Repost: Reviewing Life’s Difficult Decisions from a Distance

Kay and I were 35 and serving a growing church in Western Canada back in the 1950s. After five years of rich ministry there we received an unsolicited phone call from a conference superintendent inviting us to come and serve a congregation in the mid-western United States. The church was a broad and challenging field of service and included large numbers of college students. He said that he and his committee were sure we were a match.

The invitation created conflict. We loved the people where we were and they loved us. The growth of the church was strong and exciting. We also loved the city and our children were settled in a good school. Why, then, might we accept? Because the challenge of this invitation also had its strong pull. I had even told a favorite professor while in seminary that I was interested in being a college pastor someday. Here, it seemed, was the opportunity.

Day after day I wrestled with the invitation. Kathleen did the same. We talked over the pros and cons. We committed the issue repeatedly to prayer. In the end, Kathleen entrusted the decision largely to me with one stipulation: our profoundly disabled son, John David, would not have to be moved. He was happily situated and well cared for in a nearby institution.

The dilemma we struggled with was not about furthering my career. I was ordained for a lifetime of ministry and we were trying to live out a calling — a vocation — not merely a career. The decision had to be in harmony with a divinely-approved plan. In our denomination a conference Ministerial Appointments Committee assigns ordained personnel to their place of service, while moving from one conference to another is more of a personal decision.

One morning I went from my study into the sanctuary of the church and knelt by a green pulpit chair. I had to decide. In that moment of anguish, with resolute finality, I believed I knew the answer. We would go. I told Kathleen. I phoned to inform the conference superintendent.

We weren’t prepared for what followed. When we told our congregation and leaders of our conference we became acutely aware of the strength of the bond between us. There was grieving to the point of tears on both sides. We felt forlorn and bereft, as did our congregation. I now question from a position of greater maturity: Could we have broken the news better? More gradually?

In my distress, I phoned the superintendent who had invited us. I told him I had given his committee my word and would not break it but asked if he would release me from my commitment. He would not, he said, because his Appointments Committee was counting on my coming. That closed the door with a thud.

My turmoil was so overwhelming that I walked the streets of our city seeking relief from a kind of deep suffering. Kay and I both lived with this anguish for several weeks.

Then, with the furniture we had put up for sale beginning to disappear, the reality of our move became tangible. Finally, on the day of our departure, two members of our congregation took us and our three children, Carolyn, 12, Donald, 9, and Robert, 7, to the train for our trip across Canada. We would stop a few days with family in Ontario and then enter the United States at Detroit to buy a used car there and start the 400-mile trek to our new field of service 250 miles south of Chicago.

We grieved painfully for at least a year: first for the loss of our beloved and lively congregation, then for the loss of an urban environment we had come to love and the beautiful landscape of the Lower Mainland of British Columbia ringed by mountains.

And it took us that same year to become comfortable with a less active college church congregation in a very different community. But we see all of this now as the inevitable stress of making a major change. And, painful though it was, we also see it as God’s will for us at that time.

That move began a thirteen-year ministry at a college center with many heart-to-heart interactions, many lifelong friendships, countless treasured memories, and numerous ministry connections and responsibilities locally, across the continent, and beyond. We still hear from people speaking of the help they received in their Christian journey during those years, or at this or that crucial time of decision. Some were students back then and now are grandparents living in retirement.

Knowing God’s will is a mysterious undertaking. As we pore prayerfully over the issues and dilemmas of life, we do not always arrive immediately at a sense of certainty that introduces calm and security. Sometimes, in fact, we only see clearly, weeks, months, or even years later, that we have made the right decision.

And it is some comfort to know that even when we must proceed without a clear answer to our prayers for guidance, or when in our humanity we choose less than the best path, our Lord can confirm our decision or redeem our blunders or missteps. His Spirit is available for every need, and his Providence is a great consolation to those who sincerely attempt to live in obedience to him by faith.

