November 5, 2009

I had a Sunday School teacher named Miss Agnes. She loved Jesus, my fellow budding biblical scholars and me deeply. She dreamed about Jesus and had visions. Miss Agnes told my mom and dad that I would be an ordained minister some day. They were thrilled. I wasn’t. Sailing through my high school years, I discovered that I was the target of a vast conspiracy. Other Sunday School teachers, relatives and even pastors who hardly knew me, all conspired to keep the idea alive.

I tried very hard to run from it. I thought I had some very creative excuses-not good enough (still very true); terrified of speaking in front of people (still somewhat true); God can’t use a sinner like me (a more personal variation of ‘not good enough’), as well as a host of others. In my first year of college I discovered that they were not as cool and original as I thought. I quit running and said “Yes.” My parents were thrilled. Finally!! Some friends were not surprised, others said, “You’ve got to be kidding!!” And me, I was just glad the chase was over. Thirty seven years later and no regrets. I wouldn’t have missed the ride for anything.

Like God’s call on all of our lives, my call to be a pastor has nothing to do with my being good enough, smart enough, talented or gifted enough. I don’t deserve the call. Honestly, knowing me as I do (and God knows me far better than I know myself), I would not call me to be a pastor. However, God did. I believe that God’s call on a my life, and anyone’s life, is about what God sees in terms of whom and what we can become if we obey and respond to the call. I believe that it’s all about God unmerited love, aka grace.

It is definitely not about me. Yes, my first year or two contained some rather large ego trips. My first pastoral appointment was a group of loving, wise Christian people who knew how to gently and firmly deflate ego my trips. At times, I still forget it’s all about God and not me but God brings me back to reality – sometimes gently and at other times, not so gentle. Now 37 years later, I still wonder in amazement at what God has done through me. I am more awed at what God has done in spite of me. I can’t boast about my call. I can only be amazed and thankful.

God has a call for your life. The call may be for pastoral ministry like mine. Your call may be for something entirely different. Stop running. Say “Yes”. Buckle up for the ride of your life. I’d love to hear about your call. Send me a comment.

My next post on the call will be about the power of the call.

Blessings Bill



October 30, 2009

As I write this, the H1N1 flu and swine flu are making the rounds in congregations. Everybody knows at least one person who has had it, or is suffering with it. People in worship are hesitant to use a common cup, eat bread from a common loaf, or touch pieces of bread handled by others. Maintaining a safe and healthy worship environment is both challenging and essential. The sacrament of Holy Communion is a powerful experience of the presence and power of Christ that we need to continue to observe. It is for times such as these, that the Sacrament speaks words of hope, faith, and God’s loving presence in Christ. Churches and pastors are developing some creative ways to celebrate the sacrament meaningfully in the shadow of communicable disease. Here are some:

1. When using individual cups, the congregant first cups hands to receive the consecrated bread. The server will place the bread in the congregant’s hand with a small set of tongs. The congregant then takes a cup and communes.

2. Similar as above, only the servers have white gloves on and use gloved fingers to distribute the elements. They also can have a plastic glove under the white glove. This idea came out of a discussion with a pastor.

3. Some churches have small bottles of hand sanitizers and tissues in the pews for worshippers to use prior to greeting time, and taking communion.

4. In some churches, as worshippers come forward for communion, an assistant offers them some hand sanitizer.

5. Servers wash their hands in a basin of soap and water and then use the sanitizer.

6. Some congregations purchase the individual cups of grape juice with a bread wafer with it. Each congregant first, peels the top off, taking the bread, then peels the second covering over the cup, drinks from the cup.

People can be really creative when faced with challenges concerning celebration of the sacrament of Holy Communion. Maybe the old adage of cleanliness is next to godliness has new meaning in our day. Have you seen an innovative way of celebrating communion? I’d love to hear your comments



11 Principles for Successful Leaving

October 16, 2009

The phone call comes. You are being offered a new appointment. The pressure’s on. You think. You pray. You talk it over with your family. You decide to accept the new appointment. You make your announcement, and begin to wind down your ministry at your current position. One of the most important things you can do as you prepare to leave an appointment, or any job for that matter, is to set the stage for who will follow you. How you handle your leaving, as well as how you educate you congregation or co workers, will highly influence the success or failure of your successor. I have served 5 appointments in local churches over my career and have found these principles to be helpful. These principles are based on the premise that you had a choice or an opportunity to ask reconsideration. I will address principles for moving without having a choice in another blog.

