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An Honoured Name

A month or so ago I had the privilege of reviewing Ken Manley’s most recent book, a biography of one of my predecessors here at Collins Street. The review is published in Our Yesterdays, a journal of history among Victorian Baptists.

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As the 16th pastor of the historic Collins Street Baptist Church, I work each day surrounded by portraits of those who preceded me. Though most inhabited a different age to my own and faced challenges unique to their time, I find an odd sense of comfort knowing that I minister under their gaze. Each of these predecessors brought a distinct mix of gifts and passions to the role. Some of their stories resonate more immediately than others. One of those is Samuel Pearce Carey, pastor of Collins Street from 1900 to 1908.

Though a gifted man of impeccable Baptist heritage – great-grandson to the pioneer Baptist missionary William Carey – Pearce Carey arrived at Collins Street in a period of incredible change.  The twenty-three year tenure of the great Samuel Chapman had come to an end; and so, too, the period of the church’s most sustained growth. The turn of the century saw the burgeoning of the suburbs with new churches flourishing beyond the city centre. Collins Street’s membership suffered. Regardless, Pearce Carey arrived with a strong sense of vocation and led the church with great energy. In the face of ample challenge and more than his share of opposition, Pearce Carey was a pastor and preacher of considerable impact. He is a man I’ve long admired.

2611d76c0998456b8e226c869eddbabdUp until this point, all I have known of Pearce Carey is related to his years at Collins Street. I have written about them here. Now, through Ken Manley’s biography, I have a broader appreciation of the man; and my admiration is deeper still. Manley, a significant Baptist scholar and leader in his own right, has done us a tremendous service in telling Pearce Carey’s story in full, from his Baptist roots and English childhood to his ministry as pastor, writer, social activist, missionary ambassador and denominational leader. There is so much in Manley’s telling of this story that is fascinating, but it is two challenges to the nature of pastoral ministry that I found most rewarding.

First, it is clear that Pearce Carey understood his ministry as both particular and broad. In each pastoral appointment he gave himself with energy to the wellbeing of the congregation. He was an effective pastor, a fine preacher, and a man who invested intentionally in strengthening and uniting the church’s leadership. At the same time, Pearce Carey reached beyond the church to the denomination, the city, political and cultural arenas and issues facing society as a whole. What’s more, his love of literature and his commitments to scholarship found room to flourish. Pearce Carey’s identity as a minister of the gospel was not one that narrowed his interests but broadened them.

Second, Pearce Carey managed to hold together a deeply evangelical allegiance to Christ with a progressive and open theology. It was a mark of this ministry from beginning to end. It seems there was never a tension in his mind between a spirituality shaped by his love of the Gospel and a critical evaluation of the scriptures and theological thought.  Mind you, this was not an easy path for Pearce Carey to follow and one that drew criticism from within his churches and his denomination. Regardless, he would not be swayed. There is an integrity in the man I cannot help but admire.

Of course, there is much more to Manley’s biography than this, but if such stories of the past can play a role in critiquing and shaping our ministry today, then we are well served by books of this calibre. I commend to it to you.

Ken Manley, ‘An Honoured Name’: Samuel Peace Carey (1862-1953), Oxford: Regent’s Park College, 2016.

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Some thoughts on Whitley and the role of theological education

When a church faces a change of leadership, it is prodded to ask important questions about its identity and mission. To determine the pastor it needs, it needs first to know the sort of church it is and the church it wants to be into the future. In times of change the local church is reminded just how key leadership is to its mission.

Institutions of theological education are no different. When a seminary or college faces a change of leadership, it’s time again to ask the hard questions: What is the purpose of theological education within the wider community of churches? What is God calling this institution to do and be into the future? These are questions my own denominational college is facing right now. As the retirement of Whitley College’s current principal looms, the prospect of new leadership prods all those with a vested interest in its mission to voice their hopes and express their concerns. And so they should.

