Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Of Loss, Grief, and Change

Yes - it has been a while since I wrote anything in this space. The last thing I wrote was about my current schedule and whether or not I could sustain it. The answer is yes, but not easily. Much has had to change.

Many of the recent changes have not been ones we planned for. For example, during the last couple of months of school, I ended up driving a school bus more days than not. I had hoped to cut back on the number of days I drove, but a serious need by the schools I drive for and some loss that meant I needed extra money won out.

The first loss was in my ham radio equipment. I apparently suffered a lighting strike that I was not aware of until I realized that my antenna was not working well which soon turned into the radio not working well either. From all reports, the radio suffered severe damage (not repairable without spending more than a new radio cost); and the antenna is also not repairable without spending more than it is worth. Trying to earn some extra money to replace this equipment was part of the reason to drive the school bus more.

Another reason for the extra money was so that I could go to the Dayton Hamvention in Dayton, Ohio. This event occurs every year, but last year and this year were the first opportunities I have had to go with a group (thus saving a lot of money). This year was the first (and maybe only time) that the stars will align and I can make the schedule work out. It was a great trip and a lot of fun. I hope to be able to go again some day.

Then the next loss - my Jeep died. This was a major loss - both in terms of financial setback and grief. I have driven Jeeps for the last 20 years. I have gone places I could not have gotten to otherwise. We have been to Camp Jeep three times (twice in Virginia and once in Arkansas). They were great fun and experiences we will never forget. We have not been for almost 10 years, and I still tell stories from our time there. Not only did the Jeep die, the part was worth more than the value of the Jeep (2004 with 192K miles). Worse yet, I had already been debating some other vehicle because of gas mileage. Since I am doing ministry in three places, the nearest being 12 miles away, and the next 12 miles in a different direction, and the third being another 9 miles past the second place, I am putting on a lot of miles. An average of 2,700 each month. The one problem with Jeep is that they have never improved the gas mileage (I understand that the 2015 will have a fuel-efficient diesel option which gets about 25 MPG, for about $40k), and I really needed to get better than 19 MPG.

Since the Jeep died in the drive-way and I was pretty sure it was some type of computer/electrical failure, I had it towed to the dealership where I have had other service work done (including the new transmission three years ago). The part was almost $1000, plus labor, plus the other electrical problem I had not had time/money to repair, plus the new tires it was going to need. The bottom line was it just needed too much work.

After having tried several other vehicles and realizing that many of them were just too short (no head-room for me) and that others gave no better gas mileage, and yet others had all that but cost way too much, we drove a Dodge Journey (basically back to a station wagon). The size is good, the gas mileage is an improvement, and since it only has 26K miles on it, I should be good for a few years.

I really like the car, but I miss my Jeep. I grieve the loss of my Jeep. There are places I know I can't get to without 4 wheel drive. I have to figure out new storage places and a new way to install my ham radio. The controls are not where they used to be. So much is different. Change is hard. Loss is hard. And yet, this is the way of life.

As I deal with these losses and changes in my life, I understand why change in the church is so hard for some people. Everything around them is changing, and the one thing they think should remain the same is the church. The problem is, the church has to change for many of the same reasons. Some things are too worn out or too expensive to maintain. Some things just don't fit any more. Some things have to change so we can afford other things. Loss of members, loss of income, loss of leadership - all these require us to evaluate how we do things and most likely - we have to change and adapt. There is loss here akin to the loss we feel when someone dies. There is grief here akin to the grief we have when someone dies. There is change - life will never again be the same. But we must remember - it is God who is unchanging, not the church. The church must change, adapt, reform - constantly - or it will die. The same is true with us. I could have gone in dept to repair my much loved Jeep and kept it on the road for a while longer, but how long? What part would fail next? How much would it cost? At what point do I decide that enough money has gone into a vehicle that does not get good enough gas mileage and that is continuing to rack up miles at a high rate?

