‘Small Church Essentials’ by Karl Vaters: Introduction

41qsejNasDL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve really enjoyed reading Karl Vaters’ new book ‘Small Church Essentials’. You can find out a lot about Karl by reading his blog ‘Pivot‘ at ‘Christianity Today’ or checking out his website New Small Church.

I need to work my way through the book again and start implementing some of the many ideas I haven’t begun to practice yet. I thought blogging my way through it might help with that. So here’s the first post, on the Introduction (pp.9-13).

In the Intro Karl makes three statements about what small churches need in order to become great (hint: in Karl’s language, ‘Great’ does not automatically mean ‘bigger’):

  1. They have to believe they can be great.
  2. They have to see what a great small church looks like.
  3. They need resources designed for great small churches.

As I reflected on these questions I saw immediately that for me, as a small church pastor, point 2 is crucial. Church growth literature and denominational authorities tend to peddle visions of what a great large church looks like, but that’s not helpful for us small church pastors. We are the ones who believe that it is more than possible to have the kind of church life described in the letters of Paul in a small church than a large church. After all, for the first two or three Christian centuries the ‘house church’ was the norm – so everything essential to church life must be doable in a large living room!

My own pastoral vision is crucial here. Do I have a vision of what a great small church looks like? In this book Karl constantly comes back to the Great Commandments (‘Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself’) and the Great Commission (‘Go and make disciples of all nations…baptize them…teach them to obey everything I have commanded you’). I would add as foundational the Great Confession that Peter makes in the Gospels (‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’). Our vision for small church greatness must focus on these essentials:

  1. Jesus is the Messiah (i.e. the king who sets us free), the Son of God.
  2. Jesus calls us to be his disciples, to make new disciples and to teach them to put his teaching and example into practice in daily life.
  3. Jesus calls us to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

Small churches don’t have excess time, volunteer hours, and money. We need to focus on the things Jesus is calling us to do and not get distracted.

******

A bit further on in the introduction Karl talks about the stereotypes people have of small churches: they are…

  • Inward-focussed
  • Threatened by change
  • Filled with petty infighting and jealousies
  • Not reaching their communities
  • Poorly managed
  • Settling for less

His comment is ‘That’s not a description of a small church; it’s a description of an unhealthy church’. There are plenty of small churches that are:

  • Friendly
  • Outward-looking
  • Missional
  • Innovative
  • Generous
  • Worshipful

As I reflected on these two lists, it came to me once again that it’s probably a case of ‘as pastor, so church’. Which of these lists best describes me? Am I inward-focussed, threatened by change, absorbed by petty infighting and jealousies, not reaching my community, poor at time management, with a tendency to settle for less? Or am I friendly, outward-looking, missional, innovative, generous, and worshipful?

When I look at the first list, it’s the last two that convict me. I’m not a good time manager – I know it’s one of my greatest ministry weaknesses – and I really need to work on that, while not getting sucked into time management tools that work better for large churches (later in the book Karl outlines as very helpful ‘321’ planning system that works really well in small churches). And also I do tend to settle for less – ‘good enough’ – in myself and in church life – rather than pushing myself to be better and inspiring the church to be better too.

So my take-away work from the intro is:

  1. Have a clear picture of what greatness looks like in a small church (hint: it probably centres on the Great Confession, the Great Commission and the Great Commandments) and share this with others.
  2. Work on my time-management and planning skills.
  3. Instead of ‘settling for less’, develop a regular (weekly, monthly, yearly) discipline of asking ‘How could we do this better?’ (or, alternatively. ‘What could we do that would be better than this?’).

 

Advertisements

Finding the Rhythms

As a much younger minister I spent seven years in two different parishes in the Diocese of the Arctic: All Saints’, Aklavik (1984-88) and Church of the Resurrection, Holman (now Ulukhaktok) (1988-91).

One of the things I learned there was to find and take advantage of the natural rhythms of the life of the community and the parish. For instance, in both those communities a lot of people went out on the land for the summer – to fish camps, mainly. And those who stayed in town were busy. The Arctic summer is short, and if you need to get some outdoor work done, the window for that is short too. People don’t want to be bothered by the minister at those times.

So I learned to slow down in the summer, but I also learned to do what everyone else was doing – build a new skidoo shed, or fix some broken windows, or repair a damaged roof. Summer was a good time for fixing buildings and other practical projects. That was the rhythm of life.

