Christmas Lonelies

December 19, 2009

Christmas is a lonely time for a lot of people.  Recent losses and and changes in their lives make this season of good cheer really tough for them.

Who are these persons?  We walk by them, speak to them, see them, ask them to do things, and move on.  But the lonelies are still all around us.  Who are they?

It may be the elementary school child who’s parent is in Afghanistan or Iraq, or serving the nation on deployment elsewhere.

It might be the child of divorce.

It may be the single mother with no job or child support, who has had to endure the humiliation of being screened by countless agencies to see if she qualifies for any help.

It may be the man whose wife of 60 years died in the past year, and this is his first Christmas alone.

It may be the single person who just can’t seem to connect with anyone.

It may be the person unable to fly home to be with family at Christmas.

It may be the person who is struggling with mental issues.

And it may be the person, whose spouse or parent is still alive but who is in the lost world of Alzheimer’s or dementia.

It may be your next door neighbor who is never invited to the neighborhood parties, or has no one to bake cookies for.

Need I say more?

Over the years, I have found some ways to reach out to lonely people as well as people who are alone.

I have either written a personal note/card or called folks who are experiencing their first Christmas without a loved one.

For those who have experienced loss, and are living under the shadow of seemingly unrelenting grief, I have held a Blue Christmas service.

I have baked and delivered cookies.

I have invited them to have Christmas dinner with my family.

I made sure there was a present under the tree.

If they remained at the altar rail in prayer after being served communion, I have knelt with them, put my arm around them when appropriate and held them when they have cried.

I have left the pulpit area, and stood beside them as they experienced the emotion of a favorite carol.

Not by name, but by general circumstances, I remember the lonely and alone in prayer, and in the structure of liturgy.

I enlist laity to be on the lookout for someone who might need a visit.

The point is that it is easily to lose site of people who need to experience through you and me, the incarnation.  The name of Jesus is Emmanuel, meaning “God with us.”

When we remember the lonely and alone, we have the privilege of becoming the real flesh and blood presence of the Christ child, the One named, Emmanuel.

Merry Christmas and God bless.



December 17, 2009

Over the years, I have struggled with what happens during the prelude.

In a perfect order of worship, with perfect people, in a perfect church, in a perfect world, the prelude time would be quiet, marked only by the whispers of private prayer as people prepare for worship.  I have served churches in which this was the case.  Whether or not everyone was praying, I don’t know; but there was a hush during the prelude.

I have served churches that the social networking activity during the prelude was like Times Square on New Years Eve as the ball drops.  On one occasion, I could barely hear the prelude.  In my naïveté, assuming that everyone had the same biblical understanding  and demeanor about worship, I would approach the Worship Committee or Church Council for help.  To my surprise, what seemed like a pretty straight forward issue, inevitably exploded into controversy.

To compound things, the moment of the worship service called “The greeting”; “Passing the Peace”; or “Ritual of Friendship”; usually was the quick descent into controlled chaos, sometimes adding anywhere from 5-10 minutes to the service.

Let me say before I go any further, I did not ever find a perfect solution to either of these.

In one conversation, a friend turned to me and said, “The way I see it, we are just loving one another.”  I have pondered that insight for years.  Another insight was that due to the busy schedules of families, Sunday morning was really the only time they could meet, greet, and check up on one another.  It was a community builder.  You can’t argue with that.

So what have I found effective?  Based on the simple principle that you cannot seriously and effectively legislate silence during the prelude or set firm, realistic boundaries on community building.  You have to find other ways to get to where you are going.

  1. Through conversation, I tried to discover what the conversation and noisy social networking meant for the worshippers.  Some were bothered by it as they needed some peace and quiet before worship.  Others loved it.
  2. Rather than trying to control human nature and tradition, I interjected some new things in worship to help keep focused.  Working through the Worship Committee and not approaching it as a problem to be fixed, but an opportunity to help people grow in their faith, we gradually began the following.
  3. I started the worship service on time with a loud, “The Lord be with you!!”, or “Good morning!!”  Some Sundays I had to say it twice.  I didn’t make a big production about it.  After a couple of weeks, the congregation figured out what I was doing and went along.
  4. I would read a verse of scripture dealing with worship, silence before God, coming to God’s house and the like.
  5. I would invite the people to join me in prayerful silence before God, allowing the music of the prelude to enhance the meditative time.  Ushers would not seat people during this time.
  6. I would then say a prayer, call to worship, announce a hymn or some other opening, which could include the choir singing something.  What I wish I had done, and will do again if I ever have the opportunity, is to kneel in prayer immediately after my invitation.
  7. I sprinkled Bible Studies and sermons on worship throughout the year as well as newsletter articles.

