Friday, May 31, 2013

The worst job in the world?

I must round off my experience back at my first church.  We shared in a casserole lunch after the service – the church has always been top notch at providing hospitality – and over the meal I had several conversations, stirring joyful memories.  ‘You did our wedding’, said two.  ‘You baptized me,’ said another.   ‘You will know my Dad.  He often spoke about you,’  said a more recent member. 'You remember when my son was born, rushing over to congratulate me?  And I was in the middle of playing cricket!'  said another.  Yes, all kinds of memories in a rich community with roots going way back. 
 But then a couple asked me whether I knew another younger Baptist minister. They wondered if I had any recent information about him. 
'No', I said.  'Why, what’s happened'. 
 ‘Well, he’s a wonderful minister.  When he left theological college we were with him when he started in his first church.   He seemed to have outstanding gifts and were so thrilled for him and the church.   It looked as though he had really good ministry ahead.  Then we heard that he had a breakdown, and had to leave the church and is now is a very poor state.’ 
‘He had a breakdown?  What happened? ‘ 
'Well, it seems this particular couple in the church destroyed him. They just made his life so terrible he was completely broken down and have to leave.’  
In the last three months  or so I have heard of two other Baptist ministers who have suffered breakdowns and are currently out of ministry. Someone said to me, ’It’s getting more and more difficult to be a minister. It’s partly because churches are in decline with increasing tension and tragic power struggles.   Sometimes it seems that ministers themselves seem to be different from a previous generation'. 
This sadness opens up a big subject.  In my own genuine appreciation for church congregational life, I am not blind to destructive power lurking within certain local church cultures.   The very positives of a people openly seeking the mind of Christ together allows negative potential too.  And then, I fear, Baptist ministry might be the worst job in the world.



Monday, May 27, 2013

The best job in the world (2)

At the Blackburn church I was greeted by friends from my very beginnings in ministry. One lady reminded me of her gravely disabled child, a teenager able only to lie in a large pram. How, when her child died, she had first felt she needed a quiet family service, but the conviction had grown that we needed to come together to make a witness that God is love, and in this child her parents had amazingly experienced this even through the pain and the questions. It was one of those remarkable services that only believers can enter. With tears in her eyes she said: “I expect that was your first service like that”. Oh, yes! Someone else said; “This was the church where you did everything for the first time.’

I was there seven years and such was the pace of life that it almost felt that I faced everything a minister can do. The only Baptist church in a town of over 100,000 people I was thrown into so many diverse situations that demanded a response. Often I was a first-responder meaning it was my first opportunity to respond to an issue I had never met before. Murder, suicide, a rapist who was in the headlines, deaths at every age from a few hours to ripe old age. Divorce, infidelity, marriage, disputes and breakdowns. Racial tension. And always, ongoing responsibility for two sermons every Sunday, mid-week Bible study and prayer meetings, pastoral visitation, denominational networking, collaboration with others in this cathedral town. And, especially, new believers coming to faith and by baptism into membership.

Here I was 40 years on with men and women who had become my friends back then, through thick and thin, through my failures and inadequacies. Anyone sharing in a reunion knows the rush of memory, and the general goodwill that thrusts the best of memories forward, often giving them an affectionate polish. But as we worshipped together and sang some of the great hymns of the church I knew (and my wife with me) that we have a privilege that few other jobs give. Of belonging with a family made up of otherwise unlike people united in this strange community in Christ, called a Baptist church.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The best job in the world (1)

I have just celebrated 41 years on being ordained a Baptist minister.  I say celebrated because on many days,  and today especially, it seems like the best job in the world.   It would be better to say calling rather than job for it has definitely been a vocation over the years. 

I spent last weekend at my first church in Blackburn, Lancashire.  I went there straight from theological college with a beautiful wife, a tiny baby, a Beatle haircut and an unreliable motorcycle.   The church secretary commented that the baby looked as though it had been in Belsen.   Rapidly, she changed the regimen, put my son on baby milk and masterminded a gradual recovery of health for my wife.  She didn’t like the motorcycle either.  We did look a needy family, my wife and I.  They showed the photographs from that date in1972 and we look very hopeful and willing but, to be frank, very young and na├»ve.   Yes, there was some training behind me but a huge task ahead of me.   I looked at my photo with my heavy dark-framed glasses and unruly hair and realize how little I knew about anything.

Reflecting back on the four decades of ministry since I can only smile at my dreams, hopes and naivety. I guess many of us start new opportunities like that.  Yet I can still claim that this has been the best job in the world.

Why?  Because I have experienced the wonder of being in a Christian community that believes it has been gathered together by Jesus Christ,  in the power of the triune God,  with the extraordinary daring possibility of living, serving, giving, just being together as people who together ‘discern the mind of Christ.’  The genius of congregational living is that believers are giving the opportunity to grow together with mutual responsibility under Christ for the direction of their church.  Rather than have a hierarchical form of church government with decisions taken beyond the local congregation,  Baptist churches live with the risks of learning to obey the Head of the Church right where they are.  I say risks, because with this freedom to be the people God in any particular place, there comes the need for spiritual maturity and discernment.   For power-sharing unlike that seen anywhere else.  For leaders to belong with people who belong with the recognition that as they worship together the Lord seeks to do something specific with them.   However, sometimes spiritual maturity and discernment is missing.  Power-sharing is a joke.  With the bright side of community living with mutual love there is a dark side of power abuse.
But when you have tasted as a minister what it means to be with a people who are willing to listen together, to grow together, to submit to each other, then you know why it is an amazing vocation.  
Critics of congregational living may likely laugh out loud at my claims.   For many the model of congregational living has been tried and failed utterly and often bitterly.   I must continue.


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Pentecost 2013

I am looking forward to Sunday and the Family Church Anniversary service (which means young children remain in the service - always a challenge!) at Leamington Road Baptist Church, Blackburn, Lancs.  I began ministry at this church (41 years ago - what?)) and have only rarely returned to preach over the intervening years.   However,this occasion may prove to be the last anniversary in the current buildings, as they have deteriorated and the congregation has to sell the site.  As you can imagine this brings immense sadness as well as challenge.

I have prayed and worked on an appropriate message for this particular context.  Of course, all my recent reading (as mentioned in my last posting) also filters my thinking.  How vital it will be for this dear people, now much smaller in number, without a pastor and facing momentous changes to hear again that we belong to God's mission which is kingdom-sized where each of us is given his power to live and love together.

I am working on what I call the Church's Birth Charter - Luke 24: 46-49 and Acts 2:1-4. The Lukan passage has some parallels with John 20: 19-23, with a trinitarian emphasis as Jesus promises to send the disciples what the Father has promised - the power of the Holy Spirit.  One image has grabbed me as I pondered this text and considered what happens next in Acts 2:1-4.  It's the waiting room. The essential mysterious need for the disciples to WAIT.  It's all too human to organize and manage the church and its mission. Ever since we confess sometimes specializing in church-centric micro-managment.  But Christ's command to stay in the city followed by fifty days of waiting on God in praising and prayer stresses the vital truth that when it comes to kingdom matters we must learn that we are not in control but God is.  Spectacularly, in sound like the wind, what looks like tongues of fire, and myriad languages to foreigners gathered in Jerusalem, God shows us how differently he works.  He is the one who gives vision, empowers conviction, stirs the nations as waiting disciples open themselves to his control.  Ever since, this is the vital truth about his world mission. It's all his idea. He has the timing, sets the seasons,  and empowers breakthroughs.

As I go on preparing I see an especial relevance for this dear Blackburn church, but maybe this resonates with you too?