Tag Archives: ministry

Christian Self-Sacrifice: Your Pastor is doing it wrong.

washing_feet_01Christians are called to self sacrifice and to give of themselves, their time, talents, energy, finances, commitment and heart to churches and other ministries.

As Pastors, we are called upon to be the ones who lead the way, who exhort our people to give and to model a self-giving, self-sacrificing lifestyle. What this ends up looking is like is pastors working 60-70 hours a week, trying to get to every meeting, trying to make every visit, preach the perfect sermon, lead the best bible studies and have office hours for drop in visits… not to mention counselling appointments, sweeping up the kitchen after youth and taking that extra half hour to deal with parking lot concern in the “meeting after the meeting”.

And I regularly hear the statement, “How can I ask my people to give if I am not leading the way”.

This style of ministry is very well intentioned. But it is utterly wrong headed and counter productive. Yes… I know that my colleagues and friends might disagree.

So let me start by making a confession:

I can count on one hand the number of weeks I have worked more than 40 hours in nearly 5 years in the parish.

I have lost count of the number of 35 hour weeks I have worked in the same period.

And guess what, not a single parishioner has ever asked about my hours. In fact most assume I am very busy (which I never say that I am), and most are very surprised when I can make time for them.

A part of this is that I am a fast writer. I can write sermons, reports, newsletter articles, blog posts in just a few minutes or short hours. I also very rarely have writers block. Now I know this might give me a good 5-15 hour a week head start on many of my colleagues. But now that I am done humble bragging, I think there is a much more important issue in regards to those other 20 hours that so many pastors are working over 40. And that issue is feelings.

Yup, feelings.

As pastors we encourage our members to give of themselves for many reasons. Because the hungry need to be fed, committees need members, Sunday school students need teachers, choirs need singers, sick and lonely people need visits, buildings need maintenance, etc…

But we also know that giving of ourselves is a very important part of our relationship with God and with our community. It feels good. And not in the self satisfying way, but in the soul- transforming-I-genuinely-know-the-other-and-God kind of way. So we encourage our people to give of themselves because we know that self-sacrifice is part of that soul changing work. 0511-1009-1319-0462_Black_and_White_Cartoon_of_a_Stressed_Out_Guy_with_the_Word_Overload_clipart_image

And because we know this as pastors, we often get ourselves into way too much of it and suddenly we are working 70 hours a week in a not so soul transforming way. I think there a few reasons for this:

  1. Pastors have hard time defining what our work is.
  2. It is an easy way to feel good when you are constantly on the front line of ministry.
  3. It feels really good to feel needed, and it is an easy way to be appreciated when we are praised for our busy-ness.
  4. Being busy is measure of value, specifically justification for our salaries.
  5. Many pastors lack the confidence to believe that our training gives us skills and knowledge that our people need. It just isn’t as evident to us as it is to doctors or lawyers or teachers who know very well that the people they work with need their expertise.

So here is the thing. We know that self-sacrifice and giving of ourselves feels good, and it is an easy way to justify our jobs.

But that stuff is in fact what we have been called out of and set apart from as those who fill the “office” of ministry in our congregations.

I went to a retirement party for a much beloved pastor. There were hundreds of people there, people from across the country. There were skits, songs, speeches, videos and many, many tears. And all night long there was this awkwardness because it was clear this pastor had sacrificed his family life… even brought home work for his family to do… The pastor’s family even gave speeches themselves saying their husband and father was never home and always working… but it was for Jesus.

I have heard colleagues tell me that their spouses won’t commit them to anything, or even tell them about kid’s concerts, sporting events or family functions because they know their pastor spouse will be absent.

This is more the sad norm than the exception.

Being a pastor changes the way we get to do that soul-changing work. We are set-apart from the normal stuff that everyone else gets to do and it is really hard, especially when you consider that most pastors were sent to seminary because they love and were good at that the stuff we call and exhort our parishioners to do. It is hard because the self-giving stuff that we encourage our people to do is above and beyond the 40+ hours they spend at their work, and we should be there too. It is hard because it is a powerful example to be leading the way in self-giving and sacrifice.

