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!

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Clueless Clergy

mr_magooIt was a congregation of about 15 people in the assisted living dining hall turned sanctuary. I wasn’t the preacher, but was a member of the congregation, along with my wife, her three siblings, their mother (my mother-in-law), and the three other in-laws. Along with us nine, there were about six residents of the facility in attendance. Our family was with Mom, one of the residents, because her husband had passed away a couple of days earlier, and we had all gathered for the coming funeral.

The preacher was the pastor of the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church from nearby Hardwick, Minnesota. His wife played the piano as he led us in worship. The pastor was clueless to the fact that seven of the children and in-laws (excluding me) were musicians of one kind or another, all read music and sing in four-part harmony. To say the least, the family added a great deal to the congregational singing that Sunday afternoon, a virtual choir singing before the pastor as he stood behind the lectern. It was to his benefit that he was also clueless that there were two ordained ministers in the small congregation (me and my brother-in-law). I wouldn’t have wanted to know such a fact before the service if I were in his place.

He preached a great message. It was about having trust in God for this life and hope in heaven for the life to come. It was right on! Then, as an example, he said, “God is there for a wife who’s lost her husband and has four adult children who all live at a distance.” Okay, I thought, one of the family members must have had a conversation with him before the service and so he knew the circumstances of the extended family before him. I found out after the service that such was not the case! He was clueless, but he had nailed it with his example, not knowing that my mother-in-law had just lost her husband and that all four of her adult children lived at a distance! Amazing!

This experience was just another reminder to me that we pastors are often clueless as to how God is using our ministry. We pray about what we should preach and how best to minister, asking for God’s direction and help; then give it our best shot. We often wonder afterward if we hit the mark, if we’ve impacted people much at all. Sure, people sometimes say nice things but, really, did we make a difference?

It seems to me that we’re much like the cartoon character Mr. Magoo, only the opposite. Nearly blind Mr. Magoo meandered through his day oblivious to barely missing serious injury and death while leaving chaos and destruction behind him. We minister Magoos meander through our ministry and, by the grace of God, are often oblivious to the blessings God scatters in the path behind our pastoring. We are clueless clergy, and it’s by God’s design that we are!

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!

The Demolition of Self-Confidence

Humble“How to Build Self-Confidence” is a good title for a self-help book, article, or talk. Think about it, who would buy a book, read an article, or pay to attend a talk titled, “How to Demolish Self-Confidence?”

I like feeling self-confident. Through my years in pastoral ministry it felt good to step to the center of the platform to begin my sermon with the feeling I was going to knock their socks off and leave them standing barefoot on holy ground during the singing of the closing song. I liked going into a congregational meeting with the self-confidence that I was going to boldly lead the congregation where they had never gone before (for the record, this rarely, if ever happened).

There are plenty of times I’ve lacked self-confidence. Preaching in general is a daunting task, but Christmas and Easter seemed to be especially so for me. How can you encapsulate in the length of a message the incomprehensible action of God’s incarnation in the Christmas story or the resurrection of God from the dead in the Easter story? Then there were the calls that someone had suddenly and tragically lost a loved one, and I wondered how I could possibly bring something from God into the situation as I drove to their house or the hospital. Why did I always feel like an amateur pastor as I approached such situations?

Yes, having self-confidence seems like a good place to be. I have come to discover, however, that God doesn’t want me to be self-confident. You’re probably way ahead of me here, saying to yourself, “We’re not to be self-confident but God-confident!” As pastors our Biblically centered and theologically focused brains know this truth, but to get that truth to the heart, well, it’s a long journey from head to heart!

It’s not easy feeling inadequate and feeling good about that, but I’m thinking this is the place where God is leading me to meet Him. In my more sane and more spiritual moments I have to admit that I can’t really experience God’s adequacy unless I experience inadequacy in myself. This means I must go against the hype of the self-help movement and go with the hope of finding my adequacy in God.

I know this stuff, I’ve preached it for years. However, I’m still working on the personal application part, you too? Take a deep breath with me, now exhale slowly, and whisper with me, “It’s OK to feel inadequate.”

“For the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with victory.” (Psalm 149:4)

Sanctified Stubbornness

turtleshowsmallBeing stubborn is often seen as a negative attribute, but I’m thinking it can be sanctified for good use! I’m further thinking that sanctified stubbornness is good for a pastor’s heart. Words like determination and perseverance are synonyms, but there’s something “edgy” about stubbornness so I’m sticking with it. Even the word itself, with its three sets of double letters (bb,nn,ss), exemplifies and emphasizes its definition!

Pastoral ministry is, to coin a phrase from Eugene Peterson, “a long obedience in the same direction.” I’m thinking of a pastor who served a small rural church part-time several years ago. He had major struggles with a key, longtime leader in the church. From my conversations with my pastor friend I gathered that the troublemaker was getting close to leaving the church, but before that happened my friend resigned. I realize I may not have been aware of all the dynamics playing out in the situation, but it might well have been a situation where the pastor quit too soon.

We’re in a race, as the apostle Paul put it. I’d like to take Paul’s analogy and give it a bit of a different slant. This race, for the pastor, is often a case where the race is between the tortoise and the hare, and we’re the tortoise. A heart committed to the slow and steady running of the race will likely win in the end.

What helps us exhibit this sanctified stubbornness is a profound sense of call from the Lord. We need to determine that until we’re “uncalled” we will continue to carry out our call!

