Tag Archives: Pastoring

I am weary

To my fellow disciples of Jesus Christ. I am weary.

I am weary of being viewed as “suspect” because of the translation of the Bible I read, my ignorance of the latest Christian music, or because I have a mistrust of large-event evangelism. I'm your brother in Christ, and we are called to proclaim the same Gospel, we don't need to match up on every cultural expression.

I am weary of being told worship is a waste of time because there are so many more urgent things which need doing. I appreciate the gifts of my brothers and sisters in Christ whose primary calling is to the ministries of care and compassion. I applaud you, and you both teach and challenge me with your prophetic presense. Please understand, my gifts lead me to ponder worship deeply. It is my calling. I have a deep love of the Christian worship tradition, and a passion to invite others into it's mystical reality. I do this so that, in experiencing the mystical communion of saints in Heaven and on Earth through the liturgy, we all might be strengthened for mission. If you challenge me to be out doing urgent things, perhaps my calling is to challenge you to accept God's space for doing “deep” things. So please, stop telling me how much worship is holding the Church back. It makes my soul ache.

I'm weary of being probed by my fellow disciples to see where I stand on [insert issue here]. Conservative disciples want to know what I think about home-schooling, the age of the earth, how bad a job I think the president is doing, and whether or not I think penal substitutionary atonement is the theory of the atonement. Liberal disciples poke me on the nature of salvation, gay marriage, how bad a job I think congress is doing, and whether or not I think penal substitutionary atonement is nothing more than horrific cosmic child-abuse. I preach Christ crucified, the Second Person of the Trinity in human flesh (fully God and fully Human) – but I often feel it's not enough. If I disagree on any of these issues, and scores of others, I often feel like I will be rejected both as a pastor and as a Christian. In fact, I have experienced such rejection when I dared to speak up with anything but absolute agreement.

So I am weary, but I still hope. I am a servant of The Lord Jesus, called to be a pastor in an era where cultural institutions are under incredible scrutiny and fire. Often from supposedly friendly sources. To this I am called, and it is what I'll continue doing until I am told to stop. But I am weary, brothers and sisters, of feeling as though I just can't measure up to your standards.

To Central Baptist I can only say, “Thanks.” The space you continue to give me for my quirks, weariness, and energy has blessed me more than you can possibly know. I can honestly remark if I were not the pastor of Central Baptist, it is a congregation among whom I could worship, learn, and serve.


Wretched Wonders

My brother and sister-in-law live on Cape Cod. Their house has access to a private beach. For those of you who are not Jersey-Shore goers, please understand that each one of my readers who is a Jersey Shore goer is currently mumbling to themselves about the very concept of a private beach. We'll give them a moment, especially since I empathize with the reaction.

OK, moment over. In the case of my brother and sister-in-law I find myself in the odd position of being thankful for their private beach. How could I, who grew up watching people dodge the beach tag patrol on public beaches of the Jersey Shore, find myself in such an alien position? It all comes down to one splendid artifact.

Years ago, during some storm long-forgotten, this particular private beach had an old dock wash up on the shore and become buried in the sand. It is old, battered, and rusting. There are sharp lengths of metal protruding from it at agonizing angles. The relic is an absolute hazard, which would have caused a public beach to be closed pending it's removal. It also happens to be a particularly stunning subject for photography. Withered, hazardous, and unusable for it's original function it may be — but this battered object is simply beautiful.

Life is like that, I think. We all face pain and heartache and suffering in this world on some level. As a pastor I often meet people at moments of greatest distress — when the currents of life have run them aground, buried them in the sand, and pounded them without mercy. What I see in these people often surprises me, though I suppose it shouldn't. Often, in the presence of these suffering people, I encounter beauty. The storms of life have scoured their being, and left something amazing behind. Something worn down and hazardous to our thoughts about what we need to feel “alive,” but also something that is beautiful. In times of greatest stress I have met people who are generous, loving, fearless, and kind. Their concern, despite their own pain, is often for others instead of themselves. I am humbled to be in their presence.

I have also met people who are being battered by the surf who have revealed beauty to the world, and can't see it. It's one of my greatest pleasures to point out to these people just how stunning an image they reveal to the world through their love, service, and sacrifice despite their own pain.

To be sure, I have met folk who display something different at the times of greatest stress — individuals scared and angry with the world, families who refuse to grieve for a lost loved one, even groups of friends who become unwelcoming and hostile to foreign incursions. When I meet such people, I find I need step back and pause. I can't recoil from their anger, nor can I afford to be easily offended by any outright hostility I encounter. I have to remember that even these people, frustrating as they may be, are the image of God. Jesus, after all, died to redeem the miserable as well as the saintly!