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Re-post: A Pastor’s Wife Tells Her Story

Mr. and Mrs. Donald N. BastianBy Kathleen G. Bastian

When I married Don, I knew that he was moving toward Christian ministry as a life vocation, but I didn’t know for sure the specific form it would take. I only knew that he was a ministerial student and would have several years of education to complete. I also knew from the start that I would support him in whatever work he believed he was called to do. That was the way most wives felt back in the 1940s.

I was a primary school teacher when we were married; he was a student and staff member at Lorne Park College west of Toronto, Ontario. After three-and-a-half years, we went on to Greenville College (now University) in Illinois with our two-year-old daughter, Carolyn, so Don could finish his final two years of college. From there, we went to Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, for another three years of training.

By the time he had completed his studies at Asbury it was clear that the focus of his ministry was to be the pastorate. In fact, for those three years of seminary he was assigned to be pastor of the Free Methodist church in nearby Lexington, and that is when I got my first taste of what it meant to stand with him in that sort of ministry.

Besides caring for the three little children we had by then and taking as much of the burden of the household as I could while he pursued his studies, I made myself available to teach Sunday school and often entertained seminary students on Sundays so they could remain in the city and canvass the community with my husband.

When we went to our second church, the Free Methodist church in New Westminster, British Columbia, I discovered what it really meant to stand by my pastor husband in ministry. He led the church in a growth spurt that meant new prospects nearly every Sunday, new programs to meet the needs of a growing congregation, and lots of social events in our parsonage to get to know newcomers and otherwise promote fellowship and community.

One aspect of our experience stands out in my mind. We both worked hard at our assignment and my husband did lots of evening calling to follow up on new prospects and care for other pastoral duties. This usually involved two or three nights a week. During these times, I was at home alone with our four little children.

It wasn’t that we didn’t have time together. He was home for the noon and evening meals most days. Also, we had simple and inexpensive but good vacations together. As well, we certainly were in touch with each other in the social life of the church.

But one night when my husband was out calling and I had put the children to bed and the house was quiet, I found myself wondering, “What is this all about anyway? I don’t like being alone so much in the evenings. There’s got to be more to life than this.”

After musing about this for some time I suddenly said to myself, “When I free my husband to be out doing the Lord’s work like this, I am really a part of that call he’s making. It is my ministry too.” That set my heart at rest. I never after that had the same feeling of personal deprivation about releasing him to work in the harvest field of the Lord. And standing together in mutual service has enriched our nearly 72 years together.

In it all, I learned that when working in the Lord’s service one must leave the results with him.

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A Day in the Life of Pastor John Doe

This is the story of a day in the life of a pastor of medium-sized but busy church. Call it a snapshot of key aspects of a pastor’s daily routines.

Meet Pastor John Doe. You may understand his title as meaning he only has something to do with the church. You may have even heard with amusement the quip that pastors have a one-hour-a-week job — the Sunday-morning hour between 11 and noon. But the following, based on my experience as a pastor, is a glimpse of the other 50 or more hours.

This story may as readily be Pastor Jane Doe’s. In increasing numbers, women are responding to the pastoral task, taking the appropriate training and experiencing the same joys and sorrows in their work as male pastors do, though perhaps in somewhat different ways. But in this case, the story is about Pastor John Doe.

Pastor Doe is settling into his study, to read, meditate, and pray, with his Bible and laptop in front of him. He is laying out pulpit plans for the following Sunday. It’s eight o’clock Tuesday morning.

At that morning service he’ll preach the last of a year-long series from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The title: “The Bedrock of Obedience” (Matthew 7:24-27). In the evening it will be a Bible study on The Christian and Gambling, based on Matthew 27:35-36.

By nine o’clock he hears his administrative assistant/Christian education director arrive in the room next door, and the phone begins to ring. Each day, the AA thoughtfully protects Pastor Doe’s study and preparation time from calls that can wait.

Also on his schedule, at 11:45 he breaks his solitude for the AA’s morning report: the conference superintendent called and wants a call back; the new Smeaton baby has arrived (a boy); and Jane Hewlett of the Mother’s Morning Out Circle phoned to ask if he would lunch with them this coming Thursday noon and bring a brief devotional.

