A Ministry of Minutia

weekly-calendarI’m at the church alone. The phone rings. I answer it. “Mayfair-Plymouth Church,” I say. The voice on the other end says, “This is Matilda. Would you do me a favor? I can’t find my cake carrier. I think I might have left it in the church kitchen. Could you go down and check to see if it’s there?” The details are fictional, but the scene is reminiscent of many through my years of ministry. Sometimes my ministry seems to be a ministry of minutia.

Just how much and how often should I allow the small details of the life of the church to distract me from bigger and more important ministry obligations or opportunities? Do I quickly change that burned out light bulb or make a note to tell the custodian? I know where the new ones are kept. It would take about as much time for me to write the note as it would to change the bulb. Do I ask the head of the committee responsible for the outdated poster in the hallway to take it down, making it a teachable moment that the committee should keep on top of things, or do I just take the thing off the wall myself? Do I spend the time to do maintenance on the computer in my office (defragging, updating virus software, etc.) or do I track down the techy in our church and ask him to do it, whenever he can get around to it? Yes, God is in the details, but does He want to drag me into them too?

It’s not that I think I’m too high and mighty for such pedestrian tasks. I do them around my home all the time. It’s just that I want to make the most of my time when involved in ministry. I want to delegate when I should, but also do the small task at hand when it seems appropriate.

I had some communication with a mega church pastor via e-mail. I sent and received my own e-mail, but his came via his personal secretary. I’d like to have said to him, “Have your people contact my people,” but when it comes to e-mail management “my people” is me! And that’s OK. I understand there’s going to be a difference between what a mega church pastor does and what he delegates and what I do and what I delegate. I need to remember this when most of the models of how to do ministry come from the well-known mega church pastors.

Jesus didn’t do all His ministry Himself. He sent out the twelve to preach. He even sent them off to buy food. Jesus was great at delegating. On the other hand, Jesus prepared a fish breakfast for His disciples one morning along the lakeshore while they were out on the lake fishing, and that was after He was raised from the dead and in His glorified body. Jesus was great at doing the details. I, too, need to delight in both delegating and in the details. Balance, I suppose, is what I’m aiming to achieve, balance between delegating and doing the details.

Our Own Spiritual Health First

oxygen maskEvery time you fly the pre-flight safety lecture by the flight attendants includes proper use of the oxygen mask. A loss of air pressure in the cabin will activate the dropping down of the oxygen masks. You’re instructed to put yours on before you attempt to help a child, or someone else, get theirs on. Why? You aren’t going to be able to help someone else get oxygen if you don’t first have it yourself. When you’re passed out you’re pretty much useless to anyone else.

I see a corollary for those of us who shepherd people along the spiritual journey. We aren’t going to be able to help them take in the breath of life unless we are first breathing that Holy Spirit rarefied air ourselves. I’m not comfortable with the secular philosophical statement, “Take care of yourself first,” but we really aren’t much good to others if we don’t first let God be good to us.

This means that I don’t allow the busyness of ministry to crowd out my own personal time with the Lord. This means that I don’t find my greatest satisfaction in ministering the Lord to others but in allowing the Lord to minister to me.

“And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:22) We must inhale before we can exhale, take in a breath before we can speak, take in the breath of the Holy Spirit before we can exhale a Holy Spirit inspired word.

Inhale before you exhale, inhale and then exhale.  This concludes our breathing lesson for today.

A Ministry of Contrasts

mountainsI held the hands of a couple married for 60 years as the wife was dying and the “until death do us part” of their marriage vows were being fulfilled. Less than four hours later I held the hands of a young couple in a prayer of blessing as I concluded the ceremony that began their marriage.

I’ve traveled across town from visiting a family making plans at a funeral home to visiting a young couple and their new addition on the maternity ward of a hospital. I thought about it and decided to make the two visits in that order, so I could end my pastoral calls that day on a joyous note.

When I get to feeling sorry for myself because of some of the things I feel I get stuck having to deal with in pastoral ministry, I think about my ministry of contrasts. I join God’s people in their mountaintop experiences and I walk with them through the valley of the shadow of death.

What a ministry, this ministry of contrasts! The fried chicken may be the same, but it somehow tastes different at a funeral dinner than it does at a wedding reception.

