Posted tagged ‘pastoral ministry’

The Simla Saints

December 24, 2018

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                       December 24, 2018

                                        

Yesterday I gave the morning sermon at First Baptist Church in Simla, Colorado. It was good! Not the sermon, but rather the fellowship of the saints, the Simla Saints. 

The parking lot was not crowded. There is no parking lot!

There was not a greeter at the door. Everyone greets each other just like a family would.

No one had a Starbucks coffee cup in their hand. The nearest Starbucks is 45 minutes away, and the pot of (weak) coffee brews during the service for consumption afterwards.

There is not a screen or a projector..or an organist or pianist. But there is something like a music machine that plays background organ music that the congregation is rarely in rhythm with. The machine plays 3 verses of a hymn that the hymnal has four verses of…or vice-versa.

Simla First Baptist is one block off of the main road through town, but by the time a car leaves the main road it hits dirt. Dirt is cheaper than those highfalutin big city streets that are blacktopped! Simla is a town that does not desire a lot of attention!

Each pew of the sanctuary has a blanket at the end of it. If you’re cold, wrap up! The thermostat is not going to be adjusted when you’ve got a readily accessible blanket right there. One Sunday the batteries had gone dead sometime during the week in the sanctuary thermostat. No one had replacements, so the saints moved closer together, covered themselves with blankets, and we worshipped together in a 40 degree chill. Singing “Breathe on Me, Breath of God” had a visual addition to it that Sunday in front of each singer’s lips.

When I retired from pastoral ministry at the end of 2015 I got a call from the church moderator at Simla, asking if I was available to speak the first Sunday in February? I was so I did! At the end of that February service he came up to me and asked if I was available the next Sunday. I did three Sundays in a row before my friend, Steve Wamberg, spoke a couple of Sundays. Steve and I then started filling in every week, usually in two week rotations. 

Now, almost three years later, Ed Stucky and I handle the bulk of the Sundays, riding out together from “the big city” each Sunday morning.

Simla First Baptist was my second salvation. Jesus was the first! When I retired from ministry, however, I needed a second salvation. I needed for a church, so to speak, to save me from the church. 36 years of ministry had whipped me. I needed a rescue of sorts! Pastors can become disillusioned after a while, a long while. A pastor, who is the messenger of hope for people on a faith journey can come to a point where he/she feels hopeless.

The Simla Saints picked me up. Grace became more important than grandeur, simplicity the norm instead of splendor! 

And so yesterday Carol and I drove out to see the Saints once again. Almost all of them were there…all 16 of us!…ranging in age from nine months to 74. A dear widow lady who runs the family farm lit the advent candles. Two 7th Grade boys took up the offering. The nine month old had been carried down the block from the Methodist Church to her second service of the morning, after being the Christ-child in the Methodist children’s church program. Her brother, now four, had been Jesus the year before. His baby sister was a sorta’ “second coming”!

One mom brought homemade cookies. Two army veterans munched and talked about their service during the Vietnam years. Everyone had a purpose and a place. Everyone had their struggles to share and blessings to trumpet. 

When we got back in the CRV and headed back on the dirt street to the main road I had a sense that I had been used to minister to others…and had been ministered to by the Saints!

I had not only been to church, I had been a part of the church! 

The Few Seconds Visitor

March 28, 2018

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    March 28, 2018

                                     

I had lunch last week with a friend of mine who needed to vent some…and laugh! He had just spent the previous thirty minutes with someone who had stopped by his office and asked the question:

“Got a few seconds?”

Being someone who is responsible for a workload that is enough for two people, as well as being a nice guy, he said yes. The few seconds extended past a few minutes and into one long rant. It took a few minutes to bring him back down to the humor involved in just being human, but a long lunch later he was ready to return to work.

I remember those days of having an unscheduled visitor stop by the church office and, with a smile on his/her face, ask me that question. One man who was a representative of a mission organization would cause me to grind my teeth as I struggled with the spiritual dilemma fueled by my deeply-rooted Baptist guilt of telling him I was unavailable. That internal wrestling match had come as a result of several experiences with this man of God, and several of those “Got a few seconds” pop-ins!