Often, these unholy hassles come from one or two, or no more than a small contingent of people. Why would we allow a small minority of our parishioners to cast the vote for us to stop doing what we believe God has called us to do?

Yes, I believe there’s a place in the pastor’s heart for some sanctified stubbornness! You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.” (Hebrews 10:36)

Speaking Softly and Carrying a Big Stick

A photo I took directly outside our home here in Mexico of a shepherd taking his flock up the road.

A photo I took directly outside our home here in Mexico of a shepherd taking his flock up the road.

“Speak softly and carry a big stick, was a phrase President Teddy Roosevelt used in a letter in 1900. It was in reference to a philosophy of foreign policy but has been used by many since then in all kinds of situations. From what I understand the meaning is that you should use as gentle and non-aggressive an approach as possible but also have available the power and authority to have your own way if the mild method doesn’t work.

I was a pastor in a Congregational church my entire pastoral career where the people have a major say in what happens, usually expressed by a vote, as to what they, or at least a majority of them, want for the church. I recall many a congregational meeting where I sat in the pew with most of the congregation, tense and anxiously waiting, as a few trusted souls were off in another room counting the paper ballots of the voting members on a crucial issue.

On such occasions, and others too, I found myself wishing I had more authority, more power, so that things would go the way I believed they should. Generally pastors can’t bark out orders; we’re supposed to use a softer, loving, gentler, what could be called a pastoral approach (an approach we know our congregation also is most comfortable with), but the fantasy of being able to carry a big stick (perhaps a cub?) was, nevertheless, often present for me. That’s the fantasy, but the fact is, I know that’s not the way to pastor!

Oh, we pastors are called to carry a big stick, but not a club, rather a staff, the shepherd’s crook. It’s not a stick to clobber people but one to care for people. Sure, sometimes the shepherd flipped it end for end and used the straight end for a club, a rod, but not on the sheep. Used as a rod it was a defensive weapon against the enemies of the flock under his care.

It seems to me that whenever we pastors start thinking about our power, how to guarantee that we have a significant amount of it or lament that we don’t have enough of it, we’re experiencing pastoral slippage, a drifting from our calling.

The people of the church don’t want to see their pastor as being manipulative. Besides, they can easily vote against being manipulated! The people of the church want to trust their pastor, and my experience is that they’re most open to change when the level of trust and a sense of safety is greater than the perceived risks of change. This level of trust and sense of safety ultimately comes from the pastor and, even more specifically, from the pastor’s heart.

That shepherd of sheep and greatest king of Israel, David, penned these poetic words, referring to the Lord as his shepherd, “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The “stick” we carry as an under-shepherd of the Great Shepherd is to bring comfort.

As pastors we must guard our hearts from being power hungry. After all, we’re not manipulators but ministers. Yes, we’re to speak softly and carry a big stick, but that big stick is to be the shepherd’s staff!

Eggs and Baskets

eggsbasketsSmallI frequently combine my two interests of photography and writing devotional literature in what I call photovotionals, a photograph of mine upon which I base a devotional thought. Pictured here are two baskets, each containing eggs. It illustrates the old saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

As a grandfather if I wanted to have the help of a grandchild in carrying a dozen eggs I’d enlist the help of two grandchildren and let each carry half of them. I’d have a better chance of enjoying eggs for breakfast; the chances of both children dropping the eggs seems a better risk than letting one child carry them all. I suspect this is the principle behind the practice of the president and vice-president of the United States never flying on the same plane.

A good financial policy is to have a diversified portfolio. If one company or one industry falls on hard times you’re not going to be ruined financially.

It seems to me that the principle of not putting all of our eggs in one basket also applies to those of us in pastoral ministry. Having retired in my 40th year of ministry at one church I can now see, with something close to 20/20 hindsight, that I’m glad I didn’t put all my eggs in the basket of being a pastor. God has blessed me with a great many interests. Throughout my pastoral ministry I also had an active writing ministry. No, I’m not a best selling author, but I wrote a weekly inspirational newspaper column for my hometown paper and a local paper in the area where I served as pastor. Along with my flock of people at the church I served I also enjoyed the hobby of raising a small flock of chickens. I also enjoyed photography, maintaining a decorative fish pond, and ventriloquism.

So much of pastoral ministry seems to be out of our control, and so I found some solace in spending some time in other things over which I felt I could have more control. Although it’s hard to lead a flock of chickens! It’s not that they have their own minds, it’s that they don’t have minds…OK, very tiny ones. I could take the pictures I wanted to, and when it comes to ventriloquism my vent figure Ricky only said what I wanted him to say!

If we as pastors put all of our focus, all of our energy, all of our identity in being a pastor, then we’re setting ourselves up for a devastating experience. We should put our emotional eggs in more than one basket, into many baskets. The Lord Himself should be the biggest basket of all, having a relationship with Him apart from ministering for Him and with Him. If we’re married and have a family we have two more baskets that we should be filling. I believe it’s very good for a pastor to have a sideline ministry; writing was mine. For some pastors the outside ministry might be as a chaplain for a hospital, police force, fire department, nursing home, or as military chaplain as is the case with my successor at the church I served. We tell our congregation that they can minister in many different ways; we can model that for them.

If the basket of pastoral ministry is the only basket into which we put our emotional eggs we can easily end up a basket case! I have found the old adage to be true: don’t put all your eggs in one basket.