Posts Tagged With: church

A Carolina Baptist in Two Yankee Winters

For two consecutive years, 2016 and 2017, I’ve confused my seasons and moved North in the dead of winter. Minus seventeen degrees was the lowest temperature—on a Sunday morning! Church was not cancelled. Here are a few observations:

Calling/Vocation—I didn’t initiate either of these experiences. I’m a retired pastor/preacher/church consultant who lives in South Carolina with my wife Sally and my cat Caesar. During the last fifteen years, I’ve worked with churches in crisis or transition. My skill set is to serve as a “bridge” from their past to their future. Trinity Baptist Church in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Wilton Baptist Church in Wilton, Connecticut, needed help. They called. I responded. It’s a good thing to feel useful. It’s even better to be useful. I’m grateful for all my friends who encouraged and/or prayed for me. Trinity called a fine young pastor and Wilton, I believe, is close to calling someone as their pastor. I’ll keep you posted.

Family—Anyone who knows me understands that family is important. Sally and I have been married 44 years. Our daughter Jenna, son-in-law Thorne, and Grandson Lake live three blocks from Sally and me. They eat supper with us every Sunday night. On the other hand, our daughter Julie and her husband Tom live outside Boston, a long way from South Carolina. I don’t like that distance at all. By being in New England for good chunks of 2016 and 2017, Julie, Tom and I could get together about once every three weeks. I loved, loved, loved those times. Francis Bacon said something like this: “If the mountain can’t come to Mohammed, then Mohammed can go to the mountain.” So, off to New England, I traveled.

Adventure—What’s not to like about a Currier & Ives Winter Wonderland? For someone with an incurable case of wanderlust, New England is an attractive option. Ivy League schools, hockey games, moose, frozen ponds and rivers, all sounded intriguing. Merely sightseeing (no offense to my touristy friends) is not an adventure. Getting out of my comfort zone is. I dreaded the idea of shoveling snow, but that worked out just fine. Also, I was aware of the proximity of New Hampshire to Canada and Connecticut to New York City, so I took advantage of both. I spent a few days in Montreal and several days in Manhattan. I saw four Broadway plays. I toured West Point. I loved the picturesque town squares and greens, as well as the streams, waterfalls, hills and wildlife, the covered bridges, mansions, churches, shops, restaurants, museums, and monuments I discovered all over New England, from Newport, Rhode Island, to Walpole, New Hampshire, to Quechee, Vermont, to New Haven, Connecticut, to Sturbridge, Massachusetts. Lots of beauty, lots of history, and lots of fine food!

(Bonus points for Adventure: Dartmouth College was an intriguing part of my 2016 experience. As the Baptist Student Minister for the campus, I had access to libraries, lectures, and other aspects of campus life. I took continuing education courses.

Serendipity—Food! I’ve never taken a road trip for the sake of a culinary experience, but neither have I shied away from dietary excellence. King Arthur Flour was a highlight of my first winter away—pastries, breads, desserts. Incomparable. The farms of Vermont and New Hampshire produce some of the best cheeses you will ever taste. This year, I discovered the restaurants in the corner of Connecticut where I lived were exceptional, with a commitment to locally grown meat and vegetables. On my last trip into New York City (the train ride costs only $8.50), I determined to eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant. I couldn’t afford most of them—over $300 for a fixed price meal. I discovered NoMad was within my price range, made a reservation, and had one of the great dinners of my life.

Being alone—Traveling by myself has, of course, pluses and minuses. I’ve blogged about that before. I’m comfortable with Quiet Time. I read a lot. I write. I walk. I think. I eat. I read. I eat. I walk. I read. I eat. I’m perfectly content to go to a baseball game, a high school musical, or a museum tour by myself. I prefer to be with someone, but that’s not always possible.

