Archives For Pastoring

choir_taize_crossI’m closing in on my 8th year of serving this particular congregation and more so every day I’m convinced there is fruit in ministry that only becomes possible with a longer measure of time.

For instance, a few weeks ago I confirmed about 40 students in our congregation many of whom I remember from their Day School years here at the church. The students from my first confirmation class 8 years ago are now in the midst of choosing their careers and have since blossomed into adults. One of those first confirmands is joining me this weekend for the Taize Pilgrimage of Trust at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

These are all blessings only made possible by the patience and passage of time, blessings our Methodist system of itinerancy rarely affords pastors.

Yet of all those, one such example is at the fore of my thoughts this week.

On Sunday I was privileged to spend several hours at the deathbed of someone in my congregation, a man whom just a few years ago I would’ve ended any mention with the passive-aggressive Southern epilogue ‘…bless his heart.’

I can be honest about the rough edges of our relationship because to pretend otherwise would be to dishonor the grace-filled trajectory of our relationship ultimately took.

He was a thorn in my side and, to my chagrin, I could not avoid being so in his. He was for me the personification of what pastors and non-churchgoers lament as ‘church politics.’ He was convinced I didn’t know what I was doing, couldn’t preach my out of a paper-bag and would be the ruination of his church…”bless his heart.”

My- less than pastoral- thoughts generally ran ditto but in the likewise direction.

He has the distinction of being the only parishioner ever to challenge me to a fist fight.

And an arm-wrestling contest.

And the softie in me hopes no one ever takes that distinction from him. 

Yet with all that ‘history’ between us, something in the past couple of years changed between us. He first made peace, I think, that I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon and decided to make the best of it.

He then started earnestly to listen and read my sermons, stealing them from the pulpit lectern (sometimes before I’d preached…teaching me to have a spare copy handy) and concluded that even I’m not Billy Graham I’m not without some gospel IQ.

Later, he one day filled up my voicemail box not with complaints but with a thoughtful history of his faith walk.

The barbs I’d once received in the receiving line after worship became playful ‘young fella’ banter and I’d chide him that ‘if I had my own 12 disciples then he’d be….the guy who replaced Judas.’

Last spring he sincerely thanked me for being involved with his granddaughters’ experience at church and this winter he made a substantial gift to our mission work in Guatemala; however, he requested that I carry said gift down to Guatemala myself in cash.

When I asked if this was to insure 100% of his gift went where it was needed or if he was merely trying to get me cavity-searched at the airport, he responded with a cryptic chuckle and a ‘we’ll just see.’

Thus was the down then up path of our relationship that found me visiting him in the hospital this week last. Weak, emaciated and slightly disoriented, he smiled when he saw me. He grabbed my hand and tried to hug me.

Pulling me close, with dehydrated lips he asked me ‘to forgive him for any ugliness he showed in the past- I reckon I was in the wrong…’

I smiled and said: ‘Ditto.’

‘I still could’ve taken you in a fight,’ he said mouthed hoarsely.

‘Try it old man’ I replied loudly into his ear. His smile quickly became another cough.

And then I prayed for/with him.

(* If I was in a different temper I’d insert a diatribe here about how our United Methodist system of itinerancy actively prevents moments like this, moving pastors before relationships can come full circle, but that’s a grouse for another day.)

On Sunday I spent several hours at his bedside, holding his hand while his son rubbed his head and shoulders and reassured him of both our and God’s love.

I sat there quietly amazed that 5 years ago I was about the last person he would’ve wanted next to him in those moments yet all the more amazed that just a few years since there was absolutely nowhere else I’d rather have been on Sunday.

I left him Sunday afternoon not realizing he had only a few hours left.

I got in the elevator of the assisted living facility behind an elderly lady toting a walker. She acted as though she knew me.

I pushed ‘1’ for her and then, to my surprise, I started crying.

‘It’s all right John’ she said.

I’ve no idea who she thought I was but I appreciated the solace nonetheless.

