Repenting of my task hoarding

Too much

This truck driver may have taken on more than she/he can handle.

We general practitioner associate pastors can become awfully adept at collecting tasks. We may have a line at the bottom of our job description that says something like, “Other duties as determined by the pastor,” and accumulated a load of those other duties. Or we may have slipped into “caulk ministry,” making sure nothing falls through the cracks, and collected several more little jobs. Some of us, and I’m looking in the mirror here, have become hoarders of those tasks, always collecting more without ever letting go of any one of them. Our workday has become so crammed full we don’t know how we get through the week. Sometimes we need to sort through our collections to decide what should stay and what has to go.

In recent weeks, I’d been feeling overwhelmed with all I needed to do. At first I thought it was the post-Christmas funk, but a staff meeting reminded me of two new leadership tasks coming my way soon. It was time to begin sorting through responsibilities, finding good homes for some of the things I do.

I decided to let go of two tasks for different reasons. You may find these helpful to consider.

The first was simple to spot. I have been the builder of our worship service slides for years. This is a fairly straightforward administrative task which needs to be completed each week. I like it, and I’m good at it, but I don’t need to be the one doing it.

I approached the person who has built the slides when I have been on vacation to see if it was something she would be willing to do each week. I was surprised and thrilled when she immediately said she would. When I spoke to her recently, fearful she was a bit overwhelmed, she told me she was loving the work, even getting lost in it. What a blessing that turned out to be for both of us.

Many of us perform administrative tasks which we could easily train someone else to do. Maybe it is attendance, or keeping track of participant accounts, or maybe it is making sure there is a snack at every meeting. Not only will letting it go help you, the person(s) who then take it on for you will be given the opportunity to use their gifts in service to Christ and the church.

The second was a bit more difficult to spot. Over the past several years I have been blessed with young adults helping with our youth ministry. Several of these young adults are trained to work with youth as educators and in social service fields. Slowly I had been giving them more responsibility, to the point where my primary role was providing them with curriculum to use each Sunday night, which they would then carry out. In addition, they are leading high school small groups, taking youth out to lunch, attending their plays and sporting events, and doing all the work of an exceptional youth leader. So I met with a couple of them and asked if they would be willing to take take the next step, planning the youth meetings.

This was a hard one for me. Youth ministry is something I have felt called to for almost 20 years. So this was not something I didn’t think I needed to do. But God has placed these exceptional people in my life and in the congregation, and they were not being used to the fullness of their ability. By enlarging their sphere of responsibility, I am helping them grow in their discipleship. My role now is equipping them to be the best youth leaders they can be by sharing my experience.

Many of us have gifted people around us to whom we could give more responsibility. Expanding the role of these exceptional young people has not only freed me up to work in other areas, it is also giving them opportunities to grow as servants of Jesus Christ who are giving of themselves to the youth of the congregation. And it is already improving the youth ministry.

When sharing these shifts in my responsibilities with our children’s minister, I joked, “I’m working myself right out of a job!” She replied, “Isn’t that the point?” I guess it is. We build a ministry, then equip others to carry it on while we go build something else. To do this, we cannot be afraid to let go. When we stop hoarding tasks we allow others to use their gifts in service to Christ and the church, and we are freed to pursue other areas of ministry.

Saying something you’d like to take back

I shouldn't have said that.

I shouldn’t have said that.

We associate pastors talk… a lot. We teach, preach, present, counsel, visit, and chat. Sometimes, we might say something of which we are not proud – a mistake, a terse answer, or an obviously frustrated response to a question the person in front of us has asked for the first time but you are hearing for the 15th time this week. We make mistakes, show emotion, and are simply sometimes off our game.

Recently, after a sermon, a member of our congregation came to correct me on a minor point I had made in a sermon illustration that was just completely wrong. I mean, it wasn’t even close. It was about a holiday in her home country and my research pointed me in a very wrong direction. She was gracious in correcting me, and I’m glad she did, but boy was I embarrassed.