In case I sound a bit too blasé or pious about all this time unaccompanied, let me be clear: both years, I got very lonely. The adventure wore off. I’m sure I don’t want to spend a full winter in New England or apart from Sally again. Sally and I really missed each other. She came up once during each of these sojourns for about a week. Thank God for those occasions when friends or family called or visited or wrote. Sometimes, member of the Trinity and Wilton congregations reached out to me, and sometimes I reached out to them, so I also enjoyed local fellowship.

I’ve reflected about people who have no choice about living alone: widows and widowers. I’m sensitive to the fact that being by yourself is not always a choice. It can be painful. I’m fortunate. I came home to a wife who loves me.

Until the wanderlust strikes again, or, until I get a phone call, whichever comes first, I’m glad to be home.

Categories: Faith/Spirituality, Family, Holiday, South Carolina, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

No Church Gets the Pastor They Thought They Called

No Church Gets the Pastor They Thought They Called

The reverse is also true. Pastors do not end up at the church to which they thought they had a call.

(The exception to both observations is when a church calls as pastor a well-known associate already on their staff. Each party knows in advance whether the match is a good fit.)

Church and candidate need to say as much as they can about their hopes, dreams, agendas and, even, to some extent, deficiencies. Potential pastors should not say they love hospital visitation or evangelism if they don’t. Churches should not say they are conflict free if they aren’t. This isn’t to say the church or potential pastors need to pursue every idiosyncratic thought during the search.

When a new pastor is installed, grace will be required on both sides. Selecting a pastor and accepting a call is like dating and marriage. There’s a lot about the courtship that is charming, exciting, hopeful and lovely. But, as in marriage, there will be surprises. The pastor search committee didn’t know about the pastor’s kickboxing hobby. The prospective pastor didn’t know he/she was expected to join the Rotary Club.

As a lifelong observer of and participant in churches, I’ve noticed that sometimes the members of a pastor search committee are the first to turn against their new employee—which they selected! I suspect that’s because of unrealistically high expectations: “We thought our youth program would double in size within six months. It didn’t happen and I’m disappointed. We made a mistake. We got the wrong person.“

Generally, our level of satisfaction is directly proportional to the level of our expectations. If we have super-high expectations, we are sure to be disappointed. This is a principle for life, by the way, not just for search committees and pastoral candidates.

Pastors are also surprised. In almost every church there’s a hot button issue that’s untouchable in sermons and possibly even in private conversation. I can give you a list of fifty. The unhealthiest congregations are without grace on a dozen or more fronts. It’s silly to think the entire congregation and the new pastor will agree on all subjects.

Prepare for surprises. Life is a roller coaster. The pastor and congregation are on a pilgrimage together, at least for this season.

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In Over My Head

Disoriented is the word that best describes my first few days in Connecticut as the Interim Pastor of Wilton Baptist Church. I feel strangely clueless. It’s been a weird few days. It’s already snowed. I purchased an electric blanket. My printer’s not working. I’ve already been to an Urgent Care “Doc in a Box” to follow up a complication from hand surgery. They’re painting the inside of the house where I’m living. The shower downstairs doesn’t produce hot water but the shower upstairs does. I live downstairs.

Welcome to Life! I love it.

Two days ago, on the second Sunday of Advent, the church gathered for worship and I preached my first sermon here. Oddly enough, the sermon was about Peace, but I wasn’t feeling very tranquil. Pastor friends and I have joked about praying that something should happen in a worship service that isn’t in the bulletin. But it’s not a joke. God’s Spirit is not, after all, predictable. We can organize the deck chairs on the Titanic, but it’s better if someone (or Someone) comes up with a strategy to keep the ship from sinking.

Wilton Baptist was to celebrate Communion, but the Lord’s Supper wasn’t mentioned in the bulletin. We had Communion anyway. Throughout the service, I think I was standing when I should have been sitting, and vice versa. I forgot to turn the microphone on; then, I forgot to turn it off. During the Lord’s Prayer, the congregation asked God to forgive us our trespasses and my prayer asked God to forgive us our debts. Oops.

It was that kind of Sunday.

