Unexpected blessings

At coffee yesterday, a colleague and I are telling stories of some of the challenging people we had met in the course of our careers. We are both gray-headed pastors who have served multiple congregations and had a range of experiences. We both love the work we do and the people that we serve. We both are passionate about our faith and the community of the church. But occasionally, and yesterday was one of those days, we recall some experiences that have challenged us. We both had stories of a person who seized power in a small area of the church and became a little dictator. Those characters become almost comical in the storytelling because there is so little power in the church and one who seizes it doesn’t have much at all. But in context, while the event is going on, that person can be a real pain and cause a lot of frustration. They rarely respond well to rational argument. They frequently claim tradition without knowing the history of the institution.

I recalled the advise that a mentor had offered me early in my career, “Get up every day and pray for good health and strength for the person with whom you’re having conflict. You want them to live longer than your time of leading the church. You certainly don’t want to officiate at their funeral.” We laughed.

It is common to encounter someone in the church who stands as a barrier to important work that the church is doing. Perhaps it is one who is always trying to save pennies in budget meetings, or one who opposed a much-needed change at a congregational meeting. Often it is someone whose position is backed by some, but nowhere near a majority, of the congregation. I recalled reading in the history of a congregation I served in another state, the minutes of a congregational meeting where a member of the church rose to oppose installing modern bathrooms in the church building. “I’m never going to do that in God’s house!” I never met the person. It is possible that the person kept the promise. But the church installed bathrooms and every church I’ve served in my career has not only had bathrooms, but engaged in a bathroom remodeling project to bring bathrooms up to modern standards and make them more accessible. I don’t know anyone who argues against bathrooms in churches these days.

It can be even more frustrating for a pastor, when it is easy to see that the person is on the wrong side of history. You can wax nostalgic and go on and on about the size of church youth groups in the 1960’s, but that won’t change the realities of sociology. Family size has an impact on the number of children in the church. There are a lot of other factors in the lives of teens these days, including increased sports options, increased travel and different expectations from parents. You can try to blame church staff for the realities of our times, but it won’t bring change.

I’ve discovered, over the years, that those who complain about the lack of new members are almost always the worst at hospitality. They complain about a lack of new people and they complain about new people when they come. They seem to want to have new members without having the new members change anything.

Those who believe that new members will solve financial challenges are simply wrong. The church will still have to make difficult decisions and live within its means. And new members bring new expenses with them as well as new generosity.

Lest I leave readers with the wrong impression, however, it is important to note that although we pastors do occasionally get going on a string of comments like the above, we don’t spend our time sitting around and complaining about the members of our congregations. In fact our conversation yesterday was about the nature of community and the joy of living in community.

Those quirky members - the ones we are challenged to get along with - are gifts of God. They are blessings. Sometimes we can’t see the blessing at the moment. Sometimes we see others as opponents or even enemies, but the body of Christ is complex with many different parts and many different ideas. Every pastor needs to read 1 Corinthians regularly. The letter reminds us that we need each other and that we don’t have to be the same to be parts of the community of Christ. Diversity is essential to our enterprise.

And, as every pastor who has been around for a while knows, the folks who drive you up the wall provide stories that you will be telling decades from now.

The spiritual practice of gratitude has been a very important part of my life. It is easy for me to rise in the morning and think of multiple things for which I am grateful. I have the gift of health. I have a wonderful family. I have meaningful work. I live in a beautiful place. All of those things are blessings and reminding myself of my blessings is important. But there is another level to the practice of gratitude. After expressing gratitude for life’s joys, it can be deeply meaningful to offer gratitude for the problems and challenges of life as well. I would not wish for anyone to suffer burns, but suffering burns taught me a lot about compassion and gave me insight into pain and the addictions that can grow out of the use of pain medication. I am a better pastor for having had that experience. Looking back, it is easy for me to see that the times when the church was short of financial resources were times of building community. Having to struggle helped us to learn about stewardship and about generosity. At the time, it didn’t seem like we were in a good place, but looking back I can give genuine gratitude for the experiences.

For all of the quirky personalities and all of the challenges we have faced as pastors, we give thanks to God. It turns out that they were blessings - every one!

Copyright (c) 2018 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!