A Few Words From My Wife, Kathleen (By Invitation)

When I married Don, I knew that he was heading toward some form of ministry as a life vocation, but I didn’t know for sure the specific form it would take. I knew only that he was a ministerial student and would have several years of education to finish.

I also knew from the start that I should support him in whatever work he felt called to do. That was the way most wives felt back in the forties of the last century.

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

By then it was clear that the focus of his ministry was to be the pastorate. In fact, for his three years of seminary he was assigned to be pastor of the Free Methodist church in Lexington, nearby, and that’s 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 to free him to study, I made myself available to teach Sunday School and often entertained seminary students on Sundays so they could canvass the community in the afternoon with my husband.

When we went to our second church, the Free Methodist church in New Westminster, British Columbia, I discovered what standing by my pastor husband really meant. He led the church in a growth spurt that meant new prospects most every Sunday, new programs to meet the needs of a growing congregation, and lots of social entertaining 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. We had simple, inexpensive, but good tenting vacations together with the children. 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.” Television hadn’t yet arrived at our house.

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 such mutual service has enriched our nearly 71 years together. The latter of them since our retirement have been progressively less public but still committed to service as opportunities have come.

Recently, after going through a file of thank you notes gathered across the years, I felt grateful to God for the privilege of ministering in this way.

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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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Re-post: 10 Tips for Young Pastors

Photo Credit: "Outside the camp" via flicker.comPastoral work is demanding. It has its peculiar stresses. But, it is also deeply satisfying when done with wisdom and care. Here are some suggestions gleaned from 22-years of pastoral ministry and another 19-years as a general church overseer.

1. Ground your ministry in daily Bible reading and prayer. Pray daily for your people. Pray often through the day. Consider that pastoral labors grounded in prayer are the “gold, silver and costly stones” the Apostle Paul speaks of as durable building materials used in pastoral labors (1Cor. 3:10-15).

2. If your study is at the church, be there at a set time each work day. I suggest 8 A.M. God honors a good work ethic.

3. Spend your mornings in sermon preparations, reading, and related study. Be diligent. If you have a secretary, have her guard these hours. Don’t allow legitimate resources to become time-wasters — the Internet, TV, video games, long telephone calls, news papers, news magazines, etc.

“If in the morning you throw moments away,
You’ll not catch them up in the course of the day.”

4. Get an exercise program and stick to it, whether it be jogging or swimming or walking or exercising to a DVD. If you have no better idea, consider, as one possibility, incorporating this routine into an extended noon hour. A jog, then a sandwich, an apple, and a beverage need take no more than an hour-and-a-quarter.

5. Do not have favorites. If your attachment to one person or couple or family becomes obvious — you meet regularly for meals together, even go camping together — this will make other members feel second rate. The pastor must be pastor to all the people all the time. If you need more intimate friendships, form them outside the congregation — with a neighboring minister, for example.

6. Never, discuss church problems in the presence of growing children.  They do not have the wisdom to handle adult problems.
Their trust may be damaged, and eventually their respect for Christ and his church.

7. If division develops over some issue (whether to launch a building program, add a staff member, change the music program, etc.) give leadership through proper channels. But don’t take sides by talking informally with one faction or the other. To do so will deepen the congregational rift and likely shorten your tenure.

8. Develop a clear understanding of your boundaries and observe them — with the opposite sex, the aged, children, young people, church officers, staff members, etc. Strive to keep all pastoral relationships above reproach.

9. However modest your income, set an example of responsible stewardship. Show leadership in tithing your income. If you have debts that are out of hand, seek professional counsel. Your care with money will increase the congregation’s trust in your leadership.

10. Never ask to borrow money from your parishioners. To do so puts parishioners at a disadvantage, may reduce their respect for you, and if not repaid as agreed may create a rift that puts your pastoral tenure at risk.

Pastoral ministry is built on the ability to preach and teach the Bible. But it is also grounded in genuine godliness, basic ethical competence, good interpersonal skills, and beyond these on common sense. These ten points do not tell the whole story but they offer some time-tested suggestions about how to avoid the traps that sometimes spring and limit or even shorten a minister’s usefulness to the Lord and a congregation.

 

Photo Credit: Outside the camp (via flicker.com)

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An Unexpected Bonus

During the recent Christmas season I got a letter from Maureen whom I had not seen or heard from in 50 years. Back then she was a teenager in the church I served in New Westminster, B.C. Now she is a grandmother and she and her husband, Charlie, have three grown children, and seven grandchildren to nurture.

I remember Maureen well. She was a quiet, shy teenager, very faithful in attendance at the youth group. I remember her as quietly thoughtful. She appeared to be open to the truth of the gospel though she did not say much. And I gathered from my contacts with her that she was blessed with a sensitive conscience.

In her handwritten letter she tells me that last June she returned to New Westminster to attend the fiftieth reunion of her graduating class at Lester Pearson High School in 1961. There she met up with Betty and Shirley. They had graduated in the same class with Maureen and all three had been members of our church’s youth group.