However, it always ends up messy. It is so easy for congregations to begin expecting 70 hour weeks, rather than seeing that those 30 hours as “extra”. Thom Rainer conducted an experiment to see what his council of deacons (or church council) expected him to be doing and how many hours a week he should spend doing it. The result, a 114 hour work week. And this was what the informed leadership expected of the pastor.

What begins as well intentioned modelling of self-sacrifice, morphs into congregations paying the pastor (and staff) to do most of the ministry of the laity or congregation. And a lot of my colleagues express this frustration, but don’t know any other way of doing things.

The answer is simple. The execution is hard. Stop giving 30+ hours of extra, dare I even say, “lay ministry” to your church.

This is extra hard for most pastors because leading the way in giving time and energy to the church is where that calling to ministry first grew.

This is what I know: My most important jobs are first and foremost Preaching the gospel and Presiding at worship. Doing those things with integrity takes 40% to 50% of my time. The rest is devoted to teaching, visiting the sick and dying, preparing people for baptism, marriage and funerals for another 20% to 30% and the last 20-30% is devoted to visioning, planing, getting everyone on the same page of mission and purpose.

What does that last piece look like? It is helping people to understand that the highest value and goal of being a church is to be a good worshipping community. A community that loves, respects and cares for each other, and a community that gathers and is formed first and foremost in worship.   When a congregation’s purpose is to be a good community formed in worship, the responsibility of the leaders becomes to name the destination and point the way. And it stops being getting all the jobs done… which is the goal of a church that is paying it’s pastor for 70 hours a week of ministry.

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The first time I realized I was a Millennial.

yb1I am a Millennial.

But I didn’t always know this.

I remember learning about Baby Boomers and Generation X in social studies, even as long ago as junior high. I also remember wondering where I fit in with these generations. My parents were boomers, I could do the math knowing they were born in the late 40’s. But the Millennials didn’t have their name yet. Was I Gen X? I had heard of Kurt Cobain but he died when I was in fifth grade. I was still in high school when the Dot Com bubble burst, not a new computer science grad out of work. I was barely in grade school when the Gulf war started, not of enlisting age. So of my friends have divorced parents, but we were not latch key kids, we were the beginning of everyone gets a trophy sports. Being a member of Generation X sounded cool… but I never quite fit in.

The first time I really realized that people born at different times have different experiences happened when I was 20. I was working at a bible camp. My best friend/camp director, and I had been away at a church youth event over the weekend. We came back to camp after a storm had knocked down trees. One large birch tree had fallen onto some live power lines running between buildings. We immediately began thinking of the people we needed to call: the county power company, an arborist, an electrician…and we went to get the phone book. On the way we met a volunteer. A man in his 70s who had been a life long farmer… probably a member of the GI generation or Silent generation. He scoffed at our idea to phone the experts. He set out solve the problem himself!

The next thing we knew he had the camp tractor, a small open cab John Deere, and a chainsaw. He drove the tractor right up to the tree, which was precariously leaning on a thin power line. He lifted the bucket so that it propped up the tree. We had no idea where this was going, but we knew it wasn’t going to be good. Then this old farmer started the chainsaw and started climbing up the tractor, up onto the engine, up the arms of the bucket and then stood in the bucket. Chainsaw running. No one else to run the tractor.

Having used the tractor myself several times, for more mundane things like mowing the lawn, pulling trailers and moving picnic tables, I knew that the bucket had several clear warning labels on it. One in particular had a stickman standing in the bucket with a big red circle with line through it stamped on the picture.

So 100 yards away my friend and I stood, covering our eyes as this old farmer leaned out of the bucket and had a leg dangling in the air 20 feet off the ground. Then he began to cut the tree, and off came the top, enough for him to use the tractor to guide the rest of the trunk down.

And the tree was off the power lines. The problem was solved. The old farmer was the hero of the day. And the whole time he acted like this was the most normal thing in world.

I looked over at my friend and said, “No wonder his generation got a lot more done than ours.”

