Taller than me

He’s taller than me. I said it couldn’t happen, but it did and he is. He’s my son and I look up to him.

Before having children, I imagined having children. In particular, I pictured my role in raising a son and the impact I’d have upon his life. My responsibility was to shape his mind, character and faith. For me it was a calling and one I approached with equal parts privilege and trepidation. When I first held him in my arms, I understood my vocation afresh. Fathering was a sacred trust. I would be his dad — his guide and provider, someone he could always depend on, a man to emulate and look up to.

It’s all true of course. At our best, we fathers are those things and more. So are mothers. Deliberate or not, we are formative agents of influence. As a pastor, I see it played out every day. The gulf between those who have been parented well and those who haven’t is wide. But what is equally true is that as we shape our children so they shape us. Now as I look up to my son, I know more deeply just how much he has formed me. The truth is, I am a different person for having him in my life.

I am more humble in expectation. My son has taught me that good parenting has so little to do with grand vistas and life plans. For the most part, it is borne out in the most ordinary commitments made and remade every day. As an idealist, this has been a hard lesson for me. It still is. Taking each day as it comes, showing up again tomorrow when I’ve dropped the ball today, and, more often than not, accepting that ‘good enough’ is really the best I’ll ever be. And as for those aspirations I had for his faith … they may never be exactly as I had planned. I know that now. But when I look up at my son — when I see his goodness and beauty — I am reassured that all of this is ok.

I am more present to life. Children, especially in their earliest years, have a way of grabbing you by the shirt collar and wrenching you into the moment. Even when you’d rather be elsewhere. And they do it over and over again. Nappies, nap times, feeding, laundry, reading stories, bedtime routines, homework, hockey games, and midnight taxiing — all of this shapes your focus and draws you in time after time. So much so that as they get older, the attention they once demanded from you transforms into the time you crave with them. When I look at my son I know, more forcefully than at any other moment, that now is the time.

I am confronted by my own fallibility. In so many parts of life I am competent. I speak, I lead, I write, I envision, counsel, direct and manage, and in all of this I’m affirmed. I like it that way. But then I come home. In parenting I routinely feel incompetent. In one of the most important and long lasting roles of my life I am mostly at sea. I fail as often as I succeed. All that is less than it needs to be in my character and skill-set is cast in stark relief. But when I look up at my son, I see grace in human form. I see grace at work in him, in me and in all that really counts.

I know heartache, joy and longing more intimately. No one could have told me just how much I would love my children, how deeply and passionately I would care, how proud I would be and how cut when things go awry. Sometimes love for my children makes my heart sing, and other times it hurts. Frankly, there are times when I really wish I didn’t care so much. Because love, deeply felt, can manifest in unhelpful ways, trampling over boundaries essential to growth and good relationship. Love’s most natural instinct is to step in when, sometimes, stepping away is what’s needed most. But it is love of this depth and drive that forms us as nothing else can. I look up at my son and I know that I am different for it.

Parenting is not the only path to maturity and change. There are so many other ways to travel. But it has been significant to me, a pathway on which I have been formed as much as I have formed. No doubt, this fathering business has shaped my character, highlighted my frailties and honed by understandings of faith and life as much as anything else I have done.

Perhaps looking up to him is more appropriate than I had thought.

[Thanks to my brother Mark for the photograph and to an article I read twenty five years ago that’s still worth reading: David E. Nowak, ‘Formative Parenting: Formed, Forming, and Being Formed.’ In Studies in Formative Spirituality, 1986, 7 (1): 75-90.]

Bunnings and the Church

Twice in the last year I’ve listened to respected business leaders share insights from the corporate world with church leaders. Clearly, we are not their typical audience but their presentations were well made. Both identified characteristics of ‘high performing’ companies and prodded us to explore the implications for the local church. Given we pastors lead the outposts of an institution that fuddles along in varying states of irrelevance, we need prodding. And we have much to learn from those outside our own walls.

