Pastors and Teachers: Sermon for the Installation of the Rev. Heidi Carrington Heath

The following was preached on Sunday, March 13, 2016 for the Installation of the Rev. Heidi Carrington Heath as the Associate Pastor of First Parish Church in Derry, New Hampshire:

Installations are oddly named events.

I know this has all been said before, but it bears repeating. We think of “installation” and we think about setting up washing machines or installing a piece of software or going to an art installation. We don’t think about something having to do with an active human being. Even other professions use words like “inauguration” to talk about the start of a new position.

But here in the church world we have stuck to “installation”. No one is exactly sure why, but that’s okay. The good news about church installations, though, is that unlike installing your dishwasher or a new computer program, this is a pretty exciting occasion.

Representatives from all over the Rockingham Association and the greater UCC are here. Heidi’s friends have come to Derry today. The choir is singing special pieces, and there’s a big reception down in the fellowship hall afterwards. We are making a pretty big deal about this installation of Heidi Carrington Heath.

And that’s why I think it’s so important that we remember that today is not about Heidi. Not really, anyway.

165959_10154423704977538_3898712089897527048_nSome of you were at Heidi’s ordination back in December. That was an amazing day, full of celebration. And that day was not just about Heidi either, but it definitely was about God’s call on her. She made ordination vows, and we laid on hands and prayed for her. That day was about who God has called Heidi to be.

But today is about First Parish Church of East Derry, and the chapter of ministry that God is now calling you into together. And that’s why the words we read from Ephesians are so important this morning. Paul writes to the Ephesians that, “the gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

You have called Heidi to be a “pastor and teacher” of this congregation. She has been called to the ministry by God, and she has been trained and equipped to do the work that is set before her. But she is not called into this ministry alone. Every one of you who is a member of this congregation is being called into this ministry too.

That is because we are all called to specific forms of ministry by the very fact that we have been baptized into Christ’s body. The calling of pastors and teachers is specific, but it is not any more valuable than any other calling. And in a congregation, if the pastors are the only ones who are living into their call to ministry, that is not sustainable. Each of you has a calling, and by being here today, you are saying you are going to listen to that calling so that Heidi can effectively live into hers as a pastor and teacher of this church.

And that’s why this reminder from Paul is so important here. Listen to what he tells the church in Ephesus about there callings: “I therefore…beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Unless you are willing to live into that calling together, there is no point going forward in this installation. Unless you are willing to, as Paul says, “live a life worth of the calling” and work together to make this a place of exceptional ministry, you cannot hope to have a vibrant ministry here.

You have stepped out in faith to call Heidi. You have listened for the voice of God and, after discernment, you have created a new associate pastor position. That means that you have helped to create this ministry, and by installing Heidi into this position you are not simply turning it over. You are saying that you will continue to live into your own calling to ministry, and that you will serve with her. You are taking these installation vows alongside of her.

And so, in that spirit, I want to offer a few reminders that I offer at every installation I’m asked to preach at. First, a reminder that Heidi has been called to ministry here. She has not been hired, and she is not your employee. She has been brought by God to this ministry, and you have affirmed that call.

That means that, unlike an employee, sometimes she is going to say and do things that challenge you, or that push you out of your comfort zones. That’s her job. Know that she will never do those things to be unkind or difficult. She will only do them because she truly believes she is doing what God asks of her.

Also remember that just because she is not an employee it doesn’t mean that she is any less invested in her work. Trust me, I live with her. Heidi works hard for you because she is already living into this covenant with you.

That also means that, like every clergy person I know, Heidi is going to overwork at times. And so, if you want to keep her running at her best, make her practice self-care. Make her take time off. Make her do continuing education and professional development. Make her take the time and space she needs to be refreshed so that she can serve you creatively.

Next, remember that while she is “installed” she is different than other things that get installed. She is not a laundry machine or dish washer that you load up, flip on, and walk away from while she does all the work.

Nor is she a software program or an app that has been installed at the church and which will now solve all your problems. Nor is she a piece of artwork whose job it is to remain passively in its place.

Heidi is a pastor and teacher. She is one your pastors and teachers. And the single greatest predictor of great she will be at that role is this: how you choose to minister with her, and how you live into your own calls to ministry.

And so, as you get ready to start this new chapter of ministry together, I have one piece of advice that I hope you’ll take to heart. And that’s this: pray. Pray for Heidi. Pray for all who serve your church. Pray for your church itself.

I don’t say this lightly. I’m not saying just do it today, or whenever you think of it. I’m asking you to commit to regularly, even daily, praying for your clergy and for this congregation. Pray that God would bless your clergy with insight and faithfulness. Pray that your church would proclaim the Gospel and serve the world. But most of all, pray that God would make clear to you your own call to ministry in this place, and that God would give you the ability to live into that calling every day.

God has great things in store for you, First Parish. Today is just a reminder of that fact. And as you turn the page on that new chapter, I pray that you would keep writing this story with Heidi, and with one another. It’s going to be an incredible one; I just know it. Amen.

What Kind of a Pastor Does Your Church Really Want?

About six months ago I started a new call as the senior pastor of a church in New Hampshire. I truly loved the congregation I previously served, but with a wife who had just graduated from seminary herself, and a feeling that God was nudging me to something new, I began the long discernment that comes with a pastoral search process.

Unlike my first search process, where I sent my profile (the UCC version of a pastor’s resume) to just about every church that was searching, I was more selective this time. I wasn’t willing to move for anything less than the right call, which is a great luxury for a searching pastor. But it also meant that I ended up saying “no” a lot. I love a challenge, but I did not feel called to a place where my understanding of ministry, and the church’s, were so radically different that we were in fundamentally different places.

