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.