Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Snow Days

I have served in three different congregations over the past fifteen years, one in central Pennsylvania, one in upstate New York and now on Cape Cod.  In all three calls I have lived in a parsonage adjacent to the church building.  Because of this, I have been slow to cancel services in the case of bad weather.  I can always make the commute.

When I was serving in rural Pennsylvania, the Congregational church down the road had a weather committee (a sub-committee of the property committee). When it snowed, one of the members of the weather committee would get in his four-wheel drive truck and see how bad the roads were and whether the parking lot had been cleared.  Then he would call the other members and they would inform the pastor of the decision of the committee.  The pastor never had to make the choice. 

Whenever I have a discussion of weather policies it usually comes down to the devotion of a "little, old lady."  I use the quotes because in all three congregations the same example has been brought forward.  Everyone is certain that there is a little, old lady who is so devoted to the church that unless we call off our services she will get in her car and drive through blizzards and earthquakes to make it on time.  It's never a large, young man.  It's never an average-sized, middle-aged woman.  It's always a little, old lady who makes this sacrifice.

In my congregations, I have yet to meet that little, old lady.  In any kind of discussion I have had with the ladies of the church, I have been told, "Pastor, you're great, but..."  But I'm not dumb enough to drive through a blizzard to hear you.  But I'm not so foolish that I can't look out my window and know I shouldn't drive.  But do you really think I can't get on without you.

I think that the image of devotion is one that is helpful for our congregations.  Most of the time when the weather report is bad, people have already canceled church in their minds.  Bad weather is a perfectly valid excuse to take church off the to-do list.  It's not that the people don't want to go (at least this is my hope) but it is nice to have a reason not to go, to sleep in, hang out, watch the snow fall. 

We also want to imagine that there is a little, old lady who will risk life and limb to make the trip.  We imagine that she will be there in our place even on those Sundays when it is not snowing but we are too busy or too tired or just need a break.  We want her there as a model of devotion, standing and sitting in our place when we choose not to be there.

Perhaps it does matter than she is imagined to be older.  I think it is common to assume that older generations were more devoted than we are today.  I'm sure when the little, old lady was younger, she could imagined little, old ladies who were far more devoted than she.  It is similar to the way I hear the early church idealized in its unity of faith and devotion.  Yet each generation struggles to maintain faith in its own time and context.  Sometimes the struggle of faith is with animosity.  Sometimes the struggle of faith is with being culturally acceptable.  Sometimes the struggle of faith is with apathy.  The struggle is part of the walk of discipleship.  May the next generation of Christians look back at us in our context and find a model of devotion.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Introverted Pastor

In a recent sermon I spoke about the challenge of being a pastor with an introverted personality.  I live in a culture and carry out a call that favors an extroverted personality.  I have served as a pastor for fifteen years.  Throughout that time, and in the process leading up to my ordination, people have questioned whether introversion and pastoral ministry can coexist effectively.

Part of this has to do with expectations that people bring to pastoral ministry.  The pastors that many congregants seem to remember best are those who were outgoing and made their presence known in the community.  They made the congregation seem friendly because they were naturally friendly and effusive.  My experience has been that this kind of strong personality in a pastor can cover up some shortcomings in hospitality in the congregation.  When that pastor retires or moves on, the congregation suddenly has to deal with its own shortcomings, has to deal with the fact that although Pastor Jensen was a welcoming person, the congregation itself may not be.

I also think that part of the desire for extroverted pastors is a hope that an outgoing personality might change the trends of decline that many congregations are experiencing.  The right pastor might be the magic bullet that will save the congregation, change all those spiritual but not religious people into spiritual and religious people.  We can't get people to come to our church but maybe a friendly pastor can.  Yet as we look across the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (as well as any number of denominations) we see that even friendly Pastor Jensen's congregation is in decline.

At one point it was enough to be friendly.  When religious practice was more of a standard part of American culture, then the friendliest congregations with the best programs tended to grow.  Yet our culture is finding new ways to cultivate friendship and connection.  Many families are finding their needs for youth programs met by other sources.  I have frequently been told that, even when there is a spark of interest, younger people see church as one more thing to do in a plethora of activities.

The role of congregations will have to change in the coming years.  Many of our churches will be smaller and will need to accept that reality.  I have no doubt that the pastoral role will change as well. 

What I hear these days is not so much a desire for a community center kind of congregation, but a desire for a depth of faith.  Thankfully for me as an introvert, depth is something that introverts do well.  I love working with silence and prayer, art and creativity.  Give me a quiet retreat over a networking conference any day.  As Paul writes, "There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:4)  In the near future, the gifts of the introvert may come to be appreciated in the church just as the gifts of the extrovert have been appreciated for the past few decades.