The Rev. John Wheelwright, the first Pastor and Teacher of the church I now serve.

The Rev. John Wheelwright, the first Pastor and Teacher of the church I now serve.

The biggest thing I learned is that everyone says they want a pastor, but not everyone means the same thing when they say that. Here are just some of the understandings of what it meant to be a pastor that I encountered in my search:

Chaplain – No disrespect meant to chaplains (I was one for eight years) but the role of a parish pastor and that of a chaplain are very different. And yet, over and over I met parishes who wanted someone to spend most of their time “doing home and hospital visits”.

I’m always glad to visit, but the first question I had for churches who wanted this was “Who does this now?” Most of the time the answer was “no one…that’s the pastor’s job”. This was always a huge red flag for me because the work of visitation is supposed to be done by all Christians, not just the pastor. In fact, having a strong and vibrant network of lay visitors is a great sign of church vitality. You don’t have to go to seminary to make a visit, after all; you just need to love the people of your church.

Fundraiser – In my interviews when the time came for me to ask questions I asked “What’s the biggest crisis facing this church right now?” More times then not I was told “money”. Churches said they didn’t have enough of it, or people weren’t pledging like they used to, or expenses were too high. Then they often asked me, “How can you help us fix that?”

The reality is that I like talking about stewardship in the church. I think it’s a key part of the Christian life. But, the pastor can’t be your church’s “fundraiser”. The pastor can help to set the tone for the conversation, but they cannot control the bottom line. The money has to come from the congregation itself, and the stewardship campaign itself needs to be run by faithful and creative lay leaders. A new pastor will not be the magic bullet that balances your church’s budget.

Complaint Box – This works two ways. First, people complain to the pastor about everything that they think is wrong with the church, and expect them to immediately fix it. Later, when they don’t, people complain to the pastor about everything that is wrong with the pastor.

Some of the churches I talked to spent their interview complaining about everything from the fact not as many people came to church anymore to the fact their last pastor was “terrible” (a red flag for interviewing pastors if ever there was one). Those were the churches that I knew were ready to blame everyone else for what wasn’t going right. And every pastor knows that it only takes so long until they will become the sacrificial lamb in a church like that.

Entertainer – I will be the first to say that pastors need to do their best to not preach boring, lifeless, irrelevant sermons. And yet, so many churches I talked to wanted someone who would be “funny”, or “tell us stories” in the pulpit. A few even noted that they loved when their pastor sang solos on Sunday mornings. They wanted a pastor who would entertain them!

But that’s not the role of a pastor in the pulpit. The pastor’s job in preaching is to present the text in a way that is faithful to Scripture and relatable to the congregation. Hopefully they won’t do that in a way that puts everyone to sleep, but at the end of the day the church would do better with more faithful preachers than more “entertaining” ones.

Recruiter – “What will you do to increase our membership?” It’s the question candidates get all the time from churches. The expectation is that a new pastor needs to come in and build up Sunday attendance and church membership. In this way the pastor becomes the church recruiter, and is even seen as a sort of potential savior. (That should be a red flag, if it’s not.)

But while a new pastor might draw a few more visitors, they can’t be the person responsible for building church membership up. Even if they go door to door to invite new people to church, if those people come to church and don’t feel welcomed by the congregation they will not stay. Instead, every church member needs to be responsible for inviting others, welcoming them on Sunday, and then helping to make them part of the congregation.

Kept sheep – My go-to “softball” question for search committees was a no-brainer: Do you want a pastor who is involved in your community? Usually search committees jumped on this and said “yes, of course!” But in one interview I asked the committee this question and, instead of hearing “yes”, I instead heard “well…maybe”. The committee then went on to say that they thought their pastor would have enough to do just serving them. They didn’t want their pastor to get involved in local organizations, to hold drop-in hours out in the community, or to do much in the wider church.

This interview reminded me of a question I heard someone ask a church years ago: “Do you want a shepherd? Or a kept sheep?” Of course almost every church will say the former but, the egregious example above aside, how many mean it? Do you really want a pastor who will serve your community and the wider church? Or do you just want a pastor who will serve the people who are already in your church? Healthy congregations don’t just “allow” their clergy to engage the world beyond the church’s four walls; they encourage it.

Pastor and Teacher – This is the one I was looking for, and the one I found. The Letter to the Ephesians talks about how Christ has given each of us different gifts and graces. The author writes, “The gifts (Christ) gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…”

For most of us in the United Church of Christ our call agreements state that we are becoming “pastor and teacher” of a local church. At the end of the day, that’s what I believe a clergy person is called to be. We are called to faithfully shepherd a congregation in their life together, and to teach that congregation about Christ’s love for all.

Signing the pastor making me "pastor and teacher" of my current church.

Signing the pastoral contract making me “pastor and teacher” of my current church.

What that entails can look different for each congregation, but at the end of the day your pastor should be doing the ministry that they have been prepared for through calling and training. And they can’t do that ministry well if they are also taking on the responsibilities that belong to, and can and should be carried out by, all members of your congregation.

So, what kind of pastor does your church really want? If you are a congregation in search, or even just a congregation trying to figure out where it wants to go, take the time to ask yourself this question. And then, if necessary, adjust expectations. If you do, you will free your pastor to do the ministry God has equipped them to do best. And, more importantly, you will see the people of your church stepping up to do the ministry God has equipped them to do as well.

