Among the People

pastoralgracesbookHere’s another quote from Lee Eclov’s book Pastoral Graces. Again, a great book, from the heart of a pastor, about the heart of us pastors.

“When I was a young pastor, I was in a service where Dr. Warren Wiersbe was going to preach.  It was a conference and I assume he didn’t know most of the people there.  Yet in the moments before the service started, he worked his way up and down the aisles and into the rows greeting people and shaking hands.  I instinctively knew he was doing more than being friendly.  He was pastoring, and he was doing a kind of sermon preparation for the people and for himself.” (loc 679)

I, like many pastors, will pray with the others involved in leading worship (for some of you it will be with the elders or deacons) just before the service, but I don’t spend much time with them!  I feel inclined to be greeting the people, walking around in the narthex (lobby), up and down the aisle and in between the pews.  Sometimes I find that I’ve personally greeted almost everyone before I stand up front and say “Good morning!” to open the service.  I feel I can better connect with the people in leading worship and in the service if I have literally come from their midst just before the service starts.

Pastoral Qualifications?

pastoralgracesbookI recently concluded the book Pastoral Graces by Lee Eclov.  A great book for pastors to read! Here’s another excerpt…

“So far as I can tell, God did not single any of us [pastors] out for this work because He liked our resumes or found us in a talent search.  I suspect He chose us because, ever since creation, God finds special creative delight in making something from nothing, ex nihilo.” (loc. 207-213)

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.

The Burden and Blessing of Pastoring

sheepbrushOf all the professions, it seems to me that the profession of being a pastor carries with it a unique burden, the burden of a unique love. It’s not that people of other professions don’t love the people they serve, they should. Everyone should love everyone in their sphere of influence. It’s just that we pastors are to love the people we shepherd as the Great Shepherd loves them. This strikes me as a unique and challenging call to love.

Lawyers, doctors, counselors, and other professionals have appointments, usually of an hour or less, with their clients or patients. Not so with pastors. Our parishioners may make an appointment to see us, but they also expect us to be available 24/7, nor do they want to feel they’re limited to an hour of our time. And we don’t bill them!

Most other professions see their clients or patients in rather narrow parameters of the professional setting. The pastoral setting is wide and expansive; we tend our flock without fences, and we find our sleep to be light at the entrance to the sheepfold. Our life with them includes worship, study, fellowship, serving together, working together in leadership, and sharing potlucks.

Most clients and patients of other professions see it as a professional relationship while our parishioners see it more as a friendship. Frequently those in my church will say to me, “You’re not just my pastor, you’re my friend.” I appreciate the intended compliment but I wonder, just how many friends can I have and still be a good friend to each?

Doctors see a patient for a few minutes, trying to stay objective about the patient’s condition. As pastors we’re the physician’s assistant to the Great Physician and ours is a doctoring of the soul. It is no easy task given the fact that we ourselves are sin-sick and also under the care of the Great Physician. Wounded healers we are.

Lawyers sit across the desk, turning papers 180 degrees for the client to sign below paragraphs of unintelligible legalese. We pastors represent the Divine Lawgiver, taking God’s laws and principles and seeking to make them clear to our people while at the same time humbled by our own inability to abide by them ourselves.

Counselors maintain a professional relationship requiring definite relationship boundaries with those who share their deepest, darkest secrets. We who do pastoral counseling on behalf of the Mighty Counselor do so without such boundaries, going with them from the counseling session to a worship service, a board meeting, or a church picnic.

The profession of pastoring calls us to the burden of loving in a unique way, but it also provides unique blessings. We represent Christ. He is the Good Shepherd of the flock and we are His undershepherd. We are a mini-incarnation of the presence of Christ in the midst of His people, laughably inadequate and many times inept but put there by none other than Christ Himself. The task is daunting, but we have the promise of His presence and help. Ours is a yoked ministry; we join Him in the task of caring for His people and He will always make the task doable because of His ever present help. I often cling to His promise: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30) I’m still working on the “learn from me” part of that promise! I’m learning that His blessings come from embracing His burdens, that His blessings make the burdens less burdensome, and that there is His joy in it all!

HeartCarvedInSandThere are times when the sheep we’re called to shepherd hurt us.  This statement by Spurgeon spoke to me.

“When others behave badly to us, it should only stir us up the more heartily to give thanks unto the Lord, because He is good; and when we ourselves are conscious that we are far from being good, we should only the more reverently bless Him that He is good.” (quoted from Attributes of God, A. W. Pink, eBook Loc 1116)

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” (Psalm 118:1 — and five other times in the Bible)

Grumbling Stomach, Grumbling Soul

stormIt’s embarrassing to have your stomach grumble in public, that’s why church potlucks are so important, they help keep that from happening! I got to thinking recently that not only can my stomach grumble but often my soul grumbles too!

I grumble about the people I serve in my church. I grumble about the people who I think should be attending and aren’t. I have caught myself grumbling about serving God in a small way in an out of the way place (my perception of my situation).