That said, both presenters began with reference to Bunnings. Clearly, its a retail story of extraordinary success. As well as becoming the nation’s premier retailer of hardware, Bunnings has worked its way into our psyche. In a relatively short period of time, these sprawling house-and-garden megastores have mushroomed across the nation. On weekends we pour through their doors en mass to stock up on garden compost, tap-ware for the bathroom reno, a DIY demonstration, and a sausage on the way out. No doubt, we love shopping there and, from all reports, employees love working there. They’re doing something right!

If I’m honest, though, this whole Bunnings-and-the-church thing is fraught. While I’m happy to discuss how the church can become a more welcoming proposition for our neighbours and a more rewarding place for those who are part of its ministry, the model of Bunnings for a ‘high performing’ church is shot through with awkward.

Our local Bunnings is in Port Melbourne. Since its arrival, almost every other hardware store has closed. The multiple family-owned businesses that used to dot the landscape around South and Port Melbourne — the ones where owners knew their customers’ names and lived in the same neighbourhood — have all but disappeared. It’s the same elsewhere. In a recent issue of The Monthly, journalist Malcolm Knox traced the demise of hardware stores around Sydney’s northern beaches: ‘There was Hurstwaites at Balgowlah; Harders at Harbord, McIlwraiths in Manly … There was Fairlight Hardware, Seaforth Hardware, North Balgowlah Hardware, two in Brookvale, Collaroy Hardware, Narrabeen Hardware, Wheeler Heights had one, and there was Hayman and Ellis in North Manly.’ What was an ‘ecosystem’ of 15 stores, he concluded, is now down to three Bunnings and one Hardware and General.

In the course of his research, Knox talked to one of the store owners who fell victim to this process. He had a business employing 25 staff and strong relationships with the local community: ‘When Bunnings came, it signed exclusive agreements that stopped suppliers from selling to [competitors]. … The suppliers were sinking everything into Bunnings, which is what they wanted at first, but then Bunnings screwed them down so far they couldn’t make a buck, and they couldn’t make it competitive by selling to anyone else either.’

Bunnings is not alone in this. It is widely considered best practice among the so-called ‘big-box retailers’ to saturate the market through a strategic process of clustering and cannibalising. The longer term goal is to have the playing field to themselves. Consider the ‘duopoly’ of major retailers that cover just about everything we buy in the Australian retail market — Wesfarmers/Coles and Woolworths. According to Knox, ‘we can’t go to a shopping centre without being hauled in by the duoploy — apples from Woolies, cereal from Coles, beer from Liquorland, wine from Dan Murphy’s, a hammer from Bunnings, shoes from Kmart, ink from Officeworks, a toy from Target, a pillow from Big W, petrol from Coles Express.’

Of course, none of this is especially surprising. Corporations exist to make profit for their shareholders not wellbeing for communities. According to professor of law Joel Bakan, ’the corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others.’ For people of faith, these changes in our retail landscape raise issues worth considering, but the idea that we emulate a successful retailer like Bunnings in the way we do church leaves more questions than it does pointers for church growth.

For small-church pastors like me, this argument leads too easily to cheap shots being made across the bow at the so called ‘mega-churches’ that surround us. While appropriate critiques should be made of all church models, that is not my point. Rather, I would hope that in reaching for inspiration in the pursuit of successful ministry, we would do so with more theological nous than this. For me, there are at least two elements in the church’s DNA that run counter to the Bunnings model of success. They are two elements I cannot bypass.

First, the church is local. It is the body of Christ enfleshed in a particular neighbourhood. There is nothing ‘big-box’ or generic about it. It lives, breathes and responds to the particular challenges of its locality. When it comes to the church, one size does not fit all. Second, the church is an embedded community. It rises and falls with the neighbourhood around it. The local church cannot be a world unto itself, providing a one-stop shop for successful living cut off from the ebb and flow of life around it. Rather, it’s a household of faith within a neighbourhood of life. The church is not about pulling people out of that neighbourhood for its own ends, but enabling its people to live more fully in it.