Maybe that’s why when I watched Richard Sherman’s interview with Erin Andrews after the Seattle Seahawks defeated the San Francisco 49ers for the privilege of playing in the Super Bowl, my first thought was compassion. I felt bad for him. As I watched the video (on YouTube here and embedded below), I could almost see the adrenaline coursing through his veins. He had just made THE play that sent his team to play in the biggest game in sports. In the heat of the moment, Erin Andrews did what sideline reporters do. She stuck a mic in front of the hero and asked him a question, and well… he said something stupid. Since then, the video has gone viral, and the interview has been the focus of much of the early Super Bowl talk.  I’m so thankful my faux pas only happen in front of a handful of people at a time, and not millions on national television.

So, here are a couple of thoughts about saying things we wish we could take back.

  • Pause before you speak. Often, we are far too quick to speak, tweet, and post before we think about how we will be heard. You don’t need to share everything you are feeling. Measure your words, then respond.
  • Stay positive. Imagine how much more we would be talking about Sherman’s amazing play in the end zone, if he would have simply celebrated the win. Instead, the interview, the mistake, is what most people are hearing.
  • Humility. Telling people you are the best doesn’t endear you to anyone. If you really are great, they will know. You don’t have to tell them.
  • Apologize. When you make a mistake, apologize. Sherman tried in a blog on Sports Illustrated, but it comes off as more of a rationale for his behavior than a genuine apology. It is far better to say, “I’m sorry. I messed up. I shouldn’t have said that.” Take the initiative. Own up to what you have done wrong, and apologize. It will go a long way.

Sharing the load of leadership

Leading

A good leader is sometimes called upon to lead others where they do not necessarily want to go. We Associate Pastors know this. We upset the apple cart when we start a new program, tweak a worship service, change the night our youth group meets, buy a different curriculum for our Sunday School classes, or something else. No matter how good or wonderful the change might be, we feel many digging in because they do not wish to follow us to these new pastures. When we feel the tension, it is easy to abandon the new path. That will ease the tension, but at what price? On a good staff, each team member may take a turn being the one ready to give up, but together we “lead on!”

Recently, I co-led a couple of breakout sessions of the School of Congregational Development of the United Methodist Church, with the lead pastor with whom I serve, Bob Kaylor. We were sharing our discipleship program – how it works, and how it was implemented – with other United Methodist pastors and clergy. It would have been easy to present all rainbows and unicorns. We met our three-year goal for participation in less than a year. Our discipleship program has quickly become part of the DNA of the congregation, and it would be hard to imagine going forward without it. But it would have been unfair to our colleagues not to include how we almost gave up on it in the first several months, because of the resistance we felt. So we talked about it, but only briefly as an aside.

When the time came for questions, this was the predominant question. I heard my colleagues saying, “I know this is important, and would like to implement it in my congregation, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be well received.”

One of the keys for us as a staff was the support we gave one another. There were times in the implementation of our discipleship program where I lost my nerve and was ready to advocate for going back to the way things were. Bob would say something like, “I think we are on the right track here. We need to keep going.” At other times he would check in with me, pretty sure we needed to pull the plug because of the resistance, when I would hold him up often pointing to positives I had seen. Other times there were leaders within the congregation who would encourage both of us.

Leadership can be tiring. There are times when we are not sure we have the strength to keep going, and want to find an easier path. At those times, we as associate pastors have a responsibility to encourage others on our staffs to keep leading, even when the going gets rough. We also need to use the staff to do the same for us.

Summer preaching

SUMMER PREACHING SCHEDULE‘Tis the season for the preaching of associate pastors. During the summer months, when lead pastors take vacation time, they often hand us, their associates and other staff members, the role of preaching, leading worship, and generally covering for them while they are gone. Some of us are excited to get this role, others terrified. Either way, preaching as an associate brings a unique set of challenges.

Recently, while having dinner with a friend who serves as “the other teaching pastor” (his words, not mine) of a congregation in town, the conversation turned to the challenges of preaching as associates. I laughed when he told me how difficult it can be to refer to “my last talk” when it happened several months ago, and we shared humorous stories about teasing our lead pastors for giving us “difficult topics” to preach on, like sex and money, while they are out of town. It is always fun to swap stories with another associate.

He told me he sometimes opens sermons by apologizing to the congregation that they are getting “the B-Team today.” I told him how I have sometimes referred to myself the junior varsity. The conversation reminded me of a guest preacher subbing for Rob Bell at Mars Hill Bible Church one Sunday who opened his sermon by comparing coming to Mars Hill and getting a guest preacher, to driving to Wally World and finding it closed – an homage to the 1983 film National Lampoon’s Vacation. All of this is great fun with the congregation, and a technique to lower the tension by naming the elephant in the room – you are not the preacher some were expecting and are familiar with.