The same is true of the church. We must adapt and change. We must make decisions based not on how we used to do it, but what can we afford and what will work today. Loss, grief, and change. They are never easy, but they are a constant part of life.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Coming and Going

As I have enjoyed the past few days (snow days) of being able to work from home and not have to drive anywhere, I have given some thought to the questions I have been asked lately about my schedule. As you may or may not know, I am currently doing ministry in three places, plus a couple of other things since full time calls in this area are scarce.

I am serving as the long-term interim pastor at Mt. Gilead Lutheran Church in Mt. Pleasant NC, the long-term interim pastor at St. Martin Lutheran Church in Concord NC, and the part-time chaplain at Trinity Place Lutheran Home in Albemarle. This means that on Sunday, I have a 9:30 a.m. service, an 11:00 a.m. service, and a 4:00 p.m. service. It also means that on Sunday I drive about 65 miles.

On top of those three positions, I also drive a school bus some mornings, and still work on computers and websites. All in all, still not quite full time pay and no benefits. As a  colleague said to me the other night, this is the new church, and we cobble things together as best we can (he also drove buses for awhile -delivering new ones).

As I said, I have spent some time contemplating this situation and have wondered a couple of things. How much longer can I manage this kind of schedule without meeting myself coming and going? So far, I manage to not miss many things (thanks to really good calendar apps) and I still do manage to get some time at home. The other question is how long can the church survive when this is what leaders are forced to do?

I have heard and read many stories of leaders (mostly young with families who have no other skill sets) who have ended up on food stamps and lost their homes because they were either at a church where they could not provide a full salary or they were without a call and could not find one. Long gone are the days when a candidate is trained for the church without cost (most of us carry a lot of student loan debt), and most of us need a decent salary to survive. Even with a call that includes a parsonage, cost of living has increased much faster than many salaries, and most churches are looking at ways of reducing cost - including the pastor's salary, so what are we to do?

One of my hopes was that by taking on the interim position in two congregations, someday we might be able to talk about a two-point parish with a call. That may still happen, but some days seems like a long-way off. Other days it seems like it could happen soon, but the reality is that not many congregation are willing to consider this option. For most, their independence is an issue they do not want to mess with. It is not that they don't like the other church, or that they don't want the pastor to have the income they cannot provide, but the change itself, and not being able to set your own schedule can be an issue. This point came home to me over the last couple of weeks as we discussed the schedule for Lent. One congregation was adamant about doing a soup supper in their own fellowship hall every Wednesday in Lent and not alternating as we have done for Bible Study. It just means that I give up two evenings every week in Lent instead of one. But these are the issues we face as we try to set up new models of ministry.

Most days, I love what I do - even the days that begin at 5:30 a.m. to drive a school bus and don't end until about 9:00 p.m. when I get home from Bible Study. I love the people and I love serving God. However, when I find myself falling asleep while visiting someone, or nodding off at a stoplight, then I wonder again how long this can go on.

Peace be with you all, and pray for all those who work multiple jobs that they might find time to rest occasionally.

Ray

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Advent 2013

Advent is almost over. Twenty-two days ago, we began the journey through Advent. While I would have like to have posted this sooner, it has been a busy Advent and I have not had time. 

As part of a local ministerial association, I was asked to write an article about Advent. Since our local newspaper does not make articles like this available on-line, I am going to post it here.

Advent, which literally means “coming,” is the season when Christians prepare for the coming of the Messiah, the Christ. We often sing Advent hymns rather than Christmas carols. The suggested scripture readings for the season focus on passages which prepare us for the coming of Jesus as a baby in the manger, as well as texts which focus on the second coming of Christ. Advent is that season when we are we are most aware of living in the in-between time – that time between Jesus’ birth and his return on the last day.

This can be a difficult time for us, especially as we see all the advertisements for Christmas, beginning even before Halloween is over. It becomes so easy for us to get caught up in the excitement, each day busier than the last, as we try to out-decorate, out-shop, out-spend, and out-party the previous year and everyone around us.