Addressing these questions is a complicated business. A college’s constituencies are as diverse as the expectations they bring. There’s the denominational structure in which the college sits and was founded to serve. There are the local churches that demand well-trained pastors. There are the agencies of the denomination and the wider community that require people skilled for a diversity of cross cultural and intercultural work. There is the academy of higher education to which the college belongs and is dependent for its ability to provide reputable degrees and quality research programs. And there are the lay people in churches looking for a place to discern their vocation, work out their discipleship, or wrestle with persistent questions of faith.

In all of this, theological colleges face their share of criticism. Whitley certainly has, and with a particular intensity this past year. There’s nothing new in that. I have been a student in three denominational colleges here in Australia and in one of the largest evangelical seminaries in the US. What’s more, over the past two decades I have taught in and been associated with many more. And in all of these, no matter where they sit on the theological spectrum, the criticisms are much the same: the perception that these institutions are removed from the hands-on mission of the church, of professors disengaged from the needs of practitioners in the field, allegations of theological compromise, and of a creeping disregard for the orthodox teachings of the Christian faith.

In my experience, criticisms like these often hold a kernel of truth mixed with a good dose of ignorance and hyperbole. Too often such criticisms are leveled by those who have never sat in a class, never pursued a sustained conversation with a teacher, and never read anything of substance written by those they deride. Sadly though, when mud is thrown it sticks, deserved or not. That said, theological colleges deserve critique — intelligent critique. In fact, they need it, especially from those sympathetic to their mission. As pastor of a church, I know too well that theological teachers can be their own worst enemy in communicating with churches and in addressing the needs felt most deeply by those who lead them. Though I want to be stretched in my thinking and practice, I, for one, and sick to death of having theological ‘experts’ list everything that is wrong with ‘the church’ without ever asking an intelligent question about the neighbourhood I inhabit or the particular challenges my congregation and I face.

In my view, theological colleges are at their best when they embrace their ministry as two fold: priestly and prophetic. As a priestly community, the theological college is one that nurtures and enables the local church. It is concerned for the church’s wellbeing and for the enrichment of its people. As a priestly community, the college speaks directly into the deepest needs of the churches and their leaders – those felt and those unnamed. By listening to and engaging with the churches, it determines the best forms of training: training that nurtures leaders who understand the faith of the church; who rightly handle the scriptures as the revelation of the truth of God; who administer the church’s rites and rituals with excellence; who lead with competence and preach with conviction; who draw deeply on the spiritual resources of the faith; and who are able to provide the best possible expressions of pastoral care. If the theological college is failing in its priestly role, the churches have every right to call it to account.

That said, the best theological college is more than a priestly community; it is a prophetic community. In my view, it is here that the more poorly understood responsibility of theological education lies. Theological educators must be prepared to stand on the sidelines of the church and call it to account. Like those pesky prophets of old, courageous theologians call the church to be different than what it is, a challenge to a radical transformation and a critique of the status quo. If the theological college is simply made in the image of the churches it is called to serve, it has failed to embrace its vocation. Even more, it has failed its churches. Prophets smell bad. They say things we do not want to hear and they press us to see things we struggle to see. If the theological college is not drawing criticism from denominational leaders and the churches of its tradition, chances are it stands on shallow ground.

As we Baptists of Victoria launch into this period of discernment about our college’s future, I want to say publicly how very grateful I am for Whitley College. Though my beginning with Whitley as a reluctant undergraduate in theology was six shades of awkward, my thirty years of study, teaching and association with the college have been one of the most formative influences of my life. It is through Whitley that I discovered that Jesus’ call to discipleship is more far-reaching and all-embracing than I could ever have imagined. It is through Whitley that I learned to read the Bible as the life changing Word of God and to wrestle with its truth. It is through Whitley that I was invited to breathe again as a person of faith, open to a theology that’s alive, obligating, and wonderfully relevant to the world I inhabit. And it is largely because of Whitley that I remain a Baptist, actively engaged with and committed to our particular way of being the church and embodying the good news of Jesus.