So, while Bunnings might be my only choice for light bulbs, I’ll need to go elsewhere for guidance in nurturing the church.

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.

 

 

Connecting Sunday to Monday

There’s an old saying about pastors: ‘Invisible six days a week and incomprehensible the seventh.’ While I don’t care much for the incomprehensible bit, a degree of invisibility is part of our lot. To many people in our congregations, and even more outside of them, the work of the pastor is a mystery. I’m often asked what I do with myself once Sunday is over. There’s no hidden critique in the question, but genuine curiosity. To the majority, our daily working life is hidden from view.

Before we bemoan just how ‘misunderstood’ we are, it’s good to put the boot on the other foot. The fact is, pastors are as prone to weekday ignorance as anyone else. We see and relate to the majority of people in our congregations on a Sunday. Perhaps we see the committed ones at other times, but mostly related to their roles and responsibilities in the church. Certainly I know that Rick is a teacher, that Judy works in insurance, that Sacha volunteers at the local homework club, but outside of that my experience of their day-to-day work is limited. What specific responsibilities do they have? What daily challenges do they face? What relationships are most demanding of them? In the typical Sunday gathering, the weekday work of the people is as invisible as that of the pastor.

I am often challenged by this, and encouraged to think creatively about how pastors can help to make visible what is largely invisible. How can we nurture the connections between worship on a Sunday and what the people are engaged with on Monday? How can we be more sensitive to the challenges of the workplaces and neighbourhoods our congregations inhabit? For me the challenge is two-fold. It’s both pastoral and liturgical.

Pastoral 

To care pastorally is to care for the whole person. By necessity the felt need for pastoral care kicks in when there’s a crisis, usually of a personal nature – someone is sick, struggling in a relationship, or wrestling with an experience of loss or doubt. Ministry like this is vital to what we do. But there’s also a place for genuine expressions of pastoral interest in the more routine stuff of life.

One of the most effective means of expressing this interest is by taking our care out of our own offices and into theirs. Some of the most significant pastoral conversations I have ever had have been in the spaces people inhabit during the week. Sometimes that has been in their workplaces, or in a café close by. I have sat with teachers in their classrooms at the end of a teaching day. I have been walked around someone’s office space and introduced to colleagues. I have toured a building site and walked through a market garden. While pastoral interactions like these are not always possible, finding ways to show genuine interest in who people are and what they do away from the worship service is well worth our time and creativity.

Liturgical

Pastors spend a great deal of time preparing services of worship. It’s for that visible part of our job. We know instinctively that our sermons, liturgy and prayers provide an essential framework for the congregation’s response to God and we long that through these services our communities experience grace, transcendence and challenge in equal measure.

With this in mind, there is a legitimate need for the Sunday experience to be different — a context in which we lift our eyes beyond the chaos of the world and are reminded of God. For this reason the language of faith is often distinctive, shifting from the immediate to the eternal. That said, it would be a tragedy if our pursuit of the ‘beyond’ rendered the here-and-now irrelevant to faith, for it’s in the immediate that we most need a sense of the eternal.

The purpose of good liturgy is to bring the beyond and the here-and-now together into a deeper relationship. We do this with preaching that approaches the text of scripture and the routine challenges of life with equal rigour. We do it with confession that is rooted in the real struggles of the everyday. We do it with rituals, songs, stories and prayers that embrace the stuff of daily life as holy.

Not long ago I sat with a member of my congregation who is unemployed and looking for work. He spoke honestly of the exhausting and humbling business of applications, interviews and knock-backs. In the midst of our conversation, he reached down into his bag and pulled out a printed copy of his CV. ‘I don’t need you to find me a job,’ he said as he handed it to me, ‘but I need you to know who I am.’ It’s a longing for all of us. We want to be known, not just as people of faith but as flesh-and-blood people seeking to live out that faith in our everyday lives.