But don’t dwell there. It is wise to name their disappointment, but be sure they know you do not believe it. You are not the B-Team, the junior varsity, or the equivalent of Wally World being closed. You have been entrusted with this Sunday’s message, this opportunity to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with those seated before you.

I know you will receive messages to the contrary. Attendance may be a fraction of what it was the week before when the lead pastor was in town. Expectations for your preaching may be low. You may get compliments about giving a “nice” sermon, the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head. You may even be asked between services when the pastor is coming back, causing you to wonder if people are sizing up whether to come back next Sunday. These are all discouraging messages which may cause you to wonder if it is worth the effort of top-notch preparation.

Through years of preaching as an associate, I have learned not to think of the congregation as a unit, but as individuals. The Sunday you preach is an important day for someone in the congregation who needs to hear a word of grace. It matters to another who needs to hear God loves them. Another has come who needs to be strengthened for the week ahead by a word from God delivered through you. You have a sacred responsibility, entrusted to you by God through the lead pastor. Don’t squander it.

Preaching in the summer as an associate may feel like a call to simply pass the time. It is not. You do not have the luxury of phoning it in as the B-Team. You have been entrusted to deliver the word of the Lord to someone. Don’t shirk that responsibility.

When an Associate Needs to Serve as Priest to the Lead Pastor on Seedbed.org

A new article I wrote was posted to Asbury Theological Seminary’s Seedbed Blog today. 

When an Associate Needs to Serve as Priest to the Lead Pastor” is about a very difficult time in the life of any associate – when we feel led to step out and speak to our lead pastor. Drawing from the wisdom of Samuel’s discussion with Saul and Nathan’s with David, I share some lessons to be learned, and hopefully give those who need it the courage to follow God’s lead. 

Please follow the link and give it a read. Let me know what you think. 

The Simpsons New Associate Pastor

Elijah Hooper

Reverend Elijah Hooper,
Assoicate Pastor
First Church of Springfield
*Photo by Olan Mills (I assume)

I don’t always admit this, but I have been a fan of The Simpsons since it first appeared on the Tracy Ullman Show as shorts, some 25 years ago. One of the things consistently drawing me to the show, besides my juvenile sense of humor, has been their satire of the church. I mean, how many other shows have the whole cast in church every Sunday, and have the recurring character of a pastor as well-developed as Reverend Timothy Lovejoy (and 7th Heaven doesn’t count)? Over the years while making me laugh, they have also helped me teach some youth lessons, and I have even dared to show clips during several sermons.

On Sunday, April 28, in an episode titled “Pulpit Friction,” The Simpsons continued their clever and always funny jabbing at the church with the introduction of The First Church of Springfield’s first associate pastor. With the appearance of “the right, reverend Elijah Hooper” we associate pastors have become culturally relevant, even if it is with yellow skin and a huge overbite.

The entire town of Springfield gathers at the church for help and solace during a bedbug epidemic. While Reverend Lovejoy is trying to calm the mob by appealing to The Epistle of Jeremy and Tobit from the Apocrypha (he’s not great under pressure), the easy going Parson arrives in a golf cart and cardigan to return Lovejoy’s six-iron. Standing before the congregation the Parson introduces Reverend Hooper (voiced by Edward Norton) as “the number two man from Shelbyville,” who “introduced angle parking.” “We got in six more cars,” the Parson gloats (what we associates do is so important). When Lovejoy pushes back, saying he doesn’t need an associate, the Parson appoints Hooper anyway. Sounds like The First Church of Springfield may be a United Methodist congregation.

Everyone is enamored with the smooth-talking new associate, prompting Lovejoy call the day “the worst 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time ever.” In contrast to Lovejoy’s choice of apocryphal books to address the crisis, Hooper draws his illustrations from cultural references. For example, in his first sermon we hear him conclude, “So you see, what Jesus is saying really can be explained by an episode of Californication.”