Whatever lies ahead for us, I pray that Whitley will remain a life-giving, life-interpreting and life-challenging community within our Baptist family.

 

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The Making of a Minister

This piece, written by the Lutheran Walter Wangerin, was first published in the American journal Christianity Today back in 1982. As a young man preparing for the possibility of ordination, I was moved by Wangerin’s words but with scant appreciation for their real meaning. Regardless, I copied the words into my journal. Some thirty years later they still resonate, but now with a far greater depth.

Though longer than a usual blog post, for those engaged in the practice of pastoral ministry this is a story worth revisiting.

 The Making of a Minister

Arthur lived in a shotgun house, so-called because it was three rooms in a dead straight line, built narrowly on half a city lot. More properly, Arthur lived in the front room of his house. Or rather, to speak the cold, disturbing truth, Arthur lived in a rotting stuffed chair in that room, from which he seldom stirred the last year of his life.

No one mourned his absence from church. I think most people were grateful that he turned reclusive, for the man had a walk and a manner like the toad, a high-backed slouch, and a burping contempt for his fellow parishioners. Arthur’s mind, though mostly uneducated, was excellent. He had written poetry in his day, both serious and sly, but now he used words to shiv Christians in their pews. Neither time nor circumstance protected the people, but their dress and their holiness caught on the hooks of his observations, and pain could spread across their countenance even in the middle of an Easter melody, while Arthur sat lumpish beside them, triumphant. No: none felt moved to visit the man when he became housebound.

Except me.

I was the minister, so sweetly young and dutiful. It was my job. And Arthur had phoned to remind me of that.

But to visit Arthur was grimly sacrificial.

After several months of chair sitting, both Arthur and his room were filthy. I do not exaggerate: roaches flowed from my step like puddles stomped in; they dropped casually from the walls. I stood very still. The TV flickered constantly. There were newspapers strewn all over the floor. There lay a damp film on every solid object in the room, from which arose a close, mouldy odour as though it were alive and sweating. But the dampness was a blessing because Arthur smoked.

He had a bottom lip like a shelf. Upon that shelf he placed lit cigarettes, and then he did not remove them until they had burned quite down, at which moment he blew them toward the television set. Burning, they hit the newspapers on the floor. But it’s impossible to ignite a fine, moist mildew. Blessedly, they went out.

Then the old man would increase the sacrifice of my visit. Motioning toward a foul and oily sofa, winking as though he knew what mortal damage it could do to my linens and dignity, he said in hostly tones: “Have a seat, why don’t you, Reverend?”

From the beginning, I did not like to visit Arthur Forte. Nor did he make my job (My ministry, you cry. My service! My discipleship! No – just my job) any easier. He did not wish a quick psalm, a professional prayer, devotions. Rather, he wanted to sharply dispute a young clergyman’s faith; he tested my mettle, my character. Seventy years a churchgoer, the old man narrowed his eye at me and debated the goodness of God. With incontrovertible proofs, he delivered shattering damnations of hospitals (at which he had worked), and doctors (for whom he had worked over the years): “Twenty dollars a strolling visit when they come to patient’s room,” he said, “for what? Two minutes’ time is what, and no particular news to the patient. A squeeze, a punch, a scribble on their charts, and they leave the sucker feeling low and worthless.” Wuhthless, he said, hollowing the word at its center. “God-in-a-smock had listened to their heart, and didn’t even tell them what he heard! Ho, ho!” said Arthur, “I’ll never go to a hospital.” “That cock-a-roach is more truthful of what he’s about. Ho, ho!” said Arthur, “I’ll never lie in a hospital bed, ho, ho.” And then, somehow, the failure of doctors he wove into his intense argument against the goodness of the Deity, and he slammed me with facts, and I was a fumbling, lubberly sort to be defending the Almighty.

When I left him, I was empty in my soul and close to tears, and testy, my own faith in God seeming most stale, flat, unprofitable at the moment. I didn’t like to visit Arthur.

