God and Efficiency

TurtleTimeI’m not convinced God ever calls someone to be an efficiency expert as a profession. OK, maybe I can’t be sure about that, but it does seem to me that God has little interest in efficiency. I see proof of this in His creation.

Look at a maple tree, oak tree, or cottonwood tree and you’ll see seemingly gazillions of whirlybirds, acorns, and flying cottonwood seeds. Sure, there needs to be enough seeds to find the right conditions to produce new trees, but that many? God’s creation is filled with such examples of extravagance. Beauty and diversity are two such huge areas. Why didn’t God stick to making plants and animals with few variations and functionally mundane appearances?

I also see proof of God’s lack of interest in efficiency in the special revelation of the Bible. In all of my years of studying the Bible I can’t recall any passage that shows God to be interested in efficiency or calling His people to efficiency. In other words, if I had to deliver a speech to an audience of efficiency experts, I’d be hard pressed to find a Biblical passage to base it on!

I share all of this because it relates to my experience as a pastor in one place for 39 plus years; in retrospect it seems He called me to “waste time” on many occasions. I believe He frequently called me to spend significant time with people who would never, in my humble estimation, return the investment by being a more active contributor to the church’s life. This does not surprise me. Jesus spent much of His preciously short time of three years of public ministry healing and helping those who are never mentioned again in the New Testament, people who apparently didn’t make a big, measurable mark on the early church. One time Jesus healed a man who was then thrown out of the temple. The Gospel states, Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him…” (John 9:35) Time on earth was running out for Jesus, and here He goes and traipses after a nondescript guy treated badly by a few others.

Corporations make much of everyone in their employ being efficient. The Kingdom of God is not a corporation. An implication of this fact is that there’s a real danger in taking corporate principles and automatically applying them to the church. We are, after all, pastors, not CEOs. In many ways God’s kingdom is topsy-turvy to how the business world operates; the importance of efficiency is one such area.

Does this mean we’re never to ask ourselves if we’re making wise use of our time? Of course not. Balance is the key. If we can find someone else to move the tables and chairs then it’s probably wise to do so, leaving us time to do that which the movers and shakers of tables and chairs aren’t gifted or called to do. On the other hand, we might have some of our best conversations while we work with our parishioners at setting up a room for a meeting.

For decades I served coffee at our annual fish fries at the church. It offered me countless opportunities to connect with people, especially people who enjoyed the Friday night physical food at the church but didn’t show up for the spiritual food on Sunday. Would I have better served the church by staying in my church office, studying and strategizing during those hours? I don’t think so.

Efficiency may have a place in ministry, but it doesn’t hold the number one place. The top priority is to be open to God’s calling, and that may not always lend itself to efficiency.

“While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor. And they rebuked her harshly. Leave her alone,said Jesus. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.‘” (Mark14:3-9)

More Than a Vicarious Christmas

ChristmasFamilyInLight

It’s now been two months since my retirement as senior pastor at Mayfair-Plymouth Church. Many things are different since then, including how I view the holidays. I’ve now experienced Thanksgiving and am currently going through the Advent/Christmas season without guiding the congregation through those experiences.

I realize now, more than ever, that so much of my reflection on the holiday themes was on how “it would preach.” I put a lot of thought and effort into how I could help the people get the most out of the season.

I’d like to pause and give myself at least a little credit here. Yes, I was aware, as I’m sure you are, that I was to make it all personal, and I think I did to, hopefully, to a major degree. I realized I had to embrace the meaning of it all for Dave Claassen, not just as Pastor Dave leading the congregation. It’s just that now I see it even more clearly, now that I’m no longer actively being Pastor Dave and that Christmas services I’m in an unadorned pew instead of nestled among the Christmas decorations on the church platform.

It’s easy to critique others for their approach to Christmas. I even preached about how it’s not primarily about the gift giving, Santa, the family gatherings or any of the other many traditions we associate with Christmas. It’s supposed to be primarily about Jesus, His coming, what that means to us, and how it should impact our lives. I think I heard my own preaching and didn’t make my own Christmas all about the gifts, the gatherings or whatever, yet, it was sometimes more about putting together a Christmas service that would knock the Christmas socks off the snow-covered feet of the C & E folks (Christmas and Easter) than I would care to admit.

Truth be told, the joy of Christmas for us pastors may not be so much the joy of experiencing it personally but the thrill we’re trying to create for others to experience. We can leave a Christmas service thinking, “That was really emotional, powerful, and life-changing for the people,” and all the while not having really experienced it that way ourselves.

I inwardly shake my head when someone states that the best way to experience Christmas is to be around children and see it through their eyes of wonder. Yes, this is a thrill (I am, after all a grandpa), but experiencing Christmas should be more than experiencing it vicariously. Christmas is not just for kids! If we’re not careful as pastors the Christmas season can be more a vicarious experience than anything else.

So, I want to do more than wish you a very merry vicarious Christmas! My prayer is that in spite of the disadvantage of the distraction of having to lead people in Christmas worship and celebration you’ll be able to put aside the pastor role enough to experience Christmas with the child-like wonder from your own position of being a child of God’s.

May you have a very personal merry Christmas!

Dave

 

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)

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