Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Things We Should Talk About as Long-Term Ministers

One of my greatest weaknesses as a pastor is--quite simply--that I am not the most organized person to ever wear a Geneva gown.  It is a problem that members of my church are rather familiar with.  Over the 11-plus years we have been together we have learned to adapt and adjust.  Like any long-term relationship, we have found ways to bring out the best in each other...most of the time.

However, one of the problems that this creates is that I am suddenly feeling the need to learn more about long-term ministry.  Being in such a ministry will do that to you.  I have changed since I arrived in September of 2003.  My congregation has changed.  The landscape we now are moving through has also changed.  We are doing just fine, thank you, but I feel that I need to reflect a bit to be on my game.

The best way would be an ongoing group or a workshop.  That is the problem.  I am not good at planning.  However, I am good at thinking so I thought I would share with you some of the topics that I think such a workshop or group would have to address if someone more gifted in this way were willing and able to work with me on such a thing.

1) Big Famous Keynote: Yes, we can have one of these. I am affiliated with both the UUA and the UCC.  So is my church.  It isn't hard to think of a few former pastors of big churches who fit into this category and who love to talk. However, what I am looking for from him or her is something very specific.  I want theological and spiritual reinforcement for the value of long-term pastorates.  This is important stuff and plays right to the strength of "Reverend Biggs".  For applied and practical elements, I want to hear from other people who have experience in congregations that are a bit more typical.  

2) How Do You Advance Your Career?: ...and what constitutes a successful career if you have stepped away from a system where bigger is always better? 

We know why Reverend Biggs stayed at the big steeple right?  The pay was good.  Important people had heard of the good reverend's church and wanted to invite the pastor onto committees and such.  There was time off (thank you Associate Pastors!) to write that meditation manual.  This is all fine.  Rev. Biggs worked hard, spoke well, and got the brass ring young enough to also serve in one place for a while.

Most of the long-term pastors I know, however, do not serve "big pulpits".  We labor in relative anonymity.  It is an easy thing to get noticed in that one big congregation in your association.  What do the rest of us do to influence the direction of our various denominations?  How do you get your voice heard when you have stepped off the career ladder for something you find more fulfilling?

3) How Do You Grow Spiritually Together?: Or, if you prefer, "How do you keep from getting bored or being boring"?  A long-term pastorate, like any long-term relationship, can get dull if you don't work on it.  My wife and I go to a lot of concerts, date nights, couples nights, and so on.  We go for long walks to chat.  We have been together for twice as long as I have been at the church.  

Now I am not one of those "ministry is like a marriage" people because, well, it isn't like a marriage at all.  That said, it is still a relationship that needs work. What are the equivalents to these sorts of experiences in a long-term ministry?  I will say that I have had two rather distinct ministries at Eliot.  There was the one before my sabbatical and the one after it.  Both were quality ministries but they were different.  I wonder if some sabbatical planning would make a good workshop.

4) How Do You Grow On Your Own?:  Again, the same people all the time.  The same patterns.  What do you do away from the church to keep yourself sharp?

5) What About New People?: Some long-term ministers are pretty good about integrating new people.  Others not so much.  We have leaders we are comfortable with.  Often we have known them for what feels like FOREVER.  What sort of tricks and techniques would help facilitate lay-leadership growth?

6) How Do You Not Mess It Up For the Next Person (and here I mean Parson)?: This. Is. Important.  A Church isn't after all, about us.  In a long-term ministry it is inevitable (particularly in small and mid-sized churches) that the pastor becomes part of the architecture in some sense.  The church building...the old communion silver...the ancient pastor who baptized both you and your kids...all are permanent and timeless after a while.  What happens to the new person when they show up?  How hard have we made it for them if we have over a decade of service in one place?  I would like to hear from a really good Interim and find out what drives them crazy about us.  I even have someone in mind.

7) God:  This is the most important question.  Where is God in our ministries?  Are we in the same place because we don't want to (or cannot) move?  Is there still life and spirit in the pastoring? These are important questions.  Certainly there are always practical considerations that make us choose to stay.  At the same time we are ministers.  If God says "go" we go.  If God says "stay" we stay.  Perhaps this is where we end with small group discussion inspired by Reverend Biggs' sermon. We cannot let our relationship with God get old.

Anyway, this is my non-exhaustive list.  Can anyone think of other items?  My years at Eliot easily rest among the very best things that have ever happened to me.  I know that every long-term minister would agree about their settlements.  That is why we are still around.  That is why we do the work we do.  The challenge is to keep doing that work and to do it well...

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