With that statement I had articulated for the first time, how the experiences of different generations lead us to different ways of seeing and approaching the world.

Over the last few years, as the world has begun to get a clearer picture of “our” generation, I have gotten a clearer picture of myself. Like all millennials, I share an experience of the world different than the generations before me.

I wasn’t 18 until after Y2K, the worst (or best) thing that was going to happen to me on the millennium was that I might get to miss a few days of the 11th grade in the new year. I was in the second week of my first year of university when planes started crashing into buildings on 9/11. If I lived in the US, there might have been pressure on me to enlist for the 2nd Iraq war, a hot topic in my 20th century American History class. I took most of my class notes on a laptop, I could submit papers by email and professors were making websites with course material.

By the time I was finishing my MDiv in my mid-twenties, I had been on Facebook for years, I was building  world wide communities on online discussion forums, I was using a smartphone as my only phone line, and I had started and given up on several blogs.  My adult life has been defined by global terror crisis, global financial crisis, and the internet.

Mostly, the internet.

And in one important way my life has been defined by another characteristic – one that separates me from most of millennial peers. I have been a Lutheran Christian my whole life. I have been called to serve Jesus, to even be an authority within a religious institution. For most of my Boomer and older parishioners, the abnormality was being a non-believer. For most of my grade school friends, going to church was unusual thing to do.

This small distinction makes a world of difference. And in 4+ years of ordained ministry, this little fact has been changing everything. The grief that so many older church goers bear, wondering why society stopped sending people to church, is simply not an experience that I can share. I sometimes feel like I am at a funeral for a person I didn’t know. Everyone is mourning, but I can’t. Oh, I am also the pastor leading the funeral.

I suspect that it is going to be the reality of my vocation for a long time. Giving my people glimpses of this new world, being a glimpse in ways that I don’t know. I have been preaching, teaching, and talking about how the world is different than it was 50 years ago since I started ministry.

But that seems to be the life of a Millennial Pastor. For now.

What is a Millennial anyways? And why does the church want us?

IMG_1437So as not to be left out of the loads of internet conversation about this article written by American blogger, Rachel Held Evans, I figured I would throw in my two cents.

If you follow down into the comments section this follow up post to her first article, you can see that the blogosphere seems to be rather inspired by her thoughts. Her article reminded me of something I wrote just over 2 years ago for a local paper in Stony Plain, AB. 

First Published in the Stony Plain Reporter in May 2011                                                                                                  A Millennial’s Confession

I have two confessions to make. The first is to those who don’t regularly attend church or consider themselves religious: I am a Lutheran Pastor. The second is to those who are actively involved in churches as members and adherents: I am a Millennial. What is a Millennial you say? Well, we are a generation. We are the children of Baby Boomers, and we follow generation X and some call us generation Y. I was born in 1982, but those in my generation were born between the early 80s and early 2000s.

Many of us have a very different life experience than that our predecessors. Computers, the internet and cell phones have been around most of our lives. Our parents were not disciplinarians, but more like friends. We expect to work with others, and to be treated equally in the workplace and community, despite our perceived lack of experience. We see value in a variety of ideas and points of view. Many of us are passionate about the issues facing our world: the environment, poverty, education, politics. We also like things like social networking, video games, youtube, and bad reality TV. We grew up in a tolerant, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-faith world. Millennials are uncommitted to institutions, like the Church. We like options and having choice. Our parents, teachers, coaches, instructors, and community leaders have told us our whole lives that we can do anything and be anything. And we have been told that fixing the world’s problems will fall to us – we carry the burden of being hope for the world.

And for people of faith, we are the generation that is distinctly absent from most churches. In my denomination, I am the second youngest pastor serving in Canada. I am also the only 20 something that attends my congregation on regular basis (they do pay me to be there after all). A lot churches are wondering how to get us back, how to entice, attract and charm us into the Church. The rationale is that organ music, hymnbooks, pastors in white robes and old styles of worship are too boring for us (all of which our congregation uses in worship). But let me tell you this: rock bands, projection screens, video sermons and laser light shows won’t get us there either. If you catch us in a moment when we are not distracted by Facebook status updates or funny internet videos, we might tell you what we really want from Christians are honesty, integrity and meaning. We want to know that faith isn’t just a set of rules or ideas that we have to swallow whole. We want to know that faith isn’t easy but requires struggle. We want to know that being part of church isn’t just about dropping money in a plate, but about being welcomed, loved, forgiven and challenged by a community of faith.