This is why the church teaches patient waiting as part of Advent. We watch, and we wait. We light Advent candles to mark the weeks, and we wait. We sing Advent hymns, and we wait. We decorate a little at a time, and we wait. We use blue paraments to signify hope – hope at the anticipation of the coming Messiah, and we wait. We hear the stories of the Annunciation – the angel announcing to Mary that she will bear a son, and we wait. We hear about John the Baptist, come to prepare the way of the Lord, and we wait. We read the prophet Isaiah and hear the prophecies of the coming Messiah, and we wait.

While we wait, we are called to examine our lives and our priorities, just as John the Baptist called for repentance as he baptized in the river Jordan. While we wait, we are called to bring the message of the coming Messiah to others who may not have heard. While we wait, we are called to remember the poor, and those who are homeless and hungry. While we wait, we prepare for the coming babe in the manger as choirs practice, and pageants are rehearsed; as greens and poinsettias appear in the sanctuary.

Even while we wait, we are assaulted from all sides to spend more, to shop earlier and later, to stand in longer and longer lines to get that “must have” gift at the best possible price. Each year, while we wait, more and more Christmas movies and television shows appear, urging us to begin our celebration of Christmas earlier and earlier. As we wait, we go to parties and eat too much, drink too much, and later we wonder what happened to our self-control.

All this waiting, and yet when Christmas Day comes, we can’t wait to till it is over so we can start taking the decorations down and putting them away till next year, when the season is actually only just begun! The twelve days of Christmas – that time from Christmas Day till Epiphany when we celebrate the coming of the wise men, becomes lost because we have been inundated with Christmas music since before Thanksgiving and we are tired of it by Christmas Day.

This year, join us as we wait, savoring the anticipation of the coming of Christ. Join us as the church celebrates the entire Christmas season, up to and including the Epiphany on January 6. Leave the tree up until then, rather than taking it down on New Years Day. Spend some time this Advent season feeding the hungry, helping someone build their own home, buy a toy or clothing for a child that will otherwise go without, and wait for the celebration of the birth of the Lord, for he has come, and has promised to come again.


Blessings to you during the final days of Advent and into Christmas. In two days we can begin to celebrate in earnest the coming of our Lord and continue for the next twelve days. Merry Christmas!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

What is a pastor to do?

I have recently come from the NC synod assembly, and like many others, one of the conversations was about the "nones."  Here is a post about a synod assembly that took this one step farther - click here.

The question becomes, just how do we as pastors go about reaching the "nones?" Of course, there are some who do not want us to reach them, but I notice that sometimes, once they know we are pastors, we are the first person they come to with some question about church, or forgiveness, or some related topic. They do not want to be in church, but they do want to be able to ask questions.

What format works best? Is it an informal session at the local pub, coffee house, or is it an informal session at your place of worship, such as in informal midweek service, an open coffee hour some evening, or something else? It is clear that these conversations are important. It is clear that many (but certainly not all) of the nones are people who have been hurt by their previous participation in a church (many times a very conservative church) or by what they have seen happen in or to someone in a church.

We are often labeled hypocrites because we talk about leading sinless lives, but yet there are so many sinners in our church. I was once told "I would not go to that church because so-and-so goes there and you know all the things so-and-so has done." We know, especially as pastors, that the church is for the sinners, and that there is always room for one more, but what do we do about the perception that we are all "saved" and therefore sin no more?

This may be one of those places where Lutherans get lumped with a lot of other Christians and we need to let our own voice be heard - especially our belief that we are both saint and sinner. Lutheran believe in the both/and, not the either/or. We know we are saved - "for by grace you have been saved through faith (Eph 2:8)," but how do we articulate this so as to open doors, not shut them? How do we be inclusive rather then exclusive? If we truly believe that God's grace is available to everyone, what language do we use that does not sound like the "insider" language we use in worship?