As a pastor, I’ve discovered I’m only a small part of the process. I enjoy the shade of trees I didn’t plant. I put one foot in front of the other in the ordinary way, but, amazingly, extraordinary things happen. I like that. It takes some of the pressure off a single individual. None of us are doing anything, as our preschool children say, “All by myself.”

I’ll prepare sermons. I’ll meet with the Pastor Search Committee. Still, I’m absolutely certain that I’m part of Some Thing Bigger than I am. That’s good to remember.

Categories: Faith/Spirituality, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Christmas in New England

A few months ago, the Wilton Baptist Church in Wilton, Connecticut asked me to serve as their Interim Pastor beginning the Second Sunday of Advent. I accepted and I leave to drive there next Thursday, December 1.

Another year, another adventure.

Yes, I have the seasons mixed up. I should be in the South during cold weather and go North in summer, but that’s not the way 2016-2017 worked out. Here’s the Quote for the Day on one of the websites (Daily Dharma) I read:

“When we reach out to what is unknown to us, we let go of the notion that we can control what we experience.” Ken McLeod, Where the Thinking Stops

Wilton Baptist, averaging 35-40 people in attendance every Sunday, is practically a megachurch compared with Trinity Baptist of Hanover, where I served last winter. Wilton Baptist has an active congregation, Sunday school and music program, and outreach ministry. They’ve had fine pastoral leadership over the years. My task is to help them transition to whatever and whoever is next for them.

They own a manse, so that’s where I’ll stay. I’m told New York City is just a short commuter train ride away, so I expect I’ll go into NYC occasionally.

Sally will fly up to see me over the Christmas holidays. I loved having guests in New Hampshire, so come visit if you can. There’s a spare bedroom. I’m taking enough grits so I can have company stay over.

My address and contact info will be

Marion D. Aldridge

222 Mountain Road

Wilton, CT 06897

(803) 413-2734

mariondaldridge@gmail.com

Categories: Faith/Spirituality, Family, Holiday, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

No Wiggle Room on a Church Staff

No Wiggle Room on a Church Staff

Marion Aldridge

(This blog describes a problem I have never heard named. Unfortunately, I have not proposed a solution. I hope I am starting a helpful conversation, since I don’t have an answer. What are your ideas?)

Most churches are small. Compared to the government’s various definitions of “small business,” which can be up to 50-500 employees, our congregations are tiny. It is a rare church that has a dozen employees. Most have one (the pastor) or two (the pastor and an administrative assistant). Some have full-time or part-time employees with very specialized skills—financial secretary, minister of music, preschool coordinator.

If someone is a good employee, but in the wrong job, larger businesses can move a person to an assignment where he or she can succeed.

Aha!

Churches can’t do that. We are too small. There is no wiggle room. Promotions and demotions are nearly impossible in ecclesiastical life within the same congregation.

In conversation with one of my friends who owns and manages a fried chicken franchise, he contended that one of the tasks of a successful supervisor is to get a person in the right job. My friend, for example, hires someone for a three-month probationary period to work the front counter. He soon discovers the new person doesn’t have the social abilities to work with customers face to face. The individual is faithful in attendance, shows up on time, and isn’t afraid of work. So my buddy makes the employee a dishwasher. The boss keeps a good employee and the worker keeps his job as a wage earner.

Most churches are too small for a similar scenario. A good receptionist does not necessarily make a good financial secretary and vice versa. An exceptional Minister of Music does not necessarily make an exceptional Minister of Youth. Like other businesses, churches enlarge and shrink. Change happens. Difficult choices must be made. What does a congregation do with a pastor when they discover the nice person they called doesn’t have the skill set required to lead a church? A “probationary” period in calling a minister would be extremely rare. What happens when, even after a time of magnificent ministry, it is obvious that an individual and a church’s current situation are no longer a fit?

The exceptions in ecclesiastical organizations are denominations with a Catholic or Methodist polity, where the system and not the local congregation is the employer. In those settings, clergy can be moved from one place to another without fear of being terminated for the “sin” of a bad fit.