Now I live in Edmonton and there’s a rhythm here too. Many of my friends assume that Christmas is my busiest time of year, and they’re surprised when I tell them Easter is a lot busier! But they also don’t get the basic structure of church life in Alberta: really busy (with short lulls) from mid-September until the end of April, then mainly quiet for the four months of May to August. Our winters are long, and once the weather warms up people don’t want to be bothered with meetings and study groups – they want to get out and enjoy God’s creation.

So I run with that, and I enjoy it. Early May to mid-September is time to take a bit of holiday, to read more, to visit and spend time with individuals and to do a bit of planning. The rest of my year goes better if I do those things in the four months of Spring and Summer.

There are little lulls in the winter, too. For instance, things kick into high gear in mid-September: we start small groups and courses and study activities, and these generally run until the end of November. But we don’t do much in December; people are cruising into Christmas and their lives are taken up with that. So I’ve discovered that late November/early December is a wonderful time for me to take a week’s holiday. I get back in time to start the run-up to Christmas, but I’m refreshed from a week of rest. Christmas goes better for me if I do that.

That’s what I’m up to this week. My day off is Monday so I’m actually taking eight days’ holiday, from Monday to Monday. Tomorrow (Wednesday) we’re taking off to see old friends in Saskatchewan for a few days. Looks like the weather will be fairly mild (always a factor at this time of year), so driving will be okay. I’m looking forward to some good friend times, and I know I’ll come back in a better frame of mind.

Things will then get busy again: Our Christmas variety concert – planning for special events – home communions – Christmas services in nursing homes – a ‘When Christmas Hurts’ service – a ‘Lessons and Carols’ and ‘Bring a Friend’ service – and then the special services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

After Christmas there’s a slow down (unless there’s a pastoral emergency; I say that because for the past four years I’ve had deaths in the parish during or just after Christmas). January is steady but not frantic. What many people don’t know is that in church offices this is ‘Annual Meeting season’; we’re busy getting reports prepared and doing other preparation work for the Annual General Meeting (which in our parish takes place in mid-February).

And then comes Lent. Usually we do some extra programming, so things kick into high gear again. Holy Week (between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday) is extremely busy. But by the time Easter comes we’re near the end of April, and people give a great collective sigh of relief and start going out to the lake on weekends. Church life slows down to a leisurely crawl. If clergy and leaders are wise, they don’t try to fight that. We need that time of rest and renewal.

Rhythms of life. It’s good to find them and good to take advantage of them. Life goes better if we do.

My week

Every now and again people ask me what an Anglican priest does all week long. So I thought I’d let you know what this week looked like.

I start each day with a time of personal prayer and journalling. Then Marci and I have tea and pray Morning Prayer together.

Monday is my day off, so I stayed home.

A good part of my week is spent at my desk doing ‘preparation’. Prep work this week has included:

  • Preparing a sermon for Sunday (from start to finish this takes about 6 hours)
  • Other Sunday prep (intercessions for our early service, annotating my bulletins, church setup, posting sermons on various websites etc.)
  • Reading and preparation for our vestry meeting Wednesday night
  • Reading and preparation for our Bible Study group Thursday morning
  • Preparation for our Lay Evangelist training day Saturday (this took about 6 hours to complete)
  • Preparing and sending out a questionnaire about small groups in our church
  • Preparation for a seniors’ home service next week (it’s Tuesday morning so I won’t have time to prepare for it next week).
  • Planning for next week, and some advance planning too.
  • A little bit of reading and study (I’ve been working my way through Turnaround and Beyond, by Ron Crandall).

Meetings and appointments:

  • Tuesday I met with my office administrator at 9.00 to plan our week.
  • From 11.00 to noon Tuesday I had a computer link meeting with the search committee for a new national director for Threshold Ministries (I’m on that search committee).
  • Tuesday afternoon I went downtown to have coffee with a clergy colleague – we meet from time to time to encourage each other.
  • Tuesday evening I spent a couple of hours with a family from our church – visited with the kids and read to them, then after their bedtime I had a good long conversation with the couple.
  • Wednesday I had a meeting of our vestry (church board) in the evening
  • Thursday morning I had a morning Men’s Bible Study at a local coffee shop 8 – 9 a.m.
  • Also Thursday morning I had a meeting of the search committee for wardens and vestry members for next year 10:30 – 11:30.
  • Our lunch bunch (AKA ‘seniors’ lunch’) met at the church from 11.30 – 1.30. Good time of fellowship was had by all.
  • Later in the afternoon I went back downtown for a meeting with my bishop.
  • Tomorrow (Saturday) I’ll be leading a formation day for our diocesan Lay Evangelists in Training. It takes place at St. Margaret’s and will keep me busy from about 8.45 a.m. – 3.30 p.m.
  • Sunday I’ll be at the church by 8.30 a.m.; services are 9.00 and 10.30 a.m., with coffee hour after the second service. I’ll get home about 1 p.m.