Measuring success

How does a pastor measure her success? How does a church leader rate his impact week by week? As ignoble as they sound, questions like these are with us all the time. In rare moments of honesty, I hear them in the confession of colleagues struggling with their adequacy. I hear them, too, hidden in the bravado of the over-confident — the ones who need to tell you all the time just how successful their churches are. For both, I suspect, the questions are the same: Am I doing any good? Am I kicking goals? Am I really up for this? And how can I know?

The ‘right’ answer is obvious. I’ve heard it before: ‘It’s not about success, Simon, it’s about faithfulness. Be faithful to God and let success take care of itself.’ Yeah, ok. But honestly, faithfulness? Isn’t there something a bit more … countable? Frankly, we crave more than a ‘chestnut’ to assess our impact, no matter how truthful. What we want are numbers!

Numbers tell us things. Numbers make success measurable. If there are ten more people this Sunday than last, that’s good, right? If the pews are more obviously full this year than they were last year, that’s a goal, right? If the offerings are on the up, that’s a clear indicator of success, right? To say no to any of this is disingenous. Whether we like it or not, numbers matter to us. Numbers are tangible and, given they’re headed in the right direction, they make a pastoral report look so much better! That said, numbers like these are also the bane of a pastor’s life. They are extraordinarily fickle things — slippery, and so very hard to hold for any length of time. Numbers can be used to stroke your ego one day and hit you over the head the next. Numbers can hurt.

Years ago, as a young pastor-in-training, I spent time in the US. I stayed with a seasoned pastor and his family, sitting at their dining room table for Sunday lunch over several months. After each Sunday service and on his way out the door, the pastor was handed a little slip of paper. On it were three numbers: the day’s participants in all-age Sunday School, the offerings for the morning, and the number of worshippers in attendance that day. The slip of paper would sit just to the right of his lunch plate as we ate, and I would watch his mood rise or fall week by week depending on the trend of those figures. The truth is, he was a far more gifted pastor than I will ever be, but as I watched the weekly impact of those numbers on his sense of worth, I remember thinking, ‘God, save me from this!’

CSBC_Sanctuary_03

Collins Street Baptist Church

Certainly the desire for numerical measures of success in the church, while not always nobly inspired, is human. In the midst of all the vagaries of pastoral ministry, it’s good to have something we can count. Besides, aspiring to growth through what we do is surely worthwile. Without vision, longing, aspiration, ministry can stagnate. It can even start to smell. Occasionally, as I walk through our old sanctuary at Collins Street (when no one else is around), I stop and imagine. I imagine the sanctuary full of people, the gallery overflowing with worshippers. I hear the stories of the golden days, the days when you had to have a ticket to get a seat, when neighbouring theatres had to be booked to cope with the crowds. Yes, it was a long time ago, a different age, but it’s still a great story. Who wouldn’t aspire to the visible signs of a vital and growing congregation, no matter what the context?

I suspect an important question for pastors is around just what the signs of spiritual vitality are in a church. After all, if we’re going to measure things, we need to measure the right things. What’s more, any measuring we do needs to be done with a generous dose of humility, for there’s a good chance that, held captive by numbers, we become blind to more significant truths. In my experience, there is so much to the deepening of faith in a church — things that cannot be tallied on a spreadsheet. Indeed, there’s a great deal about the church as a living, fragile organism of faith that is intangible and defies the simple trajectory of graphs and charts. While numbers can tell us things important to ministry — things to which we need to pay attention — they can also be deceptive. Numbers can hide as much as they reveal.