I guess I am really troubled by the reports from the "nones" that worship is too confusing, too intimidating, too "insider." Why don't we do a better job of leading worship? Why don't we do a better job of mentoring those new to worship? Why don't we have people trained to go sit with the new people and help them follow a worship service?

It seems that most of our problem is that we are still operating like we did 40 years ago when it was assumed that everyone went to church, everyone knew how to read a bulletin and follow a service, everyone knew at least the basics of how to worship. The reality is that none of this is true. We need to assume that every new person who walks through our doors knows nothing about worship, or at least about how we worship. and we need to do everything we can to help that person become familiar and comfortable with how we worship. Be redundant in our instructions. Remind everyone what page the creed is on and why we profess it. Do all the things you can think of to be more user-friendly to everyone who visits - whether for the first time, or the 1000th time. Even our older members will be appreciative of the extra reminders of what page we are on!

Not that I have proposed any grand solution here, but these are thoughts on a Saturday morning after reading the article I linked to in the beginning. Be sure to read that article, as it really opens the discussion and offers some good questions and insights.

Peace be with you!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

It's been a busy spring!

I had thought back during Lent that I would get back into posting more often, but then something happened (doesn't it always?). That was about the time I went from being a part-time substitute school bus drive to a full part-time school bus driver (yes, an oxymoron if I ever saw one. It simply means that instead of driving some days, I now drive the same bus on the same route every day, but still a part-time job).

Along with supply preaching, 12 hours per week at Trinity Place (formerly Lutheran Home - Albemarle), and starting yard work and putting in the garden, life has been really busy. On top of that, I have taught a basic Ham radio class, become a Volunteer Examiner Session Manager for ham radio licensing, and been working with a local congregation  to see if we can work out something for me to be their interim/extended supply pastor (also part-time).

With Ruth Ann being full time and my many part-time jobs, we stay very busy. We also get to keep at least some of the grandchildren every now and then. The oldest was with us the week after Easter, the twins will be here next week, and the triplets come for at least a couple of days each month. After each visit, we are quite glad to go back to our regular, busy days as they require much less energy!

The garden is growing (some pictures on Facebook with more to come). I will post some garden pictures here when I can. These photos are the first roses of spring! We are glad to have a rose garden again, even if it is fairly small. They give us great enjoyment throughout the year! Happy spring!



Friday, February 8, 2013

The crazy world in which we live

I know - it has been ages since anything has been posted here. And I have been guilty for weeks of "meaning to do something about it" and getting sidetracked.

This morning, I read this article and it prompted me to write something about it. You see, this is one of the things I have struggled with in ministry. I grew up in a time and place where Sunday mornings and Wednesday afternoons and evenings were sacred times - reserved for church, confirmation, choir practice, and all other things associated with church. No ball games, no practice (or if there was, it was voluntary and you could be excused for confirmation class), no school activity dared to interfere with these times which were reserved for church events.

I have struggled with this because part of me very much wants to believe that we have choices, and that our choices say a lot about who we are. I still believe this is true, and this article also shows me that there are other ways to deal with this. Sometimes, we don't really have much of a choice. If we work, and our job sometimes requires us to work on Sunday morning, we really cannot be blamed - after all, if we don't work, we don't eat, we don't pay the rent, or anything else that we need. If we view our job as a vocation (as this article suggest), then we must excuse those who work on Sunday. If, indeed, we take this view, then it is the church that is failing (not the church member who works on Sunday) for not providing an opportunity for that person to worship at some time other than Sunday morning.

While on internship in Alabama, I knew of one church who had many of its members who worked in the service industry in the resorts. In order to provide them with a worship opportunity, they had a worship service on Thursday evening, with Holy Communion, to provide an opportunity for those people to worship.

