Thursday, December 21, 2017

Can Pastors Celebrate Christmas?

That wonderful season is upon us again, that time when we gather together with family and friends to celebrate the birth of our Lord, Jesus.  For a short while our everyday routines are disrupted by decorating trees and stuffing stockings, opening presents and singing carols.  From family to family the traditions differ, but at the heart of the holiday itself we all have one thing in common – that baby who was born in a manger so many years ago.

But Christmas is not just for our members. Pastors need to celebrate, too. Not just in the leadership that we provide or the quality services that we design, but in our hearts. For as we say year after year in our holiday sermons, the whole point of this season is found not in the presents or songs or even in the event of our Christmas worship itself. The real impact of Christmas is found in how our lives are changed by God’s intentional presence with us. That is easy to overlook in the midst of the busyness of this season. But it is what makes the difference between just celebrating another Christmas holiday and actually living out our love for Christ in our day to day lives.

It is hard to imagine that such a small child could have caused such a commotion.  But our traditional Christmas readings from Matthew and Luke assure us that the few people who were there recognized that it was indeed a very special event.  Some came from a great distance, just to see and praise the child.  The story of the wise men is hard to forget.  They followed a star until it led them right to the place where the child was.  And it is important to remember that in the same way, we all follow a star today.

Our star is the gospel message; the Word of God as we read it from the Bible, proclaim it from the pulpit, share it with each other, and show it in our care for one another.  That star is one of the few guarantees in life.  For we are assured that if you believe it with your heart, follow it with your faith, and live it with your life, it will lead you straight to our Lord, Jesus Christ. 

This is an incredibly busy time for rural pastors. The services are numerous, attendance is usually up, and activities abound.  We are often challenged and perhaps even a bit stressed by the many obligations that crowd our calendars and by our perceptions that each activity is essential to providing a meaningful experience to each of our members.  In the process of “doing” Advent and Christmas it is actually possible to miss out on our own celebration of the season.  I have to admit that there have been times when I have come up for air after the Christmas Eve services and realized that everyone else has been celebrating but me.  And while it is understandable how we might fall into that trap, it is completely unnecessary.  Because the most basic lesson that we learned in seminary applies to this time as well – it is not about us.

Pastors and church leaders are more than just paid employees in the Christmas service machine. Like everyone else in the church, this time is for us as well.  When God came to be with us, he came to be with all of us.  Not just those in the pew, but everyone who calls Jesus Lord. Therefore, it is up to each one of us, pastors especially, to make an effort to remember that this season is not about what we do, but what we receive. And the greatest gift of all was given in the name of the child we celebrate this week. I hope you will take the time to experience the Christ, not just tell others about him, as you celebrate the nativity with your family, your church community, and your own faith.

That star didn’t disappear when the wise men went home.  It is still there, waiting to point you to Christ, ready to lead you on your journey of faith.  Even those of us who have committed our lives to God and who serve as leaders in the church need to be reminded of this every now and then. We need to remember to celebrate with our lives and our families and our faith, as well as our work and service to the church.  And that, put very simply, is what Christmas is all about!

Take time to celebrate this week. Christmas is for pastors, too!

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Welcoming Visitors Through the Back Door

This seems to be the season for church dinners, particularly in rural congregations.  In spite of the logistical challenges, I am pleased to see that many churches are maintaining this tradition. Whether your church hosts a turkey dinner, a chicken and ham supper, or a pork chop festival, there are several things you can count on – delicious food in abundance, fellowship and fun between your members, and an opportunity for visitors to come into your church building.

Welcoming visitors to worship is a primary goal for most congregations, with much of the conversation focusing on how we get our members to invite their friends and neighbors or how we can become a more welcoming church.  However, we often overlook the value of events that get visitors into our building at other times during the week. When those hungry masses come to your church for your annual church supper, they do more than just sit at the tables and eat.  They also learn about your congregation by what they see and who they visit with. For many, it is the only time they may come through your doors, but they will form an impression based on the ambiance of the building and the friendliness of your members.  And for a few, that may be what it takes to get them to take a chance some Sunday morning.

Take a walk through your building sometime looking at it from the perspective of a visitor. What do you see? Is the building well cared for and clean? Are the rooms cluttered with years of old curriculum stacked here and there or unused furniture piled in the corners? Do the bulletin boards and displays appear to be up to date and tell the story of an active congregation or are they historical relics from another era? Can you tell that children are welcome here? Are there signs that this is a church that reaches out in mission? Can you tell that the people who call this place home love Jesus? Believe it or not, your building says a lot about what you believe and what happens in this place.

Watch the interaction between your members and visitors. Even at a dinner where the primary focus is on food there should be a sense that hospitality matters. Do your members interact with guests and help them to feel welcome? Do those who are working huddle together and have private conversations or do they make an effort to converse with those in line or at the tables? Is there a feeling that this is a private club or a sense that they are excited to open their home to others?