People who ask for a few seconds usually have no concept of time. In their minds time is infinite. A few seconds could mean a decade in the vastness of time.

In my 36 years of pastoring the only productive meetings I had with someone who asked me if I had a few seconds was when another staff person approached me. Since we were working in the same building it meant that there was something vitally important for me to hear. Otherwise, the person who would stop by, like I was a Starbucks coffee stop, would produce anger, frustration, and cost me a half-day. The half-day cost would be because of how difficult it would be to shift my mind back to one of the other tasks I had to get accomplished that day. After the unannounced visitor left I was still dealing with the frustration of what had just been talked about.

If it was the week leading up to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday I could expect someone to grab my ear for a while. It, of course, was “something that just couldn’t wait!”

“The Few Seconds Visitor” was usually a single-issue person, thinking that the whole church was also disgruntled about the same thing. He/She often saw himself/herself as being the mouthpiece for a larger contingent, like an elected senator speaking for the voters.

In ministry the pop-in person usually has an issue that could and should be handled by a committee or staff person, but the visitor doesn’t like how the team or staff person is handling it. Forget about process and rules of procedure! If he can bend the ear of the pastor/director/principal/administrator for a while to get his way then so be it!

If Jesus had been stopped by someone who wanted just a few seconds of his time he would have said “Get behind me, Satan!”, or perhaps he would have performed an exorcism of the one-issue demon the person was afflicted with.

Let me get to wisdom! The wise person is one who identifies the few people who he trusts, and who, when asked, tell him the truth and advise him on the decisions to be made. The wise person is the one who seeks to receive “a few seconds” of thoughts from people such as that. The wise person knows he needs those trusted few who he can filter situations, assumptions, ideas, and perceptions through. He needs those few people who can lead him to the right decision through clarifying questions.

My youngest daughter would often come to me with a request of something she wanted me to buy her. As she reached her high school years, when her requests seemed to grow in the size of their price tags, I would ask her the question, “Is this a want or a need?” She hated that question because it put things into perspective.

The person who wants just a few seconds of your time is usually someone who has a want not a need. The healthy organization, and effective leader, is one that is able to separate personal wants from organizational needs, personal agendas from organizational priorities, and personal rants from absolute truth.

Thanks for taking a few seconds to read this!

Chaplain Rich Blanchette, First Lieutenant- United States Air Force

July 3, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                                              July 2, 2017

           

I remember when they appeared at my church. Actually, it was the second time they were there. I had been on vacation the first Sunday they showed up, but heard about the young family with two kids who had visited. (It always seemed to happen that way! When I went on vacation visitors would show up. It made my congregation want me to take more vacations, or at least stay away!)

Rich and Casey Blanchette had moved to Colorado Springs from Highland, Illinois. He was beginning a new assignment at the Air Force Academy. Their two munchkins, Hailey and Richie, were about 7 and 2 years old.

Rich and I connected! He understood my humor. We laughed together a lot. They got involved in various ways at church. Casey was enthusiastic and full of energy, like a balloon you let go of and the air releases from as the balloon flies all over the place. Rich was a part of a small group I began of young guys.

And then Rich felt called to the ministry! He had to make a decision. Re-enlist for another four years, or exit the Air Force after 13 years and head to the uncertainty of seminary. He followed the calling. Although his G.I. Bill paid for tuition, the family endured tight financial times as they absorbed educational costs like books and travel expense from Colorado Springs to Denver three to four times a week, plus the loss of income. Entering a three-year seminary program as a 32 year old married father of two is a serious life re-routing, but he did it.

