Monday, November 26, 2012

8 Lessons I’ve Learned After 8 Years of (Mostly) Solo Ministry

I’m not a seasoned pastor by any means, but this list is full of what I’ve learned at the beginning of my career in ministry.  The lessons, both painful and enlightening, are still fresh in my mind, so here they are, written as for a new pastor:                 

1. Network.
Having a group of other pastors to talk honestly with and glean ideas from is essential.  If you aren’t part of a weekly text study, join one.  If you can’t find one, start one.  It'll be your lifeline and your weekly sanity check.  The resources you’ll share and receive will be invaluable.  My first call was in a very rural area and the pastors in my text study shared my weekly frustrations, lonely days and celebrations.  I developed a beloved friendship with a wise pastor whose passion for rural ministry still showed after 40 years.  Recently my family and I visited him and his wife in their new retirement home.  We hadn’t seen each other for a few years, but the continued warmth and support was evident as they served us a special lunch and he set up his trains in the basement so my son could play.  You’ll need the help and support of fellow pastors, and a few of these relationships become sacred.  Be active about searching them out.            
2. Listen to friends and family.
You’ll also need to be intentional about keeping up your friendships outside the church and spending time with your family.  Ministry lends itself to living in a bubble and it’s important to leave it periodically.  Get some real-world perspective.  Have fun.  If they think you’re working too much, burning yourself out, or becoming weirdly focused on liturgical traditions/writing down every single sermon illustration you notice/rehashing a conversation with a congregation member, you are.  Listen to them.   
2. There will always be another Advent.
I remember planning my first liturgical season.  I was convinced it had to be the best! Lent! Ever! After a few seasons of this, I realized there will always be another Advent—that’s the beauty of a church year.  Pace yourself.  Church work is a marathon, and if you run at a sprinter’s pace you’ll tire quickly.  You don’t need to find room this year for every beautiful confession or every single Advent hymn. 

4. Failure is the only option.
Get comfortable with spectacular, public failure because you’ll experience a lot of it.  You can’t preach most Sundays for many years without preaching a terrible sermon.  And by terrible, I mean a sermon you preach as quickly as possible and immediately burn.  I guarantee you’ll plan some wonderful programs and no one will show up.  The bulletin will have embarrassing misprints and you’ll forget the name of the baby you’re about to baptize.  All of these are great learning experiences and will only make you better prepared for what’s ahead.  They’re painful but necessary.  They also make you appreciate the programs that do work and the sermons you’re very proud to preach.  And don’t forget the Holy Spirit works mysteriously in the midst of it all.  Pastors need lots of grace, and ministry doesn’t let us forget it.

Besides, parishioners love to see your human side and tease you for your mistakes.

5. Ministry is all trial and error.
Don’t let the failures get you down.  Risk is an essential part of ministry.  You’ll take all sorts of creative, personal, and public risks.  Often you won’t know what works with a congregation until you try it.  If no one shows up for a program, use that information to hone your future planning.  If you try something and many people get angry, you’ve discovered an area of passion. 

People will complain and grumble.  Trying to please them all will paralyze you and your ministry.  Let go and embrace risks as an individual and as a community.
6. Strategize.
So many people want so much of my time that I need to do lots of prioritizing—and saying no.  Know what’s essential.  I once had a rural pastor tell me there are three things every pastor needs to do: preach the best you can, visit people in their homes, and love their kids.  I find if I faithfully do hospital and home visits, preach thoughtful and well-prepared sermons, and honestly engage the youth of the congregation I serve, I receive a lot of grace when it comes to evening meetings and bulletin misprints.  Good preaching takes time, and that means something else has to give.  Every context is different, but you’ll need to find out what matters most to a congregation—and you—so you can prioritize.

Play up your strengths and interests and recognize your weak areas.  Don’t just go with a canned Confirmation program.  What interests you?  Do you love world religions or pop culture?  Are you a musical or movie or sports buff?  Incorporate your passions into your teaching and preaching.  If you’re excited about a topic, chances are the congregation will be too, and you’ll all have more fun.  Look for people with different strengths than yours and let them handle your weak areas.  You’re not expected to do everything, even though we pastors like to think we can.

Enjoy the slow weeks.  You’ll have lots of crazy weeks with funerals and retreats and Holy Week (sometimes all in the same week).  When you encounter one of the magical weeks without Confirmation or sermon planning, take an afternoon or an extra day off, and enjoy it.  And for goodness' sake, take all your vacation!

7. Find good feedback.
You need good feedback to hone your skills and tap into the congregation’s passions.  You’ll need to double-check your missional direction.  Find a few trusted people in the congregation to give you honest, helpful, constructive feedback and check in with them often.  Be careful they don’t become feeders for congregational complaints.  Rather, use them as your eyes and ears in the congregation.  What’s working well?  Why is a certain area lacking energy?  Let them take the pulse of the church for you.