Also, Mrs. Grundy had phoned again to complain that the sound system had not been loud enough Sunday and if this problem isn’t corrected she’ll just stay home and listen to television preachers.

At noon, he usually exercises at a health center nearby, or just takes his lunch alone. By 1:15 he’s on his way to the hospital, first to offer thanks to God with the Smeatons on the safe arrival of their son, then to visit a high-school student who had to have unexpected surgery. On the way back to the church he visits briefly with a member whose husband abruptly left her only two weeks earlier.

By 3:15 Pastor Doe is back at the church for an appointment with a troubled single mother. Behind her tears, he learns, is the fear that her 15-year-old daughter, Alene, is getting into drugs. The symptoms are ominous — secretive conduct, falling grades, money missing from a drawer, and what appear to be exaggerated mood swings.

Pastor Doe has had a good relationship with Alene so he assures her mother that he will make contact with the daughter, but he’ll also put the mother in touch with a support group. They pray together, but both know that, if her fears are true, there may be hard days ahead.

In the few spare minutes before a 4:30 appointment with a young college student, he chooses the music for next Sunday morning’s service and makes note of two bulletin announcements that he must not lose track of. And he reviews the sermon ideas he had recorded during his morning study.

The student arrives. She’s home from college for spring break. She chokes back tears as she unfolds her perplexity. She’s in love with a neat guy, she says, and they are talking marriage. But she’s troubled that sometimes in playful moments he hurts her physically. She shows Pastor Doe a bruise on her arm. After hearing her out (with some internal alarm), the pastor asks permission to double check with a counselor at a distance, one trained in such issues. He prays with her and makes a follow-up appointment.

At 5:50 Pastor Doe arrives at his home. After a pleasant meal he has time to play a computer game with his ten-year-old son, Thomas, and read a Bible story to his five-year-old daughter, Cheryl. At 7:50 he slips away to make contact with a newly formed building committee at the church.

Back to his home by nine, he and his wife sit in the quiet of the family room discussing home and family issues: a different medicine for their son’s bronchitis; their van’s unexpected need for new tires (where the best deals appear to be, and where they would find the money for them); and about conflict issues between staff members of the preschool where his wife works.

As they prepare for sleep after a taxing day, they raise their sights and give thanks for the blessings the pastoral life brings, and in the face of the stresses, to recommit to obedience to the call on their lives.

As Pastor Doe lays out his clothes for the next day his mind drifts again, as it had several times in the afternoon, to the text he will preach from. He feels a touch of eagerness to be alone with the text in his study the next morning.

Before settling to sleep, Pastor Doe recalls the words of the Apostle Paul to Pastor Timothy: Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching, and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift… (1 Timothy 4:13).

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Re-post: What Really Grows the Church?

Photo credit: AdamSelwood (via flickr.com)I have believed for many years that the local church grows — when its growth is genuine — from the pulpit outward.

That does not mean that all a church needs is good preaching and the rest will take care of itself. A local church is a complex body and there are a score of other tasks that must be done to meet a basic standard for the church to increase both in spiritual depth and number.

Nor does it mean that the whole burden for the growth of a church is upon the pastors. The growing church must also have lay workers who share the spiritual burden for pastoral ministry and outreach with the pastor.

It does not even mean that preaching must be brilliant for the church to grow. As G. Campbell Morgan so clearly summarized, real preaching must meet only three basic criteria: it must be true, clear and anointed.

What it does mean is that the primary spiritual nourishment and guidance of the congregation flows from the pulpit to the people, their Bible study classes, family prayer times and evangelistic outreach. If the pulpit lacks authenticity in content, clarity or spiritual genuineness, even an increase in numbers of people will not equal genuine congregational growth.

We have all seen hummingbirds hover in air, wings blurring, while they sip from feeders filled with a red liquid — sugar and water with food coloring to attract them.   I’m told that if the mixture is instead made up of saccharin and water they will continue to come and feed with equal thirst but gradually will become weak and unable to fly. The taste of saccharin is sweet enough to fool them, but it lacks the calories to nourish.