How do you welcome others into your building? Even if you do not have an annual church dinner, nearly every congregation has events that welcome visitors to come in through the “back door.” The most common is Vacation Bible School. If your church is like most, that summer event brings in kids who are not a part of your congregation, if only for a week. The question is do we make the most of that opportunity?

There are things that every church can do to improve this outreach.  Making the children feel welcome, sharing about other programs that they can participate in throughout the year, reaching out to parents when they drop off and pick up their kids are all ways that we can interpret the work of our congregation and help to develop the sense that this is “their church.” Having a program at the end of the week, whether on a Friday night or a Sunday morning in worship is a great way of inviting those families to worship with you and to reinforce a sense that they do belong here.

When a church building is available for other uses throughout the week, there is an opportunity to help visitors feel welcome walking through your doors.  Many congregations host preschools, food pantries, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, 4-H groups, AA, and other community organizations.  Do you make it easy for those groups to use your empty rooms or do they feel like outsiders asking for a favor? The more hospitable your building feels the more likely non-churched participants will feel that in some way your church is “their church.” Of course, the added benefit is that you are in the position to promote other church events, even worship, by posting inviting posters and signs that they will encounter as they enter the building or walk down the hall.

In small towns and rural communities, the pastor is a very public person.  In many ways, you are part of the identity of the church and when it comes to hospitality, your presence speaks volumes. No one expects the pastor to be present every time an outside group uses your building.  But showing up occasionally when groups are gathering or greeting visitors as they come in the door lends a sense that you are both accessible and available. When visitors know who the pastor is and can call her/him by name, they are far more likely to feel an affinity to that congregation, perhaps even paving the way to wander in your front doors some Sunday morning.

Evangelism is a priority for every congregation and welcoming visitors to our community of faith is essential to our mission and ministry. But every church needs to take a closer look at how we invite guests and the messages we send every time someone new comes into the building. If we only focus on those who come in through the front doors, we are bound to miss great opportunities to welcome those who come into our church in other ways.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Our Changing Calls

Is it possible for a pastor’s call to evolve over time?  How about a congregation's mission?  Most definitely.  That's really what this blog and this website have been all about.  In this day and age, it is rare when a pastor stays in the same setting for the entirety of his or her career.  Most pastors will move to another church at least once, and some do it many times. In other cases, we might  find ourselves moving into different types of ministries, often serving God in places beyond the parish.  And in my case, I moved from life as a parish pastor into theological education and then back again.  It has been a most unusual and rewarding journey.

Churches themselves need to face the changing dynamics in the local community and the way faith is viewed and lived out in a world that doesn't always value God's teaching and very often plays by a different set of rules.  We are in the process of finding ways to be God's ambassadors in a 21st century world, often with fewer resources, fewer members, and limited opportunities in our rural contexts.

After graduating from the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in the mid-1980s, I served congregations in Vail, Iowa and Worthington, Minnesota. Both churches were full of faithful, caring people who loved the Lord and had a heart for mission and ministry beyond the walls of the church building.  Looking back, they were patient teachers who helped me understand the importance of sharing Jesus’ love in contexts where hard work, faith and family connections were both valued and essential. They reminded me that regardless of the size of the congregation, most ministry is very personal.

After 17 years as a pastor, I was invited to serve as Associate Dean and Assistant Professor of Ministry at UDTS, where I had the opportunity to share my pastoral experience with men and women who were learning to become leaders in the church. I was privileged to be involved in theological education during a period of incredible transition in both the church and the academic world.  Part of my calling was to help interpret the needs of the larger church through the lens of one who had been there. Through it all I never stopped being a pastor and after twelve years and hundreds of students, a strange thing happened – I felt that God was calling me to go back out into the church to practice what I had been teaching.

I am now serving as Senior Pastor and Head of Staff at the Oswego Presbyterian Church in Oswego, Illinois, a dynamic congregation that straddles both rural and suburban contexts. And every day when I go to work, I am grateful for the lessons I learned along the way. The experiences of my earliest congregations are still formative for me as a pastor.  And I am still a teacher, just as I was at UDTS, but in a context that requires me to practice what I teach and not just lecture about it. Although the church is a very different place today, those basic lessons first learned in the seminary classroom and now practiced in the congregational context, are as relevant now as they were then.

No call stays exactly the same for very long.  How is your church changing?  How is your call evolving?  How can you as a leader and your church as a representative of Christ, reach out into your local community in more effective ways?  Those are questions that every rural pastor must face as we serve God in this rapidly changing world. Change is not to be feared or dreaded.  The fact that our churches are not the same as they were in the past does not mean that we cannot be effective in the ministries we now have.  Helping our members realize that change represents new opportunity rather than an attitude of decline is the first step in developing a new sense of identity and purpose, both within the congregation and to the larger community as well.