8. People like to feel useful.
Stop prefacing requests with “I’m sorry, but…” or “If you’re not too busy…”  This has been the hardest lesson for me to learn.  I don’t like asking for help.  It’s been difficult for me to realize I’m inviting people into opportunities to serve, and many people like to feel useful.  By depending on the same few people I know will say yes, I end up with burned out volunteers.  Reach out and give new people the chance to participate.  Don’t be afraid of failure or people saying no.  Just keep asking.  Better yet, find people who have the gift of invitation to support you.  At one church I served, one woman recruited over 100 Vacation Bible School volunteers every year.  It was her ministry.  What a blessing! 

I end with a bonus lesson that overarches this whole list: trust your instincts.  You can read a ton of books about evangelism, pastoral care, preaching and administration.  Yes, there is always more to learn.  But only you know the church you serve.  You know their points of pride, their insecurities and their idiosyncrasies.  Trust yourself to translate what you’ve learned into their context.  Sometimes you need to leave the books on the shelf and go your own direction.  Just like your own list after eight years of ministry may look very different than mine.

Ministry is exhausting, unpredictable, and frustrating.  It's also exhilarating, profoundly meaningful, endlessly creative, and full of joy.  Pray for strength and patience, and know you’re not alone.  Take good care of yourself.  And remember—in the end it’s God’s ministry, not yours. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Links for the Weekend

Stewardship’s been on my mind, so here are some great links about finances, giving, and living a meaningful life:

Do you want to give to the victims of Hurricane Sandy?  ELCA Disaster Response is one option.

I’ve been turning to The Simple Dollar for practical tips on finances and living a meaningful life.

How charitable are our communities?

Stressed that Christmas is only six weeks away?  Check out these six steps to a relaxed Christmas.

Exhaustion is not a status symbol.

And some random links:

Mark Hanson (presiding bishop of the ELCA) asks us the important question now that the election is over—now what?

Is church—as we’re currently doing it— not working?

If you don’t know about Rachel Held Evans, you need to.


Monday, November 12, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, November 11

This sermon was informed by the book Ministry and Money by Janet and Philip Jamieson--a wonderfully practical book for pastors.

Text: Malachi 3:8-12

Let us pray:  Giving God, grow in us generous hearts.  Help us to give, not out of guilt or only obedience, but out of joy and freedom, knowing you bless us with all we need.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

When I first began planning for this eight-week Stewardship series, I wasn’t so sure about it.  Eight weeks is long time.  I worried some of you would get very tired of it.  I was afraid it would begin to feel like an eight-week-long fundraising effort.  In the midst of a presidential election, it could feel like overkill.

Yet I’m learning a lesson.  Stewardship is such a broad topic and covers so many parts of our Christian lives that I’m starting to feel like an eight-week series may be too short.  It’s a relevant and essential topic.  Stewardship is so basic to what we believe as Christians that it seeps into every area of faith.  As Lutherans we believe God blesses us first with mercy and forgiveness, and we live out our faith in response to those gifts.  It’s the same with Stewardship—God gives us gifts and talents and everything we need, and we give them away faithfully and joyfully. 

Stewardship is also relevant because it addresses the power money has over us in our everyday lives.  We make choices about money each day.  We worry about it.  It makes us feel stupid.  We feel trapped by it.  We enjoy it. 

The church has something very important to say about money.  As a theologian, I have something important to say about money.  If the church doesn’t talk about money, we’re missing a huge part of people’s lives.  There is a strong relationship between our faith and our finances and we need to discuss it.

So often we like to think of money itself as sinful.  Rather, money is neutral.  It’s simply a tool.  What we do with it reflects the state of our hearts.  We can allow it to have power over us, or we can use it to make a difference in the world and give us great joy.

Today’s Stewardship theme is tithing.  Here’s what I think about it, and here’s how I use the concept in my own life.

Tithing hasn’t always been easy for me.  When my husband and I began our first calls in small rural congregations, we had a lot of student debt that challenged and still challenges us in our ability to give.  For a long time I felt extraordinarily guilty about not being able to tithe.  My giving wasn’t joyful because I always felt badly that it wasn’t up to a tithe.  That magic 10% number haunted me.  It didn’t allow me to enjoy what I was giving. Yet we move closer and closer to our goals every year (even exceeding some), and we’ve found that the more we give, the more we want to give.  But we’ve forgotten about tithing.  Once we all reach that 10% number, why stop?

I know what the struggle to tithe involves.  I don’t think the concept of tithing is meant to guilt and shame us.  It’s an Old Testament concept—we heard it in our text from Malachi today.  Jesus barely talked about tithing, and it was only in warnings about religious hypocrisy—don’t claim you tithe just to impress others.  Tithing hasn’t always been the way the church has raised funds.  It’s actually a more modern concept from the past 100 years or so.