The Tyranny of Consensus: Why the Church Needs to Reject the Idol of Unanimity

Remember those “What I Learned on my Summer Vacation” essays from school? Think of this post as one of those. A little over two weeks ago I finished my pastorate in Vermont and moved to Exeter, New Hampshire, where I will be starting a new pastorate a week from today.

Last week we found that our new town doesn’t have fireworks on the Fourth of July. The reason is not that these folks don’t love their history. Exeter played an active part in the American Revolution, and even has a museum dedicated to American independence here in town. Instead, the town chooses to honor their history by pushing their celebration from the 4th of July until a date later in the month when in 1776 one of the first copies of the Declaration of Independence arrived in town and was read to the assembled crowds.

declaration

A broadside of the Declaration of Independence. A broadside like this was read in Exeter later in July of 1776.

Here’s how you might picture that event in your mind 238 years later: a guy in a three-cornered hat rides into town holding the Declaration. Someone else stands in the middle of a crowd and reads it. And then, because everyone loves freedom, there was a huge block party complete with fireworks and everyone was happy to be an American.

Except that’s not how it happened.

At the festival here in town a re-enactor does read the Declaration to the crowd. But instead of being met with cheers and applause (though there are some of those) other re-enactors heckle him and decry the new document. The moment is recreated to be historically accurate: tense, full of conflict, and rooted in the assurance that everything was going to change for this town, this colony, and the twelve others who would somehow cobble together a new country.

As I think about what those first days and months must have been like for those who supported independence, I wonder whether it would be possible today. Would we have the moral courage to forge ahead on a path that must have seemed so shaky? Could we make a decision so many seemed to deride? Would we proclaim it from the center of town? Or would we just slink silently away, not wanting to cause a stir?

You may think I’m talking about politics right now, but I’m thinking about the church. Because when it comes to doing something risky, and when it comes to moving ahead, even when some people aren’t in agreement, the church is sometimes incredibly bad at it.

Have you ever heard church leaders say that they want consensus? Have you ever heard a pastor or deacon say they want a unanimous vote on some given matter like starting a new form of mission? Did they spend countless hours worrying about how to appeal to a few people who are vocal opposition, rather than working with the majority who are excited about moving forward? And were they scared to death that someone would be so unhappy that they would leave the church?

When I was in seminary learning how to “seek consensus” seemed to be the most important skill a pastor could acquire. And, it is important to promote unity in the church and to try to hear everyone’s perspective. Sometimes, you’ll even find that everyone is on the exact same page.

But, on the other hand, I’ve watched at a distance as churches have imploded because of their need for consensus. In one case it was because the vast majority of the church wanted to become Open and Affirming but a few members (including major donors) did not and threatened to leave. And so, because the church was not going to have a unanimous vote, the church made a “decision to make no decision” in an effort to keep everyone happy. Of course, no one was. And over the next few years more and more people left that church until a skeleton crew remained.

In another parish the congregation wanted to reach out to their neighborhood and address the growing addiction crisis in the community that surrounded it. A majority of members felt convicted that they were being called to this new ministry. But a minority felt it was “a waste of resources” and “a distraction”. Even though there was more passion for this particular proposal than the parish had seen in some time, the idea was eventually dropped for fear that it would cause contention. To my knowledge, this parish has not engaged in any other form of mission in their community in the years since.

The reality of church leadership, like any kind of leadership, is this: you will rarely find that a good idea is received with unanimous approval. And, in those rare cases where you stand on the edge of something great, you might have more than just a handful of dissenters.

This is natural. It’s easy to ask people to follow you into a place where there is no risk. Do that and you can get consensus every single time. But It’s a lot harder to ask them to actually risk something, make a commitment, and try something new. And yet, a willingness to change is the only way for a parish to be resilient enough to survive.

A year ago I watched a pastor I respect lead her parish through a contentious decision-making process. The lines were drawn, a vocal minority sent letters to every stakeholder, and more than a few threatened to leave. But in the midst of all of this, that pastor didn’t back away from showing leadership. She told her parishioners what she felt the church needed to do, backing it up with both sound theology and cold, hard facts. And she joined them in conversation and prayers of discernment.

But when people came to her with threats of leaving or withdrawing support if the vote did not go their way, she did what too few pastors do: She said, in variations of these words, “I’m very sorry to hear that. You will be missed. But I hope you can respect that the majority of this church feels this is where God is calling us now.” And she blessed them on their way. (It should be noted that very few actually left.)

Too often the church becomes a place where we don’t want to alienate anyone. And so, we alienate everyone. We become conflict-averse to the point that we become stuck, so fearful of our own shadow that we can’t move. And slowly we stop becoming a community of disciples, and we start becoming a museum of a faith community that once was.

There are enough of those already. And I don’t think that’s what Jesus was talking about when he called us to this risk-filled path called faith.

So, what did I do on my summer vacation? I waited a couple of weeks for my fireworks. And I learned a little more about pastoral leadership.

 

How to Be a Pentecost Church: Five Pointers for Congregations

This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday in the church. It’s the Sunday when churches everywhere are filled with the color red, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, and we celebrate a story from the church’s earliest days. On Pentecost we remember how the Holy Spirit came to the early disciples like a “mighty wind” and rested on them with “tongues of fire”. Suddenly they were able to speak in the languages they did not know, and all the people gathered around them in Jerusalem, a host of nations, were able to understand what the disciples were saying.

There’s a tendency in the church to think that everyone is supposed to learn our language. But if you look at the Pentecost story, you find the exact opposite is true. The Holy Spirit could have easily touched everyone around the early disciples so that they could understand the language the disciples spoke. But instead, it was the disciples who were transformed. They were the ones who learned new languages, ones they could use to communicate with people using the words they already knew.