Her letter is addressed to both my wife and me. In it she tells us that during the weekend of celebration the three of them had spent time reflecting on their high school days. She writes me now to say thanks for helping “this quiet shy girl to grow into a self-confident adult with high moral values.”

In agreement with Betty and Shirley she writes that “we three (now 68 year olds) agreed that your family was a wonderfully positive influence on our lives.”

This is not the sort of information that one normally makes public but with her permission I am breaking that expected modesty for a very special reason – there is in it a word for pastors:

We pastors as a class want to succeed in our calling but our success is too often measured mostly in numbers: number of conversions gained, Sunday morning attendance, funds raised for missions, increase in membership, success with major or minor building projects, number of small groups, etc.

Numbers are certainly important and do give certain measurements of our ministry. Numerical growth is not to be scorned. For example, we can’t think of ourselves as succeeding if our statistics are dropping by 10% a year. Even break-even for succeeding years is a danger signal for growth-oriented pastors.

But some aspects of pastoral success can’t be reduced to numbers. Godly influence is not always easy to quantify. Nor is the giving of wise counsel. For examples, who can measure the effect of spiritual support given a wife abandoned by her husband; or wise counsel offered to a couple about to marry; or prayers with an apprehensive patient the evening before surgery; and, of course, the effect of being role models for teenagers who have value struggles as they mature.

We know that effective pastors work hard. Ours is never a mere forty-hour week. And effective pastors work to a system. We have times set aside for study and for pastoral visitation and for the administrating of a church. We build our ministries on prayer and faithfulness to the Scriptures. And often we don’t learn of the effect of our ministry until years later.

That’s why Maureen’s letter has given me such a surge of joy. It has now been followed up by a pleasant telephone conversation. In it all I am reminded of St. Paul’s assurance to the Corinthian believers that, “your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (I Cor. 15:58). Seed sown may not germinate immediately, but it is seed sown. The harvest is with the Lord. For this renewed contact we give our Savior all the glory and we rejoice!

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The Boy John Wesley at Charterhouse

While studying the pastoral letters, I & II Timothy for a series of lectures, I made what struck me as a rich discovery. I saw that all the requirements considered in these scriptures for effective pastoral ministry fit under two heads – godliness and competence.

My mind jumps here to John Wesley, of whom I’ve been reading and writing in recent weeks. I began to review what prepared him to lead with such competence in the widespread ministry into which he was thrust later in his life.

Consider first his education. It can be divided into three phases. There was the five years of excellent tutelage he got under the watchful eye of his mother. Then there were six years at Charterhouse. Finally there were about five years at Oxford University. The least pleasant of the three sources of his education may be one key to his future competence and capability.

At 10 years of age Wesley was enrolled at Charterhouse, a well-regarded school for boys in London. One hundred years earlier, a man of great wealth established the school with the intent that select boys enrolled should get the best possible education there in preparation for university.

There was no money in the Wesley household to pay the tuition for such instruction but Samuel Wesley, John’s father, managed to win the agreement of the Duke of Buckingham to nominate his son as a select choice. So, before he was 11, he left the well-regulated and prayerful environment of the Epworth rectory to enter the tumult of a well-recognized public school. W. H. Fitchett writes that “The Charterhouse of that day was a school with great traditions and a decent standard of scholarship.” But it did not cater to the upper levels of society so the names of the famous do not appear among its graduates.

At Charterhouse the boy, John, was quick to learn and tireless in his pursuits. The details are not full but he was regarded as a strong student.

However there was one feature of this institution which leaves modern students of its history perplexed. The practice of “fagging,” a fancy name for high-handed robbing, was in full force. That is, when the rations were given out at the cook house, the older and stronger boys would be on hand to take the meaty portions from the smaller boys. It was a daily experience and for those years JohnWesley practically lived on bread.

Fitchette writes: “A boy trained in the severities of Epworth parsonage, however, could asily survive even the raided meals of the Charterhouse School.” But what were the officials of this great school thinking in letting this robbery go on? It is hinted that such treatment developed humility or self-restraint. More likely it developed a toughness of character, where one was left to make do with what was available and to fend for himself without guardians hovering around.

Wesley himself mentions another potential benefit with which we might at least in part disagree: When his father sent him to Charterhouse he gave him instructions to run around the school’s large playing field or garden three times each morning. In other words, stay strong and active. Wesley obeyed and later wrote that together this exercise and limited diet contributed to his sturdy constitution as an adult.

Many years later, when John Wesley was deeply involved as leader of the Methodist movement he experienced all sorts of adversity. He faced mobs, endured storms, travelled tirelessly, wrote copiously in defense of his message and for the instruction of new converts, and often preached as many as three times a day. His own opinion was that the ruggedness and deprivations of his early years — including Charterhouse — had made him competent for such a demanding life.

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Ushers Are Ministers Too

I once served a church nearly 50 years ago where I had the privilege of training a newly-chosen corps of ushers. For Howard, the recently-elected head usher, I drew up a sheet of instructions and expectations. The entire group of us then met in the sanctuary on a Sunday afternoon to acquaint ourselves with the plans and to rehearse.

