In your shoes

radek-skrzypczak-50471

Photo by Radek Skrzypczak on Unsplash

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.

Everclear margaritas

yuanbin-du-87642It was the spring of 1982, a significant year for me. I had quit my job at Bell Labs in New Jersey and moved to Austin, TX to begin a new job with a friend of mine who was helping to start a new company. They were going to make deep oil well probes to check the pressure far below the surface. I would be the programmer, working alongside some engineers who would design the hardware. Coding is a hot topic now. Back then I was doing assembly language programming on 8086 Intel chips.

Within two months, the company dissolved and I found another job with Bausch and Lomb, a division of Houston Instrument, just before the advent of CAD/CAM. My division programmed these massive tabletop printers for architectural drawings. It was really cool to see the pens whip around a huge sheet of paper to render a drawing.

Anyway, it was during this time that I realized I enjoyed everything I was doing with the church more than anything I ever did with my job. The pastor who confirmed me told me I should become a pastor, but I never gave that any more thought. Till now, when a vicar at my Texas church said the same thing nine years later. Hmm. Is that even a possibility? After all, I didn’t study any theology as an undergraduate. Could I really do that? My vicar and pastor assured me I could. In fact, lots of seminary students were second career.

So I applied. I sent off my application to Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN, where there were more second career guys than system guys. “System” guys went to a Concordia undergraduate school and majored in pre-seminary studies. I wasn’t a “system” guy. I had a liberal arts degree in Math.

Well, if I was going to go to the seminary and study to become a pastor, I wanted to start doing things that pastors did. What could I do? I could go out and make evangelism visits. In the context of my south Austin church, this meant following up on Sunday morning visitors to worship. The evangelism committee consisted of the vicar and his wife, a couple of young women, another guy and me. I think we got together on a Tuesday night, divided up some index cards with contact information on them, and went out to knock on doors and thank them for worshiping at our church. Hopefully, this would lead to further conversation.

My memories are a bit hazy (and you’ll learn why in just a bit), but I think we had some good visits and good conversations. I’ll be honest, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I was just willing to learn. After we attempted our visits, we reconvened at a certain time and place to debrief. On some nights we would meet at a little Mexican cantina that served Everclear margaritas.

Some of you are thinking, “What’s that?” Others are thinking, “Whoa!” Everclear is 190 proof grain alcohol. (In college, I learned that grain alcohol was an ingredient in Purple Jesus punch.) As you can imagine, throw a shot of that into a margarita and it is definitely party time. I was told, you can only have one. Halfway through my drink, I knew they were right. No one needs more than one of those. Not even on evangelism night!

Few know it, but this is one of the factors that contributed to my deciding to pursue studying for the pastoral ministry. After knocking on a few doors and taking a few sips, I thought, “You know, I think I can do this.” Of course I had no idea all that would be involved in being a pastor, but this was certainly a plus.

I never got to be a part of an evangelism team like this again. I’ve gone out on plenty of visits with plenty of other people, but we never took the time to share our experiences over a delicious and potent beverage. Since I’ve been in Florida, I’ve had some fascinating theological discussions at Tiki bars and beachside wineries, but none of them were quite like my experiences in Austin. If you were to ask me who was most influential in my decision to become a pastor, these dear friends just might be at the top of my list!

 

 

When the pastor came to visit me

empty apartmentIn 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.

Before long, the pastor called and asked to come and visit. “Sure. Anytime.” Continue reading

“You shouldn’t have to do that.”

not-my-job“You shouldn’t have to do that.”

I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve heard that sentence lately. But I can’t. I’ve lost count.

Due to a plethora of factors, I’ve had to step in the gap and take on a few jobs I’ve haven’t done for  while. When both of my guitar players had other work and family commitments, I led the praise service music. When it was time to begin planning Vacation Bible School, A person was needed to draw together a group of leaders to get that week off the ground. I stepped in this year. When our youth group leader had all her free time sucked into the family business, I found myself meeting with our middle and high school youth. Every step along the way I heard, “You shouldn’t have to do that.”

Maybe they are right. Maybe I should have just stood back and let those things go undone. But I didn’t. I stepped in and led the music, recruited leaders and met with the youth. While others debated the merits of my actions, I stepped in and did what I believe needed to be done. (As I write this, the debate rages in my mind: do I dare post this?)

First things first: I enjoy doing all these things. I enjoy our worship music, I thoroughly enjoy the Vacation Bible School experience, and I love working with our youth. It’s not an imposition. No one is forcing me to do those things. It’s an opportunity to do some of the things I can do and actually enjoy doing.

Second, there are some things I just can’t ignore. Like Sunday, for instance. Sunday comes right on schedule each week, and God’s people will faithfully gather for worship around Word and Sacrament, God’s gifts of grace. It doesn’t require much of me to play a few chords to accompany that blessing.

Third, no one else has yet stepped up to do any of those things. And I am OK with that. I’ve been in this call for twenty years (and in pastoral ministry for thirty) and I’ve learned that God fills in the gaps at the right time with the right people for the job. In between, I might just have be the temp who bridges one season to the next. When the prophet Isaiah got a taste of God’s grace in Isaiah 6, he said, “Here am I; send me.” Mercy moves you to do some amazing things.

So I played guitar for worship today. We survived and God was glorified. I am spearheading our Vacation Bible School. I’ve got all my station leaders in place. I will be here this week to meet with the youth group — and since some of our seniors are leaving for college soon, I am really looking forward to that meeting. I feel like I’m not doing all that much, but I have a front row seat to seeing some of the things that God is doing! Filling in the gaps can be quite rewarding.

I’m debating the wisdom of posting my thoughts tonight. I may be misunderstood. Let’s face it, I probably will be misunderstood. But it helps me clarify my thoughts, settle my soul and navigate the path ahead. By the way, I am thankful for all who hold up my arms, pray for me, make great (and wise) suggestions and keep me humble along the way.