Doing Pastoral Ministry in Stealth Mode

Some of the ministry we do should be kept a secret; it’s good for our soul! I didn’t always do this when I was pastoring. A call by a hospital chaplain awakened me from sleep in the middle of the night with the request that I come to see a parishioner of mine who was doing poorly. I dutifully got out of bed and made the visit to the hospitalized parishioner. The next day I would find myself working my nocturnal pastoral call into conversation with other parishioners. Then there were the times I felt I was going the extra mile to reach out to help someone, and, again, I would find a way to share the journey of the extra mile with others.

It’s a temptation to be our own pastoral public relationships department. During my ministry I now realize that I should have allowed myself to be reminded more often of these words of Jesus: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 6:1) So much of what we do as pastors, by necessity, is done before others that we should work at lowering the percentage whenever we can.

In reflecting on this subject before putting fingers to keyboard I thought of suggesting that secrecy should be a spiritual discipline (and I believe that in some lists it is), but then I realized that secrecy is an inherent part of several of the spiritual disciplines. For instance, fasting is a spiritual discipline to which Jesus reminded us not to make a public display. Jesus also taught that the same goes for prayer and also in giving to the needy. These teachings by Jesus are also found in the previously referenced passage of Matthew 6, as you probably already knew.

It’s a difficult balancing act we face as pastors. On the one hand we’re to be an example to our flock, and how can we do so without them observing us? On the other hand we’re not to show off our spirituality.

Analyzing our motives is certainly one of the best tools to finding the right balance. Is the public knowledge of my action going to bring glory to me for what I’ve done or encouragement to others for what they can do?

We teach and preach that what we do should be done primarily because we love the Lord and want to serve and please Him. Sometimes the best way to bring home that message to ourselves as the teacher or preacher is to intentionally do some of our ministry in secret, to minister in stealth mode.

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Just to Lighten Up Your Day

Prayer Under a Pine Tree

Actual pine tree that inspired the thought for this post

I was taking my morning walk the path of which took me under a pine tree. I hadn’t noticed the breeze until I stopped under the tree. It was the sound I heard first, the sound of the wind through the tens of millions of needles. Then I noticed how each of the multitude of needles on the ends of dozens of branches caught just enough of the breeze to, collectively, cause the branches to sway.

I was inspired to pray something to the effect, “Lord, even though I can’t see the wind, I hear it in the pine needles, and I see it in the moving pine branches. So blow through me with your Holy Spirit that those around me will hear and see you through me. Amen.”

Pastoring People from the Heart

This FROM A PASTOR’S HEART blog is all about nurturing our heart as a pastor. Our ministry is to be a ministry from the heart. The people to whom we minister have hurting hearts, and our most effective ministry happens when it is heart-to-heart ministry, our heart reaching out to their hearts.

It’s so easy in pastoral ministry to focus on relating to people, especially our leaders, in terms of goals, objectives, schedules, programs, and problem-solving. This results in a disheartening ministry, a leaving of the heart out of the ministry! It results in the people under our care, no surprise here, being disheartened. They deeply want to be seen first as a human being, not as a human doing.

I remember telling one youth pastor after another who served the youth in our church (we seemed to go through quite a number of youth pastors over the years) that the three most important aspects of being a youth pastor (or any other ministry role for that matter) are relationships, relationships, relationships! When I was retiring from pastoral ministry I didn’t have all that many people come up to me recalling some wise words I once taught them; what they reminisced about was the relationship we had over the years. In fact, they frequently referenced our relationship as friend to friend, not so much as pastor to parishioner.

I’ve come to realize that we pastors can focus on having a great teaching ministry, which is important, but, as Theodore Roosevelt said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I’ve also come to realize that if there’s a heart-to-heart connection with people they tend to extend more grace and mercy when you’ve goofed up or dropped the ball. Isn’t that what the apostle Peter was getting at when he wrote, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins”? 1 Peter 4:8

One of the great challenges for a pastor is to make meaningful but brief contacts with a multitude of people before and after large or small group events. The few seconds we encounter a parishioner in the hallway or at a coffee hour is, for most of them, their few seconds to connect with us. Do they find us distracted, anxious to move on, or disinterested in them?