It would take me a while to track back through all the deaths and burials I’ve been a part of since I started out in my little parish back in Princeton. Whatever the number, it’s a lot. Children, parents, men no older than me. They cover the gamut from tragic to the welcome blessed rest, with some well-loved congregants sprinkled in along the way.

Seldom, if ever, has a death hit me the way as has this one.

I’m not quite sure what’s behind this effect.

Is it that I saw in him someone much like myself, someone who as Martin Luther described was ‘at once sinner and justified?’

Is it that, in both the good and the bad, there was absolutely no pretense about our relationship- something that can be rare in congregations?

Is it that he (or our relationship) was a genuine, identifiable proof of grace, that tempers can ease and relationships can heal?

Is it that with him I’d experienced both how petty church politics can be but also how easily such pettiness pass into irrelevance if we let it?

Probably, I suspect, it’s a little of all the above which is but another way of saying:

 ‘_____  was like family to me’ with all the complexity and joy the word ‘family’ entails.

And though the me from 5 years ago would’ve laughed at the thought, I can now honestly say I will miss him like family.


reverend_in_rhythmIt happens a few times a week, an exchange, a greeting or goodbye, meeting a stranger or a parent introducing me to a small child. They call me ‘Reverend’ and casually I try to insist they call me ‘Jason.’

I hate putting the ‘Rev’ before my name.

And though I prefer Jason because, you know, that’s my name, I’m willing to accept the term  ‘pastor’ or even ‘minister.’

At least those terms refer to my function, to what I do- shepherd in the case of pastor or serve in the case of minister.

Those titles can be verbs and when used as verbs I’m the doing the doing.

‘Reverend’ on the other hand is just a title. An honorific.

It dates to the Medieval European Church, a period in the Church’s ecclesial life that has little to commend to us. It’s a gerund of the latin verb meaning ‘to revere.’ And that verb doesn’t refer to me doing the revering. It refers to you doing the revering. As in, you should revere me. You should think of me as (more) honorable (than you).

It creates an unhelpful dichotomy, I think, at a time when far too many church goers think it’s the clergy’s role to do Christianity for them.

The use of the title ‘Rev’ gets in the way of us realizing the priesthood of all believers as the unfunded mandate of the Reformation.

I bring this up not because I woke today feeling cranky, quite the opposite. I mention it because the NY Times has a great interview with the CEO and Founder of Liquidnet.

This is another example, I think, of a business company getting ‘church’ better than most churches do, at least in the sense of the church being a creative, cooperative community where responsibility is shared by all. Here’s the money quote in the entire article and, God, I wish all churches got this insight:

“If you see something that we’re not doing right and you don’t say something, then it’s on you.

If you think that everyone on the leadership team is taking into account everything that could possibly go wrong, you’re wrong.

It’s everybody’s responsibility to help us run this company better than we can do it by ourselves.”

At Liquidnet, they’ve done away with all titles. Period. Take a read and wherever you see the word ‘company’ mentally replace it with ‘church.’

Q. Tell me about some of the values of your culture.

A. One is personal responsibility. I tell this to our new people during orientation, but if you see something that we’re not doing right and you don’t say something, then it’s on you. If you think that everyone on the leadership team is taking into account everything that could possibly go wrong, you’re wrong. It’s everybody’s responsibility to help us run this company better than we can do it by ourselves.

One of our philosophies is that I would much rather have everyone assume that everything we do here is wrong and that it’s your responsibility to help us fix it. That eliminates all the ego, or it should eliminate all the ego. Since we’re trying to constantly improve ourselves, you’re helping us by giving us some suggestions about what we can do better.

Q. Some people must be a bit skeptical at first. It’s one of those policies that sounds good in theory, but how do they know you mean it?

