Something Wonderful Happened After a Doctor Phoned a Pastor

The phone call (several decades ago now) was from a doctor, a member of the congregation I was pastoring. He had just informed his patient, Cedric (not his real name), that there was no treatment — neither surgery nor medications — to arrest his advanced bone cancer metastases.

After breaking the news gently to Cedric the doctor had asked if he would like to see a pastor and Cedric, somewhat shaken, had replied yes, so the doctor was phoning me to make an appointment for him.

But when the time for the appointment came, Cedric did not show up. I was not surprised. I had learned a bit more about him and thought prayer with a pastor was one of the last things he would have been interested in.

He and two other unmarried brothers lived on a farm a few miles from town. The three were reclusive and I learned that they wouldn’t have seen the inside of a church more than a half dozen times in their lives. I asked a church member who knew the area well if I should I go to the farm to look him up. He advised me not to.

But a few weeks later during a visit to another church member in the hospital, I saw Cedric’s name on the patient list near the entrance. He was in room five in the bed nearest the door.

When I introduced myself I could see he recognized who I was. There he lay, the head of his bed raised slightly and a Bible open and face down across his chest.

We conversed briefly about the words he had been reading from John’s Gospel, and before I left him I asked if he would like to open his heart to the Lord Jesus. He nodded in the affirmative, so I prayed a short prayer of repentance and faith, which he repeated after me.

It was my custom, after I had visited with two or three parishioners, to sit in the car in the parking lot for a few moments to review in my mind each visit before driving away.

That day I had mixed feelings about my visit with Cedric. I didn’t even know him, nor he me. Why didn’t I make the first visit just a friendship visit ending with a short prayer? Had I been too hasty? Was he really ready for that new believer’s prayer? I was hard on myself.

But a day or so later when I visited him again I could tell he was waiting for me to come. That began, as I recall, a string of visits across two months, as his body wasted away. First he was moved to a single-occupant room. Then, as his condition advanced, he was placed on a Stryker frame.

It became evident to me that, in that initial prayer weeks before, he had experienced God’s love and forgiveness. Due to his weakness, our visits were short, but they were enriching to both of us.

One day as I approached him I asked, “What are you thinking about these days, Cedric?” He responded matter of factly, “I’m thinking about dying.” That prompted a short but faith-enriching conversation. He obviously had the assurance of eternal life through a living faith in Christ.

The next time I saw him he said, “I would like to be baptized.” I replied that I would come back the next day to do this. There was a reason for one-day delay. In a close-knit community I wanted to be sure I was the main pastor if not the only pastor ministering to him. I didn’t want to invade another pastor’s territory for church services.

On my next visit, I said to a nurse, “Cedric tells me he wants to be baptized.” She understood immediately and provided me with a small basin. Then she offered a white towel, saying, “You may use this to wipe any excess water from his head.”

There the two of us were alone in the room, one strapped to a Stryker frame, the other holding a small basin of water. There was no instrumental music, no congregational singing. After a few words of instruction I raised my voice slightly and said, “Cedric, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” I wiped the excess water from his forehead. After a short prayer I left him.

The next day I made my last visit. As I bent over his bed he said in little more than a dying whisper, “Yesterday was the most wonderful day in my life.” He was referring to his baptism.

I had Cedric’s funeral. His brothers were there. I told his story. I expect to see Cedric again.

Photo credit: nerissa’s ring (via flickr.com)

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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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Image info: Lyncconf Games (via flickr.com)

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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Are We Paying Enough Attention to Children in the Church?

When my mother saw I was serious about answering a call to the ministry, she gave me only one word of advice. She said, “Don, be sure to pay attention to the children.”

I’m sure she meant: speak to them; inquire of their well-being; make a place for them in the life of the congregation; be sure they are instructed in the basics of the faith — all of which would seem excellent counsel.

My mother’s words were consistent with our Lord’s response when Jesus’ disciples thought him too busy to be bothered with children who were brought to him.

Jesus rebuked his followers, saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). He then gathered the little ones around him and blessed them.

My Mother’s advice was given in the mid-forties of the Twentieth Century and we are now nearly through the second decade of the Twenty-first Century. Things have changed in fundamental ways in 70 years!

In the intervening years many subcultures on our continent have rapidly secularized. That is, they no longer have  reverence for an Unseen Presence who rules over all.   Persons who accept this cultural shift seem to be grounding all reality in the present visible world only.

Still, I would say that my Mother’s few words two generations ago and our Lord’s attitude toward children remain the pattern for us today.

And based upon my years in ministry, I offer two of many possible concrete suggestions about the children among us in these secular times.

First, a congregation should take a hard look periodically at whether the Bible is being presented to children from their early years onward. Is it foundational to all family activities and church ministries?

That is, is the Bible being read daily in Christian homes, connecting church and home in religious practice? Are children learning the Bible’s timeless stories and their lessons — like the story of David and Goliath, Ruth and Naomi, and especially the stories of Jesus, and his words and miracles?

Against the apparent increase of “sophisticated” and widespread antagonism to the Christian faith, the Bible is the first line of defense as well as our guidebook, and our children need to be more rooted than ever in the Sacred Scriptures.

My second suggestion deals with the increasingly aggressive secularization of sex education in public schools, countering, even scorning, Christian teaching.

Affirmation of sexual practices contrary to both nature and Christian moral teaching is being taught more aggressively and explicitly in public schools.  For example, it’s reported that in some places sexual practices that are neither normal nor healthy are being presented with approval and even encouraged in the teaching of young children.

At the time of writing concerned parents in Canada, the United States and Australia are being called upon to treat April 23 as a “day out.” On that day children are to be kept home from their schools in protest.

Do our Lord’s words pertain in this? Bringing the little ones to Jesus must also include protecting them insofar as possible from instruction that would counter our Lord’s teaching and the authority of Holy Scripture.

It is now many years since I served as a pastor over a congregation. In reflection I’m sure my mother’s advice affected my thinking to the benefit of my congregations and their children.

If I were returned to the assignment of pastoring a church, I would be even more committed to heed my Mother’s advice to pay attention to the children and their need for both teaching and protection.

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Photo credit: Philippe Put (via flickr.com)

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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Photo credit: Caroline (via flickr.com)

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