There was enthusiasm and camaraderie. It made these men feel like what they were called upon to do was important. The following Saturday, the day before our Sunday launch, Howard hosted a steak dinner at the nearby lake for fellowship and final instructions.

The instructions included such expectations as that ushers arrive 30 minutes early, dress uniformly in suit and tie for morning service, and for the evening, in jacket and matched pants; that they refrain from such distractions while on duty as socializing with other ushers as the large congregation gathered; that they remain on duty until the congregation had dispersed; be prepared for any emergency (with details given); and notify their team leader if they were unable to serve on any particular Sunday.

As I recall, the men were divided into two teams. To serve the large sanctuary required 12 ushers, three for each side aisle and six for the center aisle. If the balcony was to be in use, that would require an extra two ushers. There were also back-up personnel to be called upon whenever needed.

I had asked ushers to face forward as they passed the offering plates rather than appearing to peer down the row as offerings were given. My rationale was that this was to be a moment between each worshiper and God.

Meanwhile, in teaching moments I taught the congregation that the time for the reception of offerings in a service was not an intermission from worship while mundane things were cared for. Instead, the offering was itself a moment of worship. And I had made the point that in that moment of worship the ushers were not “taking up collections;” rather, they were “receiving offerings.”

Because I sat near the pulpit while the ushers received the offerings I could see this team of men at work each Sunday as they seated late-comers and later received tithes and offerings. Each usher was a committed believer, respected by the congregation. They went at their assignment with conviction. I am warmed as I recall it.

During the early days of this new regimen, I was counseling with a young man who came to see me because he was distressed over his increasing doubt and fading interest in following Christ. I recall his saying several times in our visits, “I just don’t care.” He made it clear that he was contemplating abandoning the church and its faith because of his inner conflict.

As I recall, it was during his third visit on a Monday that he told me what was keeping him from following his impulses. He said, “I look at those men who take the offering and carry it forward to the communion table and I say to myself, ‘These men are not dumb. They’re intelligent, committed, and they have a real faith.’”

Just seeing them at worship in that way had arrested him momentarily. For him, it was not the moment of an instant returning. The Lord was dealing with him about issues at deeper levels. Nevertheless, he had used a corps of faithful, believing ushers to get the young man’s attention while he dealt with him.

So you see why I say that ushers, when they serve well, are ministers too.

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The Threefold Task of the Pastor — Part 1 — Preaching and Teaching

Since this blog is dedicated frequently to issues having to do with the shepherding of God’s people, today’s posting will be the first of three reflections on the duties of the pastor. Those duties can be broadly grouped into three assignments. I will mention all three here, but expand on only the first in this installment.

The three elements of a pastor’s work are (1) preaching and teaching the word of God; (2) pastoral care; and (3) the administration of the church. Attention to these three duties by a pastor with a strong work ethic will signal to the congregation that “Our pastor knows what he is about.”

God’s Word Is Foremost. In my youth, one might hear someone claim to have a “call to preach” as though that were the whole of the task. No one looking toward ministry was likely to say, “I feel called to pastoral care,” or “I feel called to administer a church.” That didn’t mean that all a pastor had to do back then was to preach twice each Sunday — a stale joke that has been around a long time. But it did mean that preaching the word of God was foremost in the pastor’s work and all else was supposed to flow out of it.

Good preaching requires an adequate workplace where pastors can be alone with the Scriptures and with God. A wise church will make sure this place is provided. Access to the Internet may be added if it enhances, rather than distracts from study. Study and prayer together produce fresh flashes of God’s truth for God’s people — plus the Spirit’s anointing. No one of the above by itself is enough.

Good preaching also requires commitment to a schedule that sets aside dedicated time for preparations at least five days a week. Good preaching furthermore requires a tested method in setting out a message. The pastor must discover how to go about preparing to preach. It is both a question of what to preach and how to preach.

This kind of preaching is more than merely the transfer of information for the listeners’ reflection. In a variety of ways it is a call to action. In it there should be the recurring invitation to “repent and believe the gospel,” although this invitation must be issued in a variety of fresh ways and under divine unction.

Beyond preaching itself, the pastor is responsible to make certain that the Bible is being taught in other ways. On Sundays, are scriptural portions from both Testaments read as separate acts of of worship? Are the children learning the catechism? Is the Sunday School adequately funded and well promoted? Are teachers being guided and encouraged in their teaching?

Also, is there a program for Bible memorization? Are small groups being well monitored so that Scriptural truth occupies an important part of their meeting time? Is there a program that encourages the family altar in church families? And is the Bible being taught to children in Daily Vacation Bible School, or at children’s camps during the summer? All these ministries may not be established at one and the same time but they should all be on the church agenda.

Pastors will not monitor all these aspects of church life themselves. They will rely on volunteers or committees or paid staff. But pastors must cast the vision, and it will be of foremost concern to them that these activities be established because pastors are committed fervently to the Bible as the church’s textbook.

So, where does pastoral care fit into this scheme of things? I will respond in brief to the question next week by summarizing important aspects of this pastoral duty.

Read Part Two.

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