Frankly, I don’t know how one measures success in church leadership. What’s more, I’m rarely comfortable with those who say they do. While I suspect there’s a legitimate need for doing so — a place for KPIs, numerical targets and counting things — I am also conscious that the church I lead is not a business and that I dare not reduce our evaluation of mission to measuring market share. What I do know is that the call to follow Jesus is a call as much to loss as gain, as much to a downward journey as an upward trajectory. Because of this, a pastor’s self-evaluation demands a level of rigour and grace that numbers alone will never provide.

Confession of a reluctant preacher

Preaching sermons has never been my favourite thing to do. Pulpits have always been awkward, difficult places for me to fill. It’s an odd confession from a pastor, especially a Baptist and in a church like mine. The sanctuary at Collins Street is old school, grand and built in the 1840s with a solid mahogany pulpit sitting high above the pews. As you mount the stairs of the church under the high Corinthian columns and then make you way into the sanctuary, the 170-year tradition of rousing oratory hangs heavy in the air.

It’s not just the pulpit that’s challenging, nor the space. It’s the business of standing in front of people with an obligation to say something of truth, something that might shift or change things for those who listen. I don’t do it easily nor always well, but it’s part of my job, even my calling.

My aversion to preaching is not common among colleagues. Indeed, I listen longingly as I hear other pastors talk of the things most fulfilling in their work. Invariably, preaching is near the top of the list. I’ve often thought that’s how it should be for me too, but though there are times — moments when I feel something more — for the most part it’s a challenge.

The danger for reluctant preachers like me is that we constantly hunt for models to emulate. Not content with ourselves, we imagine things differently: ‘If only I could be more like him!’; ‘I like her style. Perhaps I could do that!’ It’s certainly true that we have much to learn from others, but perhaps the best piece of advice I’ve been given by a seasoned pastor was this: ‘Simon, be yourself. That’s the gift you have to give.’

In 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), the American essayist and poet, addressed the graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School. In the midst of a rousing and often biting lecture, and one that reflected his entirely male audience, Emerson said this:

‘Let me admonish you, first of all: to go it alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred to the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. Friends enough you shall find who will hold up to your emulation Wesleys and Oberlins, Saints and Prophets. Thank God for these good men, but say, ‘I also am a man.’ Imitation cannot go above its models. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity.’

After twenty five years of standing in pulpits, the challenge of doing so remains. But I’ve been slowly relieved of the burden to do so in ways that are not me and not real. I may never be the preacher I once imagined I should be, and I will always cherish the gifts of others who do it differently, but the words of my advisor from long ago bring comfort and challenge enough: ‘Simon, be yourself. That’s the gift you have to give.’

Vocational eggs

I like to think of fatherly wisdom as a gift, though my delivery clearly needs work. In a recent conversation with my daughter, I passed on the much-used but pithy nugget: ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket!’ Her look was withering: ‘Eggs?’ Ok, so further explanation was necessary (and equally unsuccessful), but I still hold to the truth of it.

I’ve been reflecting lately, inspired by the biography of a notable pastor, on just how important this principle of ‘basket diversity’ is in my own life. If the ‘eggs’ are my vocation–my sense of self and calling–then where I put those eggs is critical to a thriving and sustainable way of life.

There was a time when I thought of vocation in a very limited what-I-do-for-a-living sort of way. For me that was found in my work as a pastor. The trouble with putting all of my vocational eggs in that basket is that my entire sense of self rode the roller coaster of a fickle and fragile business. When ministry went well, I soared. When it faltered and failed, I was in tatters.

The truth is, vocation is so much more than our work. It has to do with being made ‘in the image of God’. It’s about identity not activity, who we are not what we do. This much broader sense of vocation finds expression in every aspect of our lives: in our work, our homes and neighbourhoods, our relationships, our interests, our rest and recreation, our spending, our learning and so on. The vocational baskets are multiple.

So, what difference does this make for me?

