The Old Year, the New Year, Both a Mixed Bag

calendar2017small“I hope the new year is better than this past year was” is a comment we pastors frequently hear around the New Year’s holiday.  Maybe we’ve said it ourselves!  It expresses the opinion that the past year was horrible but that there’s hope for the new year being better. What’s interesting is that if you could fast forward a year from now you’d hear the same phrase just as frequently, “I hope this year is better than this past year was.”

The reality is that every year contains a mixture of both good and bad. True, some years may seem to be better or worse than other years, but on the whole most years contain a mixture of both. In 2016, for instance, we celebrated the wedding of a granddaughter and mourned the death of my mother. You can probably identify a similar mix in your own life in the year that’s just past.

The truth is that we can fixate on the bad of the past year and insist on only good for the new year, but neither is a realistic perspective. There’s a better perspective we can adopt, and that’s the view that God was with us in the past year and will be with us in the new year, no matter what the circumstances!

God was with us as we went through those tough times of last year. In fact, sometimes it’s easier to identify His working in those difficult situations with the passing of time. And then too, He did bless in different ways in the past year, right?

The coming year will undoubtedly also be a mixed bag. Our comfort can come from knowing, believing, and acting upon the fact that God will be with us, and we with Him, through the new year. We may not know what’s coming our way, but He does, and He has a plan! As the old adage goes, “We can’t know what the future holds, but we can know the One who holds the future!”

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (the apostle Paul in Romans 8:38-39)

There’s No Such Thing as an Omni-gifted Pastor

bulbcroppedsmallI was helping a few of the men of our church do some work in the sanctuary. One of the house light fixtures had a socket that wouldn’t light, even when we tried a new bulb. I suggested to Tim, perched at the top of a stepladder beneath the light, that perhaps the little metal “thingy” in the center of the socket was pushed up and wasn’t making contact with the center connection of the light bulb. I assured him I had turned the house light switch to the “off” position and that it was safe for him to put his finger into the socket to try and pry the “thingy” down a bit. (You know where this is going, but please humor me and let me continue).

I did not know that this light was on a three-way switch. I did not know what a three-way switch was. I now know that the current is not stopped from flowing even though you’ve turned off one of the switches. When Tim probed the socket with his index finger he jumped (thankfully not off the ladder) and made some kind of grunting, gasping sound. I was shocked! Okay, I wasn’t shocked like Tim was, but I was definitely surprised. For my remaining years at the church Tim often brought up this little episode in the presence of congregational members who were to hold me in high regard and with great respect. I have to admit that he did so with a smile on his face, proving the principle that you can forgive but not necessarily forget!

Memory of this electrifying episode is a continuing reminder to me that we can’t be good at everything. We all have our gifts and abilities and our lack of gifts and abilities. Now I know that as pastors we’ve preached and taught this theme time and time again. But I also know that we pastors can beat ourselves up when we exhibit lackadaisical performance in some area of ministry, or are reminded of such by a parishioner. Maybe we need to sit back and listen to a recording of our own last sermon we preached on spiritual gifts!

I’m going to resist giving a set of bullet points on how to deal with this, because you don’t need for me to do so; you’ve undoubtedly prepared enough sermons that you’re good at that. Anyway, it’s more about an attitude than it is about a set of actions. We just have to resist the temptation of trying to be viewed by our parishioners and fellow clergy as some kind of a super pastor. Each of us is uniquely gifted, yes, but not omni-gifted!

Hunting for Hypocrisy in the Heart

heartoniongrayIt’s sobering that some of Jesus’ harshest condemnations against sin was against the sin of hypocrisy and that it was leveled against religious leaders, the category to which we belong as pastors. I’d like to quickly disqualify myself from being included in the group of the condemned, but it’s this very desire that gives me pause. Perhaps I shouldn’t jettison too quickly the possibility that there might be hypocrisy in my own heart!

An occupational hazard for those of us who are public spiritual leaders is to project an outward image that’s more Christ-like than the way we are behind closed doors or in the privacy of our own hearts. We can become both comfortable and adept at living something of a double life. Let me be blunt; if a sampling of our thoughts were projected onto a screen before our congregation on Sunday morning most of us pastors would be out of a job come Monday morning!

We pastors should make personal application of a familiar teaching of Jesus’ that we find rather easy to preach or teach to our congregations. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)

True, as pastors there’s a proper role of judging that comes with the calling. We’re to judge whether someone is fit for a specific church position. We have an obligation to confront overt and unrepentant sin within our congregation and not simply look the other way. But what’s our attitude when we have to carry out such responsibilities?

Recently I’ve been involved, along with others, in helping a person identify significant sin in their life that the person has failed to deal with. All of us involved have tried to be led of the Lord as to how we carry out this discipline. Surprisingly, in this process I’ve experienced a fresh awareness of how my own heart isn’t what it ought to be.