So why does the church sometimes miss the point?

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No, really. This Pentecost stuff is going to be fun.

We often talk about how our church is very welcoming, but new members are few and far between. And often it’s true…many churches are extremely good at welcoming visitors who walk through the front doors. But the first place we should be meeting people is not inside our buildings. It’s out where they (and we) live.

The Pentecost story reminds us that witnessing to Christ is not about our own convenience. It’s about being radically transformed by the Holy Spirit so that we can speak the language (literally and metaphorically) of those God wants us to love and serve. Pentecost reminds us that we cannot sit ideally back and wait for people to learn our ways. We have to be the ones who learn new ways.

So how do we do that? Here are some suggestions:

1. Check out your social media presence.

If this seems like a strange place to start, that might be part of your church’s issue. I’ve heard countless people in churches deride what they see as an over-dependence on social media in younger generations. Facebook, Twitter, texting, and the like are seen as distractions and barriers to community.

But in reality, social media can be a wonderful way to build community. I don’t believe it can ever replace face-to-face interactions, but it can help to spread your message. If you talk to your Generation X and Millennial parishioners, in fact, you might find that a surprising number of them found your church via social media. The days of looking in a phone book for a church, or even just knowing where a church is located, are over. For many a Google search will be their first stop in their search for a new church.

So make it count. If your church doesn’t have a webpage, you need one now. You can get a domain name for $18 a year and build a page on WordPress, so there is no excuse. And, if you do have a webpage, give it an honest assessment. Is it up-to-date? Are your address and service times clearly displayed? Could a visitor determine whether or not they would be welcome at your church? Is there information about programming and what you believe? Is there contact information? Are there pictures of people and not just the building?

And don’t limit yourself to a webpage. A Facebook “like” page is free and a great way to spread the word about your church. Use the page to post updates, photos, reminders, sermon links, and more. Encourage members to “like” and “share” posts on their page. You’ll be surprised how a post can go viral in no time. When the daughter of one of my current church’s members won a silver medal in the Olympics this winter, for instance, we posted a photo congratulating her. That photo was shared by 72 people and reached over 5,500! It was a wonderful way for our church to share our celebration.

The Facebook picture that went viral.

The Facebook picture that went viral.

Finally, make sure that you have a “like” page and not a Facebook group for your church. A group is fine for discussion purposes, but it will not reach new people. They are not going to join a group of people they do not know. Instead concentrate on putting out clear information, inspiring links, and warm invitations on your “like” page. Make sure that your social media presence exists more for others than yourself.

2. Get out in your community.

Like I said earlier, you might be the warmest church in the world when people step inside of your doors. But for the vast majority of your community, you are just another building that they have never been inside. As untrue as it sounds to those of us who are churchgoers, church buildings are often seen as private clubhouses. Others might be curious about what is going on inside, but it’s going to take more than a little bit of curiosity to go in. This is especially true of the growing number of us who are younger and did not grow up in the church.

So instead of waiting for others to come to you, go to them. Get involved as a church in the community. Host events like concerts and lectures. Make your building as accessible as possible to local non-profit groups needing a space to meet. Host AA meetings. Welcome community groups. Provide hospitality to outside youth events. And don’t just be a landlord. Be a host. Consider sharing your building as a ministry to the community.

But more importantly, go outside of your doors. Get involved in community celebrations. Serve lemonade and cookies on the lawn if the town’s parade is going by your doors. Sponsor a Little League team. Volunteer at youth events. Go into retirement communities. Work with other congregations. Whatever it is, find out what matters in your community and then figure out a way to contribute. You can’t serve a community that you don’t know and love.

3. Enable your pastor to get out in your community.

The work of representing your church in the community is the work of the whole congregation. It is never just the pastor’s job. But, the reality is that the pastor can be a great ambassador. So, as much as possible you want to make sure they have your blessing to be involved in your community. So don’t keep them locked up in their office! Encourage them to go out in the world.

I am finishing my pastorate in a small community right now. During this time the church has nearly doubled in size. This is not due to me, but I believe it does have a lot to do with our church being more visible in our community. And that has happened in part because my congregation has blessed me by encouraging me to be involved in the community.

For me this has meant being the chaplain of our local fire department, as well as working with Habitat for Humanity, writing an occasional column for our local newspaper, and more. It has also meant holding community “office hours” in a local coffee shop. Once a week I stationed myself at a table for a couple of hours and bought the coffee for anyone who dropped by for a chat. People who had never come through the doors of the church before met me for the first time there. Finally, when a natural disaster came to our community in the form of a flood, the congregation didn’t want me in my office. They wanted me out on the streets talking to people and giving out energy bars and water. (They were there too, by the way.)

Not every church understands this, though. Once when I was in a pastoral search process the search committee ran through their list of questions about how I planned to grow the church. When it came time for me to ask my questions, I led off with what I thought was a softball question: “Do you want a pastor who is going to be actively involved in your community?” The response shocked me. Members hedged their answers, telling me they really weren’t sure. To them the pastor was “theirs” and had enough work to do with current members. It was clear for me this was not the right church for me. But what struck me was that due to their inward focus I was sure it was clear to prospective parishioners that it wasn’t the right church for them either.

Your pastor can be a tremendous gift to your community. Don’t keep them all to yourself.

4. Don’t assume everyone knows your insider language.

So let’s say everything is going right and new people have started coming through your doors. What do you do now?

