Mirror First, Window Second

My experience with preparing and delivering sermons led me to the deep conviction that my sermons had to preach to me before they would preach well to the people I served as pastor. I was off to a bad start if I thought the message I was prepping was going to correct my wayward parishioners from the error of their ways. Even worse was when I’d catch myself thinking of a certain person who needed to hear the message. Invariably that person was missing from the congregation when the message was delivered; God had His ways of keeping me in line! I had to let God speak to me through the message before I could hope the message would speak to the people.

I’ve also come to the conviction that the same principle applies to pastoral ministry far beyond the parameters of preaching. While pastoring I wanted God to use me to change the lives of those whom He entrusted to my pastoral care. What God wanted to do first was to have me change! I was not perfect in any given area of the Christian life (as I still am not), so in every area there was ample room for Him to work the change in me first, if I was open to it.

I would be frustrated that a board member seemed deaf to my argument for a certain course of action. It was easy to pass judgment on him or her, but was I willing to take an honest look at myself and be willing to see the same resistance in myself to an idea presented by a board member, maybe even that same member? I need to apply Jesus’ admonition that I’ve preached on countless times, and let it preach to me: “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?” Matthew 7:3

Upon rising from our beds most of us spend more time gazing into the glass of a mirror rather than through the glass of a window. Oh, we may peek outside a window to see what the weather’s like, but we’re likely to spend far more time peering into the mirror and fixing what we see so that we’re presentable to the public. So it should be with pastoral ministry. More time should be spent reflecting on how we need to make the same changes that we see need to be made in the lives of our parishioners. Mirror first, window second!

The Attentive Pastor’s Heart

The late Dallas Willard impacted the lives of thousands of people, including many pastors of whom I am one. I never had the pleasure of meeting Dallas Willard, but John Ortberg did. Ortberg has been greatly influenced by Dallas Willard and considers his own writings to be “Dallas for Dummies.” John Ortberg writes that whenever he was in conversation with Dallas he had the man’s full attention. Even in a room full of people, John observed, if Dallas was in conversation with you that it seemed you were the only one in the room with him.

Another one of my favorite authors is the late Eugene Peterson. After his recent passing someone who knew him personally eulogized that when you were in Peterson’s presence you knew he was fully attentive to you.

There have been times when I have gotten up the nerve to go up to a famous speaker after they’ve spoken in order to ask a question or to enter into what I knew could only be a brief conversation. There have been times when the speaker, who was warm and engaging before the crowd, seemed distracted and anxious to move on to someone else or to catch a plane to the next big event. There have been other times, fortunately, when I have found the famous scholar, preacher, or writer whom I’ve gotten up the nerve to approach to be fully attentive to me.

I want to be like Dallas, Eugene, and those who have given me their undivided attention! With some embarrassment I must admit there have been times that when in conversation with someone I’ve communicated through body language and darting eyes that I had other places to go and people to see, likely only feet away in the same room.

I know that this blog, A PASTOR’S HEART, focuses on the heart of the pastor and not so much on the mechanics and principles of pastoring. However, it seems to me that the reason Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, and some I’ve known personally are fully attentive and present in a conversation is because they have a settled, focused, and Christ-centered heart.

Brother Lawrence famously promoted the idea of “practicing the presence” of the Lord. It occurred to me that when we seek to be fully in the presence of the Lord in the moment we will more likely be fully present with others when we are with them. When our own heart is far from being settled and focused we’ll find it difficult to be settled and focused around others. We may be standing before a person in conversation, but it may seem to that person that we are running in place, running away from them!

Our work to become a more fully focused person in a conversation with someone begins, then, as a work on our own heart as pastors. It’s the work of seeking to have a heart that’s at peace, settled, and focused on the Lord. It’s an inward to outward process.

But it’s also an outward to inward process! We can determine in our next conversation with someone, and the next conversation after that, and the one following that, to be intentional about giving the person our undivided attention even though we don’t come by it naturally. It may not be a behavior we default to, but it is a behavior we can determine to put into practice, and over time find it happens more naturally and is coming more and more from the heart, a new habit of the heart.

Having a pastor’s heart has many facets to it. Certainly one of those facets that reflects the light of Christ brightly into the hearts of those we pastor is to have an attentive heart!

Lessons from Eugene Peterson

peterson

Eugene Peterson recently journeyed to his permanent sabbatical to Heaven.  He was the author of the Bible paraphrase THE MESSAGE, pastor of a church for many years, professor, poet, author of a host of books for pastors, mentor to pastors and much more.  Eugene Peterson helped me and countless other pastors understand what pastoring is meant to be.  He truly had a pastor’s heart.  In the following link CT PASTORS asked 8 church leaders to share how Eugene Peterson impacted their lives and ministries.  Click HERE to read.

A Resume or a Eulogy?