While working on a sermon recently I was reminded of the seriousness of the sin of grumbling (sometimes I don’t even consider it a sin). The Israelites who were led out of slavery in Egypt never survived the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and had to leave possession of the promised land to their descendants. The reason? God told them, “In this desert your bodies will fall – every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me.” (Numbers 14:29)

When I think of the times I’ve succumbed to grumbling I realize that frequently it’s a disguised complaint against God. My grumbling is ingratitude for something in my circumstances that’s a part of my calling.

So, I confess as sin my grumbling. I also rejoice in God’s grace and goodness toward me even when I’ve allowed my soul to grumble!

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.

My Feet, His Arms

I’m reading a new book on my Kindle. Found this quote helpful to my soul.

“Come then…let us be resigned to our frailty and dependence on God, who would never reduce us to being unable to walk on our own feet if he had not the mercy to carry us in his arms.”

The Contented Soul by Lisa Graham McMinn

The Right Preposition for Pastors, and Everyone Else Too

Christianity Today magazine recently listed the best books for the leader’s inner life. With, Reimaging the Way You Relate to God by Skye Jethani was on that short list. I read a majority of the book while on a three day study leave at a Trappist monastery in Iowa. What a great book with which to have retreated! It’s at the top of my list of books that have impacted my walk with Christ and my ministry. Jethani creatively uses five prepositions to explain the different ways we position ourselves with God, four that aren’t good as the ultimate positions from which to relate to God and one that is.

In one place Jethani summarizes by stating that “…when God desired to restore his broken relationship with people, he sent his Son to dwell with us. His plan to restore his creation was not to send a list of rules and rituals to follow (LIFE UNDER GOD), nor was it the implementation of useful principles (LIFE OVER GOD). He did not send a genie to grant us our desires (LIFE FROM GOD), nor did he give us a task to accomplish (LIFE FOR GOD). Instead God himself came to be with us – to walk with us once again as he had done in Eden in the beginning.” (1402, location in e-book)

As Jethani explains it LIFE UNDER GOD is when I fear I’ve not been good enough or done well enough to be the recipient of God’s blessings, either for myself or for my church. I’m always wondering if I’m measuring up, and I never do. If, for some strange reason, I think I’m doing quite well with God, then I begin to believe God owes me, and I’m disappointed or angry when God doesn’t bless as I think He should.

I see myself living LIFE OVER GOD when I believe that if I do things right that God will bless. If I lead my church toward being a church that exhibits the Biblical church growth principles of a what church should be then I can expect it to be a growing and thriving church, guaranteed! I use His Word as a manual on how to do things right.

When I’m living from the perspective of LIFE FROM GOD I’m operating under the assumption that if I just have enough faith then God will bless the way I imagine He should. If I believe that God is really a big God then I’m going to see really big results, every time.

LIFE FOR GOD is the perspective, I believe, that sincere disciples of Jesus focus on most, including sincere pastors. We want to serve God, to carry out His purposes for us. Obedience is good, but it easily becomes something of a duty, even a drudgery.

All of these four perspectives have some elements of truth to them, they just make for a lousy ultimate perspective. Our ultimate perspective is to be LIFE WITH GOD. The goals of the other perspectives are to, in some way, use God, that God is a means to an end. LIFE WITH GOD makes God Himself the goal!

It’s painful for me to reflect on how frequently I’ve focused on the four less-than-ideal positions in my own walk with Christ and how often I’ve sought to move my parishoners into one or more of these positions. I’ve renewed my commitment to have a LIFE WITH GOD. Everything else falls into its proper place when I live from this perspective.

If I could recommend one book I’ve read in the last couple of years this would be it. More than anything else, more than any other perspective from which I could live, I want to live a LIFE WITH GOD! Jethani’s book reminded me of that.

Letting Some Time Pass

While on my recent personal retreat at a monastery in Iowa, I read a lot and attempted to process it during my prayer walks. As I was reading a book I began to think, “this will preach,” but then caught myself. I have a habit of doing this, of gaining an insight and quickly thinking how I can do a sermon on the subject, or maybe even a sermon series.

I realized that I needed to let God speak to me, for the sake of my relationship with Him. By immediately thinking of how I could use the insight in my ministry I professionalized it before I had fully personalized it.

I got to thinking how many things need to be processed or aged before they can be used. Lumber can’t be used straight from the forest but must be dried. Grapes, too, need to be given time to dry if you want raisins. Concrete needs time to set before you start walking on it or building on it. Yeast in bread dough has to be given time to ferment and make the bread rise. Tea needs to steep.

I need to give an idea, a concept, an insight from God time to work in me, for me to process it and apply it for myself, before I share it with others. Sharing with others that which has not had adequate time to work in me both short changes what it can do for me and what it can do for those with whom I share it.

Speak to me, Lord, and give me the patience to let your Word brew, steep, ferment, and marinate in me. Help me keep a good distance between the hearing and the speaking.

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