The satirical gems keep coming in this episode, like Ned Flanders, the Simpson family’s Christian neighbor, muttering to himself while knitting, “Church songs with clapping. I don’t think this is what Martin Presby Luther had in mind when he founded our religion by sticking his three suggestions under the Pope’s windshield wiper” (OK, so maybe they aren’t Methodist). There is also Bart and Homer’s exchange:

Bart: Dad, you always hated church.

Homer: Now for the record, I hated the building, the people in it, and the spirit it represented, but I never hated the church itself.

Someone on the writing staff of The Simpsons knows something about the church.

In spite of this episode poking fun at us for doing such things, I found a lesson here. There is something to be learned about how not to be an associate from Rev. Elijah Hooper.

Hooper makes some huge mistakes – he springs things onto the lead pastor during worship, builds a following of his own rather than disciples of Jesus, and shows poor judgment selecting Homer to be a new deacon. But the most critical error that leads to him being run out of Springfield, is his lack of theology.

When crisis visits the church again, this time it’s frogs instead of bedbugs, the people gather at the church asking Hooper to minister to them this time. Unfortunately, his “easy-going offshoot of Protestantism,” as he describes his faith to Moe the bartender, has nothing to offer. He tries to appeal to “The Blindside with Sandy Bullock,” as he call it, but the crisis escalates. Finally, in the stress all he can mutter is, “Um… video games. Uh… Twitter. How to Train Your Dragon,” and as the congregants descend upon him, “Fight Club!” He’s smooth-talking, but he’s got nothing of substance to say.

Lovejoy arrives dramatically quoting Psalm 23, which somehow soothes (Homer says “bores”) the frogs to sleep so they can be swept up and removed. Reverend Tim Lovejoy has saved the day, prompting his congregants to give him a Gatorade bath with the water from the baptismal.

I guess theology wins every time. Even in Springfield.

Changes in lead pastor – Part 2: Saying Hello to a New Lead Pastor

This is part two of two posts regarding how associates can be helpful to a congregation as a transition in lead pastors occurs. As the season of pastoral change approaches for us United Methodists, Seedbed Publishing has released a new resource authored by Robert Kaylor, the lead pastor with whom I serve. His new book, Your Best Move: Effective Leadership Transition in the Local Church, and companion webinar “Your Next Move: Planning for Clergy Transitions” are designed to help churches and pastors navigate the tricky waters of a pastoral transition. 

Associate pastors experience the transition of lead pastors differently from congregants. When we choose to work through the issues of transition, rather than just holding on, we can help the new lead pastor and the congregation toward successful ministry together long into the future.

While you and the congregation are saying goodbye to the outgoing pastor, a process I discussed in last week’s post, the associate should also be preparing the congregation to say hello to the incoming leader. You can be a wonderful catalyst for successful transition. Here are several things to consider as you begin with a new lead pastor.

Resource the new pastor - Our denomination provides a “Transition Checklist” of what the outgoing pastor is to leave for the incoming one. In my experience though, the outgoing pastor sometimes finds these tasks difficult to focus upon as his or her attention is divided between your congregation and the new one to which he/she will be going. The list includes things like a copy of the mission and vision statements, a directory, email lists, church policies, budgets, newsletters, bulletins, and the like. It also asks for the outgoing pastor to make statements about the culture of the church, who is in the hospital or struggling with long-term illness, where people in the area go for emergency assistance, ministerial associations, and the like. Take some time to put some of these items together, and think through how you might present them to the incoming pastor. A wise lead pastor will want to meet with the staff during the transition process. Be prepared to be helpful.

Prepare the congregation - Before the new lead pastor arrives begin preparing the congregation for him or her. Research the new pastor and talk up his/her previous successes. Don’t be afraid to share what you see that made the Bishop or Search Committee choose this pastor for your congregation. Share your interactions with the incoming pastor as appropriate. Share his/her sermon podcast page, blog site, and any other means by which congregants may get a feel for who is coming.

Keep everything positive and upbeat. Together you and your congregation will be discovering what God has in store for your congregation. Enjoy the adventure, and let others know you are enjoying it.

Help the pastor and congregation say hello well - Be sure your leadership is planning opportunities for people to meet the new pastor. Our most recent process which was very successful included “Meet the Pastor” nights where groups of 10-20 gathered in people’s homes. This took a good chunk of the pastor’s time over the initial month, but were well worth the inconvenience. Again, be sure to check out some resources like Bob Kaylor’s book and webinar for best practices.