The greeting time was another matter.  The closest I came to setting some boundaries was to announce it as a time to greet each other in Christ, and not to share life stories.  That didn’t fly well.  So I went with the flow.  I consistently observed people greeting visitors and one another.  I waded into the crowd myself.  At the proper, I would stand in the sent of the altar area, just waiting.  It worked.   It was a much better alternative that entering the church, sitting through the service, and leaving without acknowledging anyone’s presence.  When the issue came up in Council about the length of the service, someone would suggest cutting the greeting time. That would end the discussion for several months.

There is a tension between community building and reverencing the sacredness of God’s space and time.  I never resolved it-and maybe I never will.  Maybe it is not something to be resolved.

Please share your thoughts by commenting.




December 15, 2009

I’m a MERRY CHRISTMAS kind of guy.

For me, and I know for lots of other folks, Happy Holidays just doesn’t cut it.

Happy depends on circumstances.  If your child is in Afghanistan or a military hospital recovering from wounds, it’s not a happy holiday.  If you have lost a loved one – a spouse, a child, a parent, a friend; happiness is illusive.  If you are facing illness, or walking with someone through illness, it’s probably not a happy time.  Perhaps you are losing or have lost your job.  Maybe you are alone.  The holidays are probably not happy for you.

Wishing someone “Happy Holidays” is not bad and usually expresses a sincere desire of good will.  There is nothing wrong with it by any means.  I believe there is a better greeting to offer people.

That greeting is MERRY CHRISTMAS!!

When I offer this greeting to someone, I am offering the deepest, most significant, intensly personal gift of myself  and all that is dear to that I can offer.

For me, there is nothing more valuable in my life than Christ.  When I tell you MERRY CHRISTMAS it is not about politics or a casual greeting.  I am giving you a gift.

Since the greeting has “Christ” in the center, it conveys the reality of God’s love, presence, and hope to all who receive it.  Whatever the reason of their unhappiness, MERRY CHRISTMAS is about a person, not a feeling.  Feelings such as happiness can be affected by how many Christmas cookies we eat.  They are powerful but unreliable.  Christ is powerful and reliable.

MERRY CHRISTMAS reminds people that Jesus is the reason for the season.  It is a greeting that reminds them that God has come looking for them, to bring them home.  It reminds them that God has not forgotten them and God is with them.

I don’t use the greeting to be in your face.  It is a precious gift from my heart to yours.  To offer any less would be unloving and disrespectful to you.  It would be to offer you less than the very best I have.

From my heart to yours,




December 13, 2009

Sometimes, adversity comes in the form of a church member (s) or leader(s) who believe they have the spiritual gift of “Pastor Pounding.” and do their very best to exercise the gift.

I have a disclaimer confession.  In the first part of my ministry, I took these encounters very personally and emotionally.  Over the years, through learning from responses that have embarrassed myself and Christ, as well as the receiving the input of mentors, I’ve learned, and continue to learn to let it go and find creative ways to block, circumvent, ignore, or try to win over without compromising core values

It usually catches me by surprise.  A meeting opens with prayer.  A scripture is read.  People have their Bible’s on the table.  There are “Amens” over sticking to God’s word.  Then in the course of the meeting, I suggest something,  The missiles are launched.  Sometimes openly.  Sometimes, in the parking lot after the meeting.

The next day, a “good intentioned” person calls or drops by with a “concern” they just have to share.  The concern is that “some of the ones” (who are never named) “are concerned about”, disagree with…”, “are going to leave church if….”.

My response has been all over the map.  It has ranged from panic, and a desperate attempt to placate the unknown concerned persons, or the person who is concerned (this is also known as codependency of which I have been the annual poster child for many years); to calmly commenting that when they find a new church home, I will gladly transfer their membership and accept their resignation from all positions of leadership.  I truly wish them well.  Neither extreme is helpful or healthy.

Because I am a work in progress, my response pattern has changed and hopefully matured over the years.  Here is what I have learned.