Sometimes I have pastoral appointments Sunday afternoon; this week I don’t have any, so I’ll be taking my sabbath from 1.00 p.m. Sunday afternoon to 8.30 a.m. Tuesday morning.

And there you have it: a week in the life of a parish priest!

Pastoral patience

‘We thank you for raising up among us faithful servants for the ministry of your word and sacraments. We pray that N may be to us a godly example in word and action, in love and patience, and in holiness of life’. (Book of Alternative Services, ‘Ordination of a Priest’, prayer after communion, p.650).

I like that word ‘patience’.

When our family lived in Aklavik in the Northwest Territories in the mid-1980s, one summer we planted potatoes (not a common thing in the Arctic!). The local kids were very curious about it. Sometimes during the night (a relative term when there are 24 hours of daylight) they would dig up our potatoes to see if they were growing.

Pastors can be tempted to do that kind of thing too.

Pastoral work is slow work. You can’t rush it. It’s not unlike raising children. There are a few children who turn out to be prodigies; they’re the ones who enter university when they’re eleven. But they’re few and far between. Most kids grow and mature at a more measured pace.

Disciples are like that too. You can’t mass-produce them or place them in an accelerated growth track. The seeds of the Word of God are planted. They put down roots and begin to grow beneath the surface. After a while the tiny shoots break through the soil. As the weeks go by, the young plants grow, and eventually begin to bear fruit.

People put their faith in Christ and begin to grow. They develop habits of prayer and Bible reading. They begin to learn to put the teaching of Jesus into practice in their lives. Hard times come their way and they learn to follow Christ in the school of suffering. They learn the difficult way that they can’t rely on their own resources – they have to depend on the unseen presence of Christ. And so the process goes on.

Pastors can’t be in a rush. They have to be willing to walk beside people for a long time, and let God do his slow and patient work.

We’re not growth managers or assembly-line producers. We’re sowers of seeds, tending and watering the vulnerable young plants, protecting them from pests and weeds and inclement weather, patiently nurturing them and helping them bear fruit

May God save us from giving up too soon, from moving on too soon, from trying to rush what can’t be rushed. May God give us the gift of pastoral patience.

Quote for the Day

C.S. Lewis in the introduction to his book The Problem of Pain:

‘I must add, too, that the only purpose of the book is to solve the intellectual problem raised by suffering; for the far higher task of teaching fortitude and patience I was never fool enough to suppose myself qualified, nor have I anything to offer my readers except my conviction that when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.’

Actually, Mr. Lewis, I think you might have something to teach us after all…

Pastoral Evangelism

I was trained as an evangelist in the Church Army in Canada (now Threshold Ministries) and served in this role for twelve years before my ordination in 1990. As a Church Army officer I exercised my evangelistic ministry in a parish context, and I’ve continued to do that since then as a deacon and priest. My dad was a parish priest with a wonderful evangelistic ministry, and he gave me a great example of how the two vocations (pastor and evangelist) – often seen as distinct and indeed somewhat different from each other – can be brought together in a life-giving way.

So I was thrilled yesterday to read a very fine short sermon from Bishop David Chillingworth on this subject. Bishop David is bishop of St. Andrew’s, Dunkeld and Dunblane, and he is also Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. He blogs regularly about his ministry at Thinking Out Loud. The sermon below was preached at a service of the restoration of the commission of a Church Army evangelist who had resigned from the Church Army on his ordination (as used to be the requirement), but had since decided to take up the offer of the restoration of his commission. I have been present on similar occasions here in Canada and they are very moving for all concerned; the sense of healing can be very powerful indeed.

I love the way Bishop David expresses so succinctly what I have always tried to live out in my ministry, and more intentionally in the last few years: the refusal to accept the idea that the gifts of pastor and evangelist cannot co-exist in the same person. Of course they can! I saw it clearly in my dad, and I like to think it’s true for me too. I’m very grateful to Bishop David for giving me permission to reproduce this short sermon. Here it is.