Relax - Soon you will have opportunity to meet, either privately or with a group of staff, the incoming pastor. You have heard the expression, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” While that’s true, it is overrated in this context. You will have many opportunities to make multiple impressions on your new lead pastor. If you flub the first meeting, it’s OK. Your job isn’t over. Get over it and get back to work. The impression you leave upon this new leader will not solely be your opening handshake, but all of the work you have done to help make the transition successful, you ministry responsibilities, and your relationship with the rest of the staff and congregation.

Keep some stuff to yourself - As I have made transitions myself, I have noted there are many people who are eager to tell the new staff member about potential pitfalls – people and situations of which to be aware. Typically, these stories tell me more about the storyteller than the object of the story. Allow the new lead pastor to form his/her own opinions of the personalities in your church. When asked, be honest but gracious. I have said things like, “There are some (including me) who struggle with this person’s style, but they have done many great things for the congregation.” I can’t emphasize enough the need to stay positive.

Nothing is to be gained by talking about the predecessor - This rule of thumb regarding pitfalls also goes for the outgoing pastor. My dad, a heavy equipment operator (cranes, backhoes, etc.), an itinerant job itself, told me early on in my ministry that nothing is to be gained by talking poorly of your predecessor. How true this is! You may be tempted to share all of the mistakes you believe the outgoing pastor made. You may want to share all of his/her shortcomings. Again, this will tell the lead pastor more about you than about the previous pastor. Tread lightly here.

Unconditionally support the new pastor in public - You are being watched. How you respond to questions about and interact with the new lead pastor will speak volumes. In the eyes of many in the congregation you are the link to the past. Due to this, your support of the incoming pastor will help bring the congregation from longing for the past toward looking forward to the future. Share your genuine excitement about what is to come, and how it will build on the history of the congregation and not a break from it. You stand in a unique position to do this. Take advantage of it.

Get out of the way – People will be looking for you to lead. From those who come to you and ask why you were not considered for the position of lead pastor (no matter how often you explain that is not how your church’s polity is structured), to those who will ask you questions about what will be changing under the incoming pastor’s leadership, you will receive messages about how wonderful you are and how some would prefer your leadership. Don’t get sucked into that mindset. You are the associate for a reason. If you are struggling with that, see my earlier post, “I am not the lead pastor.” Be helpful, but stay out of the way.

Please do not squander this opportunity to serve your congregation through the difficult process of clergy transition. You can be an asset or a burden. You will serve you congregation and yourself well if you follow these guidelines.

What would you add? Comment below.   


Read Part 1 here: Changes in lead pastor – Part 1: The Announcement and the Current Lead Pastor

Changes in lead pastor – Part 1: The Announcement and the Current Lead Pastor

Leaving home

Several times as an associate pastor, I have walked through the valley of the shadow of a change in lead pastor. It is inevitable for all of us who stay in the role long enough. Lead pastors announce their intention to retire, get called to new ministries, or receive the call from their District Superintendent many in my United Methodist denomination dread, announcing the bishop’s intention to appoint them to a new congregation at Annual Conference. This is an uneasy time for the entire congregation, and can be doubly stressful on the staff as each member begins to wonder about his or her job security. As an associate you can hope to survive or choose to thrive in this period of transition.

As the season of pastoral change approaches, Seedbed Publishing has released a new resource authored by Robert Kaylor, the lead pastor with whom I serve. His new book, Your Best Move: Effective Leadership Transition in the Local Church, and companion webinar “Your Next Move: Planning for Clergy Transitions” (available April 27) are designed to help churches and pastors navigate the tricky waters of a pastoral transition.

We associates experience the transition a little differently than the congregation or the pastors making the moves in and out of the church. In this first of two parts, I offer some tips on how to respond to the announcement of a pastoral change, and some strategies as the current pastor’s tenure winds down.

Provide a non-anxious presence - When the announcement of the impending transition is made, the anxiety in the congregation will be high. The uncertainty will be overwhelming. There will be questions about next steps, who the next pastor will be, whether we can trust the bishop or search committee to provide us with the “right” pastor, and so much more. Your non-anxious presence will be a great value to everyone involved – the transition team, the outgoing pastor, and every member of the congregation. In all of your dealings you must project the words St. Julian of Norwich reported were given to her from God, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” If the congregation senses your trust that “all shall be well,” they will be able to relax, and trust in God for the future of their church.

