Yesterday, on my first Sunday back leading worship following my three month summer sabbatical, I did something I don’t do very often. Instead of preaching a sermon, I used the time I would normally preach to engage in a Question & Answer session with the congregation about my sabbatical experience.
I veered from my usual approach for a couple of reasons. The first reason was practical. I didn’t want to answer the same question – “How was your sabbatical?” – 74 times in a row as I greeted people immediately following worship. Mission accomplished in that regard. Not one person asked me that question at the conclusion of worship.
The second reason I did it was to make sure the difficult questions would get asked that people otherwise might not ask. I knew there were some folks out there, for instance, who were nervous about my statement that it wouldn’t be “business as usual” now that I had returned from sabbatical – so I planted someone to ask what I meant by that.
The third reason I took the approach involved community building. I wanted to make sure that everyone was given the same information to interpret my experience. That way if folks heard a statement made about my sabbatical experience that seemed far-fetched that they could feel empowered to share their understanding of my experience.
There is always a risk in moving away from delivering prepared remark. The greatest being you either forget to include an important point. That’s exactly what happened to me yesterday.
Toward the end of our time together, a gentleman asked a very thoughtful question. He began by noting that we are a community of individuals with diverse gifts/interests and strong personalities. How are you going to keep working together so one of us doesn’t cause us to go off on a tangent? (I’m paraphrasing badly here – for the original question was much more articulate).
As I thought off the top of my head, I reiterated a point that I wanted to make consistently throughout my presentation. I talked about the importance of the community (or flock) stepping forward and working together to solve problem instead of expecting the pastor (or shepherd) to step in and solve the problem for them.
That’s true. I do want individuals to step forward and deal with challenging friends and members of the community directly instead of expecting me to always do it for them. I left out a huge piece of what would have been a better answer.
What I’ve learned over my first 12 years of ministry is that the only way a community can keep on track is if it has a clear sense of its priorities.
Why’s that so important?
Well folks have a million different ideas about what a church should be doing. If a church doesn’t have a clear sense of its priorities it will spend all of its time running around in a million different directions – trying to respond to every request. If a church has a clear sense of priorities, however, it won’t fall into that trap. It will know what it is committed itself to focusing on – and if someone comes forward with a request that doesn’t fit its sense of call, the church’s leadership will say something like, “Thank you for sharing your concern. That is an important matter – however, at this time we are focusing the majority of our time and resources in other areas.”
Last March, individuals from our congregation gathered and gave me – their pastor – the best gift they could have ever given me: a statement of the three core values on which we should focus. Those core values were as follows: (1) children’s ministry; (2) neighborhood ministry; and (3) spiritual formation. Those are the things, participants said, that are most important to us as a community.
The group made it clear that that statement of value may not be the same forever; but for this year, at least, that is where we are focusing our energy.
Lots of groups take time on retreats to formulate such lists. Many of them sadly forget about such statements as soon as the retreat ends. My challenge and charge as the spiritual leader is to make sure that statement of values does NOT get forgotten.
So when I was asked the question yesterday about how to keep us together as a community, I should have answered that TOGETHER we focus on energy on those core values to ensure we don’t allow individuals to drag us off on tangents.
While a sense of clarity around values is important to groups, they are not the only ones who need to have such clarify. Each of us as individuals is best served by having a sense of our guiding values as well. Today, I would invite you to ask yourself, “What are the things I feel most called to do?” Once you arrive at your list, keep it handy so you can consult it often. Use it to help ensure you are expending your time and energy on those areas you feel truly called.
See you next time!