As you go through life, I encourage you to explore it for the wonderful beauty created by it's pounding surf. Maybe as you partake these wretched wonders you'll come away surprised or humbled — you will certainly be changed, and I believe changed for the better. As we now live in a world where we are all but ordered to live in a state of post-traumatic fear, seeking the battered beauty of life might just be the medicinal rebellion we all need to take up. Christians ought to know this, though we often forget. The symbol of our salvation is, after all, the Cross.


New Tricks!

Peg and iPad

Isn't she the sweetest?

Today I did one of the most fun pastoral tasks I've ever been blessed to do. To understand why it was so amazing, I need to give some background.

Central Baptist, where I serve as pastor, is just a few blocks from Riverview Estates, the retirement home attached to my denomination. It's a wonderful place, and remains to be the only retirement community I leave feeling encouraged instead of depressed. Riverview is a home for folks, and it makes all the difference.

As Central is so close to Riverview, we have a good relationship with it, and usually have several residents worshipping with us at any given time. These people have been some of the true gifts given to my life, they have inspired me to live with more joy and humility. One of the more recent participants in the Central-Riverview relationship is a little lady named Peg.

Peg is very much like a warm sunny day. She loves to smile, giggle, and give others a reason to be joyful. She has dedicated her life to Jesus, and is a blessed example of the power of a deep and humble faith. She loves to read, has a deep appreciation for Scripture, and is not adverse to a bit of practical joking.

When she began joining Central for worship one of the things she loved best is how we use our projection screen. She has problems seeing small print, and the projected lyrics are much easier for her to see. She also finds it freeing to be able to look up as she praises God. She has also been drawn by how Central is made up of a bunch of goof-balls who have no qualms about pointing out our own quirks, and have grown to make room for one another's preferences.

In addition to all of the above, Peg in love with my iPad as she saw me using it for Scripture at Central or Riverview's chapel. Many months back she came up to me and said, “We need to talk.” So I sat down next to Peg as she grinned and said, “I am saving up for an iPad, and I want to know what to get, will you help me?” So help I did. After one of our fellowship meals I sat down with Peg and had her play with both my Nexus 7 and my iPad. After playing she reiterated she really wanted an iPad, and wanted to know how much they cost. My answer was the first time I'd ever seen her a bit discouraged – $499 was well out of her price range, and she really wanted the larger screen because the buttons were easier to tap. So I sent her to a mutual friend, and eBay expert, to see about getting Peg a used iPad. He took to the idea so fast I couldn't believe it, and even helped some with the cost of the device. Our deacons kicked in some money to purchase a stylus and load her preferred Bibles in OliveTree's Bible app on to the device. We also left a few dollars credit in iTunes so she can have some fun (I'm thinking Angry Birds).

Today, I was handed Peg's used iPad, set up an account (with her permission, of course) and provisioned the device for her use. When I was done I got to bring it to Peg's room and deliver it – and that was the most fun I've ever had as a pastor. The joy she displayed as she practiced tapping, swiping, selecting text, and navigating the device was marvelous. She was in awe that the device she was holding really was hers, and was giddy with how it would her help do things which were becoming more difficult in print.

The most wonderful display of her gratitude came as we walked out of Riverview. Peg turned to me and said, “I promise I'll be a good student.”

Peg is 88 years old. How is that for learning new tricks?


The powerful reach of friendship

When I was in college, I remember a day when the pastor of a local church came and spoke to the Student Chaplains. During his chat, he expressed his desire to help students who were interested in pursuing pastoral ministry gain some practical preaching experience. It was an amazing offer. For the next four years I attended the First Baptist Church at Conshohocken, remaining until I got married and moved away for seminary. This was, in fact, the first Baptist church I’d even been in – much less joined.

Rev. Brad Lacey was an excellent mentor – intelligent, thoughtful, provocative, and challenging. He offered critiques and praise with equal care, and had so many books on theology and history that several Biblical Studies Students used to do research in his parsonage. Brad always expressed how he felt that guiding people who were called to the path of pastoral ministry was one of the reponsibilities of a pastor. It was a lesson I took to heart.

Rev. Lacey received this lesson in pastoral care from a man named Howard Keeley, who had been his mentor in seminary. Howard had a legacy of mentoring students pursing the pastoral call. He wasn’t a “successful” pastor by worldly indications. He didn’t pastor a mega-church, he wasn’t famous, he didn’t leave a legacy of a constantly growing and vibrant church (in fact, unfortunately, after Howard’s departure it lost much of it’s direction). What he did leave was a circle of pastors, missionaries, and other Church leaders who are thoughtful, appropriately provocative, caring, and keenly aware of the call to mentor others.