Focus - Let’s face it though, you might not be sure everything will be well. You and I have both heard stories about the new pastor coming in and disassembling the staff almost immediately upon arrival. You are frightened for your job. You could choose to spend a great deal of your time worrying about your job security, but Jesus taught our worry cannot add a single hour to our lives (Matthew 6:27) or our current employment. Choose instead to combat your fears by using your position and giftedness to help the congregation you serve through this uncertain time. In the end, your leadership will demonstrate your value to your congregation and the new lead pastor – both of which will raise the odds you will keep your job anyway. Shift your focus off yourself, and back toward the flock you have been called to shepherd. It will do both of you a lot of good.

Acknowledge the congregation’s grief - Transitions are hard. The pastor is leaving, and won’t be returning. He or she has been with members of the congregation through weddings, births, funerals, divorces, graduations, retirement parties, surgeries, illnesses, holidays, confirmations, job losses, deployments, and many other highs and lows of life. This individual has been important to so many, and that time is coming to a close. People are grieved over the loss to come. While you are projecting the non-anxious presence, be sure to acknowledge the pain and suffering. All shall be well, but right now it is not. Let people grieve. Validate their grief. Walk through it with them.

Acknowledge your own feelings – You also may be deeply grieved to lose the leader of the congregation. On the other hand, you may be thrilled to be moving out from under a leadership style you have not appreciated. Get in touch with what you are feeling by talking to your spouse or a colleague. The reason I suggest you do this intentionally is so you do not do it inadvertently with members of your congregation. Whether you are grieved or excited by the transition, playing that out in front of the congregation will not serve you well.

YourBestMove

Resource the congregation - Hopefully, your congregation hasn’t been through this very often. Your employment supervisory committee has probably never navigated a transition before, and only a small segment of your congregation may have experienced a pastoral change in the past. Since pastoral transitions are often mishandled, it is likely you will have some who have been wounded by a similar situation, and may be all too eager to share their experience with any who will listen. As one with access to clergy resources, you are likely the best person to research books, articles, and strategies to help the congregation’s leaders navigate this process. I highly recommend Bob Kaylor’s Your Best Move book and webinar (the fee for which includes two copies of the book). He gives great practical advice for the team leading the congregation as well as the outgoing and incoming pastors. If you live in the Colorado area, consider attending one of his transition workshops. If you are out of the area consider contacting him do some consulting for your congregation. You can learn more about these opportunities on his website, BobKaylor.com.

Help the pastor and congregation say good-bye well - Encourage your leadership team and others in your congregation to plan a special party to honor the outgoing lead pastor. Give gifts, share memories, tell stories, and generally celebrate the gift of the lead pastor’s years with the congregation. In some ways it will be a very difficult night, but it is an important time for the congregation to grieve and remember together.

Be prepared to lead through the “Lame Duck” period - Some lead pastors are not good at saying good-bye. They may just want to disappear in the middle of the night, like the Colts when they moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis. She may get quiet and focused elsewhere. He may not come to the office as much. She may take some vacation time to prepare for the move. He may feel there is no need to continue with ministries you are passionate about. While some things will need to be put on hold while the church’s energy gets focused on the transition, you may need to pick up the slack of a lead pastor who is exiting. Expect to be exceptionally busy during this period, but this too shall pass.

In the next post, I will consider your role in welcoming the new lead pastor.


Read Part 2 here: Changes in lead pastor – Part 2: Saying Hello to a New Lead Pastor

When World and Worship Embrace

Celtic cross

For a moment yesterday, the distinction between worship and the rest of life disappeared. Upon reflection, and maybe because it was St. Patrick’s Day, I have begun to understand it as what the Celts called a “thin place.” In Christian Celtic spirituality the term “thin place” is used to describe an extraordinary encounter with the sacred in the midst of our ordinary lives. Scripture reminds us, “in [God] we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), and so we have these two realms, God’s and ours, around us at all times. The boundary separating the two realms the Celts referred to as a veil, and every once in a while we are privileged to stand in a place where the veil is very thin, and heaven and earth meet. A “thin place” then, to use different words, is a moment when our world and worship embrace, when the distinction between our “spiritual lives” and our “everyday lives” disappears. 