Well, first, keep doing what you are doing in terms of being hospitable. Welcome people when they walk in the doors. Show them the sanctuary. Invite them to coffee hour. Make them feel at home. But, also, watch the “insider language” and help to translate what might be new.

I did not grow up in the church so when I started attending as a young adult I was keenly aware of what I did not know. Every Sunday we would get to a point in the service where everyone recited a prayer together. I didn’t know it, and I felt like everyone was looking at me as I stood there in silence. It was the Lord’s Prayer, and I had no clue what to say.

I learned it quickly by getting a copy and sitting in the privacy my home and repeating it over and over to myself. I didn’t want to be embarrassed anymore. But I remember that feeling. And so years later, when I heard members of a church talking disdainfully about how visiting younger people didn’t even know the Lord’s Prayer, it hit me hard.

From then on I have always tried to print the words of the Lord’s Prayer in the bulletin for those who do not know it. The same is true of the Gloria Patri, Doxology, and other “well known” pieces. We should not give up these important parts of our liturgy, but we should be aware that as more people grow up as religious “nones” they are no longer a part of the common language.

Likewise, is your bulletin or worship leader clear about when to stand and when to sit? If you are turning to a certain page, do you announce it? Do you clearly state at the communion table that all are welcome, and let people know whether you are using grape juice or wine (an important consideration for many)? Or are your visitors just left on their own?

It’s important to make worship as accessible as possible. No one wants to feel like an outsider. It’s the surest way of making sure that visitors won’t come back.

5. Be willing to keep being transformed.

Here’s the secret no one wants to tell you about bringing new people into the church: they are going to change everything. I actually think more churches realize this than let on, and I believe that, subconciously, a lot of churches have chosen not to grow as a result.

When new people come to a church they bring with them new stories, new gifts, and new energy. They also bring new needs, new ideas, and new perspectives. And your church will be changed by them. Or else it will not be. And they will leave.

We often think of the church as “our church”. But it has never been “our church” It is Christ’s church. We are just the stewards of the church in this time and place. And when new people are brought into the church, they join us in that role. And even though you may have been their thirty years and they’ve been there one, they are equally important. And that can be frustrating.

There is a tendency to fall back on “we’ve always done it this way” in these situations. Resist that temptation. It’s wonderful to know our history (in fact, I think if we all knew more of it we’d find that we haven’t, in fact, always done it “this way”) but we cannot become a history museum. We must be willing to be transformed by the Holy Spirit, speaking in new ways through new voices. That’s what being the church is all about.

So when the young families arrive with their kids, let them teach you about what will keep their kids engaged. The old Sunday School models might not work anymore. When young adults come, let them shape their own programs. Maybe they want to meet for a “faith on tap” discussion at the local pub on a Wednesday night rather that for Bible study on Sunday mornings. And when someone brings that new idea to deacons that makes everyone tense up and want to say “but we don’t do that here”, give it a minute. Hear them out. And ask whether God is leading you into the future. It’s scary, but it’s also full of promise.

Most of all, this Pentecost Sunday, pray that the Holy Spirit will teach you to be a Pentecost Church. Open your hearts to the ways the Holy Spirit teaches us new languages. And then, let yourself speak them. Meet others where they are, and learn what God is already doing in them. And then, let yourself be transformed. You just may find that you, and the entire church, will be blessed.

 

The Good Shepherd: Sermon for May 11, 2014

Scripture: Psalm 23 and John 10

If you ask people to tell you their favorite Scriptures, or even just list a few Scriptures they know, there’s one that always seems to come up: Psalm 23. You likely know the words: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

We read it at funerals. We read it to give us comfort in anxious times. We read it when we are sick. In fact, more than almost any other part of the Bible, we read it so much that we might even have it memorized.

533999_485840638098085_190703679_nSo when it comes up in the lectionary, as it does today, there might be a tendency to gloss over it. What more can you say? The Lord is my shepherd…everything is going to be okay, right?

But to think of this Psalm as simple, to underestimate it because of it, it to miss just how radical a statement of God’s love and concern it really is. That’s why it’s important that it’s paired with another reading today, this one from the Gospel, and this one containing the words of Christ himself.

Christ is doing a lot of talking about sheep and gates and how the sheep will follow the shepherd and how the shepherd is unlike a sheep thief. How the shepherd guides us, and does not devour us. Christ is talking about how the shepherd will save the sheep. And Christ goes on to all himself “the Good Shepherd”.

So, by this point you might have noticed that today’s Scriptures say a whole lot about sheep, and you might be wondering about that. That’s fair. And it might not surprise you to know that in the life cycle of the church year, this is called “Good Shepherd Sunday”.

The metaphor of church people being sheep has always bothered me a little. I don’t know much about sheep, but they don’t seem all that bright to me. They seem more like animals that follow the leader, and do what they’re told. I don’t want to be thought of as a sheep. I don’t want to be part of a mindless “flock” that follows along and does what it is told.

And another part of this has always bothered me too. And that’s because Christian ministers are often referred to by this title of pastor. And if you go back to the roots of that word, “pastor” has a very particular meaning. It’s a derived from this Latin word: pascere, which means to shepherd. In other words, in a congregation that pastor is the shepherd and the people are the sheep.

You might be feeling a little offended by that right now. That’s okay. I would too. You probably don’t want to be sheep anymore than I do.

But here’s the thing that has always made me most uncomfortable about this: the idea that somehow the pastor takes this role that really is only supposed to belong to Jesus. Maybe that point is hitting me a little extra hard today.

Now as I’m up here preaching today, you might be thinking about the news I shared with you this week. As you know, I have been called to serve another church. At the end of June, Heidi and I will be moving to New Hampshire.