Then came the days when he asked for prayer, scripture, and the Lord’s Supper, all three. The man, by late summer, was failing. He did not remove himself from the chair to let me in (I entered an unlocked door), now even to pass urine (which entered a chair impossibly foul). The August heat was unbearable. I had argued that Arthur go to the hospital. He had a better idea. He took of his clothes. Naked, Arthur greeted me. Naked, finally, the old man asked my prayers. Naked, he opened his mouth to receive communion. Naked. He’d raised the level of sacrifice to anguish. I was mortified. And still he was not finished with me.

For in those latter days, the naked Arthur Forte asked me, his minister, to come forward and put his slippers on, his undershorts, and his pants. And I did. His feet had begun to swell, so it caused both him and me unutterable pain in those private moments when I took his hard heal in my hands and worked a splitbacked slipper round it; when he stood groaning aloud, taking the clothing one leg at a time; when I bent groaning so deeply in my soul. I dressed him. He leaned on me, I touched his nakedness to dress him, we hurt, and his was sacrifice beyond my telling it. But in those moments I came to know a certain wordless affection for Arthur Forte.

(Now read me your words, “ministry,” and “service,” and “discipleship,” for then I began to understand them, then, at touching Arthur’s feet, when that and nothing else was what Arthur yearned for, one human being to touch him, physically to touch his old flesh, and not to judge. In the most dramatic terms available, the old man had said, “Love me.”)

The last week of August, on a weekly visit, I found Arthur prone on the floor. He’d fallen out of his chair during the night, but his legs were too swollen and his arms too weak for climbing in again. I said, “This is it, Arthur. You’re going to the hospital.” He was tired. He didn’t argue any more, but let me call two other members of the congregation. While they came, I dressed him – and he groaned profoundly. He groaned when we carried him to the car. He groaned even during the transfer from the car to wheelchair: we’d brought him to emergency. But there his groaning took on new meaning.

“I’m thirsty,” he said.

“He’s thirsty,” I said to the nurse, “Would you get him a drink of water?”

“No,” she said. “What?” “No. He can ingest nothing until his doctor is contacted. No.”

“But, water — ?”

“Nothing.”

“Would you contact his doctor, then?”

“That will be done by the unit nurse when he’s in his room.”

Arthur slumped in his chair and hurting, said, “I’m thirsty.”

I said, “Well, then, can I wheel him to his room?”

“I’m sorry, no,” she said.

“Please,” I said. “I’m his minister. I’ll take responsibility for him.”

“In this place he is our responsibility, not yours,” she said. “Be patient. An aide will get him up in good time.”

Oh Arthur, forgive me for not getting you a drink of water at home. Forgive us 20 minutes wait without a drink. Forgive us our rules, our rules, our irresponsibility.

Even in his room they took the time to wash him long before they brought him a drink.

“Why?” I pleaded.

“We are about to change shifts. The next nurse will call his doctor. All in good time.”

So Arthur, whose smell had triggered much discussion in the halls, finally did not stink. But Arthur still was thirsty. He said two things before I left.

He mumbled, “Bloody but unbowed.” Poetry!

“Good Arthur!” I praised him with all my might. Even malicious wit was better than lethargy; perhaps I could get him to cut, slice up a nurse or two. But he rolled an eye toward me for the first time since entering the place.

“Bloody,” he said, “and bowed.”

He slept an hour. Then, suddenly, he startled awake and stared about himself. “Where am I? Where am I?” he called. I answered, and he groaned painfully, “Why am I?” I have wept uncontrollably at the death of only one parishioner.

Since the hospital knew no relative for Arthur Forte, at 11 o’clock that same night they called me. Then I laid the telephone aside, and cried as though it was my own father. Anguish, failure, the want of a simple glass of water; I sat in the kitchen and cried.

But that failure has since nurtured a certain calm success. I do not suppose that Arthur consciously gave me the last year of his life, nor that he chose to teach me. Yet, by his mere being; by forcing me to take that life, real, unsweetened, bare-naked, hurting, and critical; by demanding that I serve him altogether unrewarded; by wringing from me first mere gestures of loving, and then love itself – but sacrificial love for one so indisputably unlovable – he did prepare me for my work and for life itself.