In a similar way, what is delivered from the pulpit must not only appeal to the ear of listeners; it must nourish believers and challenge the unawakened. That is, it must speak the word of God to the deep need for soul-food that God puts in his people.

What can move pastors everywhere to come before their people with a well- formed word from the Lord? I know of nothing but obedience to the commands of the Scriptures, and the best place to seek such prompting is in the Pastoral Epistles — 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. These were first-century pastors who were assigned to oversee young congregations. And what did the Apostle Paul write to them?

“Command and teach these things” (1 Tim. 4:11). “…the overseer must be…able to teach (3:2)” “Until I come, devote yourself…to preaching and teaching. Do not neglect your gift” (4:13,14). “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (4:16).

Also in Paul’s second letter to Timothy he writes, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). And, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2:15). We take such exhortations as Spirit-inspired for us today.

We may fail on occasion to meet the scriptural standards of the pulpit, but God is merciful. If our commitments are clear he will forgive and keep our hearts warm to our calling. And he will help us keep the pastoral passion alive, enabling messages that are true, genuine, and delivered in the energy of the Spirit.

So, as a pastor long retired I encourage an oncoming generation of pastors to manage the stresses, pressures, and diverse responsibilities that are part of the pastoral task, and in it all and above all else, keep the passion of the pulpit alive.

Photo credit: Adam Selwood (via flickr.com)

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Re-post: When the Church is Grounded in Truth

Kathleen and I read and discuss a chapter from the Scriptures together every morning. I wish you could have been with us for that exercise today.

The passage was Acts 6, telling how the young church resolved a social problem. The church at that time was made up of Jews, but some of them spoke Hebrew and others spoke Greek. Among both groups there were widows who were being supported by the benevolence of the church. But the Greek-speakers complained that their widows were being overlooked when the food was distributed.

The early church was a vigorous movement, not shackled with the complexities of today’s more institutionalized church. Nevertheless, they showed focus in the church’s primary duty — to proclaim — and administrative savvy — to respond — when an internal problem arose that needed addressing.

Here’s how the Apostles engaged the whole body of new Christians:

They themselves clearly held primary authority, but they did not rule autocratically. Instead they called the believers together to seek their assistance. This displayed a wonderful example of openness and shared responsibility.

First, the Apostles cast the problem in terms of right and wrong: “It would not be right for us,” they said, “to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.”

They asked the large body of believers to choose seven men who would be assigned to deal with this disturbing problem. They were to be men full of the Holy Spirit (foremost) and wisdom (God-anointed common sense).

The seven were consecrated by the laying on of hands and put to the task of caring for the apparent inequity among the widows. At the same time, the Apostles underlined that their own first priority was to “give themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.” Proclamation and teaching must dominate.

How the young church went about this choosing is not known since the number of converts had swelled into the thousands. Interestingly, the seven who were chosen all have Greek names and they are likely Greek-speakers. Stephen, the first-named, stands out as “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.”

Although set apart to serve in administrative ways, Stephen is singled out as a miracle worker and a strong proclaimer of the word. This got him into trouble. First, some members of a Greek-speaking synagogue began to argue with him, but they were no match for his wisdom and the energy of the Spirit he possessed.

So they went a step further and rounded up some false witnesses, plying them with lies. This stirred up the masses and irritated the city elders and teachers of the law. Stephen was dragged before the Sanhedrin – the most influential court of the Jews.

Fearlessly he spoke to this body, and his speech cost him his life. But as they stoned him a man named Saul of Tarsus was looking on.

Here’s what appears to stand out for us today. To be effective in our world, the church must be committed to the truth of the Gospel in all aspects of its life — in preaching, administration, facing of opposition, and seizing its opportunities.

The Apostles had a keen sense of their primary duty to preach the word of God, so they could speak about that duty in terms of right and wrong. Not better or worse. Not preferred or unsuitable. What they were to do was right and to neglect it would have been wrong.