1. Own the move. When you make the public announcement, be clear that you have made the choice to move. Use “I” language. If you can honestly do this, assure them that you are not mad at anyone. If there has been conflict, don’t attack anyone.
2. Keep any private discussions about your decision consistent with your announcement. Don’t talk about your choice to accept the move in your announcement, and then in private conversations, tell people you didn’t want to move and you are being railroaded.
3. Begin to pray with the congregation concerning the decision process that will assign a new pastor. Believe me, bishops, district superintendents, and other church leaders need all the prayer we can get.
4. Don’t start any new initiatives.
5. Have specific conversations with committees, teams and leaders that include the following topics:
a. God has blessed your ministry together and you are grateful to them for their partnership.
b. Change is part of God’s plan
c. Tell them not to say to the new pastor, “Pastor X always did it this way,” unless the new pastor asks how you did it.
d. The ministry is about God not about you.
e. God has more great things to do in ministry at the church
f. Assure them it’s not the end
g. Be honest about discussing adjustments. Encourage them to work to get to know the new pastor and their family.
6. This is the hardest. Assure them that you will always love them, but after the change date, you are no longer their pastor. You cannot continue to run back for things and honestly give yourself to your new appointment. Yes, there may be exceptions, but you have to be very, very cautious not to get triangulated. You may find yourself crossing an ethical line.
7. Prepare good records. Meet with your successor prior to the change. Introduce them to staff or church members you run into together. Be sure to brief them on shut ins, people with specific pastoral needs, and any other nuances.
8. If there are some tasks that you were stuck with such as changing the altar candles, you might use the transition period to help the church get someone else to do it. After all, the new pastor is going to be busy adjusting to the new appointment.
9. When the new pastor’s name is announced, begin to pray for them by name in worship and any other settings.
10. Nip any rumors about the new pastor in the bud. Gossip and murmuring are not Christian and can undermine a pastor before they arrive.
11. Try to arrange your last Sunday to be at least 2 Sundays before your successor arrives. This gives the congregation some adjustment time so that they don’t say goodbye to you on one Sunday and hello to the new pastor family on the next.

Leaving can be tough. Pastors have a responsibility to do all they can to insure as smooth a transition as possible.

Blessings, Bill

Living in Leaving Limbo

October 7, 2009

You did it. Sunday morning, you announced that you would be leaving. After a certain date, you would no longer be their pastor. After the service, hugs, tears, well wishes. It’s emotional. Monday morning, you begin to notice a change. It’s subtle at first, then it becomes more noticeable. You are entering “Leaving Limbo.” Essentially, your announcement signals a major change in relationships. For some, it may be the equivalent of the loss that comes from a death. For some, it may be sadness tempered with gladness for your new opportunity. And there even may be a soul or two, who say, “Finally.”

Over the course of my ministry, I have experienced several reactions when I have announced I was leaving. I have discovered that they are pretty normal and can be part of the ending of a healthy ministry at a church.

One is that your closest friends and partners in ministry, may begin to withdraw from you emotionally. They are detaching. They are saying goodbye. They are trying to reorder their lives while you begin to disengage from ministry with them and pack. You may even begin to detach emotionally, and even allow some anger that you have buried to surface. Someone may even be angry at you for leaving. They may have a sense of betrayal and abandonment. Don’t take it personal. Don’t act on anger or hostility.

Another experience may be that of someone who has disagreed with you beginning to express their anger or their ill feelings more openly. They have nothing to lose. After all, you are leaving. Don’t take the bait. Let it go.

A third response is like driving 70 miles an hour on the interstate in heavy traffic, and you accidentally knock the gear shift from drive to neutral. The engine revs but you slow down. The visioning and enthusiastic planning of ministry slows down. They become passive. After all, why should they invest energy in your goals when you are leaving? Plus, they figure the new pastor may have some new ideas.

A fourth response, and by no means the final one, is that you and your family may begin to feel grief, and even buyer’s remorse. You may find yourself asking questions like, “Did I do the right thing?” or “Am I really doing God’s will?” Don’t panic. It’s normal. Remember Jesus said that once you put your hand to the plow, don’t look back (Luke 9:62). Move ahead believing that God has something new and wonderful for you.



Who Am I?

October 6, 2009

My name is Bill Sterling. I have been an ordained United Methodist Pastor for over 35 years. My purpose in writing this blog is to share my experience. I have had the privilege of working with many people who have encouraged, challenged, supported, and simply put up with me. I have also worked with people who didn’t care for me. Some were gracious. Some were adversarial. My errors, mistakes, blunders, ego trips, goofs, and just plain dumb and stupid things are legion. I will use this blog to share my life learnings – not as the expert who did it right, but as a sinner and human who continually clings to God’s renewing grace and continues try to learn from my mistakes. I hope that through this blog, you will be able to laugh, as well as learn from my mistakes. Please feel free to comment.