My tears were my diploma, his death my benediction, and my failure my ordination. For the Lord did not say, “Blessed are you if you know” or “teach” or “preach these things.” He said, rather, “Blessed are you if you do them.”

When, on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet, he sat and said, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things,” said Jesus, “blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:14-17). Again and again the Lord expanded on this theme: “Drink to the stinking is drink to me!”

One might have learned by reading it . . . but it is a theme made real in experience alone, by doing it. At first flush this experience is, generally, a sense of failure, for this sort of work severely diminishes the worker, makes them insignificant, makes them the merest servant, the very least in the transaction! To feel so small is to feel somehow failing, unable.

But there, right there, begins true servanthood, the disciple who has, despite himself, denied himself. And then, for perhaps the first time, one is loving not out of his own bowels, merit, ability, superiority, but out of Christ: for he has discovered himself to be nothing and Christ everything. In the terrible, terrible doing of this work is the minister born. And curiously, the best teachers of the nascent, immature minister are sometimes the neediest people, foul to touch, unworthy, ungiving, unlovely, yet haughty in demanding [and sometimes then miraculously receiving] love.

Arthur, my father, my father! So seeming empty your death, it was not empty at all. There is no monument above your pauper’s grave – but here: it is here in me and in my ministry. However could I make little of this godly wonder, that I love you?

 

2006_wangerinWalter Wangerin, Jr., “The Making of a Minister” in Christianity Today, September 17, 1982.

 

 

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City church

Not long ago, I agreed to meet a church leader with a vision. Her passion was a new church plant here in the city centre. As an established pastor in the neighbourhood, and with a community that’s been around since 1843, I was clearly a person of interest.

I have to confess, I’ve come to approach conversations like this with a dose of skepticism. Though a naturally trusting soul, I’ve learned caution these past few years. The fact is, calls from large church franchises are reasonably common — those who want to use our sanctuary as their newest place to meet. It’s understandable: venues in the city centre are rare and the challenge for newcomers daunting. What troubles me, though, is that these enterprising leaders never want to talk.

Whether on the phone or in person, the standard approach of prospective ‘tenants’ is to sell me on their ‘kingdom vision’ and the numerical growth of their movement. But so rarely do they want to know about us: who we are, what we do or what we’ve learned. It’s as though they have the formula for church success, and all that’s required is an empty space to make it happen. The underlying message is barely veiled — If only you old, irrelevant city churches with property would get out of the way and let us at it, we’ll show you how it’s done.

Honestly, it feels like terra nullius all over again. There is scant regard for what’s already here and for the rich story of faith and struggle that fills this place. Even worse, it’s as though our neighbourhood is nothing more than a cool new venue for the latest brand of hipster church. Cue pictures of graffitied laneways, apartment towers and sidewalk cafes. The slick invitation is to come into the city and do church like you do a shopping mall or a Saturday night bar. Then afterwards you can head back to your suburbs, until next time.

Frankly, the city doesn’t need any more big-box franchises that drag people in for worship and fair-trade coffee only to see them leave again. If there’s no real investment in this city as a flesh-and-blood neighbourhood, then what’s the point? The challenges of the CBD are complex and layered. Inner-city clichés abound, but the reality is so much more demanding.

No doubt, old city churches like mine come with baggage galore. Believe me, we know that. Our history and property are tremendous gifts. And at the same time they are weights that hang around our necks. But take time to look beyond our organs and stained glass windows, and you’ll see faith communities with a longstanding commitment to this city and its people. And with some rungs on the board too. If you judge us only by what you see in a Sunday service, you’ll likely miss the bulk of what we do and who we are and how we struggle. But press in and you could be surprised.