And now some more thoughts on being a Millennial.

Being a millennial pastor, I often feel like I am living in this weird world where church members will ask me how to… well, get me back in church, or my generation. Yet rarely am I asked why I stayed, or how I was “retained”.  Many of my older colleagues, mostly Boomers, tell me and other young pastors that we are the hope of the church, usually with the weight of the church visibly sitting on their shoulders. Yet, we are rarely given the reigns to lead the church into future (although that is changing as my second call was to be the Senior Pastor of the biggest church in the synod I was serving).

And it feels even weirder to be intensely focused on as a group by church folks. Nearly 30% of people in Canada are boomers, making them the biggest age group alive. And I know scads of boomers have left the church too, yet how many of us are wondering where they went as much as where the Millennials went? I think the generational focus is bigger than the church, as we grow into adulthood as a generation, Millennials are changing and shaping the world we are encountering and it is making our Boomer parents uncomfortable.

Now, I am not sure that I, or we Millennials, have really got each other figured out. And only God knows what we would do at the helm of institutional church bodies. But as we constantly seem to wonder as Lutherans, as Mainline Protestants, as North American Christians “Where did the young people go?” Maybe one place to start answering the question is with the young people that are here. And the boomers don’t have to pass the buck to us quite yet (I think you could clean up the ecclesiastical and social messes you have made instead of leaving them to us), but you are more than welcome to include us Millennials in leading the church, heck society even, into the future.

Social Network Liturgy: Putting down the iPhone

I will be the first to admit it. I am addicted to my iPhone.

Most days I am much more willing to risk leaving my wallet or keys unprotected than my phone. I will leave my computer bag and my wallet  in the car in bad areas of town, but I won’t leave my phone on my desk in an empty church when I go to the water cooler in the adjacent room.

0_23_ibreviary_churchElectronic devices now dominate our time and attention. It is hard for many of us to be away from the constant stream of information. I am often glancing at facebook and Twitter, reading (writing) blogs, searching for something new to read, to learn, to laugh at, to be offended by, to think about, to distract.

This morning, in his opening essay, CBC Q’s Jian Ghomeshi talked about unplugging and being present. He gave two examples of experiences, a wedding and a concert, where attendees were asked to not use, and even surrender their devices, in order to be present and fully experience the event.

This is really hard to do.

This Easter I had the chance to simply sit in the pew because I was in between calls. During the sermon, the teenager in front of me was playing games on his iPod Touch. And his dad was watching over his shoulder, and his grandma was annoyed.

I think our default reaction is to be angry at a situation like this, to feel disrespected as pastors or long time church members. But here is the thing… I don’t think that teen had a choice. I don’t think his brain and body would have let him just sit and listen. He would have probably started “iWithdrawal” 30 seconds into the sermon.

This is sad.

A few posts back I wrote about Old and New Thinking, saying that the church really doesn’t know why people have drifted away. I also said that people might start drifting back, and we won’t know why either. But I think, without really doing it on purpose, the church has become a place to unplug, to fully experience the here and now. A rarity in our world these days.

Jian Ghomeshi mentioned a wedding and concert, occasional events that most of us might experience a handful of times a year. Yet, each week as I write my sermon, study scripture, prepare worship I have to slow down and be present. Each Sunday, as our congregation gathers, I get to put down the phone entirely. I get to fully engage and be present, to experience the here and now. The church, without being any different than it is now, provides a space to do that, week after week.

