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



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


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