There is the same sense of “oughtness” with regard to the needs of the Greek-speaking widows. The Apostles acknowledged the need, set the number at seven, and called the community to assist in the choices. It was done cleanly, openly. In reading the account one gets a sense of clarity and truth.

The issue of truth is critical today because truth — as the Scriptures see truth — is under attack. The Psalmist prays: “Surely you desire truth in the inward parts.” Jesus said, “I am the truth.” He also said repeatedly, “I tell you the truth.” John writes that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” The Apostle Paul encouraged the Galatian Christians to “speak the truth in love.” When we read the story of Stephen we feel like we’re reading about the embodiment of truth.

The relativism regarding truth is so wide-spread in our times that it makes it harder, sometimes even for Christians, to face many issues of life as either right or wrong. This episode from the functioning of the early church challenges us to give ourselves to God’s truth in the proclamation of his word and in the administration of his church.

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Photo credit: Jon Hurd (via flickr.com)

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Learning to Fire the Bright Spots

When I was just out of seminary and beginning to lead my first church as a full-time pastor, a retired minister, the Rev. C. P. Stewart, told me a story I have carried with me throughout my life. Here it is:

Back in the days when steam-driven locomotives pulled 100-car freight trains across this continent, a westward bound train was laboring up a pass in the Rocky Mountains.

Its pace gradually slowed until finally it came to a standstill. The fireman in the engine cab was young and found himself defeated and helpless.

Riding the caboose at the end of the train was a retired fireman. He walked the length of the long string of boxcars, climbed into the locomotive’s cab, and offered his help.

The young fireman was glad to let him take over.

The retired fireman started methodically shoveling coal into the firebox. The steam gauge began to rise and when it registered that pressure was adequate he signaled the engineer to open the throttle.

After a couple of sharp tugs the train began to move again and this time made it up the grade of the mountain pass.

Amazed, the young fireman asked his senior what he had done differently, noting that he himself had been shoveling just as hard.

As the train moved forward, gradually gaining speed, the older man opened the door of the firebox. First he pointed out a couple of clinkers — residue of burned coal — lying dead in the ashes, then pointed to places in the bed where the fire was burning brightly.

Pointing out this contrast with his long poker, he said, “If you want the train to move you have to fire the bright spots.”

Rev. Stewart was giving a young pastor a tip on how to go about leading a congregation without becoming a casualty of stalled initiatives.

Local churches are complex and lots of activities are going on at the same time – children’s programs, choir practices, committee meetings, some of which can at times be stalled by a variety of conflicting opinions.

While helping a church grow, gaining momentum and depth in ministry, Rev. Stewart intimated, one must take courage from the programs that are thriving, reporting this good news to the congregation whenever possible.

But the story fits many situations: the highly energized family, the public school classroom, the student striving to work her way through college, to name a few.

Things in life go better when one learns to fire the bright spots.

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Re-post: Mending Fences

In 1956, when I was a young pastor in the Pacific Northwest Conference, the late Reverend C. W. Burbank was my conference superintendent. I had been appointed to the New Westminster church on the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, and Kathleen and I had crossed the continent from Kentucky immediately after my graduation from Asbury Seminary. Our personal belongings and four little children were packed into our turquoise colored Plymouth and a large spring-less trailer joggled along behind us every mile of the way.

Before Superintendent Burbank entered the ministry he was a logger. He had an outdoors ruggedness about him. He was not a seminary trained man; back then, seminary training for ministers was less common and more difficult to attain than now. Many pastors of earlier eras got whatever theological training they received by means of serious correspondence courses they were expected to wade through.

But he was an urgent preacher, well respected by his peers, and a man of down-to-earth common sense, something he learned or polished, as I understand, while in the logging business in the Okanagan Valley of Washington State.

During one of my first conversations with him he shared a bit of wisdom. He explained that some ministers are more skilled at mending their fences than others. He meant that when a misunderstanding or even an unintended interpersonal rift developed, such pastors seem to have a knack for restoring trusting relationships.