Kids today are really in the same kind of boat. Sure, they could choose to not participate in sports, but for many, it is a way to a scholarship and a college opportunity that they might not otherwise have. Providing an alternate worship time for them is not only a good idea, but probably essential. If the church is not about meeting people where (and when) they are, then we are guilty of being irrelevant - by our own doing. Those who turn up their noses at anyone who cannot attend church at the "regular" time on Sunday morning cannot complain when attendance is down. Those who want more children in church need to get over the fact that they just aren't going to be there on Sunday mornings.

I remember when I was in high school (many, many years ago), there was a church that starting a Saturday evening service, aimed at young people on their way out for a Saturday night date. The idea was, that if you stay out too late to make it to church on Sunday morning (or because some had to work Sunday morning), that you could start your date with a 5:00 p.m. worship service, followed by dinner and a movie (or whatever your date was going to be). I remember thinking it was a great idea at the time, but have not found many churches willing to take on this kind of ministry. It is even more important today to look at options such as this. Worship is worship, whether it occurs on Sunday, or Saturday, or Wednesday - in the sanctuary, or the fellowship hall, or the pub down the street. God meets us where we are; why can't we as the church do the same for those who need to hear God's word?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Welcome to the New Year!

Here we are - 2012 - the year that may (or may not) have special significance (depending on your view of the Mayan calendar). It is the year of the presidential election, a Leap Year, and so much more.

For many of us, it is a year filled with challenges, hopes, and maybe even a few fears. For one, we are getting older. With each year that passes past age 50, our bodies change, parts begin to show wear, and it seems like more sleep is needed just to keep up.

For us in the church, it is a year filled with concern, with hope for the future, hope for the economy, and a desire to put the past behind us. Pastors who have trained to be full-time ministers are having to figure out how to deal with part-time employment, multiple jobs and/or churches, and congregations who are just as weary and unsure as we are. If your congregation left the ELCA, you might be feeling pretty good right now, but there are many in your congregation who are wondering if they did the right thing. If you congregation voted but did not leave, you are most likely dealing with a major split that will take years to heal. Even if your congregation did not vote and did not plan to leave, you have plenty of people who have friends and family who are suffering from a congregation that did split. The pain and fear are there, even if they did not experience it directly.

Meanwhile, people, including pastors, are looking for employment. Many are working, but not at the jobs which they are trained for, or are working at jobs for which they have no passion just so they can pay the bills. For pastors, many are filling in as interim's, or as part-time pastors while they look for a call to full time ministry. Many of them have left congregations that they loved, but could not stay with because the were not willing to change church bodies. Some were forced out, some were moved out gently, some resigned when it became apparent that their staying would only prolong the suffering.

This perfect storm of economy, politics, and church strife have turned the world upside down for many of us in the ministry. Some have been able to move to other areas of the country and be called to loving, healthy churches. A few have been able to retire or settle into interim positions which will lead them to retirement. Others are hanging on by doing whatever has to be done.

For me, I am into my second year as a part-time interim while trying to make a home-based business fill the income gap. After a full year of this, I can say that it has helped, but it has not been enough. Trying to be a part-time pastor to a congregation that expects more that part-time availability is tough. Trying to pay the bills on a part-time pastor's salary is even tougher. Then, there is that economy issue - can't sell the house that we used to live in, the car needs work because of the extra miles I have to drive each week, gas prices are up, food prices are up, electric rates are going up, and making a dollar stretch gets hard and harder.

As I look forward to 2012, I see that changes will have to be made. Do I go back to cooking? Can I find part-time work in computers? Can I somehow find another small congregation that is willing to join us in sharing a pastor's salary? Or is this the year that things settle down and the call process goes back to normal and maybe something new comes along?

I don't know any of the answers; I am not sure I even know all of the questions, but I do know that 2012 will be an interesting year - because something has to change. I pray that as you begin 2012, you see the light that is Christ leading you through the dark times, and that as you move through the new year, you will shine your light for others as well. I hope that I can continue to shine my light for you as well.