Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Another Year, More Lessons Learned

It has been customary for me on my birthday for the past several years to reflect upon the previous year and the lessons I have learned in that year.  I am several days late in that reflection as my birthday fell on my day off.  That day off was spent in preparation for my eldest daughter's birthday the following day as well as our immediate family's celebration of her birthday.  Then, came the extended family's party.  The next day was church and the last day of hunting season.  Monday is usually posting my sermon from the previous Sunday, so as events unfolded, I finally find the time to post such reflections--four days late.  Oh, well.

Here's my thoughts on finishing up my 38th year and beginning my 39th:

1. The biggest lesson came in experiencing burnout.  That really, really sucked, but as I look back, it was probably one of the best things that could have happened to me.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Going through burnout helped me grow tremendously as a father and husband, as a person, and as a pastor.

  • As a husband and father: I vividly remember an episode that happened as I entered the initial stages of burnout.  I had hit the emotional wall and in some ways began toning out and shutting down.  My wife made the comment, "I can see what's happening.  It's just like back in Seguin before we left.  You are starting to shut down and aren't having fun."  Right then, I made a promise internally and externally.  I looked right at my wife and said, "This time will be different.  I will not take things out on you or on our family.  I will not bring work home.  I can't do that to you or the kids."  And I didn't.  I worked on being a better husband and father in that respect.  I wouldn't allow the burnout at work to affect my family, and I don't think it did.  In fact, it made me re-emphasize the importance of my family and the calling I have to be there for them.

  • As a person: I really and truly learned to prioritize.  I really and truly learned that I cannot change anyone but myself.  I really and truly realized that making disciples is more about strengthening one's own relationship with Christ instead of trying to make others do such a thing.
Prioritizing: I was trying to do too much.  I realize that now.  I realize it is not my job to do everything but to focus on the things I am supposed to do.  As I worked my way through things, I knew my most important priorities were following Christ, passing my faith down to my kids, and reaching out to those who don't live in a relationship with Christ.  I started looking at all I was doing and started making adjustments so that these priorities took precedence.  Somethings have been cut out.  Some things get less attention, but for my health, the health of my faith, the health of my chilren's faith, and the health of my congregation and it's faith, it must be done.  I've realized being spread too thin distracts from the most important things even if some feel attention is lacking.

Changing self and making disciples: I have a dream about my congregation.  It's not just a dream for my congregation, but for the entire church.  I, like others, long for a church full of people who long and yearn to make Christ the ultimate priority in their lives.  I long for a church where people are passionate about making disciples.  I long for a church where people are enthusiastic about inviting others to church, welcome them with genuine hospitality, truly care for those both outside and inside the walls of the church, and are uber generous to the point where bills are paid and there is plenty of money to give away--even frivolously.  I dream of a congregation growing exponentially because it puts into practice these tenets and refuses to get bogged down in controversy or anxiety or animosity or brokenness.  I dream of a church that says, "We have more important things to do than squabble over such matters.  We have a message to tell that can change lives and change the world!"  And the church does it.  And thrives.  And grows.  And has a sense of purpose, and joy, and peace.

I thought it was my job to make all that happen.  I got caught up in the idea that I had to work super-hard to bring such a dream to fruition.  I know that can't happen now.  I know the harder I try to make people fall into line with such a vision, the further from reality it will become.  I know the harder I push people to be like I want them to be, the more they will refuse.  Not because they don't necessarily share that vision, but because people don't like being told how they should and shouldn't be and what they should and shouldn't do.  I recognize there are boundaries.  So do most folks, but there is a great difference between voluntarily doing what one should do and being told one has to do it! 

I understand my role as a pastor is not necessarily to make people do what I think they should do, but to let them know what I am working toward--to invite them to be a part of the process--and to love them, genuinely and truly love them, even if they choose not to participate in that process.  It is my job to change, not my congregation, but myself.  It is my job to be open to the Spirit's prompting to become more like Jesus--as imperfectly as that process is--and follow Him showing others the same love He showed me.  And as I change, as I do my own part to reach out for that dream of the church, others may catch that vision and work toward it as well.  But even if they don't, it's okay.  I'm not called to change others, just to love them.  It's God's job to make that change occur.  I need to get out of the way. 

