Thursday, December 16, 2021

                  Do Pastors Get to Celebrate? 

I can still remember the day I told my family that I was going to be a pastor. My mom and dad are faithful people and raised me and my brothers in the church. We learned the importance of faith and service and hope by following their example. So when I got up the courage to finally tell them that seminary was in my future I expected to receive support and encouragement and maybe just a little bit of pride. Instead, my mom cried. Not tears of joy, but tears of sorrow.  All she could say was, “You will never be home for Christmas.” Guess what? She was right.

When it comes to Christmas, pastors and their families often get the short end of the stick. While others plan their holiday vacations around those days off, sometimes traveling to be with family far away, those who serve churches move steadily toward one of the busiest days of the year. Not only do we have to work on Christmas, but our work is often magnified, with more services and obligations than usual.

No news here, but this is one of our busiest seasons. Not only is our worship jam packed with meaningful traditions and rituals that help us to express our faith during the Advent and Christmas seasons, but our church and social calendars are full of extra events, each important in their own way, but each taking extra time out of our already busy schedule. Last year Covid caused many of us to change our schedules and alter our routines. But even with the virus still a part of our lives, church life is slowly but surely returning to some form of normal.

As pastors we work hard to ensure that the events of the holiday season are meaningful for our members and that our churches reflect the central nature of Christ’s birth to our faith. We want our members to have a good experience and most of us work extra hard making that happen. But after the Sunday School Christmas pageant, the choir cantata, and the candlelight Christmas Eve services, there is one thing all pastors seem to share – we are very tired. And in the midst of all that it is very easy to forget to celebrate in our own hearts and spiritual lives. Too often Christmas seems to come and go with everyone else having a good time and we just want a few minutes to take a nap. 

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!

Wednesday, March 3, 2021


40th Annual Rural Ministry Conference 

March 8, 2021

Engaging and Ministry with Cultural Traditionalists 

Online Zoom, Wartburg Theological Seminary


for more information -

We live in a deeply divided society with divisions along political, social, cultural, urban/rural lines.  This conference will be helpful for pastors who see these divisions in their communities and congregations and are looking for ways to minister to all people.

Our keynote Speaker Tex Sample will explore this division by looking at a key demographic, cultural traditionalists.  Cultural traditionalists are the largest demographic in rural America and one of the largest in the country. This demographic is not limited by age, gender, or denomination –who knows- you may be a cultural traditionalist.

The presentations of Tex Sample will provide a description of this important group and offer suggestions for working with cultural traditionalists.  These presentations are valuable not only for small town and rural congregations but will provide a greater understanding of this demographic found in many, if not most, congregations.

The Rev. Dr. Tex Sample brings years of ministry experience, teaching and research to this topic.  His most recent books include A Christian Justice for the Common Good, and Working Class Rage: A Field Guide to White Anger and Pain.  Tex Sample has participated throughout his career in both the church and the community, with a focus on social, racial, gender, and economic justice issues, community organizing, and interfaith movements.  He has been one of the best received presenters at the Rural Ministry Conference. See his tab for more information.

The 40th Rural Ministry Conference will be held via Zoom on Monday, March 8, 2021. 

Leaders and Speakers

Keynote Speaker: The Rev. Dr. Tex Sample became pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Missouri in July 2018. He previously served this congregation on an interim basis in 2014. Sample is the Robert B. And Kathleen Rogers Professor Emeritus of Church and Society at The Saint Paul School of Theology where he taught for 32 years. He holds a B.A. degree from Millsaps College, an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology, a Ph.D. from the Boston University Graduate School. and a D.D. from Coe College. Sample is a freelance lecturer and speaker in North America and overseas. He has published 14 books. His book, Blue Collar Ministry: Facing Economic and Social Realities of Working People, was named a “Judson Classic” by the Judson Press, and his book U.S. Lifestyles and Mainline Churches was the bestseller for Westminster/John Knox Press for over two years. His most recent books A Christian Justice for the Common Good and Working Class Rage: A Field Guide to White Anger and Pain, are both available from Abingdon Press. Sample has participated throughout his career in both the church and the community, with a focus on social, racial, and economic justice issues, community organizing, and interfaith movements. In 2016, he received the Invictus Award for Social Justice from the Liberty, Missouri, Martin Luther King, Jr. Committee at its celebration of MLK Day; later that year, he was given The Equality and Justice Award by The Greater Metropolitan the world meeting of his denomination.

Sample was born and grew up in Brookhaven, Mississippi, and as a young man drove a cab, worked in construction, and was a roustabout in the oilfield. Sample is married to Peggy Jo Sanford Sample, who is a water- media artist and a musician. They have three children, one of whom is deceased. “Tex” is his real name, not a nickname. His father named him after Texanna Gillham, an African American woman who lived near Shelbyville, Texas.