Exacerbating the problem, most churches use pious language to describe a hiring as a calling. I like that language. We talk about a “call” being the will of God. It is hard to move from a deeply held spiritual conviction about vocation to saying, “We no longer believe you working here is the will of God.” But, to be fair, other jobs are also callings, and teachers and accountants are not exempt from forced career changes.

Furthermore, churches are volunteer organizations that depend on the generosity of members to pay salaries and meet the budget. Even an employee despised by 90% of a congregation may be loved by 10%. That ten percent might leave if there is an involuntary resignation. If the percentages are different, the results can be even more disastrous. Church sometimes lose members when a terminated pastor or minister of music takes 30%-40% of the congregation to start a new church.

Does anyone have a solution or even a suggestion regarding this painful predicament in our churches?

In the meantime…

As Christians we claim to be people of the Resurrection. We believe that life comes after death. Pain is not the end of the world. We say we trust the transformative power of God working in our lives, even when we suffer. Christians, when we are in our right minds, know that more growth happens in the valley of sorrow than on the mountaintop of pleasure. How many times have we heard someone eventually say, “They did me a favor,” after the unpleasant experience of being dismissed?

We know the Bible says, over and over and over, “Fear not,” but, when it comes to paychecks, we live fearfully.

“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Romans 5: 3

Most of us would prefer that the Bible not say such things, but it does. Still, my question is a serious one: Is there some solution to our vocational dilemma, within churches, that could be less painful for good people doing the wrong job or doing the right job in the wrong place?

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Advice to a Congregation with a Young Pastor

Advice to a Congregation with a Young Pastor

(Second of two parts. Part one: Advice to a Young Pastor)

Marion D. Aldridge

  1. Don’t expect your new pastor to be like your last pastor—or any other pastor, ever. Not too many decades ago, seminaries produced cookie-cutter candidates to be pastors. Same theology. Same clothes. Same haircuts. Same gender. Their wives could play piano and teach Sunday school, two employees for the price of one. Your pastor could retire or move on, and your church could almost be guaranteed to get another man very similar to the last one. That is no longer so. Nowadays graduates of the same seminary vary theologically—from fundamentalist to liberal. They vary in worship style from traditional to contemporary. They may wear tee shirts to church on Sunday and have beards or shaved heads or both. Some of the best pastors are females. If you want an old-fashioned, twentieth-century pastor, you might as well put up a For Sale sign in front of your church building now.
  2. Love your pastor. Pretend he or she is your beloved grandchild. Invite the new pastor to your house for a meal or meet somewhere for coffee and a donut. Remember your pastor’s birthday. You are at least partly responsible for your pastor’s success or failure. All pastors need support and encouragement, especially young ones. I made mistakes as a newly-minted seminary graduate in my first church. I needed help, good advice, a listening ear, wisdom, and grace more than I needed judgment.
  3. The job of being a pastor looks easier than it is. Pastors don’t think jokes about working one hour each week are funny. Believe it or not, a twenty-minute sermon may take twenty hours of preparation. Make sure young pastors have coaches, mentors and support systems that can help them successfully navigate the inevitable challenges in a congregation made up of human beings—an organization that operates in real time with real money and with real problems. Make sure your pastor does not have to choose between vacation and continuing education. No pastor graduates from seminary with all the requisite skills needed to be a competent pastor. Allow them time and money for continuing education experiences.
  4. Most conflicts in a church are about power. Even if the conflict is about the color of the pew cushions, it’s about power. He said/she said/he said/she said is always about power. Power is often about change—a marriage, a birth, a death, a retirement, a hospitalization, a bankruptcy—something that may look as if it has nothing to do with the church. Pay attention. The issues under dispute are almost never the real issues. God advises patience. God advises listening more than talking. God advises kindness. Reducing anxiety is a worthy goal. Everything young pastors attempt to do won’t work. Make sure you, as a member of the congregation, are a part of the solution and not a part of the problem. Blessed are the peacemakers.
  5. Every generation has new insights about Jesus, Holy Scripture, and the Christian faith. With a young pastor, be prepared to hear something different than what you were taught in Sunday school fifty years ago. The Bible is a Big Book. Every generation, every culture, every denomination, even every family emphasizes aspects of faith unfamiliar—maybe even anathema—to older ears. Many members of my first congregation after seminary, in 1977, deep in the segregated South, did not want to hear anything about race relations. Or, about peacemaking. Or, about an expanded role for women in the church. They heard it anyway. They grew (at least some of them did). I grew.
  6. The Christian faith, while acknowledging sin and failure, also highlights faith, hope, love, joy, peace, freedom, gratitude, being born again, resurrection, salvation, hospitality, rites of passage, baptism and blessing. Churches that find occasions to celebrate, to eat together, to laugh, to praise God, and to acknowledge successes are doing something right.   Have you ever noticed how important festivals and holidays (holy days) were in the history of Israel? Milk and honey, bread and wine. Find reasons to recognize, honor and dedicate people, places, events, or memories. Your church and your pastor will, by doing so, not only be more faithful, but happier as individuals and as a congregation.
Categories: Faith/Spirituality | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Advice for a Young Pastor