A. Well, first of all, we don’t have any titles. And the reason is that I do not want a junior vice president to be at a meeting and not say anything because they have a senior vice president in the room, which I believe happens quite often. Having no titles is symbolic, but it really works. Just to give you one example: we had an intern, 19 years old, and there were a bunch of us in a meeting. I was giving everyone my latest and greatest idea and he took me on and he disagreed with me. It turned out he was right, and I told him he was right at the meeting. So we have to practice it at the top.

Q. And what made you decide to do away with titles?

A. We eliminated them early on because we started getting all this title creep. Someone came to me once and said we had 15 titles or something, and I said: “That’s it. We’re done. No more.” I don’t want people to aspire to get a higher title. I want people to aspire to take on more responsibility. More responsibility gets them more recognition.

Q. How did people react when you told them you were eliminating titles?

A. It was very divided. A lot of people felt that it would be very difficult to attract people if we couldn’t give them a title, because that’s what goes on their résumé. Quite frankly, that really was not my concern. We found it turned out to be a good differentiator for us, and it helps us attract the right people. If somebody wants to come here but is determined to have a managing director title, then go to a place that has a managing director title.

Another thing I did from Day 1 was to set a no-suits-and-no-ties mandate. That, too, is a measure of informality. When we’re sitting around in jeans, or whatever people want to wear, that’s the kind of interaction I want. I want to have a casual interaction. I want to be able to say whatever I want to say and have them do the same.

Q. But you must have some hierarchy.

A. Everyone has managers, but the elimination of titles means that everyone has a right to state their opinion. We define levels by the responsibility you have in the company. So I am a “shape.” Most of the folks on the leadership team are shapes. We help shape the direction of the company. The people next level down are “guides.” The level below that are “drives,” and below that are “solves” and then there are “creates.” A working group came up with those levels. I just think they nailed it.

Q. What else about your culture?

A. We have something that I call a very efficient organ-rejection mechanism. If somebody comes in and just does not fit the culture, we reject them. Firing is a very big and an important part of who we are, as well. I think firing is much harder than hiring but it’s every bit as important. If you make a mistake, try to fix the mistake as quickly as you possibly can.

Q. Where did you get these specific ideas about culture? Were there experiences early in your career that affected your thinking?

A. I hated one of my bosses when I was in my early 20s. He was just nasty. There was nothing that anyone in the firm could do right. If you came up with a new idea, he would just beat it out of you.

Q. What are some things you do to spur innovation at your company?

A. We have a “skunk works.” Once every six months, we ask everyone to come up with ideas. It could be anything — a new app, a new process, whatever. And we have a committee that vets them and reduces them down to a specific few, and then we give people some time and resources to go and develop them.

Q. What advice do you give aspiring entrepreneurs?

A. First, find something you’re passionate about. Don’t do some kind of “” business just because the furniture industry is big. Pick something you’re passionate about and define a very large problem. And if I were you, I’d define a very large problem that people know is a problem.

So take on a large problem, and see what you can do to fix it. Most people have not spent the time to figure out what is going to be their company’s value proposition. How do you win? If you don’t, it’s like going into a marriage knowing that there are problems but hoping that somehow, some way, it’s going to resolve itself. That doesn’t happen. So if you don’t spend the time to figure it out, why would you spend your money doing it, or somebody else’s?

I think that’s a common pitfall. Somebody creates a new app and puts it out there on a wing and a prayer. The true personality of an entrepreneur is not of a gambler. It’s somebody who goes for a sure thing. You have to figure there’s going to be a whole bunch of things that are going to come at you that you never expected. You’ve got to try to control as much as you possibly can control by anticipating that stuff up front. Those are the basics I leave people with.



Thank You, Pastor

Jason Micheli —  March 6, 2013 — 7 Comments
What he said.
James Rogers has this reflection in First Things. I think he overstates the difficulty pastors have in forming friendships within the congregation. At least, that hasn’t been my experience. But his thoughts here are good ones.

Pastors have hard lives.

Paul’s experience of pouring out his life into a congregation is shared, I think, by almost every pastor, no matter the size of the life or the size of the congregation.

The pastoral burden must be tremendous.