I believe this is a true call. I believe that we are following God’s will for us. And yet, making the decision to leave was incredibly hard, and incredibly sad. We love this community, and we love this congregation most of all. I’ve been very blessed to be your pastor.

And so as I begin to take my leave, I know that I am handing off the role of pastor to someone new. Someone else, an interim pastor, is going to fill this pulpit very shortly. And not long after that a settled pastor will be with you for a longer period. And I pray that they will be exactly the pastor you need. And I pray that you will continue to grow and to minister to your whole community.

But here’s the spoiler. One day, hopefully years down the line, they too will be called to move on. Not because there’s a better congregation out there. That’s not why pastors have to leave. But because God will call them to the next thing, and will call you to the next thing as well. God is going to call you into the next phase of your life together, a place where God already is, and where God will bless you.

And that’s because it is God, and not the pastor, who is ultimately the “Good Shepherd”. It is God who leads us through the valley of death to safety. It is God who makes sure our cup runs over. It is God who brings us into green pastures and leads us beside still waters. And it is God’s house, not the pastor’s, in which you will dwell forever.

In other words, it’s not about the pastor. It’s about God.

When our conference minister, Lynn Bujnak, was called to Vermont she wrote something interesting in her candidating material. She wrote that she didn’t see herself as a shepherd, because in Christ we already have one of those. He is the Good Shepherd, in fact. But she did see herself as a pretty good sheep dog.

A sheep dog can do a good job gathering us in. They can find the ones around the margins, and help lead them back to crowd. They can guide the way. They can push us forward. They can sound the alarm is something is wrong. And they can pretty useful and helpful.

But they aren’t shepherds. And, as good as they are, they are replaceable. And they should be.

And that’s because if you are here today at this church, if you are at any church, the pastor shouldn’t be what makes you stay or go. Sure, you might like your pastor, you might feel like the pastor “gets you”, you might feel a sense of connection that helped you feel comfortable here, but in the end, hopefully, that’s not why you stayed.

My hope is you stayed because you felt a connection with the Good Shepherd. My hope is something about these Scriptures every week caught you, and connected with you, and you felt led to go deeper. My hope is you found Christ, or at least a glimpse of him, in prayer. And my hope is that this community helped you to find Christ’s love in a new and uplifting way.

This church has had literally dozens of pastors in its over 150 years. But it’s only had one Good Shepherd. And that Good Shepherd is why this church has lasted, and why it will continue to last. Christ will be the guide through whatever comes next. And Christ will make all things into a blessing for this church, no matter who your particular sheep dog happens to be.

In a few minutes, we are going to be baptizing Annie. We are going to be welcoming her into this holy sacrament as a community. And, even though I will be the one sprinkling the water on her head, I won’t be the one baptizing her. And even though you will be the ones making the baptismal promises to nurture her, you aren’t baptizing her either. We aren’t the ones doing the lifting here.

That’s because Annie is about to be baptized into something a lot bigger than all of us. And above all else, in this act, the Good Shepherd is claiming her.

That’s good because Annie is probably going to be around a lot longer than most of us. And when we are gone, God’s love will still be there. The same God who claims her in baptism today will claim her in her golden years. And the same God whose name we bless her with today will call her name throughout her life. Because the Good Shepherd never forgets any of us, and never lets us go.

What’s true for Annie is true for us all. Even, and especially, when we are on the move to our next green pasture. The Good Shepherd will go with Annie all her life. And will go with me to Exeter. And will go with this congregation wherever you are headed. And we will all dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.

Ten Ways to Support Your Congregation’s Pastor

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Update: This post has now been published on the Huffington Post.  If you want to easily share this with your network (and thank you to all who have already done so) you can do that here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-emily-c-heath/ten-ways-to-support-your-_b_4306203.html

Recently another of my clergy colleagues told me they were thinking about leaving the ministry. This happens more often than you might think. At least a few times a year a clergy friend tells me that they are considering leaving ministry, or even the church entirely, behind. These are not unqualified, untrained, or ungifted individuals. They are people who are so clearly called to ordained ministry that it is apparent to almost everyone around them. But the pressures of parish ministry have worn them down to the point where they really begin to wonder whether they were ever called at all.

They are not alone. Clergy attrition is a real issue for the church. Add to that higher than average rates of alcoholism, depression, and stress-related illness, and it’s clear that clergy today face major challenges. Everyone who comes into ministry with sincere intentions knows that much will be demanded of them. It will often be hard. But when the life of a pastor starts to grind them down, everyone suffers.

The good news is that there are many faithful church members who want to help turn that around. Recently one of them, a personal friend, came to me for advice on how to support their own pastor. They worried their minister was about to burn out, and that no one seemed to be noticing. And they asked what advice I would give to a congregation about how to best support their pastor.

I’ve been very fortunate to serve an incredibly supportive parish. This is a place that opened their arms to my partner when I proposed to her, that tells me to take my day off every week, and that makes sure that they compensate me fairly. It’s a blessing to be their pastor, and because we have a good relationship I find joy in even the difficult parts of the work. But I know that’s not the case for every clergyperson. And so, here are my ten pieces of advice for a parish that wants to really examine whether they are living up to their end of the covenant they have with their pastor:

1) Make sure your pastor has sabbath time: Almost all of us clergy agree that we need it. But not all of us (myself included) are great about taking it. Ideally clergy should have two days off a week, just like everyone else. Sunday isn’t one of them. That leaves Saturday and one weekday. We guard our Saturdays as much as possible, but we still have youth events, weddings, last-minute sermon and worship prep, and meetings. So, we often only get one day a week off: our weekday sabbath. By all means, if you have an emergency on your pastor’s day off, call them. They want to know. But if it can wait, give your pastor that time to truly be off.