    Bible Study Leader: Rev. Dr. Richard J. Shaffer Jr., is the Senior Pastor and Head of Staff of the Oswego Presbyterian Church in Oswego, Illinois, a diverse, hybrid congregation with parallel ministries in the western suburbs of Chicago and the rural landscape of north-central Illinois. He has also served rural congregations in Iowa and Minnesota. His blog,, provides resources and guidance for church leaders who are interested in transforming the work and mission of their rural congregations in the midst of a time of intense transition in the church.

    Prior to returning to the pastorate in 2017, Skip served for twelve years as Associate Dean and Assistant Professor of Ministry at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, where he had the opportunity to share his experience with men and women who were learning to become leaders in the church. He has taught classes in rural ministry, Reformed worship, clergy ethics, Presbyterian polity, and ministry and money, as well as a number of other ministry related subjects. His responsibilities at the seminary also included serving as Director of Distance Education, Director of the D.Min. program, Director of Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning, and Director of Seminary Programs. He has been a part of the seminary’s successful lay pastor education program and continues to teach classes online each year.

    Skip’s wife, Jaimie, serves as Circulation Supervisor at the University of Dubuque Library. They have two adult children, a twelve year old granddaughter who runs the household, thirteen chickens, and a lively golden retriever named Brinkley.

    Workshop Leader: Jennifer Prinz is Portico Benefit Services’ regional representative covering the ELCA Region 5  (Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Upper Peninsula of Michigan). Jennifer has more than 25 years of communications and relationship-building experience, in both faith-based and health care organizations. She previously worked as a gift planner for the ELCA Foundation, serving the state of Illinois. Prior to that, she was Director of Professional Development at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

'Twas the Month Before Covid

We have all been dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic in our own ways. As the months have passed it has been amazing how we and our congregations have discovered new ways of being the church. The work never stops, it just transforms. And God is always there.

In the past, online resources were seen as luxuries used by larger churches with more resources. Today we all rely on digital tools to do our work. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Zoom and Livestream are no longer a mystery, but words that populate our daily vocabulary and help us do our ecclesial work. Small and rural churches, more than ever before, have been reminded that distance is not an obstacle, but a fact of life that we have worked around. Even when we cannot safely visit in the homes of our members, we have found a way to bring the church into their homes on a regular basis, in worship, Bible study, Sunday School, Virtual Coffee Hours, and dozens of new creations that enable us to do our work and encourage the recognition of God's presence in our everyday lives.

Someday (soon hopefully) the virus will be but a memory. But the steps we have taken to build the church and the new tools that we find at our disposal will continue to be a part of our work and worship.

Last month I wrote a satirical poem about our life with the virus as a way of helping our church to celebrate the victories we have had during this difficult time. It was meant to be fun and a little bit silly, but when the service was done it felt that we had done exactly what God wanted us to do that day.  

With apologies to Longfellow and Dr. Seuss and anyone else who takes poetry seriously, I thought I would share it with you today. 

‘Twas the Month Before Covid

             by Skip Shaffer

‘Twas the month before Covid came and all through the town,
Nothing new was really happening, not a thing going down.
We were all quiet as we lived on our own,
After Christmas and New Years no virus had shown.

It’s amazing how much you take for granted in life,
Until you are separated from your kids and your wife.
Along came the Super Bowl and we started to hear,
That a virus from China had found its way here.

By the end of February so many were sick,
That by the middle of March we were in it too thick.
We were closed down real tight, like a people embargo.
Unless you were a protestor or the mayor of Chicago.

No restaurants, no parties, no large groups or closed spaces,
No workouts, no gyms, and no working type places.
Worst of all came the news that our Worship was closed.
We had never seen such a time, when our faith was exposed.

Our church was closed down, our youth groups had no room,
And the only way we could really meet was by Zoom.
All the things that we loved, like mission trips and Green Lake,
Were cancelled for the first time, it was too much to take.

We had to wear masks and stay six feet away,
And even the session had no place to play.
Through Easter and confirmation and into the summer,
This church quarantine had turned into a bummer.

And then we discovered the most amazing thing,
That our faith didn’t need a sanctuary to ring.
We worshipped at home, we watched on TV,
Even though we were separated, there was so much to see.

The song leaders sang, and the instruments played.
The video and sound and tech guys all stayed.
The pastor, he read from that same Holy Book,
And he preached over and over ‘til it finally took.

Our communion was different, our confirmation recorded,
But the Spirit never let our faith be distorted.
The politicians they rambled, told stories and lied,
We didn’t believe them, no matter how hard we tried.

They told us the virus, it soon would be gone,
But it didn’t seem to really matter which one of them won.
The virus, it stayed, after the commercials were finished,
A vaccine is coming, we’re told, but our faith is diminished.

We still are kept out of our worshipping spaces,
Looking ahead to the day when we can see familiar faces.
Yet our God is stronger than the virus, we don’t lose our hope.
Through racism, elections, and murder hornets we cope.

The church remains strong, no matter what problems we face,
Our worship is faithful, in spite of the place.
That day will soon be here, if we can hang on,
Have hope. In just a few days, 2020 will be gone.

- Pastor Skip Shaffer
  Oswego Presbyterian Church
  December 27, 2020