The author of Hebrews writes that pastors “keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account.” What a huge responsibility. The flip side of this responsibility is that layfolk are supposed to “obey your leaders and submit to them” so that our pastors may keep watch over our souls “with joy, and not with grief.”

And yet how often do we grieve our pastors?

Part of this seems to be built into the way pastors become pastors, at least these days. It is not a surprise that young men who show some enthusiasm for God and the gospel are encouraged to become pastors. This encouragement may come in the form of what these young men (and, one hopes, wise Christians around them) discern as an inner call from the Spirit. For others, the encouragement may come from those around them as they discern the man’s gifts.

Whatever the source of the encouragement, however, it is usually young men most zealous for God and the gospel, those who are most aware of the grace they received from God and who have responded most deeply to God because of that grace, who are encouraged to become pastors. Think of Paul’s Damascus Road experience (though calls of course do not need to be so dramatic).

This seems an obvious point: that men who become pastors usually have an exceptional relationship with God in one dimension or another.

What would be the alternative? Men becoming pastors who have little interest in God and the ministry?

But consider the implication: the same thing that draws men to the ministry also separates them from their congregations. They have experienced a richer relationship with God than those they lead; they have, as the Psalmist puts it, “tasted and seen that the Lord is good.”

The upside is that their only aspiration is for their congregations to taste of the life, blessing, and joy that God offers us through the gospel. But what frustration, also; it’s so often like pushing a rope. We congregants are hard of hearing, we stumble, we are distracted by the world. The pastor implores those in his charge merely to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” They know, they know, that if only we taste we will, like them, want more. It’s sitting there, right before us. They would love for us to share what they have. But we don’t even taste.

They teach, they preach, they baptize and feed us. They plead, they implore, they even cajole and admonish. But so little for so much. They are poured out as a drink offering on the service and sacrifice of their congregations. They empty themselves, yet, so often, no one seems to get filled.

To be sure, God sees and rewards. But it would be nice every now and then to receive some appreciation from those of us they serve.

But too frequently we call upon them only when we’re in desperation, and ignore them when we’re not. We don’t bring our children to catechism class, and then blame the pastor for our children’s ignorance. We treat gathering together with the church as a burden, and the Eucharist as something that only prolongs the service, and then blame the pastor when our children drop their faith in college.

Pastors see the wreck that sin makes of human lives in their congregations, and the hindrance it creates for receiving God’s love. Yet we accuse them of meddling should they attempt to minister to us—until we’ve made such a wreck of it that there’s no one left to turn to. Then we wonder that the pastor is of so little help and comfort.

There’s so much to do in the church and so few layfolk willing to help.

So the pastor steps in to do the needful things, and is soundly thanked with the accusation of power-grabbing.

As if filling a vacuum he’d be more than happy for someone else to fill is power-grabbing. But we’re all satisfied enough to criticize from the sideline.

And then there is just not enough time for all the demands. People do the right thing for the wrong reason, and the wrong thing for the right reason. It would be great for pastors to have time to disciple us properly.

But we are so hard of hearing that it takes so long just to get through to one of us, and then we’re just as apt to misunderstand as to understand. It seems as though pastors empty themselves into broken cups that cannot hold what they offer.

It is a struggle as the pastor only wants his congregation to share the passion prompted by the love that he’s received from God.

But all of this also comes along with the pastor’s struggle with his own sin. Little could be more isolating for a pastor than struggling with his own sin when knowing that his congregation, often unfairly, looks to him as model of right behavior. We sometimes, unfairly, expect them to exemplify fully the life of the age to come rather than recognizing that no man can do that on this side of the eschaton.

It is little wonder that pastors seek out each other for fellowship and consolation; few layfolk understand the fine line between honesty with God and with one’s congregants, and desire not to disappoint, and a hypocrisy that can threaten one’s soul.

All of this on top of the pastor being poured out as a drink offering while keeping watch over the souls of the flock that God has given him.

Thank you, pastor.