2) Learn how much your pastor really works: There’s an old joke that pastors only work one hour a week. And, that may well be the only time all week that you see them working. But most pastors put in exceptionally long hours. Over 50 hours is an average week for many. Some put in more, especially if there is a death in the parish or other emergency. Writing a sermon, putting together a service, home and hospital visits,church meetings,  service to the larger denomination, community involvements, adult education classes, youth group, pastoral counseling sessions, and more make up the rest of the week. Add to that the impromptu pastoral conversations in the cereal aisle of the grocery store, and your pastor is constantly working.

3) Compensate your pastor fairly: Add your pastor’s cash salary and their housing allowance. Now divide it by 52. Now divide that by the number of hours your pastor works every week. It’s probably not much. Now think about someone else in your community who works for that hourly rate (with no extra pay or time-and-a-half for overtime). Could they afford to live in your community? Buy groceries? Clothes? Pay utilities? Now, could they also afford to pay student loans from four years of college and three years of seminary? If you have a recently ordained pastor, that’s what they’re going through.

I have known pastors of well-funded churches who have been on food stamps. I have known others who have gone hungry at the end of the month while they handed out grocery cards to others in their community. It’s hard to write a good sermon, listen attentively to a parishioner, or host a youth group when you haven’t had dinner. No one goes into the ministry to get rich, and I know that church budgets are tight, but don’t balance your church budget on your pastor’s family’s back while making endless capital improvements. Invest in leadership, and you will see results.

4) Remember that you called your pastor, not their whole family: Imagine that on the morning after a fight with your spouse you have to take them to work with you. Or, think about taking your kids to your big presentation when they are having a particularly tantrum-filled day. Most professionals have some boundaries between their family life and their work life. That isn’t true for clergy. So often I hear of a pastor being confronted by a parishioner about something they didn’t like about their spouse or child. Pastors are sometimes judged harshly for something a spouse says, or something a kid does. The added pressure on pastor’s families only exacerbates the family’s stress. Ask almost any adult who grew up as a clergy kid, and they will tell you about “life in the fishbowl”. It’s a sometimes brutal arena for a family. Don’t use the pastor’s family as a means to judge your pastor’s worth. Instead, encourage the pastor to spend time with their family and make them their first priority.

5) If your pastor is single, be careful that you are being fair to them: I’ve been single as a pastor, and I’ve been married as a pastor. Both have their own unique challenges, but I’ll take the ones that come with being married any day of the week. I’ve heard churches talk about how they can expect more of their pastor’s time because they “don’t have a family”. I heard of another parish that justified paying their pastor less because they weren’t married. (The fact they still had all the same expenses as a married person might, without anyone to share them, didn’t seem to matter.) Make sure that your pastor has time to spend with friends and extended family, especially around the holidays. And, if they do end up meeting that right person, welcome them with open arms.

6) If you have a part-time pastor, don’t expect them to work full-time hours. There are plenty of “half-time” pastors out there who work forty hours a week or more. Sometimes a parish will make a choice to call someone part-time, but they will not adjust their expectations of what their pastor needs to do. If you have called a half-time pastor you called someone for twenty hours a week. That means that during that time they need to write a sermon, plan worship, lead worship, attend to pastoral care emergencies, make visits, and attend church meetings, at the very least. It’s hard to squeeze all of that into twenty hours. It’s harder still when you are working a non-ministry job in addition. Check in with your pastor, see how much they are really working, and then either adjust expectations or consider making that part-time call full-time.

7) If your parish has a history of pastors leaving under less-than-ideal circumstances, think about the parish’s part in that. I know. Some pastors really mess up. They have lousy boundaries. They engage in ethically questionable activities. They shirk their pastoral responsibilities. Those aren’t the pastors I’m talking about here. If your parish has a history of firing pastors, or forcing them out, it’s worth taking a look at that pattern. Was the pastor really the only one at fault? Or was there something else at work there? Are there church members who are routinely allowed to get away with creating dissension in the church? Does a minority of negative voices speak so loudly that no one hears the positive ones? Did your parish try to seek outside help or consultants? Did they give their pastor opportunities to work on weaknesses? The grace that a church shows to an embattled pastor shows a lot about their Christian life together.

8) Don’t confuse vacation, continuing education, and church-related trips as one and the same. Vacation is a time when the pastor (and their family) are temporarily completely relieved from church responsibilities. This is necessary time to refresh, get away, and spend time with loved ones. Encourage your pastor to take their vacation time. It can make all the difference when it comes to burnout.

Continuing education, on the other hand, is not vacation. Recently a parishioner of mine who is a retired senior corporate executive was telling me that his company paid for its emerging leaders to get MBAs. The reason? They knew that by investing in the education of their employees, they were investing in the success of their organization. When you give your pastor the time to go to continuing education events, you make an investment in your church. Through my participation in the UCC Pension Boards’ Target 2030 program, and my congregation’s willingness to give me two weeks a year off to participate, I’ve received top-notch continuing education that I’ve been able to directly apply to my parish’s life together.

Finally, a church-related conference or trip is not vacation. I know plenty of harried pastors who have returned from a week-long youth trip only to be asked by a church member about their “vacation”. And this summer, after our denomination’s biannual General Synod which happened to be in Long Beach, several pastors I know who had served long hours as delegates were asked about their time at the beach. No one serving the wider church or leading a mission trip is going on vacation at the church’s expense. If anything, they are going to need a few recovery days.