Apart from family, there are three dominant activities that take most of my time: I pastor, I cook and I write. While each include elements of necessity, I’ve not been strong-armed into any of them. Each is a choice. Each one is vocational, an expression of who I am as one made in God’s image. These are not just three things that I do, they are each who I am. I don’t do ministry. I am a pastor. The ministry I offer is an overflow of my identity. I don’t write simply as a marginal activity. I am a writer. It’s how I think and feel. And I do not cook purely by necessity or for distraction. I am a cook. In cooking I am me.

Each of these three vocational baskets has its rewards, and each, in its own way, is transformational. The rewards of pastoral ministry are the most intangible; its transformations difficult to trace. I can come home from a day at work unable to identify a single achievement. More often I’m aware of regressions, failures and stubborn lines that will not budge, even in the longer term. If the daily trajectory of pastoral success has ever been mapped, I missed the memo. Don’t get me wrong: the transformations of ministry are real, but so very slow and, in my experience, often known only in retrospect. It’s a messy and chaotic business and dependent upon so many factors I cannot control. Pastoring is all about people. Enough said.

Writing is a different matter. It, too, is slow and its impact difficult to judge. But it’s contained in a way that ministry is not, and the outcomes are tangible no matter how long in gestation. Even more, the task of writing is mine. It’s me and the screen. It’s the very personal task of finding and manipulating words in a way that is congruent with what I feel and know. If I fail, I fail; If I succeed, I succeed, no one else. And all being well, from time to time I can hold in my hand a product, an object of writing the signals completion. That said, writing is an isolating business. It lets you get away with a degree of solitude and independence that pastoral ministry will never allow.

And then there is cooking. Like pastoring and writing for me, cooking is vocational. As a daily activity, it is both rewarding and transforming, but in a much more sensual and immediate way. Its purpose is crystal clear, and once complete the product is eaten and the activity done. Until tomorrow. Success and failure are so easy to judge, and the tasks simple. Cooking has a way of pulling me into the here and now with irresistible force. And its rewards for me and those I cook for need no explanation or justification. Even more, cooking gets me out of my head and into my body in ways pastoring and writing can never do.

8OA1000AThere are other baskets in my life too, but the point is made. There is more than one and each is a valid means of vocational expression. My baskets are mine. Yours will be different. But hear this: when it comes to the eggs of your vocation, know that you are a person made beautifully and uniquely in God’s image. There is so much more to you and your calling than what you get paid to achieve.

So whatever you do, don’t go putting all those eggs in one basket!

The Pastoral Dishrag

Like a kitchen sponge, pastors absorb. It’s part of our role. We are not clinicians with clients. We are pastors within communities. Professional distance is not our thing. Enmeshed in the relationships of ministry, we soak things up. Like pastoral dishrags, we absorb pain and struggle, disappointment and anger, anxiety and longing. And we do it every day. It may not be listed in our job descriptions, but a certain amount of absorbing goes with the territory.

Sometimes it’s part of our daily commitment to listening. As pastors, we listen empathically. We feel with people. It’s not that we feel pain for them. Though I often wish I could relieve others of their struggles, I can’t and I shouldn’t. Differentiation is a good and healthy thing. The fact remains: our availability to absorb something of the pain of those we care for, ‘to walk the mile and bear the load’, is a mark of good pastoring.

At other times it’s gathered up in our role of representation. Whether we relish it or not, we pastors are the public face of an institution much bigger than we are, and one that has caused its share of hurt and exclusion. Sometimes we are at the receiving end of the anger that results, anger that has to be directed somewhere and at someone. As pastor of a historic city church—one that has establishment written all over it—I absorb my fair share of community angst and disappointment. It’s hard to avoid.

And then there is the soaking up that is more personal and closer to home. Routinely, we pastors must absorb disappointments in our own ministries or in the ministry of the churches we lead. Certainly these deeply-felt critiques can be unreasonable or misplaced—words that say much more about the critic than they do about the church or its pastor—but we still hear them. And then there are those that are justified, critiques that identity failures we have no choice but to own. Our willingness to absorb does not always set things aright, but it’s an essential first step.