Advice for a Young Pastor

(First of two parts. Part two: Advice to a Congregation with a Young Pastor)

Marion D. Aldridge

  1. It won’t be like they taught you at seminary. That’s not always the seminary’s fault. They can’t predict the random realities of your life or our culture for the next thirty years. The past two weeks of my ministry have been dominated by trying to get the musty smell of mildew and mold out of our church building in the least expensive way. I am highly motivated because recently a couple visited our church and the wife told me she has allergies that respond badly to mold. De-humidifying a sanctuary was never mentioned in any seminary course.
  2. It’s a real job. Recently, I talked with a 26-year-old Dartmouth grad who wasn’t particularly thrilled with the nitty-gritty, unfulfilling duties of the entry-level job in her chosen career. But, she had been humbled by initially having to work as a maid—even with her Ivy League education. Every job involves grunt work. Nobody gets to do only things they enjoy. That’s why we call it “work” and why we are paid to do it.
  3. You are a meeting planner. You have pious thoughts about introducing people to God and counseling people in crisis, but what ministers spend much of their week doing is preparing for events—the big ones such as Sunday morning worship and the little ones such as the finance committee. You must become expert at convening groups. Some young pastors (like many laity) assume events magically happen and have no clue that hours are spent each week in coordinating schedules and planning activities.
  4. You are a fundraiser. No matter how big or small your congregation is, bills must be paid. Budgets and projects must be created that people will support. Call it stewardship, but the money must be raised. Emergencies happen. Heating systems fail. Your church’s best contributor dies. An unbudgeted summer mission opportunity needs to be financed or twenty teenagers will miss out on the experience of a lifetime. Jesus didn’t hesitate to think and talk about money.
  5. Preaching is the silver bullet. Your congregation will want your sermons to be lightening in a bottle. Every now and then a pastor is charismatic, charming and dynamic (one in fifty?). Have something to communicate, say it well, with humor, with drama, with clarity. Inspiring preaching will fill pews faster than excellent hospital visits. That may not be fair, but it’s reality.
  6. Your calling is crucial. There will be times when people criticize you. Sometimes you’ll doubt yourself. I never self-appointed myself to a pastorate. A congregation asked me to shepherd them. You’re not a pastor-in-waiting. This is your calling, your vocation. You could be led to a different vocation or the church could vote to rescind their call. But individuals or small groups of unhappy members do not have the right or the authority to alter what the church and the pastor have previously agreed to be God’s call.
  7. Take care of your own spirit, mind and body. Pastors who read scripture and pray only when desperate to prepare a sermon are sad, lost souls. Study. Listen. Learn. Exercise. Grow. Don’t get stuck in the theology or habits of youth. Change. Forgive others. Forgive yourself. Pay attention to your physical, emotional and spiritual health. Pastors who are more-or-less friendless (and there are thousands) with no systems in place (outside their congregation) for encouragement and accountability are not modeling relationships of love. You need to have a life outside the church. Find faithful friends. Pastors who aren’t working to maintain their own family ties are to be pitied. First things first.
Categories: Faith/Spirituality, Health | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Gifts of the Jews