During seminary our church helped him cover educational costs, brought him on staff with the title “Seminary Student Pastor”, and paid him a small stipend. However, the big plus was that it allowed me to mentor him, come alongside him, and get to know his heart for people. Seminary was hard for Rich, more because the demands of study limited his family time. There was always a bit of guilt about writing a paper for a class instead of hanging out with his kids. He struggled to find that balance. I remember both he and his wife sharing their frustrations as they tried to figure out a family rhythm. In the Air Force he had been deployed for six months to Afghanistan and knew the heartache of being away form his family. During his seminary days he would be in the basement of the house studying, just one level below his wife and kids, and still feel that heartache.

But he made it! After our church ordained him, he worked at the Springs Rescue Mission while he looked for pastoral placement. And then First Baptist Church of Goodland, Kansas called him. He interviewed with their search committee, and sent them a couple of sermon tapes. Pretty soon he was being presented as the candidate to be their next pastor…and they loved him, and Casey, and the kids.

Our church said goodbye to him, and they moved three hours away to their new church. I remember in those first few months of ministry he would call me from time to time to ask me questions. “Pastor Bill, what would you do…” “Pastor Bill, how did you go about…”

“Pastor Bill” was, and still is, my name to him even though we are both ordained clergy. In Rich’s mind it has always been a indication of his respect for me, but it also says something to the value that he places on people.

Almost three and a half years later his ministry, a ministry of depth and growth, at Goodland came to an end. Since the last Sunday in June was his final Sunday, the church is just in the beginning stages of grieving the loss of their beloved pastor, but most of them hold Pastor Rich in high regard and will love him always.

Why? Because he felt God tugging on his life’s guide ropes, leading him into a different direction that the Almighty had used the previous twenty years to prepare him for. He is now Chaplain Rich Blanchette, First Lieutenant, United States Air Force, on his way to his first assignment at Los Angeles Air Force Base.

I get somewhat emotional thinking about him. I remember the first sermon he delivered at our church and he took his shoes off before he spoke because he said this was holy ground he was speaking on. I remember taking notes on his messages and doing post-sermon critiquing with him the next week. “Rich, you had great content, but don’t try to feed them the whole haystack all at once!” “Rich, if you can’t illustrate a point with a real-life situation don’t use it!” “Rich, that was your best message yet, and your delivery has improved so much.” I remember traveling over to Goodland one Sunday with Carol and our friends, Ed and Diana Stucky. What an awesome time we had worshiping with the congregation and listening to their pastor preach. As he spoke my eyes got moist because of the symphony that God has orchestrated from his life.

The Blanchette’s stayed with us this past weekend as they began their journey to California. What a great time together! What a delight to be able to laugh so much together about things we had experienced and times shared together.

I have been blessed by him and his family, and in admiration of who he is and who he has become I think I’m going to start calling him “Chaplain Rich!”

Reaching and Reality

April 16, 2016

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    April 16, 2016

                                        

  

      I remember my seminary days of studying theology, talking about it in non-personal ways, and writing papers about it that connected with my mind, but not my soul. A minister friend of mine recently referred to that period of our lives as “reaching for our theology.” That is, we reached for books on library shelves and wrote various statements in essays that were a mixture of what someone else believed and what we thought we believed. In those days, we were not adverse to do some name-dropping in these papers of theology. If a quote from Moltmann’s The Crucified God could be nonchalantly inserted into the pages we would go for it…whether we understood the run-on sentences or believed the doctrine.

Like flying in a plane at 35,000 feet and describing what Kansas is, our words were often “reaches’ for a grade, and not heartfelt beliefs. I confess…I was often in that place of reaching.

And then many of us upon graduation took positions on church ministry staffs and we soon discovered that there is a difference between “reaching” and reality. What we seemed to be able to stay a safe distance from- the actual experiencing of our statement of beliefs- suddenly moved into where we lived.

We went from explaining grace to having to live out grace in our ministries. We went from “reaching preaching” to “preaching from our life experiences.” In many ways it was good, but in some ways it was to uncomfortably close to home.

