Thursday, January 3, 2013

A History Lesson

I come from a long line of pastors/preachers.  As my wife would say, "The force runs strong in your family."

I actually picked up the mantle passed down from my grandfather--Roy Grote who literally laid the stole on me at my ordination.  My other grandfather always hoped one of his grandkids would become a pastor, and my grandmother once told me he hoped it would be me.  Even my dad told me a story I hold near and dear to my heart regarding my calling--a story that will bear repeating in time, but not at this time.

In a very real way, even though I had no clue while growing up, this calling was laid upon me even before I was born.  Now, I have the joy of working for Christ and His Church in this day and age and wrestling with unchanging Truth in a rapidly changing world.

It was with this in mind that I had a conversation with my mother while on vacation earlier this week.  As we conversed, I mused over my calling to serve in rural Texas.  "I'm just a country preacher," I commented.

"But so was your grandfather," Mom said.

Therein we launched into remembering what it was like for grandpa to serve as a pastor in the late 1940's through the early 1980's.  We talked about how us country preachers trade an opportunity to witness to great numbers of people for the quality of relationships we build and the deep, personal change that we see in our parishioners (and in ourselves).  In some cases, it really is about quality versus quantity, although I do not see the two as mutually exclusive.  Sometimes, numerical numbers manifest themselves as is evident in the congregation I serve.

As the conversation meandered, I was struck by something about my grandfather.  He was a gardener, and not your typical, small, backyard gardener type.  Grandpa had acres of garden!  It's no joke: two or three acres of garden minimum.  Now, for those of you who actually garden, you know the task of trying to manage such a large garden.  You know the time investment it requires to keep a garden like that weed and insect free.  You know the investment in keeping it watered.  You know the investment it takes for harvesting and putting up the produce.  It's hours upon hours of work.  And I mused, "How in the world did grandpa manage to keep that garden and work 40 hours-plus per week?"

It was a rhetorical question because I knew the answer.  Grandpa didn't "work" 40 hours a week.  There was no way he could, and my mom confirmed it. 

In those days, office hours were almost nil.  Pastors were out and about visiting the sick and shut-in, and when that was done, there was some sermon prep time, but that didn't need to be done in the office.  It could be done with a hoe in one's hand, sitting in a deer stand, painting a portrait, or myriads of other activities where the mind is allowed to be open to hearing the voice of God.  Pastors did not try to consume themselves with every detail of congregational life.  They did not try to start programs to "save" their dying churches (as very few churches were dying at that time).  They did not invent stuff for themselves to do to convince themselves and others that they were busy, productive people.  They moved with the flow of life, listening for God's voice, proclaiming what they heard to their people, and allowed people within their congregations to handle the everyday chores of keeping the church running. 

At this point, let me offer a disclaimer, perhaps not all pastors did such things.  Perhaps it was only my grandfather, but I have a sneaky suspicion more than a few operated in this fashion. 

I know the argument now arises, "That was a different time and a different place.  Things have changed.  There are different expectations.  Pastors have to act differently.  They have to do things differently."

Perhaps.  Perhaps, but does this necessarily follow?  Just because something is in the past and times have changed, does that mean there are not lessons to learn from that past?  Does that mean that a changing world demands a change in how we function and operate?  Not necessarily.

I wondered aloud with my mom, "If we as pastors try to fill and occupy all our time with "busyness", where do we find time to listen to God and find His direction for our sermons and our lives?  If we invent all kinds of stuff for us to do, when do we take the time to be?  If we are expected to turn in laundry lists of all our accomplishments and hours spent, would listing, 'Listening for God's voice,' be an acceptable answer?"

Somewhere along the line, I think a couple of things happened in our congregations:

1. We adapted to a capitalistic model which values "busyness" and productivity over spirituality, and we expected our pastors to adhere to the same model.

2. We started believing we had to change drastically to keep up with a drastically changing world instead of learning how to better articulate our message in said, changing world.

3. We got frightened by the decline of our congregations and instead of slowing down, listening, and waiting on God's voice, we became frantic and trying to do everything we can to stop the decline.

Perhaps we were misguided. 

Perhaps we missed the boat.

Perhaps in trying to be relevant, we severed connection with the one thing that not only makes us truly relevant but gives us the power and strength to be relevant.

Ah, I can hear it now.  "Pastor Haug, you are just trying to give us excuses as to why you should work less.  You are just trying to be lazy and not do your job.  I can see where you are going in this blog, and it's not going to work.  You need to work and be busy and be productive."

There is some merit in that comment, but let me then ask this question: are churches in the U.S. generally better off today than they were back when most pastors were "doing" less?  Are congregations and churches thriving more as pastors make themselves "busy?" 

If we are honest in our evaluation, we have to say that churches across the board in the U.S. are in a worse way than before.  In no way am I suggesting that there is any quick fix, but I am questioning whether or not the idea of a busy pastor is a good idea.  Might it be better if our pastors spent more time in quiet times of reflection and listening to discern God's will instead of running from meeting to meeting; from activity to activity; from appointment to appointment trying to justify their paychecks?  What if we shifted our focus to realizing that the pastor is provided the means to listen to God without the interference of "busyness"?  And how would a more relaxed, spiritually nourished leader affect our congregations?

If history is any indication, it might be worth trying again.

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