Of all people, we who are charged with preaching the good news of God’s gracious desire to forgive and sanctify should have the courage to hunt for the hypocrisy in our own hearts. The goal? To be the same person within that we seek to project outwardly! The onion is a good metaphor; no matter how you slice it, it’s the same all the way through! It may sound odd but what I know I should aim for is to have an onion-like heart!

Our Heart’s Greatest Desire

heart-in-woodIt’s important to have a heart for pastoral ministry, this being pretty much a no brainer. But I have a question for us: Is our heart captivated by the Lord’s work most of all or for the Lord Himself most of all?

I’ve been retired from pastoral ministry for almost two years. From my current perspective I can see that, at least at times, my greatest love was for the Lord’s work and not for the Lord Himself. The difference is crucial!

We can be passionate in our preaching, but is this passion in the preaching about Christ or in the Christ for whom we preach? It’s easy to confuse the two passions.

We can love unpacking the Word, but do we love The WORD who became flesh even more?

We can love shepherding the Lord’s flock, but do we love the Good Shepherd greater still?

We can love goal setting, but do we love looking to the Author and Finisher of our faith more yet?

We can love organizing, but do we have even a greater love for the One in whom “all things hold together?”  We do well to remember Jesus’ words to the church at Ephesus and make application to ourselves. “You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first.” (Revelation 2:3-4) Yes, we too can persevere and endure in our work, but is that heart we pour into ministry overflowing with an even greater love for Christ?

Our first reason to love our ministry and the people to whom we minister should not be that we are called to this work. Our first reason to love our ministry should be that we are first profoundly loved by the Lord who calls us to the ministry! “We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19)

My two years into retirement from pastoral ministry have been something like a time of fasting (actually, an ongoing fast). In fasting from food, or anything else, you come to realize how dependent you have been on that from which you’re fasting. Fasting also should prompt the heart to grow fonder for God. This is what I sense has been happening in my own life since retiring from pastoral ministry. I’ve realized in a fresh way my tendency to let the love of the pastoral work distract me from a deepening of my love relationship to the Lord.

God tells us we are to have no other gods before Him, and that includes making our pastoral ministry a god. Our very best objective should be to have our love for the Lord grow greater and greater, ever outpacing our love for doing His work!

Encouragement for the “No Growth” Church Pastor

I pastored only one church during my nearly 40 years in ministry, but in that time I pastored a plateaued church, a growing church, and a declining church. These labels are, of course, in reference to the numerical size of the church. In fact, it was in the last years when I believe I was at my best as a pastor, when we had great leadership, and when we had initiated some significant and positive changes that we were declining in attendance!

Why were we declining when we were “doing church” better than we had ever done it? Few circumstances discourage the heart of a pastor more than when there’s little or no, or even declining, numerical growth. OK, maybe it shouldn’t be that way, but it often is. That’s why I found a blog post by small church pastor Karl Vaters to be so encouraging. “We Followed the Steps – Where’s the Church Growth” is the title of the post. Go to his blog, pivot and be encouraged! While you’re there, check out his other blog posts.

Message to Myself from the Future

messagetoselfI wish I could tell my younger self of 30 years ago something of what I’ve been reflecting on since retiring from pastoral ministry. It couldn’t be by messaging or e-mail, we didn’t have that 30 years ago. It would have to be a letter.

Imagine how I would have reacted, hearing from my older self 30 years into the future? I picture myself having returned to the church office after visiting Viola Brauchle, one of our shut-ins. The mail is lying on my desk, placed there by Betty Hall, our part-time church secretary. In the mail is a letter that starts with “Dear Dave” and ends with “Sincerely yours, Dave” and in between are a few paragraphs of insight and advice to me from me. I sit back in my office chair to read the letter.

“Dear Dave, now that I’m retired I have found myself wondering if I could have done some things differently and better. Sometimes the wondering turns to regretting or downright Biblical lamenting. Did I sabotage what the Lord wanted to do through me in His church? Why couldn’t I see some of the things then as I see them now? So, what conclusions have I come to? What can I tell you that could make a difference for you, for me?

“You’re probably filled with great anticipation about now, wanting to speed read to the good stuff you believe is just ahead in the next sentences from an older and wiser you from your future. Slow down! There are no such clear instructions or directions coming in the next few paragraphs on how to navigate the difficult decisions or situations you’re facing, or going to face. Why not?

“First of all, as I look back on my past (your present and future) I’m not sure, in many cases, if I should have done things differently. Contrary to popular opinion hindsight is not always 20/20. If issues are complex with gray areas for you now don’t expect much, if any, more clarity when you look back at them 30 years from now. Sorry about that, it’s just the way it is.

