Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Out of the Office and Into the Church

Nearly every church building has one.  They vary in size, style and usability, and sometimes they are hard to find, often tucked in behind the chancel walls or somewhere near the Sunday School classrooms. In many buildings they are prominently featured right inside the front door, providing easy access to all who enter.  But in one form or another, no matter what the building looks like, it is usually there – the pastor’s office.

For many of us our office is like a staging area, filled with all the things that we need in order to do effective ministry.  We think of it as the center of our professional existence, the place where we write our sermons, counsel our members, and pray to our God.  Our offices may look different, but they have many things in common – shelves of books, piles of papers, a desk, some chairs, a computer or laptop, and often many personal mementos.  Our office is like a “pastor cave”, our personalized space where we go to do the work of the church.

It is important to have a place like that, a space where we feel comfortable, where we can write effectively, where we can spread out our resources and do exegesis, where we can meet with people who need a private moment to talk about difficult and often very personal issues. 

The office is the setting for many critical ministry moments, but it should never be mistaken for the center of our ministry itself.  As pastors we should be careful that we do not become office bound, that we do not fall into a routine that takes us to our desks each day, waiting for people to come to our door.  The truth is that the pastor’s office is probably the last place many of our members want to be seen, especially if they have a problem.  And it is a foreboding place for non-members or members of other churches who feel a need to seek out our help. In this day and age, a rural pastor who sits in the office and waits for ministry to come to his or her door will likely be as lonely as the Maytag repairman.

In order to effectively encounter the church, we need to get out of our offices and into the community.  Real ministry happens when we interact with people in their daily lives and are aware of the places they frequent and the problems they face.  When we make ourselves accessible in non-threatening environments, we invite conversation about daily life that can be an entry point for sharing God’s love.  And it enables us to visibly demonstrate that Christ’s presence extends far beyond the walls of the sanctuary.  Discussions that start over coffee in the café often lead to more meaningful topics of concern or a quest for counsel from individuals who might never find their way inside the church doors.

So where do we go to be the church? In the small Western Iowa town I used to serve, there was no home mail delivery.  Everyone, residents and businesses alike, had to send someone to the post office every day to collect their mail. That included us.  Nearly every morning it would amaze my wife that a short four block trip could take two or three hours.  Why? Because inevitably this relatively quick task would put me in contact with several church members and even more non-members from the local community.  While running to get the mail may have seemed like an inconvenience, it turned into an opportunity.  It was a chance to visit and pass the time of day, and in many cases, to talk about something much deeper.  Many a conversation moved from the weather, to “since you are here, I was wondering…”  As time went on, the people in town knew that the pastor got the mail every morning and I came to suspect that our chance encounters on the sidewalk were often more than just a coincidence.

Every town, big or small, has places where people gather.  Many of my friends and former students who minister in urban contexts tell of setting up their office at Panera or Starbucks.  In small towns, there is usually a café, coffee shop, or convenience store where the locals gather to get a cup of coffee, maybe have a little breakfast, and share the news of the day.  A smart pastor knows how to get into the line of fire, finding a seat near the action which will eventually invite conversations with others nearby.  My wife calls this the “ten foot rule.” Simply put, it means that when people come within ten feet of us we should see that as an opportunity to visit.  Most will respond favorably, some will not.  But the reward is worth the effort.  Whether you are at the Breadbox Café, or Sparky’s One Stop convenience store, or even the high school basketball game, be aware of your interactions.  That offhand comment about the amount of rain we received last night may be more than meets the eye.

What I am suggesting is nothing new.  Successful pastors have been doing this for a long time.  But we live in an era that has advanced the opportunity.  In the past, these little forays into the culture of the community have been seen as temporary expeditions.  Eventually, the office and “real work” summoned us back to our home base.  But today technology has made our office portable.  The resources that we once kept at the church building are now available in our smart phones, laptops, or tablets.  Keeping up with correspondence, doing devotions, even basic exegesis and sermon preparation are made easier through our electronic devices. We can now do those tasks anywhere.  And the amount of time that we can spend out in the community, along with the opportunity to interact in the name of God, is increased exponentially.  We no longer need to head back to the office, except for special needs, because the office is always with us.

In a small town or rural community, the pastor is much more than the shepherd of a particular congregation.  Pastors who interact with everyone, regardless of church affiliation, and who are accessible and easy to talk to, often find that others see them as the de facto chaplain of the community. Credibility comes with time and practice.  If our eye is on serving as an ambassador of Christ, rather than gaining new members for the flock, opportunities for service will appear from unexpected places and in the end God will be glorified.