It was a hard lesson to learn, but I really believe I am better for it now.

  • As a pastor: Because of the above, I spend less time trying to manage all the details of life in my congregation.  I've worked to become more and more "hands off" with what is going on in the congregation.
At first thought, this might seem counter-intuitive.  Why in the world would a pastor draw back?  Why in the world would a pastor stop involving himself in all the different decisions being made in his own congregation?  That doesn't sound like leadership.  That sounds like an abdication of responsibility.

Perhaps it is.  Perhaps.  And in some ways, it is an abdication; however, I realize that I lost sight of something very important--something I understood when I first arrived in Cat Spring.  It is my job--whenever it occurs--to leave this congregation in better shape than when I first found it. 

What would happen to this congregation if every decision had to run through my desk?  What if people felt like they had to have my approval for every little jot and tittle of ministry that they wanted to do?  What if people didn't feel like they had the freedom to make their own ministry decisions?  And what if I was actually doing all the work and preventing people from handling the business of the church?  What if I handled all the stuff because it was just easier for me to do it?  I was already there?  People didn't "care" as much as I did (that's really a stupid thought in all reality)?

If a congregation's mission and ministry hinges on a pastor, then when that pastor leaves or retires or what have you, then the mission and ministry collapses.  Plain and simple.  Therefore, in order to leave a congregation better than when I found it, it is paramount that the mission, ministry, and decision making revolve around the people in the pews and not the pastor.  I can serve as a guide, as a resource of Christian thought and doctrine, as a proclaimer of God's Word and an administer of the Sacraments; but I do the congregation a great injustice if I try to "do" all the work of the congregation.

Somehow, I lost sight of that.  Somehow, I felt the need to do more and more.  I took on too much responsibility.  I was not being a good pastor.  I had to change.

And I did.  I'm working much harder at "being" instead of "doing."  I'm working much harder at cheering on my congregation members as they step up to the plate and do the work God has called them to do.  Case in point: this past Sunday, we were taking down Christmas decorations, and a member approached me concerning the star at the top of the tree.

"It bothers me we don't have lights on the star.  It's bothered me for several years.  Do you think anyone will get mad if I take the star and put lights on it?  Will they plug it in next year?"

I replied, "I'm not going to tell you not to do it.  If you want to put lights on that star, go for it!"

It might seem like a little thing, but someone is doing something for the church.  Someone is actively getting involved.  Not necessarily in an earth shattering way, but in a way that enables this person to take pride in doing something this person feels he/she can do.  And with a little start, putting lights on a star can translate into serving on the Altar Guild--which could translate into being president of the Women of the Church--which could translate into serving on church council--which could translate into asking the congregation to support a poor family or a ministry going on around the world. 

As a pastor, I have rediscovered the adage: GET OUT OF THE WAY AND LET THE PEOPLE DO WHAT THEY CAN DO TO SERVE GOD.  Don't try to force them.  They will do their part.  It won't necessarily be the way you do it, but there are more than a few ways to skin a cat.  Be their pastor.  Don't do their work.  Lead and guide.  Give them permission to be and do as God calls them.  Love them, let God change them if that is His plan.  Don't be arrogant and think you know what is best for everyone in your congregation--be humble.  Pray.  Preach.  Laugh.  Learn.  Teach.  Love.  Be there when called.  Show compassion.  Strive to be like Christ.  Dream.  Seek first God's Kingdom, and everything else will follow.

Again, a tough lesson for someone who wants to do, who wants to accomplish.  But a lesson learned. 

All this, and just from going through burnout.  There are more lessons I learned this past year, but this post is getting a little long.  Perhaps more will be added later.  Until then...

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