The lessons Dr. Keeley passed on, I also received. Not only through Rev. Lacey, but also through another one of Dr. Keeley’s students – my friend and current pastor, Rev. Dr. Lee B. Spitzer. I cherish these gifts as a legacy of faithfulness and now I also strive to pass them on. The obligation to guide, mentor, and challenge folks who are called to pastoral ministry is placed deep within my heart. Thus far I’ve been able to pass on those gifts by helping people with ordination papers, or helping them through their council. In the future I hope I can be afforded some of the same shepherding which has been offered to me.

The fact that any pastor I mentor is spiritually descended from Dr. Keeley is something I find wondrous. He befriended student after student during his ministry, and now whenever those students befriend others in following generations his work continues. Beyond that, being aware the close connection with Dr. Keeley makes me even more aware of how much an impact history has on my spiritual journey. I stand on the shoulders of giants known and unknown – the great saints, certainly, but also everyone who ever pursued Jesus and his Kingdom with faith, hope, and love. I am honored to stand around the throne with such luminaries as St. Patrick, Isaac Backus, John and Charles Wesley, and St. Athanasius. Around that throne however, I’m equally honored to stand with unknown fathers, mothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and siblings who made decisions to be faithful. Decisions which, through the echoes of time, filtered down to impact my journey today. The idea of a “great cloud of witnesses” is not empty symbolism. Rather, it’s the mystical reality of our connection to the saints in Heaven and on Earth. Our faithfulness is the continuation of their faithfulness. We are, after all, all one body in Christ.

So, to long ago and unknown saints who’s faithfulness over ages has helped bring me to Jesus I say, “Thank you.” For those saints who are nearer to me and have helped me along the road. Not just those connected to Dr. Keeley but also to my professors from Eastern, my Seminary Mentor Rev. Paul Munro, and all my friends who have poked me in the right direction I say, “You probably have no idea what impact you’ve had on me, I can only hope to do half as good a job as you.”

That, is the powerful reach of friendship.

Ten Years

Central Baptist CongregationThis past Sunday marked my tenth year at Central Baptist. I was thirty when I arrived with my wife, bringing along two small children to an unknown landscape. Even though I grew up fourteen miles from where I now live, I frequently had to point to folks that my understanding of New Jersey geography consisted of vague blobs marking “Camden” and “The Cherry Hill Mall” with a more finely detailed map in the East marked “The Jersey Shore.” In-between consisted of blank space marked “here be dragons.” Ten years later, even though I find myself glancing longingly over the river from time to time, we’ve settled into life here in Jersey quite nicely. Our kids are in school, my wife and I have become part of the community. We’re “home.”

The church has changed at lot over the years as well. I took a picture on Sunday and I’m struck by just how different it is. New faces have become part of the family, others have moved on because life-transitions, and more than a few departed in reaction to the mistakes and fumbling which are inevitable with a young pastor. More than anything, though, I’ve buried quite a few people – too many people. I hope they are pleased with what Central is becoming.

When I first arrived Central was in crisis. It wasn’t in crisis because the people were awful or because the church was a relic, and I want to make that clear. Central was in crisis because the system which helped keep people in relationship had ceased functioning. The creaking of the gears made it afraid to move, lest a failure create more conflict and begin yet another exodus from the congregation. Ten years later we’re still a congregation in crisis, as is just about every small church, but the nature of the crisis has been transformed. The web of relationships we call Central Baptist is no longer in crisis because it’s afraid to move against creaking joints. Rather, our crisis is about discovering who we’re meant to be. In a real sense Central Baptist Church, which is over a century old, has hit adolescence – again. I don’t take much credit for this. All I did is learn patience, grow in love, and allow my natural obliviousness shield me from the natural storms of emotional upheaval. I’ve done what I was supposed to do.

I know many pastors sometimes feel a mild resentment towards the congregations they pastor because they feel beholden to them. While it’s not healthy, it is understandable. Being dependent on one’s “employer” for salary, community, and even housing can become overwhelming – especially if the congregation likes to point those realities out to the pastor. Ten years in, having experienced many of the ups and downs of pastoral existence, I can honestly say one truth. I am, indeed, beholden to the people of Central Baptist in many ways. Not because they’ve chained me down, but because they’ve set me free. I’m free to learn, grow, write, teach, and challenge. I’m free to imagine, play, and dream. Most of all I’m free to try, and just as free to fail. That last gift might be the greatest blessing the living web we call “Central Baptist” has given me. I hope I’ve helped you be free in Christ as well.

We continue to have much work to do as we move through congregational adolescence together. We have to learn who we are called to be, and embrace our calling with maturity and wisdom. As the process moves forward I need to celebrate accomplishing what I should have been doing, continue doing it, and figure out what I need to do. What an amazing voyage.

Facing fear

I’ve been pondering a question for a while, “What am I afraid of?” It’s one of those questions people are tempted to give quick answers too, like “spiders!” I’m not sure the quick answers, however, are good reflections of what people are really afraid of. I think people are alarmed by spiders [1]. Fear, however, is something I define as something which shakes the core of your being.