  1. I no longer rush to placate. It gives people power over my life and ministry that they do not have the right to have.  I am not hard and vindictive.  I just don’t act out of panic.
  2. I work hard to control my anger, exasperation, and judgmental attitude.
  3. I have come to believe and value what John Wesley called, “Holy Conferencing”.  I try to sit down with concerned persons and have conversation about their concerns.  It is based on Matthew 18: 15.  where Jesus lays out a simple plan for resolving conflict, beginning with conversation between the people involved.  Settle it at the lowest level.
  4. I clearly distinguish between decisions, policies and ministry functions that I am responsible and accountable for through my ordination; and those that the leadership of the church and I are in partnership about.  I do not undermine or nullify legitimate decisions of appropriate church leadership teams.
  5. I keep my Staff Parish Relations Committee (Personnel Committee) informed of conversations and interactions that involve conflict or disgruntled persons.  At times, I include the chair in conversations.
  6. I avoid getting sucked into arguments in meetings. Neither do I try to get the last shot in.  I try to keep an even tone.
  7. I never, never allow my disagreements with persons to limit or affect the quality of pastoral care I offer them if and when they need it.  I never take it to the pulpit and misuse the pulpit by attacking those who disagree with me.
  8. I take my Sabbath, rest, meet regularly with a spiritual director, work at following spiritual disciplines, and have a close group of friends that hold me accountable.  When I am lax in number 8, numbers 2-7 go out the window, and I wallow in number 1.  Then it really gets messy.

Sometimes, just sitting down over coffee, and thrashing things out brings insight on both sides.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes, I discover a new and better way to do something.  Sometimes, they gain a new perspective and become supporters of ministry (not me).  Sometimes, through conversation, they discover that their initial information was wrong, thus leading them to the wrong reaction.  And sometimes, folks just won’t budge.  Sometimes I won’t.  I can’t change that.

Jesus said we would have days like that, and encounters like that.  He was right.  He also said to work for reconciliation.  I no longer try to win.  I try to reconcile.

How do you deal with those persons who seem to challenge you at every turn?  Send me a comment.

Blessings.  Bill


December 11, 2009

I have found that living out my call to be a pastor has seen some adversity along the way. Interestingly enough, the responses closely parallel some responses to the fact that I am a Christian. Adversity surrounding our relationship with Christ is not just a call thing.

My call to ministry was simple. I ran from it until a freshman in college. One Sunday evening, I brought a professor to our evening service. My pastor handed me a sheet of paper with some hymns on it, and said, “Billy, you conduct the service. He’s your professor and guest.” Since I had never conducted a service before, I panicked and said I couldn’t. He said, “Yes you can”, sat on the back row with arms folded, smiling at me. Not wanting to be an embarrassment, I dutifully took my place behind the pulpit beside my professor, and prayed for the prelude to last forever. It didn’t. As I walked to the pulpit to start the service, something resonated deep within me and I had the sensation of a hand, sliding into a fitted glove. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt this was what God wanted me to do. I silently said yes, and with knees trembling, I stumbled through the rest of the service.

My family was thrilled. My congregation was elated. Kudos all around. Then, my first adverse moment. As I was interviewed by my District Committee on Ministry, I shared this story of my call. To me it was pretty simple and straight forward. I discovered later, that one of the members of the committee thought I was self righteous, holier than though, and arrogant in thinking that God could be that specific me about my future. Fortunately, the others saw things differently. It did leave an impression on me though.

I am wired with tenaciousness and did not let the comment cause me to doubt my call. It did set in motion a pattern of reflection that I continue today. I constantly reflect on that moment, mulling over its implications and ramifications. It has also given me a deeper sensitivity in listening to persons share their call to me. As I have heard the call stories of many pastors over the years, I am glad that God doesn’t have a boilerplate call system.

Like the unique Christmas cards that parents buy for each of their children, God calls each of us in unique ways, lovingly tailored to how God has wired us. The call, and the method of the call reflect another facet of God’s gracious love.

In my next post is will discuss, “The Adversity Of The Call 2 – Surviving The Spiritual Gift Of Pastor Pounding”

Blessings, Bill


November 22, 2009

The call to serve Christ as a pastor is not a deserved privilege or entitlement. However, the call does grant privilege.  It grants the almost immediate privilege of access to people’s lives and souls.  For clergy, the call is often acknowledged by the word, “Rev” which is short for “Reverend”.  It is a powerful word that often grants immediate access to people’s lives.

