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.