So, what am I afraid of? Simply put, I’m afraid of being left behind.

No, I’m not referring to the awful apocalyptic novels based on the equally terrible rapture theology prevalent in many Protestant churches. What I’m afraid of is putting down roots some place and then turning around one day to see nothing but tumble-weeds blowing around behind me.

As far as fears go, this is a powerful one for a pastor to experience – especially in a church desperately staving off decline. As with many smaller congregations, we suffer from noticeable “membership churn.” People come into the congregation for a season or two, and then get called away to continue their journey elsewhere. This really isn’t any different than what happens at a larger church, but when you have 40–60 people present on a given Sunday the departure of a family or two over the year is agonizingly noticeable. This is what sparks my fear, “Oh my gosh we can’t keep losing people.”

The worst I felt was a two summers ago when we lost about 10 people through a combination of moves, deaths, and congregational migration. My heart sunk, because I simply couldn’t see how the church could continue. Attendance was down, energy was down, hope was fading. I was at that moment many pastors get to at some point. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel was absolutely convinced it was an oncoming train.

That summer was a low point, but that fear gets acerbated fairly regularly – particularly on holiday weekends when folks take their long weekends and enjoy a nice break away from the community. I don’t begrudge people those breaks, but as I see even more empty pews on a Sunday the fear creeps in. People are free to move their religious setting fairly easily – they don’t have to change their address, employment, or social circles. If I were to do a similar move each of those would go into instant upheaval. If the congregation were forced to close, or if people decided my journey as the pastor of central had run it’s course, the pain of that upheaval would be all the more intense. This makes me afraid.

To be honest, I think it’s a fear many pastors share. It’s what gives us pause before we speak prophetically to our congregations, makes us painfully aware of who the “good givers” are, and makes us want to be liked by the congregation. So if I’m afraid, how do I do ministry? It’s an important question.

Fear can be debilitating. As I described above, I experienced the influence of fear a couple of summers ago – it locked me up for several weeks. I continue to have moments where fear gives me pause – both at Central and at denominational events. While some people would consider admitting such fear is a sign of weakness, I consider it part of the process of handing it over to God. Yes, I’m afraid of being left behind as the structures in which pursue my calling collapse around me. God, however, isn’t. I have a calling on my life, to help people grow in their pursuit of Jesus and his Kingdom, and the comfort of that calling from Jesus overwhelms my fear of circumstances. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit in, and though, me.

My fear is real, but Jesus’ hope is greater – and that is why I am able to continue on my journey.

What are you afraid of?

  1. While I’m not alarmed by spiders, I don’t blame anyone who is freaked out by them.  ↩

How a church died

Stillwaters in an old church

Tonight our association held their annual meeting at a church which shut down several years ago. I’ve been in the building several times since it closed down, and it’s always depressed me — the musty smell, the empty space, the sheer amount of lost potential. Until tonight, however, I’d never quite figured out how the church collapsed so thoroughly. From all reports the church had a sizable endowment as late as the 90’s, and with some decent management it could still be doing significant ministry. So what happened?

The end-game of the church was, unfortunately, a story which has played out again and again in churches. A pastor is called without wisdom, severs the church’s relationships with other congregations and the congregants relationships with each other, and then moves on — blaming everyone else for the destruction caused. Yet, a church with the resources that this one had going for it needn’t have taken that path — a path often taken out of a sense of desperation. The reality of what happened to the church never fit with else I knew about it, until tonight.

During the meeting I wound up in a hallway I’d never paid much attention to before. On the walls were several dozen plaques, all dedicated to the same pastor. He was everywhere. The mayor of the town honored him, civic organizations honored him, religious organizations honored him, the church gave him plaque after plaque. From the dates on the plaques I gleaned the pastor had been there for sometime, at least from the 60’s into the early 90’s. When the scope of those plaques hit me I realized what killed the church. When the pastor left, the church just stopped. After showing the hallway to a friend and mentioning my insight, she pointed out another plaque with the pastor’s name on it. This one, dedicating an education wing, listed the dates of the pastor’s reign — 1947 to 1994. Forty-seven years!

As the sheer weight of that reign sunk in, I began to realize something else. The decor of the church was vintage 60’s and 70’s. the upkeep of the building looked like it had slowed to a crawl years before it closed, which was odd given the endowment the church had possessed. The church hadn’t stopped after the 47 year pastor left, it stopped at least a decade before he ended his reign.

Suddenly, the run-down and empty church was no longer depressing, it was frightening. We slip into stagnation so easily, and then entropy — organizational, spiritual, and physical — works it’s deadly power. Stability can be a wonderful thing, but when stability becomes the thing, the death cycle has begun. It’s a sobering thought.