This plea is not about protecting territory. I am delighted when new churches flourish in our patch. I really am. Our neighbourhood is growing and changing like you wouldn’t believe and the possibilities for new initiatives are extraordinary. As it happens, the pastor I met with this time around was really interested in us and in what’s already happening in the city centre. Her vision is for a model of church that is genuinely organic in form and focus. I left the conversation deeply encouraged, affirmed in my own ministry, and ready to cheer this pastor on as a potential colleague in the gospel. My concern here is only that we all do a better job — those who are here already and those who want to join us — at real engagement with the neighbourhood God has called us to.

Anything less is ecclesial froth without substance.

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Preaching from the heart

Most Sundays I stand in a pulpit. It’s an imposing old thing, central to the internal architecture of its 19th century home. Though I can’t say I relish the sermon, I understand it as a valued part of my tradition. In fact, for Baptists like me preaching is central to the worship event. Really, I have no choice but to give it my best.

That said, doing so is fraught. There are at least two dangers for the regular preacher – dangers that sit at either end of a spectrum. At one end, there’s the preacher who chooses ‘professional distance’ from the subjects she speaks on, ensuring nothing of herself is ever a part of what she says. From this perspective, the preacher’s task is to get out of the way and let the Word speak for itself. At the other end, there’s the preacher who makes his own experience central to every sermon he preaches. At worst, his sermon becomes a weekly act of self-indulgence: ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ I have long understood these two dangers as equally hazardous.

Frankly, I’m in danger of the second more than the first. Professional distance has never been my thing. At my best, I like to imagine it as a choice for vulnerability. I have always believed that if the preacher is not prepared to be fully present in her preaching, then she has no right to stand in a pulpit. Where there is no honesty, the possibility of truth that transforms is minimal. What’s more, my experience tells me that when a preacher leaves his own experience out of the sermon, it is almost guaranteed that his listeners will do the same. Still, the hazards are real.

First, we have to be honest enough to say that while personal engagement and self-indulgence are two different things, they lie perilously close to each other. Tread carefully! Second, it’s a rare preacher whose own life and experience is so interesting as to be an riviting source of weekly inspiration. A broader canvas please! Third, the practice of constantly giving oneself away in the sermon can take an emotional toll on the most resourceful preacher. Go gently!

One of the most important things I have learned in preaching is that bringing oneself to the task, fully and honestly, does not equate with every sermon being confessional. Sometimes it is more about the vulnerability of one’s spirit than it is about what one reveals in detail. In recent weeks I have lost my mother. She died just short of her 82nd birthday. The sadness I have felt since her death has been like a grey cloud hovering overhead, or a heavy rock in the heart that simply wont budge. The feelings of loss and disorientation are constant and disarming. Honestly, I would rather do anything than stand in a pulpit. What’s more, to name those feelings in the context of preaching is more than I can do.

This morning I sat alone in a café contemplating the day of sermon writing that lay ahead. In between the feelings of ‘overwhelmed’, it was as though God said, gently and graciously, ‘Be present to the task, Simon. That’s all of you that I require today.’

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Saints with winter colds

I visited the saints today. Not haloed ones from long ago, but sniffly ones with winter colds — older saints with thinning hair and woollen socks. One was in her hospital bed recuperating from a fall, and another in his armchair at home. It was balm for the soul.

The past few days have been tough — lots of big-picture wrestling with public issues of ‘truth’ and ‘justice’; a weekend of impassioned debate and stirring convictions. All important stuff, but wearing too. Big pictures demand an energy all their own and I come away wrung out and wanting to hide. But sitting with older saints brings me back. It reminds me that life is more than big pictures; that ministry is just as much about sitting with loneliness as struggling for truth.

For me, there’s something about being with older people that brings perspective. It focusses attention and brings my wandering mind to the most immediate things. These dear people are often as concerned for me as I am for them. We talk about hearing aids, bung hips and blood pressure. From there we take the small step to family — its joys and sadnesses — and sometimes share treasured memories of yesterday.