9) Show up. Nearly every pastor I know has a story about a program or a class that members of the parish asked them to lead. They planned, got all the right resources, asked around about the best time for everyone, and eagerly anticipated the first meeting. And then…no one came. Sure, there were good reasons why people couldn’t make it, but nothing sends a more discouraging message to a hopeful pastor than an empty room. That’s not to say that church is about the pastor. It’s not. But it’s hard for a pastor to feel committed to a church where no one is willing to follow through on their own commitments.

10) Pray for them. I’ve seen this one on a lot of blogs, but it’s really true. Last week I ran out to our local pizza place to bring home dinner. I ran into a couple who attends my church and, while I was waiting for my pizza, we got to talking. Out of nowhere the wife told me, “You know I pray for you every night. I pray that God will bless you and give you wisdom to lead our church in the right direction.” It seems like such a small thing, but for the rest of the week those words lifted me up. To know that someone in the church was praying for me made me remember that God was guiding me. And it made me feel like I was never alone in my ministry to that congregation. It was a real gift to know that, but even if your pastor doesn’t know you pray for them and for your church, you are still doing something real to bless them both.

The Unexpected Pastor

When I graduated from seminary eleven years ago I did so proclaiming that I would never serve as a parish pastor. I, arrogantly I now see, proclaimed that “real ministry” wasn’t done in churches. It was done in hospitals, schools, battlefields, and the streets. I then headed off to a pediatric hospital where I spent the bulk of the next two years with the families of traumatically injured children.

But two years ago the winding course of my vocation brought me to the front doors of not one, but two churches nestled in a small community in the mountains of Vermont. Here I was, an urban, Southern, gay minister in my early 30’s whose most recent address had been Provincetown. I think my friends may have been taking bets on how long I would stay.

There was good reason. By the time I arrived in town I had been well Googled. Despite the fact I was met with a congregation of parishioners who are immensely good and fair people, there were plenty of occasions for self-doubt. One local clergy member refused to co-officiate at a service with me. A local supporter informed me of an angry Scripture-quoting man who had been yelling about the new gay minister in the 7-11. I began to wonder if my presence in the community was an unnecessary burden upon my congregations.

On the darkest nights I told myself, “I think I made a mistake.”

I didn’t leave, though. In the church we believe pastors are called, not hired, and we believe the process of uniting pastor and congregation is vastly different than a secular hiring process. By the time a pastor starts serving a congregation an intense period of discernment has taken place with the church, pastor, and denomination all affirming that it is God’s will for these parties to join together in ministry. I trusted that faith, and I stayed.

I’m glad I did. Because in the past two years I have seen God’s love become incarnate in more ways than I could have believed. And along the way I’ve learned that real ministry does in fact take place in the church too. The young seminarian who saw parishes as the territory of the privileged and comfortable is gone, replaced by a pastor who understands that crisis and pain know no boundaries. I’ve learned to look out on Sunday mornings and understand that everyone in the room is facing something they’d rather not. Doctors call with bad news. Loved ones die. Kids fight. Marriages get rocky. And in the midst all of these things, those who come and fill the pews on Sunday mornings look for God. Every week. The reality of that is sobering for a preacher who once thought they’d learned all there was to know about pain in a trauma bay.

I’ve learned about pain, but I’ve learned other things as well. I’ve learned that congregations are full of human people with human faults. The stained glass can hide the very real pain inside a church. And yet, they are also places of celebration and life. A few months after I arrived, I baptized a baby. During the service I felt joy welling up inside of me. I didn’t understand why it had affected me so much until later when I realized I’d never baptized a child who was not actively dying. That made sense. I figured that I’d find the pain when the funerals started coming. But to my great surprise, even in the midst of very real mourning and grief, I saw the promise of the Resurrection in families’ laughter and the triumph of goodness in the hope of friends. My parishioners have taught me to find joy even in the darkest places.

They’ve also taught me to find grace. I’ve learned over the past two years that no matter how deeply I may disagree with someone in the most fundamental of ways, there is always a place for us to connect. I’ve played golf with people whom I’m quite sure have never voted the same way as I do in November. I’ve learned to appreciate the self-sufficiency of hunters despite the fact I’ve never picked up a gun. I’ve come to respect the honesty of those who can’t quite wrap their heads around the fact a pastor is gay, yet who still love me and try to understand anyway.

I’ve even come to love Yankees fans.

But more than anything, I’ve learned this: being a pastor means finding the holy in the most unexpected places. I’ve done ministry at the counter of the local diner. I found grace while blessing a parishioner’s 900 lbs. pig who was about to be euthanized. I’ve witnessed new life in the stories of people in recovery. And I’ve seen resurrection happen in a town that was devastated by a flood and that, through the efforts of a community united, rose again.

It sounds cliche to say that being a pastor is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s true. Physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, I’m challenged everyday. The calling requires sacrifice in every sense of the word, and pastors are not immune from the proverbial “dark night of the soul”.

And yet, I can’t imagine doing anything else. Not because I couldn’t do anything else, (clergy generally do not embrace the calling due to lack of other options) but because I can’t imagine feeling right doing anything else. Two years ago I never imagined how hard parish ministry would be. And I never expected how much I would love it.

I suspect that if I went back in time and met that newly minted seminary grad from eleven years ago, they would never have believed they would end up a small-town pastor in Vermont. But that’s the beauty of calling. The holy is often found in the unpredictable. Every day I get to serve I’m thankful for the divine nudge that calls us out of the places we think we belong, and into the places that have already been prepared for us.