Whatever it is that we absorb—pastoral, institutional or personal—there are moments when the vocational dishrag sits limp and heavy in the sink, so full of all that is has soaked up it can take nothing more. There comes a time when the dishrag has to be wrung out and left to dry before being taken up again. Frankly, dishrags that are not routinely soaked, rinsed and aired begin to smell.

Identifying ways to wring out the dishrag on a regular basis is essential to our longevity in this business. The disciplines of dishrag laundering are worth noting for every pastor, no matter how elementary they sound. Here are three of mine.

dirty dish ragConfession—Daily rituals of personal confession go a long way to keeping the dishrag in good shape. By confession I do not mean simply, ‘I have sinned.’ Certainly confession is about owning our failures, but even more it’s about naming our daily dependence upon God and acknowledging the boundaries of our humanity. Every morning I pray a simple prayer which includes the words, ‘Lord, grant me the humility to know my limitations.’ We know its truth: there are no messiahs in the church apart from Jesus. Our daily confession puts that into words.

Accountability—Pastors need places and relationships in which they allow others the right to speak into their lives, to name what they see and voice what they hear. If the dishrag is on the nose, you need someone who can tell you. Call it whatever you will—spiritual direction, peer supervision, mentoring, or simply meeting with a colleague for coffee and honest conversation—the routine rituals of accountability in pastoral leadership are non-negotiable. Discerning the difference between healthy absorption and slow drowning is something we can’t do alone.

Rest—I’ve learned the lessons of rest from experience. Like many others, it’s only been in failing to give rest its proper place I’ve learned its worth. Frankly, the stench of an unrested pastor can fill a room and the damage we do to ourselves, our churches, and those we love is nothing short of rank. Leave a heavily soiled and wet dishrag to sit unlaundered for too long and there’s no other course of action than to bin it. Routine disciplines of rest provide the space we desperately need to keep the dishrag in use longer term.

I drink tea with old ladies

Not so long ago I sat listening to a young and gifted pastor tell his story of ministry. With rungs on the board, books to his name and much to be proud of, he’s a leader with growing influence. A line of youthful pastors-in-training were seated in the front row taking down his every word. I was inspired as they were, but I was also troubled.

When this pastor was asked about his priorities in ministry, he quipped, ‘Well, I certainly don’t sit around drinking cups of tea with little old ladies!’ There was an immediate chuckle across the room. This ‘image of irrelevance’, a well-used cliche in the church, was instantly recognisable to those listening. Its inference? When it comes to ministry that is ‘strategic’ and ‘missional’, there are certain activities that just don’t rate.

On one hand, his point is understandable. There is a valid need for the contemporary pastor to distance him or herself from the equally cliched image of the elderly country vicar sitting with genteel parishioners, teacup in hand and the village church across the field behind them. Nestled securely in the age of Christendom, the vicar’s primary task was maintenance. How different the place of the church today and how demanding the ever-changing nature of our task.

On the other hand, this young pastor’s image of irrelevance is deeply flawed and betrays a view of ministry that needs challenging. The diminishment of his words is extraordinary. The crass dismissal of age and gender to begin with; add the word ‘little’ and the designation is nothing short of insulting. And then, of course, there’s our understanding of what constitutes worth in the ‘investment’ of our time.

I do drink tea with old ladies, and with old men too. Granted, it’s a time consuming business, but I understand it to be as central to my pastoral calling as anything else I do. Oh, and not one of them is little. More often than not, when it comes to character and spirit, they tower above me. Very often these women and men have given their lives to the church. They are the shoulders upon which young pastors like this one stand. While they are certainly not saints to be venerated, they are gifts to be valued and esteemed.

Too often older people in our congregations become invisible to a church and its leaders infatuated with youth. The designation of ‘little’ speaks volumes about how older people in our communities feel and what priority we give to their voice, to their experience and participation. The truth is, when they are diminished, we are all diminished.