I was prompted to think about how I treat people whom I casually meet after reading an article by Douglas Groothuis in Christianity Today magazine titled, “Learning to Say Hello Again.” He concludes his article by stating, “It seems like a small thing, but it really isn’t. How we greet—or fail to greet—others says much about our character. But in the power of the Holy Spirit, we may practice the presence of people by acknowledging and recognizing them for who they are: creatures made in God’s image.”

Every person we meet has been made in the image of God; each has an eternal destiny. Groothuis quotes C. S Lewis in The Weight of Glory, “You have never talked to a mere mortal.” How will we treat, even in casual encounters, these beloved creatures of God made in His image and whom He loves?

Most of us have taught and preached on the opening and closing words of the apostle Paul’s letters where he expresses his heartfelt love for his readers. He does so with the Philippian Christians. I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart…” Philippians 1:3-7a

One of our ongoing prayers should be that we might have a heart for the people He’s put under our care. They need something more from us than our biblically based insights and teaching and our vision for the church (though they need this); they need for us to share our heart with them!

Wind in the Pines, Wind in the Corn

That actual location on my walk when the thought for this blog post came to me.

On my morning walk recently I was on a part of the path that had a set of pine trees on the one side of the path and a cornfield on the other side. A mountain breeze was blowing. I heard the wind in the pines and the wind in the corn, but the sound of the wind was different on the two sides of the path. The wind swished through the tens of thousands of pine needles and rustled through the thousands of corn leaves, stereophonic diversity! It was a fresh reminder of God’s ruach, God’s pneuma, the Holy Spirit, who blows around, into, and out of us in very unique ways, like the wind does through the pines and the corn.

I know, we’ve all preached and taught a hundred or more times on the unique gifts the Holy Spirit provides every believer. I found, however, I needed to be reminded of this myself all over again. The walk between the pines and the corn gave me a fresh incentive to quit playing the comparison game where I’m envious or jealous of other pastors and their talents or opportunities. It also provided the additional antidote to overcome a prideful attitude that leads me to think judgmentally of other pastors who don’t do ministry the way I think it should be done.

Similar to the wind making unique sounds when blowing through the pines and the corn, so the Spirit of God exhibits Himself in wonderfully different ways to each of us who has been gifted by Him to be His pastor to a group of His people. For each of us it’s a very unique call!

Yes, we’re familiar with the following statement by the apostle Paul, but instead of preaching it to others this might be a good moment to let it speak to the preacher! There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7)

Pastors from Another Planet

“That’s the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things.”

These words are spoken by an old pastor, John Ames, in Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead. I agree with this fictional pastor. Many people really don’t know how to act around a minister, (especially those who are irregular church attenders or non-attenders). They apologize for using God’s name in vain when they discover that a pastor is present, never giving it a thought that God is omnipresent and has been listening to their language all along. Others cover themselves the opposite way when a pastor is present, using religious language like “God bless” and “what a blessing” and “I’m so thankful” which are phrases that they’ve not uttered since the last time a pastor was within ear shot. Still others will quickly move off to join a different person or group for conversation as if the pastor is contagious. It’s as if pastors are from another planet.

Many folks would be surprised to know that pastors are normal in most ways, having similar struggles, problems, and also interests and talents as everybody else. I remember being invited over to a family’s home for Sunday dinner after I had baptized a member of the family in our morning service. They had a pool table in the basement, so I joined in on a game of pool. They didn’t know that one of the few luxuries my parents allowed me and my siblings while growing up on an Iowa farm was a pool table that was squeezed into the second story bedroom my brother and I shared in the farmhouse. I can still play a decent game of pool. My opponent in the game, an unsuspecting non-church attender was shocked when the pastor beat him. I recall him mumbling something about the pool table not being level (as if this irregularity hindered his game and somehow benefited mine).

