Continual learning

There is an old joke that I first heard in one of Garrison Keillor’s monologues on A Prairie Home Companion. He was speaking of the fictional “Rural Lutheran Clergy Conference.” He said that the conference was where Lutheran clergy got together and let their hair down. Since they don’t really have long hair, it isn’t a dramatic event. I’ve used variations on that line several times when speaking of my role and my relationship with the congregation that I serve. I don’t really need to go somewhere else to let my hair down because I’m pretty much the same person in front of the congregation as I am when I’m in a private place. At least I think that I’m pretty open and transparent with my congregation. I tell personal stories as a part of my sermons. I try to be completely honest with my interactions with official boards and committees. I know that the congregation is watching my behavior as well as my words. Pastors lead as much by who they are as by what they say.

Still, there are some places where I try to be a bit careful. I grieve when there are deaths in the congregation, but the grief is not even and consistent. Some funerals are harder for me than others. However, every funeral deserves the highest and best I can bring to it. As a result, I sometimes get my grieving out of sync with that of the congregation. I reserve my tears for moments outside of the funeral. I try to choose my words carefully so that my emotions will remain in control. I may need to break down and cry, but I attempt to do so in less public moments.

I also understand that the life of the congregation is not about me. Not long ago, I read a Facebook meme from a pastor that said, “If I were to give a Ted Talk, what do you assume my topic would be?” My reaction was pretty quick and pretty judgmental. I didn’t write a response, but what came to my mind was, “Yourself. I’ve never heard you talk about anything else.” You know that type of person - the one who can bring any story around to her or his story. I don’t want to be that person. The life of the church is bigger and more broad than my experience. Sure, decisions made by the church have a deep impact on my life, but I try to constantly remind myself that it isn’t about me. I give myself permission to tell my own story as an illustration, but I work hard not to make myself the center of attention or the center of the story.

That is a real challenge in a long-term ministry. There re members of the church who have belonged to the church a shorter amount of time than I. I’ve been around for long enough that some of them think of me and the church as being together and it is the only way they think of the church. I hope and pray that they didn’t just join the pastor, but rather are deeply committed to the church, but I also know that some people just don’t make that distinction. One of the things they like about the church is me and my style of leading worship.

Now, as the time for my leadership in the church to end approaches, it is important that those loyalties shift to the community of the church. I have been trying to step back a bit and to emphasize the leadership of others. I have tried to offer my opinions, but not make demands. It is a difficult balance and I’m learning as I go. I have hopes and fears for the congregation and for the continuing church. I have opinions about the way I’d like to see some decisions go. But I know that I need to step aside and allow new leadership to emerge and I know that a more hands off approach is the best way for the congregation to move into the next phase of its life. That doesn’t mean that I have stopped caring. As Mary Keithahn wrote in one of her hymns, “The hardest part of loving is letting go.”

One of my ways of evaluating my relationship with the church is to check to see if I am acting out of faith or out of fear. I don’t deny that I have fears about the future for the congregation. But I hear the Gospel call to lay aside my fears. Sometimes it doesn’t seem as simple as “consider the lilies of the field.” I’m not able to lay aside effort and the passion to work very hard, but I know that worrying is not the path to the future towards which God is calling us. When I am feeling afraid, it is a signal to me that I need to think things through in a different way. A conversation with a dedicated church leader last week was a gentle and very helpful reminder to lay aside my fears and allow God to work through the circumstances of our lives. Once again I learned that when I am acting or thinking in fear it is time to try to shift my perspective.

i am fascinated and encouraged by how much the final six months of a 25-year ministry are as challenging as were the first six months. I have a lot of work to do. I have a lot to learn. I need to focus my energies and stretch my understanding. It matters that I give my best in this phase of ministry. There are, however, fewer books and guides for this phase of the journey. I knew where to find the books to read when I was getting started. I knew which mentors to consult and how to learn. It is a bigger challenge. Some of my mentors for this phase of my ministry are no longer living. Others have been consulted, but there is much that I need to learn on my own.

One thing is certain. This will not be a time of boredom and repetition. I’ll keep trying new things as I learn and grow.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!