A few years ago, I discovered a book titled, The Gifts of the Jews, written by Thomas Cahill. Cahill argues that routines and predictability are pagan ideas, not Christian. I mean “pagan” in the classic sense of ancient religions that worship the creation instead of the Creator. Whether you are an anthropologist studying Stonehenge or an archeologist studying the Mayan ruins in Central America, the common theme is that life is circular, what goes around comes around, spring, summer, fall, winter, then again, spring, summer, fall, winter, this year just like last year, and next year just like this year. The earth’s orbit is predictable. The moon’s orbit is predictable. Round and round, no change, no change. Does that sound like the people in your Sunday school class? That’s pagan, not Christian. Next year is not supposed to look like 1950 or 1980.

God can intervene into history and God does intervene into history.

The gift of the Jews was to help humans understand for the first time, beginning with Abraham, the first hero of Hebrew story, that the events of this world did not have to be circular and predictable. We can break out and go in a new direction. That is what Abraham did, and the world has never been the same.

Of course people resisted that notion then and now.

Numbers 14: 4, while Moses was leading the people of Israel on an Exodus from 400 years of slavery to a new promised land, tells us that some said, “Let us choose a captain and go back to Egypt.” Return to the familiar.  That’s pre-Christian. That’s pre-Jewish. It sounds like a lot of churches.

Categories: Book Review, Faith/Spirituality, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Familiar

South Carolina is home. I loved my half-year in New Hampshire: new sights, new experiences and new friends. Moose. Live Free or Die. Minus seventeen degrees one Sunday. I enjoyed being close to my daughter Julie and her husband Tom for six months. I grew fond of the people at Trinity Baptist Church of Hanover.

But I’m clear, even in 102-degree heat, I love my home state and my home.

I believe in travel, and I believe in getting to know other cultures, other histories, and other ways of thinking.

But I missed the familiar. I missed my wife Sally and my cat Caesar. I missed Sunday night supper at our house with my daughter Jenna, her husband Thorne, and my grandson Lake. I missed old friends who live near enough to see frequently. I missed my church. I missed our back porch and Sally’s garden. I missed the American flag in front of our house (occasionally replaced by a Tiger Paw flag). I missed being surrounded by my books. I missed walking in our neighborhood. I missed the pictures on the wall of my study and the mementos I’ve collected from around the world. I missed our shower. I even missed our dishwasher.

The familiar is seductive. It’s tempting to stay there and never leave, never experience the unfamiliar. I’m glad I resisted the comfort of my nest and ventured out.

Even more, I’m glad to be home.

Categories: Faith/Spirituality, Family, Holiday, South Carolina, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“You are not a pretend church!’’

Trinity Baptist Church in Lebanon, New Hampshire, had twelve people in worship yesterday. Ten adults and two children. We sang, we prayed, we greeted one another. They listened to my sermon. We all stayed for lunch, then gathered for another two hours to talk about what’s next for this congregation. Their former pastor retired at the end of December 2015.

We enjoyed lively conversation. Good ideas. Bold thinking. Realistic concerns.

At one point during the discussion, I had to remind the group that Trinity is not a pretend church.

Over the years, I’ve had to tell many congregations, including this one, that, even though they are not large, they are a real church. Jesus is unequivocal when he says, “Wherever two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.”

Jesus doesn’t mention church budgets, music, or pews. He didn’t mention Sunday school or, thank God, deacons meetings. Just gather a few folks together in Jesus’ name, and voila, you’ve got a church.

I’ve never heard anybody say what they like best about their church is doctrine. Or, business meetings.

Of course, there are infrastructure, programmatic, and institutional challenges with tiny gatherings. But, first things first. This is a church. The people of God. The body of Christ.

Categories: Faith/Spirituality, Quotations | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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