Others, he went on, leave the gap unaddressed and allow it to take on a certain permanence. If this happens with another family, and then another, Rev. Burbank explained, the misunderstandings accumulate sufficiently to destroy the trust of the congregation as a whole. A wall develops and the minister loses the trust of the congregation and he must move on.

Rev. Burbank didn’t say exactly how to recover healthy relationships. Nor did he mention what to do if a pastor’s efforts to keep fences mended are rejected. That is another aspect of the issue, and there are such situations. To take his counsel a step further, here are a couple more suggestions.

First, the greatest hindrance to correcting wounded relationships is pride – that dangerous quality within us that makes us tend to over-rate our worth or abilities. Pride is a point of vulnerability with all of us, Christian or not. When something is said or done from either side that injures our self esteem the rift is in danger of opening. Before repair can even be attempted pride must be acknowledged and brought to heel.

Second, once a rift happens, anger tends to follow and it invariably only clouds issues. So, no correction should be attempted until anger has been faced and dissipated. Most of us have learned this lesson by unhappy experience. In the face of breakdown of relationship and accompanying anger, only the indwelling Spirit of Christ can save us from further anger-prompted division.

Third, wise pastors will know that once in awhile, a relationship may grow cool or may even seem beyond repair. This may be due to disagreement on a particular issue. Or it may arise when a parishioner seems to have a fixed point of view about some circumstance. In these sorts of cases, when honest efforts have been made to restore relationship and fellowship—without success—ministers should labor on. As all pastors learn, in a busy growing pastorate there will be those who do not agree with the minister on issues. After honest efforts have been made to seek corrected and restored fellowship — without success — ministers should go on with their work diligently, all the while treating objectors with civility and grace. Only humility can keep the door open to the other person permanently. And it can only be hoped that the minister’s continued faithful service to the congregation will bear fruit and that eventually hearts will melt and be reconciled.

Ministers are much more likely to stay afloat in troubled waters and navigate through rocky relationships if they remember that their ultimate accountability for their efforts is to God. Their hope is that God may be pleased, since it is to him they will finally answer. Just remembering this makes them more careful to avoid missteps.

Mending fences is not only a challenge to ministers. Broken relationships are a universal peril in our fallen world. It would be hard to find someone of mature years who does not have a measure of pain over damaged relationships and even unresolved relationship issues at this point. So ministers and laymen alike need strength and grace help in the arduous task of living openly and charitably — insofar as possible — with all. Praying for increased sensitivity to the needs of others for Christ’s sake is the starting point.

Many years after our conversation, Rev. Burbank died in the pulpit while doing what he loved — preaching the gospel. I am just one of many who profited from his ministerial leadership and wise counsel. His insight regarding mending fences was a lifelong gift, not always exercised to the greatest effectiveness, but always treasured.

Photo credit: Josh Liba (via flickr.com)

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What Serious Ministers of the Gospel Do: They Administer (Part Three)

8276676055_a1758f96c5_mWe don’t usually think of the clergy as administrators. That activity, we say, is for professions such as school principals, head nurses and shop foremen. The basic tasks of ministers are preaching and teaching the Scriptures, counseling, visiting those in need, and sharing the Gospel.

True, but even so, ministers know that administration undergirds their activity for the Lord.  Every church is a body of believers who will flourish in a context of organization and order.

Churches are complex organizations. Multiple programs may be carried out in the same building; membership is voluntary; programs are carried out by volunteers; difficult members must be respected; real ministers don’t have firing rights; and in all of this a minister must have his or her hands on the tiller.

In a small church, a pastor may be closely involved with administrative details such as who will unlock the doors, clean the church, and manage the lights during worship. In larger churches, the pastor may administer such details through a staff of co-workers for the Gospel.

Where does a minister begin to give serious input into the actual functioning of a church? If the church’s annual business meeting is in June, in my opinion, the minister’s first and best opportunity to affect the organization of a church administratively begins in the spring of the year.

At this June meeting the congregation votes to fill lay positions for the new church year. To prepare for the annual meeting, a nominating committee is in place and active by the month of March, and is composed of four or more respected members plus the minister.