I was rushing to my office between services to drop off my guitar and change into my robe, when I was greeted by a member of the congregation in tears. I immediately invited the person into my office for a pastoral counseling session on the spot - one of the blessings of being an associate pastor is the flexibility to opt out of worship for a time such as this. After we chatted, prayed, and said goodbye, I looked at the clock and noted the service was only about half over. There was still time for me to participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion.

I quickly put on my robe and stole, attached my microphone and headed toward the communion table at the appropriate time. I participated in the liturgy, then served by tearing pieces of bread from the loaf and placing them in the waiting hands of our congregants as I said to each, “The body of Christ, broken for you.” It was then I found myself in the thin place, a sacred moment, a blending of the realms. 

I was overcome by the connection between the pastoral counseling session in my office and the sacrament in the sanctuary. Both of these acts were about offering the love of Christ to those who were longing, hurting, lonely, confused, afraid, desperate, angry, repentant, doubt-filled, hope-filled, humble, anxiety-ridden, and yet ready-to-receive. Both were moments when words did not come easy, yet connection was deep. The meal Jesus shared with his disciples on that Thursday afternoon; the meals he shared with the likes of Matthew, Zacchaeus, and the woman who dried his feet with her hair; and the conversations we have across the desk in the associate pastor’s office or a table in Starbucks are all connected. Christ is present in it all, meeting us in our brokenness, offering us his strength and peace. This is the essence of ministry. 

As associate pastors and other staff ministers, we often serve behind the scenes – planning events, developing ministry programs, making visits, keeping records, and the like. Yesterday I was reminded that all the ministry tasks for which I’m responsible are a means to an end and not the end themselves. The true goal is to offer Christ – across the desk, in the sacrament, and in our programming. 

The love you had at first

TiredI’m tired. More than just the “I got up at 3am to take my son to the airport” tired (which happened this morning). I’m deep-down tired, or as I once heard someone put it, “soul-tired.” ‘Tis the season, a colleague says, and apparently I am not exempt.

Like most jobs, ministry has an ebb and flow, busy seasons and downtimes, stresses and successes. Some are seasonal – imagine what it must be like to be a tax accountant this time of the year! For us associate pastors and other staff members, this can be one of them – coming out of Advent/Christmas, heading toward Holy Week/Easter, and planning for summer (or at least knowing we ought to be planning for summer). There are also times we are simply driven to introspection. A significant event happens in our personal lives, a member of our congregation becomes ill or dies, we feel challenged by a segment of our leadership team, we read a book that moves us, we decide to work on persistent struggles, or any number of other triggers can drive us to a period of malaise. Put a couple of those events is a difficult season, and we can get pretty difficult to be around. During those periods I don’t even like being around me!

Ministry, like many other things, can become something we do because Siri reminds us of today’s to-do list when we pull into the church parking lot, our bulletin board is filled with deadlines, an upcoming meeting is expecting a report, or we fear disappointing someone. We move from one task to the next without much reflection on why. Instead we are looking to check off another box, knock out another newsletter article or Bible study lesson. In those times, people may appear difficult, ministries may become chores, and ordinary tasks may feel like a heavy yoke.

When I sense that feeling coming on I am challenged by Revelation 2:4 which reads in part, “you have let go of the love you had at first” (CEB). Those words express so well what those times feel like. The love of ministry I felt early on has been buried under a mountain of distractions and needs to be recovered.

To find what has been lost, we often retrace our steps, returning to where we remember having what has been misplaced. So I look for ways to remember my call, why I do what I do, what started me on this journey to begin with. These are contained in my joy from the past. For me, this often means hanging out with the youth group. For you it might be sitting down at the piano to write a song, getting down on the floor with the kindergarten Sunday School class, volunteering at the local shelter, spending a day in the seminary library researching a Bible passage, or something similar. Maybe it is going through some old church directories to remember those from previous churches or leafing through your files of encouraging notes (I hope you have one in your file cabinet and another in your email software).

If you’re “soul-tired” return to the love you had at first and of which you have let go. Like looking for misplaced keys, we can return to where we’ve known we had them and recover the love we had at first for the ministries to which we are called. Soon we come again to our work with purpose and joy – less tasks to get done and more people to serve in the name of Jesus.

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