In our work as pastors are we striving to build a resume or providing material for our own eulogy? Richard Kannwischer, pastor at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, recently referenced David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, in his sermon. In one of his columns Brooks wrote, “It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?” The Moral Bucket List, NEW YORK TIMES web site, April 11, 2015.

Pastor Kannwischer said in his message that he’s been to many funerals, and the saddest ones are those where the deceased’s accomplishments are itemized but little if anything is said of lives the person touched. I agree. I’ve conducted probably some 500 funerals and the great funerals were those where family and friends reflected on how the person had impacted their lives, a real eulogy. The darker funerals were those where the best that could be said was where the person lived, worked, what sports they loved, and what they achieved, more like a resume.

We pastors can buy into the CEO model, a business approach, an achievement mindset, or a goal oriented work. Certainly there are good aspects to all of these, but they tend to fit into a resume more than into a eulogy.

I’ve shared something of this before, but I feel the need to reiterate the idea: When I retired in my 40th year of ministry at Mayfair-Plymouth Church in Toledo, Ohio, my wife and I were given a retirement party/celebration that was, in our opinion, over the top. What was interesting in people’s personal reflections of our ministry together was the lack of focus on any achievements that were, at the time, so important to me. What the reflections focused on were the times we went through things together, often tough times, but many good times as well. They remembered words I said in an attempt to be comforting or encouraging, most of the conversations of which I had no recollection. It was very little of the resume type stuff and a lot of what might be said at my funeral, except I was present to enjoy it!

Maybe a good way to sum this all up is to say that a pastor would do well to focus less on resume building in ministry and more on living among the people in such a way that they would have ample material for a eulogy for the pastor. Morbid? I don’t think so. It’s just that, as David Brooks wrote, it’s better to aim for eulogy virtues than resume virtues.

A Vacation Can Be Good for the Pastor’s Heart

I recall asking our church board for some vacation time.  They always granted it (so I guess I should have felt blessed), but not without comments such as “Again?” or “I wish I could take some time off,” or “How many weeks have you taken this year already?”

We can easily fall into the trap of thinking that if we don’t take any time off the extra effort will reap positive results in the church.  The opposite is usually true. The old proverb says, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  All work and no play for the pastor will likely make for a dull preacher, and an exhausted one as well.

I was fortunate that my church gave me four weeks of vacation a year.  In over 39 years at the church I took all four weeks every year and have never regretted doing so!

The following link is a great article on the subject by Stephanie Dyrness Lobdell. Enjoy, and begin planning that next vacation!

A Parable for Pastors

Once upon a time there were two carpenters in a village nestled in a valley. Each had a thriving business of providing furniture, wooden tools, buckets, and yokes for the farmers.

Father Langston, the long-time priest of the village church, knew both carpenters and their families well for they were a part of his church. Seeking to treat each family the same, his own humble home was furnished with an equal number of items from each man. He made regular pastoral calls to the carpentry shop of each, conversing with them on both mundane and spiritual subjects as they measured, sawed, nailed, and sanded their projects.

Father Langston noted a difference, however, between the two. Though both made and sold many items to the villagers, Brother Thomas sold more than Brother James and was able to provide his wife and family with luxuries that Brother James could not.

Brother James’ lower productivity was due to his habit of making a fine piece of furniture every year for his wife. His loving and careful crafting of the yearly gift left less time for him to make that which he might sell.

Father Langston noted one other difference, and this was in Brother James’ favor. Though Brother Thomas’ wife had luxuries Brother James’ wife did not, it was Brother James’ wife who clung close to her husband at church, glanced up at him with loving eyes, and seemed to be clothed with peace and contentment. Brother Thomas’ wife rarely glanced at her husband or held him close, being much distracted and busied with straightening her rich clothes and fondling her sparkling jewelery. Both men, he noted, felt a satisfaction that they were providing well for their wives.

One Sunday afternoon, after having visited both men at their carpentry shops the past week and having greeted each man and his wife after church that morning, he made an observation while he rested, drinking a cup of tea. Brother Thomas sold all he made to the villagers while Brother James had less to sell to the villagers because he spent much time and effort creating something as a gift for his wife, and yet it was Brother James and his wife who seemed happiest with each other.

What Father Langston took to heart from his Sunday afternoon observation was that he was a crafter of words as the two men were crafters of wood. Like the carpenters he was glad that people received gladly what he crafted, for he was, indeed, a great student of the Scriptures and an accomplished orator of the message he had prepared. But in spite of his great efforts as God’s pastor he felt distant from the God whom he served. His relationship with God, he now came to see, was more like the cool but respectful marriage of Brother Thomas and his wife. In the marriage of Brother James and his wife he saw a warmth, devotion, and closeness he yearned to have with God.

What Father Langston went on to ponder was how all of his praying, studying, reflecting, and crafting of God’s Word was for the benefit of the villagers. Like Brother Thomas, he never took any of it home. Little, if any of it, was simply a delightful gift to God who dwelt with him. He determined from that day forward that He would follow Brother James’ example.