Liturgical worship is at one time a fully engaged experience of the present, and at the same time, the first and oldest form of social media. As I have heard it said, liturgy is like the stream of the faithful, of ritual and tradition, of history and community, of interconnectedness with people of all times and places. We get to wade, splash and swim in it, but the stream has been here long before us and will remain long after us. In liturgy we are bound together more powerfully than Facebook or Twitter, we see more deeply than Instagram, we weave stories and threads more powerfully than Pinterest, we proclaim wider scandal than Reddit, we experience something older and more forgotten than MySpace, we seek the lost and forgotten more thoroughly than Google+.

When many in our world begin to discover our devices are really satisfying that part of our brain that drives us to eat too much, drink too much, smoke too much, use too much… places where we can put down the devices will become sought after. In fact, Jesus says something to Martha about that this week.

And a place where we can put down the device but find an incredible social experience of community deeper than any network?

Well, the church will always be that place.

I don’t get prayer

20130716-215908.jpgThat may be an odd thing for a pastor to say.

In a couple weeks, the lectionary appointed Gospel lesson will be Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, and it has got me thinking about prayer. Now, maybe I should be more specific when I say, “I don’t get prayer”. Because I am am a pastor and I do pray a lot. And I get prayer in worship, at meal times, to open meetings, prayer with the sick and dying, with those who grieving, with those who are celebrating.

So what was my problem again?

Well, my problem is with a specific kind of prayer.

I don’t get prayer as practiced by most Christians these days, especially evangelicals. The kind of prayer that is extemporaneous, rambling, telling God to do things, prayer that all about emotion and experience, preferably euphoria. Something like this:

The prayer that so many are trying to practice is the prayer of results. There seems to be this sense in North American Christianity, that prayer can get you stuff. And yes, Jesus does say something to that effect, “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”

Yet, Jesus was speaking to 1st Century Jews who were fearful of God, and for whom prayer was very prescribed and formal. Jesus encouraging a very restricted audience to broaden their prayer horizon. He was NOT speaking to North Americans who are accustomed to getting everything and having what they want. He was not providing prayer as means to get the things, the outcomes, the results that we want.

So I don’t get prayer as so many of us do it today.

To me prayer is a space set aside to be mindful of the divine. It is an experience of the sacred. It is a chance let go of those things that we cannot control, instead of demanding God provide the outcomes that we want for things that are out of our control.

Prayer is acknowledging that God holds all of creation in God’s self, that God holds on all of my stuff, my issues, my problems. Yet, I don’t get to tell God what to do with them.

So… maybe I do get prayer… just not North American Christianity.

Trying Not to Burn it Down: Managing Change in the Church

20130701-143707.jpgYesterday was my 4th Anniversary of Ordination. Yes, as a Canadian, it is hard to share that day with the Americans, but it is still also my day.

In 4 years,  I have served 3 congregations. I love all 3 in different ways. Each has taught me different lessons. Each was a place to express my vocation to pastoral ministry in different ways.

With 4 years under my belt, there are a few things I am beginning to notice that seem to be common across the church (ELCIC for my experience). Throughout seminary I remember being warned, often, with this message: “You can’t make too many changes in a church”. “You only have ‘3 Blue chips’ or 3 big changes in a ministry – Use them wisely”. “You shouldn’t do anything new for 6 months.”

Often, congregations seems to give the same message. “We do things this way”, “This is how we do things around here”, “We have always done this”.

There are 2 things that this advice has taught me:

1. We are really good as churches and pastors at not rocking the boat. We were trained in seminary, and then we reinforce in our people a fear of change. We often seek to maintain the institution and we are suspicious of new things. We have been experts at “not burning down the church”. We are great at making sure everything stays safe, the same and in place.

I am just as guilty as anyone of over preparing my people for change. I give lots of advance warning. I tell people we are only “trying” something. I say it won’t be as painful as they think. All this for ideas and new things that I think will be great and go well!!!

Now before I get too cynical:

2. The advice on change is wrong. While I hear the refrains against change, they are the most hollow phrases that people seem to utter these days. Congregations are desperate for new things, desperate for things to be different than they are. And despite the advice, amazing things, Spirit-led things are happening all the time in little corners of the church everywhere.