In the space of a two hour meeting on a Friday night with about 8 people I did not know, and who did not know me, plus the signature of a District Superintendent, I went from Bill Sterling college Junior, living in a dorm; to Rev. Bill Sterling, pastor of 3 churches, living in a parsonage (the regular pay check wasn’t bad either-I thought I was a millionaire).   My theological training consisted of Sunday School, worship, and a correspondence course through my denomination for a license to preach.  I now had the title, “Rev”.   Overwhelmed by it all, I had no idea what the implications were.  I did not comprehend the responsibilities.  I had no clue as to the sacred privilege that the title and role would entrust to me.

One of my first pastoral visits as “Rev” was to Mr. Bill.  He was home.  He was dying.  From our first meeting to our last time together, he called me “Reverend.”   He wasn’t concerned about my training.  He wanted to know about my faith.   He would talk about his life and faith.  Sometimes his wife would sit with us, sometimes we were alone.  I visited listened, shared scripture and prayed.  The listening part had nothing to do with pastoral counseling skills.  I didn’t know what to say.  He shared his fears, his hopes, and his concern for his wife.  He took what each day brought peacefully and calmly.  He gave me far more that I gave him.  The title, “Rev” gave me instant access into the sacred space of his life and dying.  Yes, at our first meeting, we were strangers.  Yet the common faith we shared, and the title “Rev” gave both of us a greater level of familiarity.

Over 37 years of ministry, the title “Rev” has been a title, a label of my call, unlocking doors and granting me as a pastor, the privilege of access into people’s lives and souls.  It has granted me access to moments and places in people’s lives where I had no right to be, didn’t want to be, but where I was needed. I have had the honor and privilege of people giving me the gift of being invited into their lowest, most vulnerable, painful and most fearful experiences.  I have also had the privilege of being invited into their high moments and joys.

Through the call, Christ allows me to represent him in these intimate moments and relationships.  This is the privilege granted by the call and it scares the daylights out of me at times

My next post will be THE ADVERSITY OF THE CALL

Blessings,  Bill

The Staying Power of the Call

November 8, 2009

I had become weary of the wrangling.  Hallway conversations were undermining me and the church’s ministry.  Ministry was suffering.  People were suffering.  I was suffering.  Feeling like a failure I wondered whether or not I was wasting my life.  I wanted out.  I was developing quite a collection of unhealthy attitudes, including a tinge of martyrdom.

I complained to God constantly.  My prayers had become whining sessions with God.  They were open invitations for the Divine Audience to come to my pity party.  At some point, God spoke.  A voice in the heart?  A thought?  An impression out of the blue?  I’m not sure, but there it was crystal clear and simple.  “Stop whining!  I called you.  I will let you know when that changes.  Until then, be faithful where you are.  I am with you.  Remember, you are working for me.” In the humor of God, I have a reminder on my bookshelf, given by a dear friend.  It’s a plaque.  It simply says, “Thou Shalt Not Whine”.

That’s when I discovered the power of the call.

It’s a staying power. I’m not paid to be a pastor.  I am called to be a pastor.  That’s the power of the call.  Whether through an appointment system such as the United Methodist system, or a call system, I am deployed by God.  That does not relieve me of my accountability with and to the local congregation.  It’s not an ego trip.  It’s not self righteousness.  It is not arrogance.

It is not about me.  It is about God’s grace, will and power.  The call’s power   lifts me above what is happening right now.   It reminds me that I am not the failure often implied in conflict, disagreements; as well as those times when things simply don’t work well.  It prevents me from taking credit for the successes.  It prevents me from quitting when things are tough and people are not affirming.  It holds me accountable when I do dumb things and make mistakes.  It is rooted in God, not what is going on at any given time.

I still struggle with conflicts, self esteem issues, and times of debating my own competency.  The ego times still pop up.  I make mistakes and do dumb things.  I wrestle with what to do next.  I reflect on my past mistakes, wondering, “What was I thinking?”  I occasionally wonder, “Does God ever revoke a call?”  That level of questioning comes after the spectacular blunders of commission and omission.

When these wash over me, I remember my call and where it came from.  I realize I am not called to take up permanent residency in these areas.  My life verse is Philippians 1:6 which essentially says that what God begins in me, God will bring to completion.  God doesn’t quit on me – or on any of us.  That is the staying power of the call.

Next time, I blog about, “Whose Call Is It-Really?”   Blessings.  Bill