton Falls. Gorgeous location just a stone’s throw away from the horse farms in Colts Neck. The congregation immediately welcomed me, got me involved in the choir, youth ministry and teaching on Sundays. I got to play a lot of trumpet for worship, too. In fact, they gave me a key so I could come and practice there, since the paper thin walls of my apartment prevented me from playing at home.
Finally, here’s the one you’ve been waiting for. My number one ministry moment, though, is actually a series of moments when being a dad intersected with being a pastor and I had the unique privilege of baptizing, confirming, marrying and ordaining my children. Continue reading “Top ten ministry moments – #1: “Pastor Dad””→