With the list of all church positions before them, the committee begins to consider prayerfully who should be nominated to continue their position, who nominated to another position, and what fresh talent should be incorporated into the nominations. This is a delicate but rewarding task that should deepen relationships and trust in leadership.

At the close of each nominating committee meeting, names of potential nominees should be assigned to different members of the committee. Each committee member makes contacts with the potential nominees, in order to describe the position and seek agreement to stand for possible election to that role. The minister may take one or two names to contact–persons proposed for the most significant offices. By the time of the annual meeting in June all nominations are settled, ballots prepared, and the election proceeds.

When this work is completed thoroughly ministers will be freer in the fall to preach and teach, call on new contacts, and give spiritual counsel. When it is not done thoroughly they will discover they must spend time solving administrative problems that should have been cared for by the process just outlined.

Even when freed up to serve the congregation in this way, ministers demonstrate their administrative abilities most clearly by their conduct of public worship. There’s something about a well-ordered worship service that calms the human spirit and engenders harmony, thereby enhancing the worship of God. The preparation of the sermon; choice of what to sing, selection of Scripture readings, preparation to lead in a pastoral prayer, and even the presentation of announcements and offerings — all can be executed either so as to add to or detract from the sacredness of the moment.

When administrative tasks are shared by the congregation, under skillful leadership, the church is likely to reflect the holiness of God to the community. It is not just God’s children who are holy; the enterprise as a whole through all of its programs, and its times of worship can also reflect a “holy glow.”

Under a minister’s good administration and through well-chosen committees the building is kept clean and tidy; bathrooms are always fresh and presentable; closets are free of clutter; parking lots are in good repair; the kitchen is spotless; and into this setting ushers welcome worshipers in the name of the Lord. This context gives the serious minister and his or her congregation a set-apart and holy meeting place for members and visitors.

Such a church has reason to expect fruitful ministry, growth in faith and maturity, and often an increase in numbers by a Spirit-led ingathering of souls.

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What Serious Ministers of the Gospel Do: They Preach and Teach (Part Two)

William Hatherell; John Wesley Preaching from the Steps of a Market Cross, 1909

During 19 years as bishop in my denomination I listened at times to lay committees ponder the qualifications of a pastor being considered for appointment. One question was sure to surface from the laity with urgency: “Can this person preach?”

This question is particularly urgent now that a pastor’s neglect of this task can be concealed by the availability of “quickie” sermons from the internet. Real preaching takes more than that.

Preaching is rooted in the history of Christendom. It reflects, for one thing, the widespread influence of the Reformation – that mighty movement of the Spirit to renew Christendom in 16th century Europe.

Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox and many others came alive to the deeper truths of the Bible. As a result, biblical preaching was revived as God’s primary way of shining the light of the Gospel on his fallen creation and particularly on our human depravity. We can be saved! And begin to be ‘repaired!’

Later, the Methodist movement of the eighteenth century engendered the same high regard for preaching. John Wesley, a Spirit-appointed leader of that renewal, had much to say to his growing ranks of preachers.

For example, he gave them 12 rules to follow as Methodist preachers. The twelfth included this instruction: “It is your part to employ your time as our rules direct: partly in preaching and visiting from house to house, partly in reading, meditation, and prayer.”

They were to take the task of preaching seriously and also allow adequate time for reading, meditation, and prayer to inform and energize their efforts.

However, the often-asked question, “Can this person preach?” has deeper roots than either the Reformation or the Methodist revival. Long before and standing above these movements, the New Testament is rich in language that reflects the centrality of proclamation and teaching in the life of the church everywhere.

The most common word in the New Testament for preaching — used more than sixty times as a verb — means “to herald.” A herald is a servant to whom a ruler entrusts his message, expecting it to be delivered clearly and with authority, regardless of the cost.

A second New Testament word applied to preaching is translated as “to evangelize.” We know well that the word means “to broadcast good news.” Sermons, whatever the issue, should have some element of this in them.