As for the future, these older saints don’t go there much. Oh, there are concerns about tomorrow’s appointments and, occasionally, some pensive thoughts about the mystery of whatever lies beyond. But underneath there is faith. There is always faith. It’s that bedrock that sits just below the surface. Rarely complicated, it’s often as full of mystery as it is of certainty. Yet it is there, deep and reassuring. It’s faith for today, for now and for here. It’s a wisdom all its own and it holds us in the moment together … and I can breathe again.

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Ordination: a pathway to uniformity?

Routinely I meet with men and women, mostly young, who aspire to pastoral leadership. They sense a calling to the church. The most common professional pathway to this end is ordination, a rite of commissioning for pastors and priests. In every tradition it’s done differently. For some there’s a high ceremonial ritual along with a uniform and a title. For others it’s less grand yet equally specific in intent. The purpose of ordination is to set particular people apart to lead and care for the church.

I’ve been done. It happened for me a long time ago. In fact, next year it’ll be twenty-five years since my ordination to ‘the ministry of word and sacrament’ in the Baptist tradition. I have a certificate on my wall to prove it! The preparation took a while; years in fact. There were those arduous programs of study, panels of interrogation, psychological testing, intense processes of formation, and apprenticeship with seasoned practitioners. The high moment of ordination itself was memorable and profoundly significant to my continuing sense of vocation.

A common critique of the process toward ordination is that it’s too much like a one-size-fits-all funnel that ignores the diversity of those who present. What’s more, it is said, the intent is to nurture a conformity of style in leadership. There may well be some truth in this, and I have no doubt those who lead such processes wrestle with the limitations of their systems. That said, uniformity has never been my experience of those who make it through. Quite the opposite.

I am often mystified by just how different we pastors are from one another. There are the gentle and caring types, the incisive minds, the charismatic leaders, the blusterers and pot stirrers, the gregarious and the introverts. There are the fine preachers, the poets, the liberals and conservatives, the thoughtful strategists, the bookish types and the ones who act more like coaches for the local football team. How they all got through the one funnel I have no idea. But I am glad for it.

The encouragement to me in this is that just as there are numerous types who get into this business, the business itself is broad and so very different from one context to another. Sure, the comparisons are inevitable: her church is bigger than mine; his sermons could do with some work; her way with people is extraordinary; I wish my leadership was a strong as his. Truth be told, in the midst of such comparisons I often wonder just how I scraped through. But if I have learned anything over the years, it’s this: I am who I am, and being who I am is as central to my calling as anything else.

UnknownA couple of years back, I had the pleasure of reading Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor. It’s a very particular story of ministry and open to critique for good reasons. But what was so very refreshing was Peterson’s refusal to offer anything formulaic to his readers. There are no five steps, seven habits or twelve secrets to successful pastoring. Only this:

‘There is no blueprint on file for becoming a pastor. In becoming one, I have found that it is a most context-specific way of life: the pastor’s emotional life, family life, experience in the faith, and aptitudes worked out in the actual congregation in the neighborhood in which she or he lives – these people just as they are, in this place. No copying. No trying to be successful. The ways in which the vocation of pastor is conceived, develops, and comes to birth is unique to each pastor.’

I like that.

Wisdom from Peterson

“I am a pastor. My work has to do with God and souls — immense mysteries that no one has ever seen at any time. But I carry out this work in conditions — place and time — that I see and measure wherever I find myself, whatever time it is. There is no avoiding the conditions. I want to be mindful of the conditions. I want to be as mindful of the conditions as I am of the holy mysteries.”

Eugene Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir, New York: Harper Collins, 2011, 7.

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Working to our strengths

I’ve returned to work this year with a small resolution in mind. Not small in the sense of being insignificant. More in the sense that my life is small, not grand, and any resolutions to do with its living will be, by necessity, humble.

The resolution is this: I want to work as much as possible out of my strengths. I have them, just like everyone does. There are things I do well, inclinations that are naturally honed, investments of energy that bring life and fulfillment. I am hoping that in this new year I can give the expression of these strengths a larger space to flourish in my days and weeks.