John Piper is a well-known author and, until 2013, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. I have several of his books in my personal library, including Desiring God and Future Grace (I just name-dropped, didn’t I?). In 2010 Piper took an eight month leave from his position for what he called “a reality check from the Holy Spirit.” He sensed that he had a growing disconnect between what he wrote about and who he was.

A reality check from the Holy Spirit! Many times in my years of ministry I sensed the Holy Spirit nudging my life. Sometimes I faced up to it, and other times…I just kept flying over Kansas!

One of the most difficult elements of ministry is connecting what we believe with why we believe it. It’s the knowledge getting married to the intimate, the distant God that we realize is close at hand, the words of God now being experienced with the breath of God.

In my “reaching days” I could quote from Moltmann’s  Theology of Hope, but the reality of ministry is standing by the bed of a hospice patient and talking to him about the hope of the resurrection and what it means for each one of us.

There is a difference between preaching on forgiveness and being forgiving to the person who has purposely told a lie about you that has resulted in deep emotional pain.

I had many excellent professors back in my seminary days. One that I will always be indebted to was a theology professor named Tom Finger, not because I took pages and pages of notes in his classes, but rather because he kept asking me the hard questions:

“Why do you believe what you believe?” “

“What does that mean to you and for your life?”

“What difference does it make?”

He took me from flying over Kansas to having my feet in the dirt. People like that are God’s uncomfortable blessings upon our lives, because they help us figure out life. We see their handprints upon us as we gradually transform from “reaching preaching” to “preaching from our reality.”

Finding My Place: When a Pastor Retires To…”

April 9, 2016

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                        April 9, 2016

                         

Today marks the one hundredth day of retirement for me after thirty-six and a half years of church pastoral ministry. One hundred days! In my later years of ministry I was feeling the loss of energy and finding it hard to get recharged on Monday for another week of ministry and activity. I’ll be honest! I looked forward to retirement. When I announced my retirement date about one hundred days beforehand I began the countdown.

In many ways beginning this new phase of my life has been enjoyable. I enjoy the freedom of deciding whether I will or will not do a certain task. For example, in recent weeks I’ve started substitute teaching and if I don’t feel like taking a position on a certain day I don’t. The freedom is a breath of fresh air.

But the greener grass on the other side of the pasture has some challenges hidden in it! In my backyard there is a certain soft spot in the grass that I frequently step in when I’m mowing the lawn. It is well hidden and not deep enough to cause me to turn an ankle, but enough of a depth to sometimes make me lose my balance.

That’s a picture of how it is for a pastor who retires. There is the expected steps as he/she walks through the challenges of ministry, the fulfilling of the roles of being a pastor…and then there is the slipping step of retiring. Who am I in that moment of surprising imbalance and uncertainty?

Ministerial ethics has made me keep some distance from the church I pastored for sixteen years. It’s the right thing to do as the congregation searches for the next pastor, and has some time to figure out who it is. Interim periods are great times for churches to regroup, evaluate, talk, and move ahead. Having the former pastor hovering inhibits that process, kind of like having the dad of a teenager sitting in at a gathering of adolescents! It affects the conversation and is not cool!

So where does that leave me? Truthfully…wandering! A retired pastor enters the woods, but has a hard time finding the path. It is one of those journeys that Google Maps can’t give directions for.

Who is my church? What do I do on Sunday morning? For that matter, what do I do on Saturday night? How do people from my former congregation greet me now…Bill?…Pastor Bill?… Mr. Bill? Is my purpose still the same? What congregation do I become a part of?

Retirement is a time of questions and confusion, and, like a first semester college freshman trying to find his classroom location, I’m trying to find my way.

Scripture doesn’t help that much in this part of the journey. Aaron got taken up to Mount Hor and everybody said “See ya!”, and he died there. I really don’t want to be taken to the top of Pike’s Peak and left for dead!

So I wander to something that is not yet clear and comfortable. It is a redefining travel. It is the soft spot in the lawn that I sink into before finding solid ground again. And it may end up being the most important part of my life journey, because through it I’ll discover who I really am and who I’m not!