These two words do not exhaust the vocabulary for preaching in the New Testament. The idea of teaching occurs, too, and these three elements — preaching, proclaiming, teaching — require that careful thought, serious preparation, and spiritual energy be invested into each effort.

In order to bring the three elements forward faithfully and with effect two pastoral habits are necessary. The first is good Bible study habits — the techniques and resources for exploring deeply what is in the passage upon which the sermon is based. The second discipline is to set aside and actually use significant time in study, prayer, and preparation at least five mornings a week.

And of course the congregation also has a role: to be committed to support the serious minister’s efforts with prayer, deep listening, and occasional encouragement for the pastor’s commitment to faithfulness in preaching.

To be a servant of the Word of God in the pulpit is a demanding assignment in these times of many distractions. But fulfilling the task enabled by the Holy Spirit and His work in the minds and hearts of hearers brings its rewards for the souls of both pastor and people — now and in eternity.

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Photo credit: John Wesley’s House & The Museum of Methodism

What Serious Ministers of the Gospel Do: Pastoral Care (Part One)

handshakeOur son, Robert, converses every now and then with a Lutheran minister. This man has agreed to come out of retirement several times to serve one congregation after another until the congregation’s officers find a long-term minister.

Recently, he reported to Robert that during one congregational interview a woman on the committee asked, “Do you visit in homes?” He replied without hesitation, “Oh my! That goes without saying.”

He then explained to Robert that through the years his custom had been to tell each congregation that if anyone had a neighbor or knew of someone in need or in the hospital who had no pastor, he would make a pastoral visit. To him, this kind of home or hospital visitation was an important aspect of pastoral care.

Pastoral visits, in some places, may have been taken from the pastoral agenda or at least dropped to a low priority. I heard of a young pastor who declared to a friend, “I don’t do hospital calls.”

I am sure the retired minister, along with a host of other pastors in chorus, would say “What a missed opportunity!” Such personal visits (at a home, in hospital, or in the pastor’s study) often open an opportunity to understand heart issues and present Christian counsel. They also allow pastors to minister to shut-ins, to families in distress, to newcomers to the congregation, and to parishioners who appear to be dropping away from congregational life.

Pastoral visits have a deep social dimension. They include conversations about troubling or unresolved moral, relational, and faith issues. Their ultimate purpose is to apply some aspect of the Gospel to the soul. Thus, after a pleasant conversation, the pastor may ask a question about spiritual matters or may read a brief scripture and offer prayer. When such ministry is maintained the results are placed by faith in God’s hands, and when fruit appears, pastors give thanks to God for his goodness.

One Sunday evening in the church I served in Western Canada I noticed a young man in the congregation I had never seen before. After service I spoke to him briefly. The ushers had obtained his address in the visitor’s book. A couple of nights later I went to his apartment. I learned that he was a 19-year-old German immigrant to Canada named Gunter whose loneliness had prompted his visit to the church.

My apartment visit and the warmth of the people of the congregation drew him back. Several Sundays later in an evening service Gunter came to kneel at the altar to give his heart to the Lord. When we stood around him afterwards we asked if he would like to say something. He said only, “I feel much more better.”

He was a quick learner and soon mastered English. In time he attended Seattle Pacific University, trained for the ministry, graduated, married, was ordained, and served as an effective pastor until a rare disease took his life regrettably. I will never forget that pastoral visit with my friend, Gunter, in his apartment.

I could draw up a list of memorable pastoral visits. Some, like this one, added tangibly to God’s Kingdom. For others, I have no follow-up. Many visits are cause for rejoicing. At the same time, there are memories of pastoral failures too — missed opportunities, ineffective approaches, broken connections. In our humanness we pastors on occasion come short and must commit our disappointments to the Lord and his mercy.

But, oh how precious the memories of heart-to-heart conversations in a home or pastor’s study concerning the deepest issues of life. And how enriching the knowledge that the good fruit of those visits still flourishes decades later. And how comforting the thought as well, that the results are the Lord’s and his Spirit is still working in the lives of those visited decades ago.

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Photo credit: Sam Butler (via flickr.com)