Here’s what I think about it:  It’s a good guideline.  It’s a great goal.  But it’s not meant to shame you.  It’s not an obligation.  And it’s not a graduation once you get there.  For God isn’t Lord over just 10% of our belongings.  God is Lord over all, including the other 90%.

I like the idea of a tithing as a spiritual discipline.  It’s something we practice doing—and it’s not always easy.  Tithing is meant to be inspiring, not shaming.  It’s meant to be exciting, not a heavy burden.  It’s meant to be a source of joy and not guilt.  It’s meant to free you, not entrap you in impossible expectations.  Give what you can, and pray that God will allow you to give more and more as you grow in this part of being a Christian.  Rejoice in what you can give, for God will use your gifts.  Our reading from Malachi says, “God will open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.”  God calls us to tithe, but I believe God will use whatever we give as a blessing to others and the world.

Of course, I think Christ the King is a worthy cause.  I believe in what we do here, or I wouldn’t be giving my career to the mission of this congregation.  I’ve seen lives changed by what we do.  Our mission is not to stabilize the budget, although we are responsible to keep it balanced.  Our mission is to make a difference, to eliminate suffering, to empower and heal people and families, to build relationships, and to spread the gospel.  Don’t give to the budget.  Our budget is a tool to foster our mission.  Give to the budget that allows us to do our mission.  Give to help us connect, and teach, and keep.

Give so we have a warm and welcoming building where people can come to have their children baptized, watch them get married, and bury their loved ones.

Give so kids have a safe place to come with people who care about them as they learn about what God means in their lives—and that they are important and valued children of God.  We make it a priority to have a Youth and Education Ministries Director.  Give so she can continue to empower the congregation to grow in its youth and education ministries.

Give so our musicians can continue to bless our worship with wonderful music.

Give so our outreach ministries can continue.  As a congregation, we tithe 10% of the money we take in each year.  As a congregation, we experience the freedom and joy of knowing God’s blessings aren’t something we need to keep all for ourselves.

I believe in what Christ the King does. There are countless other ways Christ the King lives out its mission.  I also believe in your generosity.  If you want to increase the mission of this church, please consider increasing your gifts—even by a little bit.

And don’t only give to the church.  Give to whatever makes your heart burn and ignites your passions.  Stewardship isn’t just about giving to the church.  It's a way of life!  Stewardship is about living generous lives that know freedom and joy.  What are you passionate about?  Is money holding you back from following your dreams?  Trust in God and take the leap!

May we all continue to grow into the freedom found in living generously.  May we hear God’s call to live with open hands.  One way to really make your faith feel real is to give—give what you can, and ask God to inspire and challenge you in your future giving. 


Monday, November 5, 2012

A Prayer for Election Day

Listen to me, God.

I join in the chorus, loudly: I’m so tired of political ads.  My 2-year-old picked up the phrase, “I’m sick of this,” from hearing me say it every time an ad fills the TV screen or blurts through the radio, the announcer sounding so serious, as if I’ll trigger the apocalypse if I vote for the wrong candidate.

I feel anxious every time I hear about a poll.  The pollsters and slick media faces want me to worry, because it’ll pull me into the vicious circle.  Worry.  Get more information.  Worry some more.  Watch TV more.  Listen to the radio more.  Worry.

I wonder how I’ll feel on Wednesday morning.

I know what I want the results to be.  I know what I don’t want them to be.  I don’t trust those who think differently than me.  They don’t know the real story—the real consequences for their decisions.  They haven’t thought it through, because if they really, really thought about it, they’d see it my way.  They’d see I’m right.

The hardest part for me is realizing I’m not in control in a flawed system that will dictate my life.  I feel like the results of the vote will sit in my living room and I’ll have to walk around them like the beanbag chairs my kids drag around.  I’m out of control as I try to choose between two flawed candidates and vote on two flawed amendments.  Why can’t it be clear-cut?

I put it in your hands.  I don’t give you much, but this I will lay in your lap.  Gladly.

Give me strength, courage and compassion as I make the leap in the voting booth tomorrow.  Help me to think about those without a voice, because I need to speak for them.  Give me thoughts of children’s faces and those who are vulnerable and forgotten.  Is your Holy Spirit in the voting booth?  I hope it is.  Please, let it be.

On Wednesday morning, give me peace.  I’ve spent so much time thinking I’m right that it’s going to take me a while to stop thinking everyone else is wrong.  Be patient with me.  I’ll need courage as I embrace the decisions of the community—whatever they may be.  Give me compassion for my neighbor, even the one with different political leanings.  He came over yesterday to help us move furniture, offers the use of his snowblower and is a good neighbor.  Help me remember. 

But please, don’t put out the fire in my gut (is that the Holy Spirit too—or my pride?).  There’ll be another election soon.