Profound or not, there’s something here that’s important. I have been conscious this past year that I spend a great deal of energy trying to make up for my weaknesses. While there are things I do well in ministry, the list of things I do less than well is long. Of course, I’m not alone. As I listen to the confessions of other pastors, I hear the same insecurity. We’re gifted, but we’re not all-rounders. The deficits are as obvious as the surpluses. Conscious of our lacks, we’re commonly driven to compensate, to work ever harder improving our skill-set and pushing through in areas of mediocrity. But the truth is, it’s exhausting.

The exhaustion is only exacerbated by the voices that speak loudly around us. It seems like every book I read, every conference I attend, every Facebook link I follow, every PD seminar I complete, I’m left with a new list of things I should really do better, or more of. If the church is struggling in areas X, Y and Z, it’s probably because, in part at least, I’m less than I need to be in capacities A, B and C. So come on, Simon, pull up your socks!

I know. Pulling up our socks is part of life. In every job, every role, there are things that just have to be done. Not everything we do can be about fulfilment and fit. But surely, in the longer term, the greatest impacts we’ll have upon our communities will arise out of our primary gifting. I am a good pastor but I’m not a charismatic leader. I’m a good communicator and teacher, but I’m not great at strategy and five-year plans. I have a passion for writing, but I’m exhausted by spreadsheets. I’m committed to community building and hospitality, but I’m not a great manager.

One of the things I’ve observed about myself and others is that as much time as we might invest in those tasks that sit outside our abilities, the longer term impacts are minimal, indeed far less than we imagine. The deepest impression that you will make upon your church will almost certainly arise out of what you are really good at and passionate about.

I reckon we owe it to ourselves and our communities to give these things a generous space in our lives and ministry.

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Ministry: it’s a modest business

As pastor of a city church, there are moments and events—both civic and ecclesial—that stand out. Last week was one of those. I was privileged to attend the inauguration of the new Anglican Primate of Australia. It was an impressive occasion in a majestic space.

Nave_jWith Bishops and Archbishops from around the nation, the Archbishop of Canterbury in the pulpit, the Governor of Victoria and the immediate past Governor-General of Australia, and Heads of churches and traditions from across the ecclesial spectrum, the procession of clerical spendour was long and grand. Feeling awkward in my poor excuse for Baptist robes, I paraded in self-consciously alongside others looking resplendent and assured. Once seated under the great dome that soars above the altar, I looked out on the grandeur of St Paul’s. The organ fanfares were beautiful, the magnificent choral music of the choir rising into the space above. It was a moment, majestic and splendid in every way.

But then, like every moment, it was over. As I made my way home, walking along Flinders Street, robes draped over my arm, I felt like I often do at such times. The contrast is stark. From the heights of liturgical splendour and the trappings of clerical office to standing in the drizzling rain, waiting for a pedestrian light to turn green as impatient drivers sound their horns. The footpaths underfoot were wet as I navigated my way through the crowded overflow at the corner pub. No processions here. No titles. No deference. If the extraordinary has its moment, the ordinary has the day.

Next morning at the office it’s back to the routines of what I do. Phone calls to return, emails to answer, chairs to move, and appointments that don’t show. There are moments in any job, I suppose; moments of reward and recognition, those moments when you get a glimpse of something much bigger than your little patch and contribution. But they are just that: moments.

The truth is, most of what we do as pastors and priests is entirely without fanfare, unseen and mundane. Eugene Peterson calls ours an ‘essentially modest and obscure way of life.’ He’s right. Whatever our tradition, whatever ways we decorate and slice our ecclesial cake, the real work is in the baking, and in sweeping up the crumbs afterwards. Really, it’s a modest business we’re in.

Though I confess to enjoying a moment every now and then, I am kind of glad they are few and far between. In my experience, there is something about the nature of ministry that finds its deepest integrity in the routine fidelities and duties of what we do. Honestly, there is so much we can hide under robes and in pulpits, but so little we can camouflage for any length of time in the daily routines of our work.