Then, too, it’s amazing how many people think a pastor lives an isolated existence, an innocent life, and is unaware of the real world out there. They have no idea of the number of people who enter the pastor’s study bringing with them their real world. They pour out their heart, unpack their dirty laundry, and vomit forth gut wrenching feelings they can no longer stomach. Pastors don’t have to go out into the real world to experience life as it really is; the people bring it to us! Of course, there are many times we do venture forth out into this real world to make house calls, hospital calls, funeral home calls, jail and prison calls, and calls to any place where someone is facing a crisis in their life.

People in our churches think we don’t know the half of all that’s going on in our own congregation. Truth be told, we know a lot more than they think we know!

It seems some folks want to compartmentalize pastors into one of two cubicles. Pastors are either out of touch with the real world (nice but naive) or they’re hypocritical pastors (including most televangelists) who are interested only in money and extra-marital affairs. There seems to be no cubicle for the majority of pastors who honestly are seeking to serve the Lord while dealing with the same day-to-day fallen world situations everyone else does.

My conclusion to all of this? First of all, how people view us as pastors probably says as much or more about them as it does about us, so we shouldn’t take it personally. We can learn a lot about the condition of their hearts and souls by watching their reactions to us.

A second observation: I think we just have to accept the fact that to some people we’re an oddity, love them where they’re at, and hope and pray that they’ll really get to know us and, more importantly, the Jesus we serve. The final thought I have on this subject is that it felt really good beating that non-church attending pool player!

Leading to the Leeches

Members of our church’s married couples group were camping at a state park. The park has a concrete dam over which the water cascades. Most of us couples had been swimming in the lake below the dam when I ventured onto the dam and laid down on it. “Hey, come over here. This is really great, letting the water flow over you,” I shouted. Many of them accepted the invitation of their pastor, so there we were, all scattered out, laying down on the slope of the concrete dam letting the water flow over us.

Then I noticed something. There were leeches on that concrete dam! I shouted out, “There’s leeches!” Immediately everyone jumped up, faster than a baby can climb out of a tub of bathwater! Most of us couples headed back to our tents and campers to check out whether any leeches were where they shouldn’t be. The only redeeming part of the whole episode was that each couple had to do a full body check on their mate!

Their pastor had led them into the land of the leeches. It wasn’t one of my most shining moments of pastoral leadership! My words of invitation had to be followed up by words of alarm.

The fact is, we pastors are put in the position of having great influence, and a key aspect of that influence is the words we say. The apostle Paul admonished the Colossian church, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:6) We pastors are, by trade, word crafters; words are our tools.

We usually give some thought as to what we’re going to say (yes, there are those unfortunate times when we speak before we think). We seek to guard our mouth, but we’d be better off guarding our heart! The reality is that the genesis of much of what we say is not the head but the heart. Guarding what we say by thinking it through is important, but is only the second line of defense against saying something stupid, hurtful, and sinful. The first line of defense is guarding our hearts, the ultimate source of our words!

I suspect I’m not the only one who thought he was quite good at guarding his words, but then heard myself letting words slip out that came from a heart that was not in a very good place. Most of us have also been witness any number of times to parishioners letting go with a torrent of words that had bypassed the filter of the mind and had come straight from a hurting, angry, or sinful heart.

We pastors know the following statement by Jesus and probably have preached on it a number of times, but it’s good to make personal application to our own influence through the words we use. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:45) A good prayer for us pastors to pray is that of the psalmist, Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14)

When I tend to forget how powerful are the words I speak as a pastor, I have only to remind myself of the time when my words led my people to the leeches! It caused no real harm, not like my words have on other occasions. Guarding the tongue at the moment is important, but more important is the guarding of my heart!