So, I’ll take mine with milk and one sugar thanks.

Baptists and same-sex marriage

I am a Baptist and I support gay marriage.

I know that among Baptists I am in the minority on this issue. I also know this sets me apart from friends and colleagues I hold in high regard. But that’s OK. Given our aversion to creeds, our adherence to freedom of conscience among believers, and our commitment to the autonomy of the local church, we Baptists have room to differ. And we do. What troubles me is the energy with which some gatekeepers of Baptist life move to distance our denomination from people like me whenever our view is made public.

Back in July last year, my good friend and fellow Baptist pastor Nathan Nettleton appeared on ABC television’s Compass program expressing his support for same-sex marriage. That this is his personal view he made crystal clear. The very next day, Australian Baptist Ministries (ABM) hurriedly posted on its website a press-release entitled Marriage is not for same sex couples, say Baptists, claiming ‘the numbers’ and firmly distancing itself from Nathan, painting him some sort of ecclesial lone-ranger. Most notably, it expressed ABM’s regret that Nathan should ‘fail to consult with Australian Baptist leaders’ before expressing his views on national television. In fact, Nathan is one of the most open and consultative Baptist pastors I know, and he certainly did talk with denominational leaders prior to his public appearance on the issue. That he and his position should be dismissed so easily is poor form on our part.

Last week another piece appeared, this time penned more personally by Rod Benson, consultant ethicist to ABM, in response to the ‘renegade Baptist pastor’ Mike Hercock. Like Nathan, Mike also speaks in support of same-sex marriage and does so publically. Boldly titled Baptists overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage, a statement correct in itself, Rod’s article goes on to rather crassly discredit Mike as a lone promoter of an un-Baptist, un-biblical and un-Christian position. Again this ‘renegade’ Baptist is isolated from the faithful majority and summarily dismissed.

I don’t know Mike personally, but as colleagues in ministry surely we owe him more respect than that. Follow the thread of comments that flow from these pieces and you find others in our Baptist fold who want us to ‘distance ourselves’ from Mike ‘until he admits his error.’ It sounds like the old practice of shunning is making a comeback.

It feels to me as though we Baptists are afraid of the public perception that we hold a diversity of views on issues like this one and I really don’t understand why. If ABM can write submissions and ‘policy documents’ on behalf of the majority—ones that I personally don’t adhere to and have never been asked to affirm by any representative Baptist body—why can’t we allow Mike to write his submissions without branding him a traitor to Baptist truth and goodness? Aren’t we bigger than that?

I have no beef with the right of all Baptists to state their views on this and any issue with conviction. Absolutely. But please, wherever we stand on this issue or others, let’s do so without discrediting the integrity of the one we disagree with, belittling their commitment to faithful discipleship, or, worst of all, distancing ourselves from them. After all, we are Baptists together in ministry and mission.

I, for one, stand with Mike and Nathan on this issue. I am well aware that we hold a minority view among Baptist leaders. But I am grieved deeply when our perspective on this issue sees us branded ‘renegades’ who fly solo or unauthorized edge-dwellers who tarnish the good Baptist name. We are not members of some marginal far left faction who can be dismissed because ‘the numbers’ are against us. Personally, I would like to think that I have a little more credibility than that. To suggest that my ‘error’ renders me an unfaithful disregarder of what is true and biblical is simply ignorant of my position and my ministry.

Rod Benson, a fellow Baptist leader I respect, makes the claim that he is ‘not aware of any other Baptist minister in Australia [apart from Mike], ordained or otherwise, who has taken such extraordinary steps to express his personal views on the subject of same sex marriage.’ While this may be true as some technical tally of words written, what it infers more broadly is simply wrong.

Let me say again as I have said in many other places and forums: I am a Baptist and I support gay marriage.

Simon Carey Holt
Senior Minister
Collins Street Baptist Church