Re-commissioning of Revd Nick Green

12.9.15

‘He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through  him’

Our Service this evening – the re-commissioning of Nick as a Church Army Officer – celebrates and affirms that work of evangelism.  It’s the great tradition of John the Baptist who came to bear witness to the one who would come after him – to proclaim the coming of Christ and to call people to repentance.  And St Paul declares the centrality of faith – but reminds us that faith needs to be proclaimed.  It needs those who are called to proclaim it and respond in obedience.

I was delighted when Nick told me that he had decided to accept the invitation to receive back his Church Army Commission.  I know that he thought and prayed deeply about that.  In these moments, the question is, ‘Is this something of the past which I have now left behind – or do I carry it forward as a guiding principle of my life wherever the call of God may lead me?’  And I think it is the latter.  So there is in our worship this evening more than a touch of the gospel of reconciliation – a reintegrating of Nick’s calling to be an evangelist with his ministry as Rector of St Mary’s, Dunblane.  And what is the gospel if it is not about reconciliation – the breaking down of the barriers between us and the breaking down of the barriers between God and his people.

But there is more to this.  There seems to have been a time in the life of the church when decisions tended to be presented in binary – or adversarial – or straightforward ‘yes and no’ terms.  I constantly meet the legacy of that in my own ministry.  And I think that the time when the Church Army said to its evangelists that if they sought ordination in the church they would have to give up their commission as evangelists.  It had to be one or the other – it couldn’t be both and.

I believe passionately that there are many circumstances in which both/and is just what we need and what the gospel requires.  And my experience is that much of the energy which we need comes when we bring things together rather than keeping them apart.  Wasn’t the ministry of Jesus like that – healing, teaching, feeding, caring – all wrapped up together?  As Nick goes about his ministry in Dunblane – caring, teaching, shaping worship, building relationships in the community – what could be more creative than that he brings to that the heart and passion of an evangelist?

So it’s going to be both/and for Nick.  And I think it’s going to be inside and outside the church.  The Priest and Pastor is at the heart of the community of God’s people.  The evangelist is with those without faith – the evangelist is often outside – like John the Baptist, the voice crying in the wilderness.

So Nick the Rector – and Nick the evangelist – bring together that inside/outside understanding of the church.  The tendency of the church to tame and domesticate is offset by the call of the evangelist to be with those who are not part of the church.

This is a really important moment.  I am delighted and honoured to be part of it.  I am delighted to be part of the growing partnership between the Church Army and the Scottish Episcopal Church.  I pray that God will bless us as Church and Church Army do both/and and inside/outside in his name.

**********

Note: For a good example of how the ministries of evangelism and pastoral care can be combined, it’s hard to beat David Hansen’s superb book The Art of Pastoring. David is a Baptist pastor, and his book gives many examples of how witness and evangelism can be built right into the daily work of pastoral care in an ordinary congregation (the book was written in the context of a multi-point charge in rural Montana). I highly recommend it.

Who are the must-reads?

Seth Godin had a great blog post on Thursday about knowing who the must-reads are in your field. It ended with these words:

We would never consent to surgery from a surgeon who hadn’t been to medical school, and perhaps even more important, from someone who hadn’t kept up on the latest medical journals and training. And yet there are people who take pride in doing their profession from a place of naivete, unaware or unlearned in the most important voices in their field.

The line between an amateur and professional keeps blurring, but for me, the posture of understanding both the pioneers and the state of the art is essential. An economist doesn’t have to agree with Keynes, but she better know who he is.

If you don’t know who the must-reads in your field are, find out before your customers and competitors do.

Too much doing, not enough knowing.

So the question is, for us pastors, who are the ‘must-reads’ in our field? And how do we decide?

The reason I ask this question is because we have a fair amount of latitude in our work. An old clergy friend of mine once told me that you can do the absolute non-negotiable tasks of an Anglican parish priest in about 24 hours a week. If you work twice that many (as many of my colleagues do), you have a certain amount of freedom in deciding how you’re going to spend the other 24 hours. And many of us will tend to spend it on projects and tasks that interest us, rather than asking ‘What would be of most benefit to my parish?’

Do we make decisions about our reading the same way? Instead of asking ‘Who are the must-reads to better equip me to do the work God is calling me to do in this parish?’ do we ask instead, ‘Now, what would I most like to read next?’ ?

I suspect that’s how we often make that decision. I know that’s true of me.

So my questions are:

  1. Who are the ‘must-reads’ for us as pastors?
  2. How do we decide who goes on that list?
  3. How do we make sure that we don’t neglect the classics that have stood the test of time in favour of the ones who happen to be making the waves today?

Please discuss…