Monday, December 9, 2013

How I've Changed (Not Necessarily for the Better)

            Thanks to the kindness of a friend, I spent the better part of the past week at a cottage, by myself. The cottage didn’t have a radio, television, or Internet. My dog Jex kept me company.

            So I spent several hours, each day, sitting by the window watching the Muskoka River flow by. It was the perfect setting to give my introverted self over to reflection. And what I found myself thinking about is how much things have changed over my career as a pastor. I thought I’d write an occasional series on that theme. So, for starters, some of the biggest changes are in me.

            1. The first change is easy. I often feel very tired. At first I thought this must be because I’m getting older. But it isn’t just that. After all, I go to the gym and exercise more regularly than I used to, years ago. I am healthy.

            No, I actually think one reason I often feel tired is that I’m working harder, but on fewer things, than I used to. When I had kids I was very focused on boundaries. And they and their activities were the variety that gave my life spice. Now the kids are gone and  my wife works many evening hours, so I too easily drift into the “nothing but church-work” mode. And that steady diet of “just one thing, always,” can tire me out. I need more hobbies! I need to work on defining better boundaries. (Of course, this is also written in the busiest season, just before Christmas, while we’re closing out one budget and designing a new one. Things will look different in January!)

            2. I am more distracted by media than I’ve ever been before. By media, I mean the Internet. This is an ironic, because my wife and I have never owned a television. We sort of fell into that at the beginning of our marriage—we didn’t have the money for a new set. Then we decided not to get a TV until both the boys were reading. And from there it became a matter of principle.
            But now the Internet always beckons. I’m a news-junky, I guess. People don’t phone much anymore, but my email box is always overflowing. I follow the Blue Jays. There are blogs to keep up with, tweets to send out, and Facebook friends to keep track of.

            I’m experimenting with checking email and the Internet only twice a day. It’s hard when my writing computer is also my Internet computer. But research shows that Internet surfing can erode one’s ability and desire to engage in linear, rational, and deep reading.

            3. I’m amazed at how much confidence I had in my early years when it came to offering counselling and guidance about personal matters to parishioners. Unfortunately, it was too often confidence based on complete naiveté about just how complex and layered people’s lives, hopes, dreams, and needs are. It was also naiveté based on not having had any education as a therapist. I saw the world in black and white even though it had a lot of colour.

            As an older pastor, I’m more realistic about how many answers I have for pastoral situations. Usually, the best I can do is listen, assure people of God’s love and refer.

            I’ve also learned that one of the worst things that can happen to a pastor who ought to be majoring in preaching and basic pastoral visitation (getting to know the sheep and assuring them of God’s love) is to think that he or she is a therapist. I’m not a therapist. My wife is. She went to school years to get degrees and learn how. She’s done many, many further training courses and supervision. Me? I have two pastoral care courses from seminary. I don’t begin to have the understanding required to be a therapist.

            I’ve also noticed, over the years, that many pastors busy with “counselling,” really ought to be working a lot harder to craft compelling sermons. Worse, amateur counselling often seems to be their excuse for not doing so. They’re missing out on the first calling of a pastor--preaching--in order to do something they are educationally and absolutely unqualified to do.

            4. More on confidence. I’ve never lacked it. But looking back, I see that I should have tempered my confidence a bit. Looking back, I see that not only did I make pastoral errors, but I also made mistakes in council, mistakes that had to do with defining goals, and mistakes about what I preached. Nothing horrible (I hope). But I think that if I had listened to others a bit more, been a bit more realistic about how much experience I had, it wouldn’t have hurt.

            In a way I’m reflecting on leadership. In the beginning I thought I could jump in with both feet and know which way to go. Now I’ve realized that perhaps the most important part of leadership is inspiring the congregation define its own goals, and helping them to get there.

            Another way of putting this, perhaps, is that when I started in ministry, I believed in the authority of the pastor. After living the role for nearly thirty years, I’ve come to believe that authority doesn’t come with the office so much as it is earned in the trenches.

            5. On matters of what is right or wrong, I’ve generally softened my approach. I remember getting members of my first church to sign petitions against opening stores on Sunday, and for toughening abortion laws. I once refused to do a wedding for a member of the church because the groom was a nominal Roman Catholic.

            But now it seems less important to me to try to get everyone—in my church or in society at large—to do as I say than it is important for me to try to do as I hope. I don’t have much fight left in me for trying to bend society to my view of what is right or wrong. It is enough to try to try to inspire people by how I live. It is by our love for each other (and the poor, marginalized, least and last) that people will eventually figure out that God loves them too.

            6. While I have not changed my belief that great preaching is critical for both pastoral excellence and the success of a congregation, I’ve become much more humble about my power as a preacher—even as I continue to strive to be a better preacher.

            I’ve come to grips with the fact that very few people remember sermons, remember the doctrine that you put in sermons (people learn that from what they sing!), or even remember key themes that I return to again and again.

            Sermons are like the meals my mother fed me for years before I left home. I don’t remember any one in particular. But without a regular diet of them I wouldn’t have thrived.

            7. I have a marital partner that I don’t think I’ve ever taken for granted. But what has changed is that I’ve come to realize how deeply implicated she is in most of the positive changes in my life and ministry. Going on an adventure, hand-in-hand, is also a lot more fun than walking around the same block that everyone else is!

            8. I’ve become a lot more interested in the whole wide world rather than just the “theology,” silo. My graduate studies in communication theory, my fascination with evolution, my wife and kid’s sharing with me about their schooling has all enriched my reading and broadened my perspective. Theology is great—but without a great deal of worldly context, it smacks of religion rather than spirituality, and that just doesn’t work in our world.

            9. Most important, perhaps, is my faith. I started the ministry with the faith I learned as a child and was taught in seminary. It looks like I’ll be finishing in ministry with a very different faith. I’d never suggest that everyone ought to follow the exact path I did. But coming to a place where I own my own faith as something I’ve struggled for, rather than as something just handed down, has turned out to be a very precious journey.


  1. Thanks John for this. I haven't been in ministry quite as long as you have but I certainly resonate with parts of it. I also have the benefit of being the third generation in this vocation. I think I learned more from my father and grandfather by watching than by listening. My father especially. I was always amazed at how the longer he was in ministry, well into retirement the more he enjoyed it. His faith seemed to grow.

    As I reflect on my father's ministry and life (he passed away last March) the thing I think I learned from him was a posture with respect to ministry. He worked years on Paterson, trying to bring healing, grace and relief to the desperately poor and plagued first ward of Paterson. He made many mistakes trying to be a hero rescuing lost souls and lives only to continue to face the fact that he could actually save very little. His love, faith and hope would be what he could bring more that solutions.

    Another thing I think I learned from him was pacing. Pastoring is like gardening but with far longer cycles than plants. The seasons of our lives can last decades and in many cases all the gardener can do is a lot of waiting and watching, hoping and praying that when the time is ripe you can be helpful in a moment.

    I've now been 17 years in my church. My father did 36 in his first one. There is little I can control. There are often few options I can choose from. Many attempts over the years at "making something happen" really did little or nothing. Ministry much more seems to be a walk of enduring love and prayerful hope. Catastrophe can and does come at times, but Christians endure.

    One of the great joys here has been sharing ministry over time with other pastors. Encouraging each other. Praying together.

    I look forward to hearing more of your reflections as they bubble up.

    1. Thanks Paul. As I reread this, I realize that there is a lot more to say! In time. Just got back from NYC, where my kids live. Always love driving through Paterson (I preached there) and many other towns, like Lodi, that once had True Dutch Reformed Churches and where the Banner was born. That was a long time ago.


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