Whether the climate of the circumstance calls for a sprinkling of water, rice, or dirt, we, as pastors of the people, are there. We hold the babies, hug the newlyweds, and let our shoulders get wet with the tears of the one who mourns. It’s all sacred ground, a holy calling to be with God’s people in the best of times, the worst of times and, thankfully, the many ordinary in-between times too!

My “Spinning Wheels”

Mahatma Gandhi, a religious as well as political leader in India, was not a Christian, but there are lessons his life can teach those of us who are Christian leaders, those of us who are pastors. One such lesson is from Gandhi’s use of the spinning wheel.

Gandhi’s spinning wheel was a tangible way for him to communicate to the people of India the importance of freeing themselves from economic dependence on the British. If they would spin their own cotton they could make their own clothes and not depend on purchasing clothing from Britain.

But apparently Gandhi also came to see the emotional and spiritual benefits of his use of the spinning wheel.  He said that it helped with “the education of becoming and being.”

Eliza Drummond wrote in Spinners Quarterly, July 2004, of the value of using the spinning wheel in prayer and meditation. “In order to find out more about why we spin, I sent out 400 questionnaires to 80 spinning guilds across the United States and Canada. In these questionnaires I asked introductory questions such as ‘how long have you been spinning?’ and ‘how often do you spin?’ I also posed questions such as ‘have you ever thought that spinning is meditative?’ and ‘do you ever spin for the purpose of praying or meditating?’ Seventy-five percent of respondents answered that they consider spinning to be meditative, and 40% answered that they actively spin to meditate or pray. Of the latter group, all of them find it effective as a form of meditation and prayer.”

I don’t have a spinning wheel, but I do have other ways of spending my time that replenish my soul. Yes, of course, there’s the time I spend in my daily devotions of Bible reading, other spiritual reading, and prayer. This is top on my list. But I have other less “spiritual” activities and hobbies that help me keep my balance as I face the rigors of ministry.

Photography is a serious hobby for me. When I am about the business of lining up a good photograph the time seems to either stand still or fly by, I’m not sure which.  Writing is a big part of my time away from pastoral ministry.  I’ve written both non-fiction and fiction, including a couple of novels.  I also raise a small flock of chickens as a hobby, and have done so for over a quarter of a century. Then too I have a decorative pond with waterfall, fish, and floating pond plants that I maintain.

These are my “spinning wheels” that help keep me sane in ministry. Such interests keep me from putting all my emotional eggs in the basket of pastoral ministry (sorry, after all these years of raising chickens I can’t resist a poultry analogy).

The apostle Paul was a tent maker. This was probably out of economic necessity more than anything else, but I can’t help but wonder if he didn’t also appreciate the break from his usual apostolic duties. I’m sure Paul did a lot of talking, listening, praying, and even mentoring while working on tents, but there must still have been something therapeutic about using his hands.

If I could give some advice to those going into ministry I would strongly suggest that they hold on to or adopt some other interest or outlet other than pastoral ministry to which they could give their time and attention on a regular basis, a “spinning wheel” to which they could go regularly for a change of pace. My “spinning wheels” have be instrumental in my longevity as a pastor and as a pastor in one place. They have been used of the Lord in my life to keep me at the task of serving His people as their pastor.

How about you? What are the “spinning wheels” in your life? Please, share with the rest of us.

Message from the Monks

For several days I’m doing a private spiritual retreat at a monastery near Dubuque, Iowa (from where I’m writing this). The New Melleray Abbey is home to some 30 Trappist monks.

The monks are committed to a life of reflection on scripture, prayer, and worship. At first I thought it seemed such a waste to spend all your time growing in your personal faith and yet not really reaching out to others. In spite of the 90 plus degree heat I’ve been able to think clearly enough to straighten out such thinking.

The monks do reach out, to each other (their family are the other monks in the Abbey), they pray for people who send requests for prayer, they can host up to 18 people for retreats (the gift of hospitality), and they make caskets as a business which they see as a way to bring comfort to the sorrowing.

But, for me, their biggest “outreach” ministry is reminding the rest of the world that the Christian faith is not first about doing but about being. They are cloistered for the purpose of being with God. Those of us who seek to serve the Lord in our daily lives, wanting to do something for Him, can forget that first and foremost of all we are to be with Him! The monks remind me of this all important fact.

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