“Second, in those situations where I’m pretty sure I made mistakes I can now say that God, in His amazing sovereignty, had good come out of them, so I’m not sure I’d want to advise you to do things differently. God is pretty good at turning the lemons of poor pastoring into the lemonade of Kingdom growth.

“Third, all that is happening to you in the present and will happen to you in the future is what has made me who I am today, who you will be in 30 years. I don’t think I should be messing with the space/time continuum! The growth I’ve experienced through everything, even my mistakes, is something I don’t want to lose.

“Fourth, I’ll be honest with you, I think I know less for certain than I did when I was your age. I know you think you know quite a bit, especially with all you’re reading and all those seminars you’ve been attending (remember, I was you once). I’ve had to unlearn much of what I thought I knew! This is undoubtedly discouraging, but don’t let it bother you too much. You can look forward to a growing delight in the mysterious ways of the Lord.

“And finally, before I close, I realize that I do have a bit of advice. Don’t get so upset that things don’t always seem to turn out the way you planned. I know you want to be a successful pastor, but that’s not what’s most important. Here, then, is the one piece of advice I feel it is safe to give you from the future (after all, you can’t be too careful when messing with the space/time continuum). As I look back on my ministry I am coming to the conclusion (yes, I’m still in the on-going process of being sanctified) that my self-esteem and value as a person are not based on what I accomplished or didn’t accomplish. My self-esteem and value come from basking in God’s amazing grace and love for me.

“I recall what Jesus said to His disciples when they returned from a mission He had sent them on two by two. They were so excited about what they had been able to accomplish, but Jesus corrected their perspective. ‘However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’ (Luke 10:20) This truth is something I wished I had grasped more fully when I was your age. So, don’t hold to any idea, program, or projected outcome too tightly. Relax more, enjoy the journey with Jesus!

“Sincerely yours, Dave.”

This is something of what I would write to a younger me. OK, so we can’t go back in time, not even sending a letter to the past. It’s as if the letter I sent has been returned to me and stamped “undeliverable.” Rereading the letter I wish I could have sent to my younger self I realize that it’s all stuff I need to remind myself of in the present! Yes, messing with the space/time continuum like this is indeed strange, but I think it turned out OK.

The Heart vs. What Happens

Groundbreaking ceremony for the building that was never built.

Groundbreaking ceremony for the building that was never built.

Sometimes things don’t go as planned, and this is certainly true in ministry. I spent my entire ministry of nearly 40 years at one church. For the last fifteen of those years we worked on plans to relocate and build a new facility. This included buying land, maintaining that land until we could build, surveying the congregation and leadership so the building would meet our ministry needs, going through several sets of blueprints for the building, talking with a number of lending institutions, carrying out two major fund raising campaigns, and conducting countless (and I mean countless) meetings of the whole congregation and of various teams. I personally prayer-walked the land time and time again, envisioning the kind of building and ministry we would have there. The escalation of costs and the continual downsizing of the building to make the financial numbers work resulted in us scrapping the entire project. We even had a ground breaking ceremony, covered by the local media; the earth, I’m sure, has since healed the hole we dug with our shiny spade.

Under my successor’s leadership (a man whom I personally chose and mentored for over two years) the church has purchased an empty big box store and is in the process of renovating the building for their new home. I’m all for this new direction of having the church in such a marketplace setting and pray regularly that it will soon happen. But when I’m part of a conversation about God’s mysterious ways my mind can’t help but go back to the last third of my ministry when we actively sought to build on those 23 acres of land. I have wondered if I was misguided in sensing God’s guidance. I have wondered if I missed crucial times when I should have led us to act more decisively. I have come to believe that God has His very good reasons for us taking that journey, a journey that didn’t end up where we thought it would. I’ve come to a greater conviction that God is often more interested in the journey than the destination.

A scripture that has held great meaning for me is where King Solomon has the Ark of the Covenant brought into the temple he built for the Lord. In his speech the king references his father, the late King David. “My father David had it in his heart to build a temple for the Name of the Lord, the God of Israel. But the Lord said to my father David, ‘You did well to have it in your heart to build a temple for my Name. Nevertheless, you are not the one to build the temple, but your son, your own flesh and blood—he is the one who will build the temple for my Name.’” (1 Kings 8:17-19)

I did what I thought we should do. I believe my heart was in the right place (and to the degree it wasn’t, I’m grateful for God’s grace and mercy to cover for that). I believe the Lord says to me, “You did well to have it in your heart…”

We can plan, pray, develop strategies, pray, cast vision, pray, call for commitment, pray and implement the plan, but we’re not guaranteed the results we want and which we think God wants. There will be times we are disappointed, even deeply disappointed, at how things turn out. I believe at such times the words God saw fit to put in our Bibles, the words He had for King David, are meant for us to take personally. “You did well to have it in your heart…”