Some of the best changes that I have made in ministry, are things that I didn’t ask permission for, that I didn’t forewarn people of and I just did. And they worked great!

The vast majority of changes I have made in parishes happened in the first year of ministry (well, I have only had a first year in two of 3 congregations). The opportunity for change seems ripest before established patterns and expectations are set between pastor and congregation.

Now, The National Convention the ELCIC and General Synod of the Anglican Church in Canada, are meeting in “Joint Assembly” this week. The ELCIC is considering how to move forward with Structural Changes that will help us “right size” for the future. The conversation has been going on for years, and the national plan for Synods has been rejected, in part, along the way.

From my vantage point, the ELCIC seems a little dazed and confused, particularly the National Office. I can’t really tell what the plan is going forward.

But if I can offer a theory.

As restructuring has been presented, skepticism has abounded (my own included). We have sounded like any parish, “That’s not the way we do things around here”. But the opportunity for change is probably as high as ever. We are all wanting something different than what is.

And not to sound critical, but merging synods, creating areas and making national convention every 3 years instead of 2, if it were compared to the parish level, just feels too much like cutting the copier budget, installing a high efficiency furnace and publishing 8 newsletters instead of 12 a year. Yes, this will all save money, and probably even help the environment, but it does not feel like real change.

I think if the changes were more dramatic, more sweeping and more outside the box… they might actually have been received with more enthusiasm.  The ELCIC is “re-structuring” itself into the ether of irrelevancy.  It feels like we are trying to maintain our institution, even if it is a skeleton crew. We are answering the question, “What can we still do with less?” We have not seemed to asked the question, “What do we actually need for ministry as Lutherans in the Canadian context? And what resources do we have to do that ministry?”

Now is the time to dream big, or not at all.

Or in other words, maybe we need to burn down the church?

The Sacred Act of Washing Dishes

UnknownAs I grow into domesticated life, I found something that I once saw as a chore to be so much more than that. Most nights I volunteer to do the dishes. My wife is the primary cook, yet often we cook together (I get to cook the meat, which I very much enjoy and she does most of the other stuff). So I take on the dishes.

Dishes, until recently, were a necessary evil of eating at home. Yet lately they are beginning to become something more. When you look around at a kitchen full of pots and pans and the chaos of meal preparation, knowing where to begin is daunting. But as soon as those first dishes find their way to the dishwasher, when food makes its way to left over containers and back into the fridge, the feeling to getting somewhere takes over and the task becomes therapeutic. The act of taking chaos and bringing order becomes ritualized as it is repeated night after night. As pots get washed and cleaned, as surfaces are wiped down and the state of the kitchen is returned to a dormant state, a state of waiting for the next meal. There is a sense of being connected to the real passing of time, to the real experience of simple life.

Michael Pollen’s interview with Jian Ghomeshi last week reminded me of my dishes ritual. As a food author, he spoke about our connection to food as human beings. How preparing, cooking, and eating food connects us to life, make us slow down. You (generally) have to put down the phone, stop the emailing, Facebook, twittering, browsing etc… to properly cook food (even if you are using a online recipe). That cooking is connection to where come from and to the cycle of life that we try so desperately to detach from most of the time.

As a Pastor, I cannot help but see how my vocation is tied, on a deep level, to the act of preparing food, sharing meals, and cleaning up afterwards. This is the ritual action that I preside over week after week. Like a waiter presenting the weekly specials, I announce the meal that is being prepared and then serve it to the gathered people.

But… there is something even more divine about the dishes. One particular night, after returning to the kitchen to the place of sane anticipation. Clean and waiting for the next meal, I observed that this must be what God experiences with us. Through mercy and forgiveness, by washing, cleaning, restoring, finding new places for partially eaten meals and preserved ingredients and left overs, God restores order and calm to our world. Sure it doesn’t take long to get messy and to become chaotic, but that is part of life. A sign of life being lived. We are like meals being cooked and served. Some days we are just sustenance, and others we are works of art and beauty. But it is God, always there, cleaning and washing, redeeming and showing mercy.

So wash the dishes and know the divine, because cleaning up is a very sacred act.