When the pastor came to visit me

empty apartmentIn 1979, I had just moved to New Jersey into my first apartment to begin my first job out of college at Bell Labs. After a few visits, I found the congregation who would be my church family for the next three years, Luther Memorial in Tinton Falls. Gorgeous location just a stone’s throw away from the horse farms in Colts Neck. The congregation immediately welcomed me, got me involved in the choir, youth ministry and teaching on Sundays. I got to play a lot of trumpet for worship, too. In fact, they gave me a key so I could come and practice there, since the paper thin walls of my apartment prevented me from playing at home.

Before long, the pastor called and asked to come and visit. “Sure. Anytime.” Continue reading

Top ten ministry moments – #1: “Pastor Dad”

Finally, here’s the one you’ve been waiting for. My number one ministry moment, though, is actually a series of moments when being a dad intersected with being a pastor and I had the unique privilege of baptizing, confirming, marrying and ordaining my children. Continue reading

Who did you see in church today?

pulpitA preacher (like me) has a unique perspective on Sunday morning. While you are sitting watching and listening to me, just one person, I am looking at you, a whole congregation. You may notice a few of the people and your friends around you, but I get to see all of God’s people gathered together to hear His word and receive His gifts of grace.

Do you know who I saw this morning? Continue reading

“This is my pastor.”

I drove down to the hospital today to visit someone in the intensive care unit. I found out she was there last night just before Ash Wednesday worship. Her diagnosis sounded serious, so I made sure I set aside some time to go and visit her.

She was not a member of our church. She and her family had attended for a while a few years ago. I had baptized their three children. I knew they had a genuine Christian faith. However, I had not seen them in several years.

As I sat and talked with her for a few minutes, someone stopped in to draw some blood. After I said, “Hello,” and asked if it was OK to stay in the room, my friend introduced me: “This is my pastor.”

Continue reading

The Call (part one)

Ι have been at my current church for over seventeen years. During that time, I’ve only had one call to serve another church, and that was fifteen years ago. While I have had a few phone interviews with call commitees, it’s been a long time since I had a call to consider. Most of my current congregation have joined since that time, so they hadn’t thought much about the possibility that I might go to serve somewhere else. When I received a call to a church in Erie, PA, it kicked off a month of prayer, discussions and meetings that will shape our ministry in the years to come.

I knew that I was on the short list of a couple of congregations earlier in the fall and was interviewed by phone in October. The call didn’t actually come until November 3. I received a phone call that Sunday afternoon from the chairman of the call committee in Erie that the congregation had met and voted to call me as pastor. The call documents would arrive in the mail later that week. I told my family and my elders, but not my present congregation as I awaited the additional information (compensation, church self-assessment and future plans). I did however begin to try and figure out when in the world I would be able to squeeze in a trip to Erie. I was already traveling to Philadelphia to help my dad move out of his home and Thanksgiving was fast approaching when i would have my whole family in town.

The call documents arrived in the mail on Tuesday. No surprises, really. The salary was a little more, but with higher taxes in that area, it was a wash. The history of the church was interesting, but more on that later. I planned a trip on the one Friday and Saturday my wife and I could get away and prepared to tell the congregation on Sunday morning after each worship service.

Sunday was interesting to say the least. Some (the elders and their families) knew the announcement was coming, but for most is was completely unexpected and a shock. Some who heard it believed I had already decided to leave while others began planning ways to try to convince me to stay. On Monday morning, I sent a letter to each family explaining the call and asking them for input.

Most of the initial responses were emotional. Many were about the weather. Then as the week progressed, I began to get some very well thought out emails and notes. Towards the end of week two, I heard that there were some in the congregation who thought it would be a good idea for me to move on. Finally, many wanted to sit down and talk with me about the call and my present ministry. I have to say that everyone who wrote and spoke with me expressed tremendous respect for the office of the ministry and the divine call. Many had been through the process at other churches, as pastors left and as new pastors were sought.

The responses that really got my attention were the ones stating that the church couldn’t and wouldn’t survive without me. Phrases like “you’re the glue that holds the church together” and “your departure would bring about the demise of the congregation” really bothered me. As I often remind my self, the church was here before me and it will be here after me. I was forced to confront the truth that many were a part of the church because of me. I know that this is true for many churches. As much as I want people to be connected to Christ, the reality is a connection either with or through me. This would continue to haunt me in the weeks to come and eventually help me with my decision.

Our trip to visit the church was a whirlwind tour. We left early on a Friday morning, connected in Philadelphia and arrived in Erie in the late morning. We rented a car and toured the church neighborhood, spent a few hours driving around Presque Isle, and visited a cemetery that overlooked a beatiful gorge where a friend’s father was buried. We ate supper that night with the chairman of the call committe and another couple. The next morning, we met with the call commitee and leadership of the congregation, got to see the inside of the church, ate lunch and flew home.

Now what? I had decided early on that I would take a month to make my decision. I wanted to ride the roller coaster of emotions and reactions. I wanted the congregation to think about the future. I wanted some time to reflect on my own ministry. November was a very good month for all of that.

Reflecting on an installation

 

My son Adam was installed at his first church last Sunday afternoon. My wife, in-laws, youngest daughter and I travelled to Dallas to attend that service that would mark the beginning of his pastoral ministry. We were joined by a friend I went to elementary school with who lived nearby, a teacher who Adam had in middle school, and a number off pastors from his circuit.

Your first call, your first congregation, your first words of institution, your first absolution – lots of powerful firsts on the horizon for this young pastor. He is blessed to be the associate of a dynamic, energetic and faithful senior pastor who is very grateful for the help, gifts and ministry my son will bring. I remember how excited, motivated and terrified it was to be at that point. Terrified? Yes, for I was a sole pastor at my first church, and I didn't want to mess up.

I am so very thankful to have been there for his birth and baptism, and then did his confirmation, wedding and ordination. So many blessed moments along the way!

 

An extraordinary ordination

Yesterday I had the privilege of ordaining my son into the office of the holy ministry. His district president granted me permission to do so, and I served as officiant and preacher for this unique service about church. I am so thankful for the nearly two hundred friends, family, members and clergy who gathered to worship on Sunday afternoon.

I didn't know what to expect as the service began. What I mean is, I didn't know how I'd feel. At my children's baptisms, confirmations and most recently my son's wedding, I had some emotional moments when I got a little choked up and had to pause, take a breath and collect myself before continuing. I had my message prepared, but as I looked at the pastors who had come to be a part of the service, I knew I had to say something about each one of them. Each one played an important part in my son pursuing full-time church work. My brother-in-law who introduced me to my wife over thirty years ago was with us. My son’s father-in-law who had four children, two of whom are pastors and one of whom is now my son's wife was in attendance with his entire family. The campus pastor from Florida State was there, as well as vicars from our congregation who encouraged my son along the way. A retired pastor from our congregation represented all the members who prayed for and encouraged him along the way. A living biography! I also reflected upon the nature of his “labor,” the preaching of the gospel, but also reminded him to be himself, and especially to call his mama. After my amen, I gave him a big hug, and that is one of the best ways I can think of to end a sermon. There were a couple of moment when I started to feel emotions swelling up, but nothing overwhelming.

The powerful moment was when I placed my hands on his head and ordained him to the office of the holy ministry. What a moment, what a privilege, and what an awareness of our prayers being answered. Our Lord sending out another worker into his harvest!

After each pastor in attendance blessed him with words of scripture and encouragement, we prayed of the Lord's Prayer together. In that moment, the collective voices of the saints in heaven must have joined us here on earth, for our petitions have never thundered like that before! Yes, we were indeed surrounded by that great cloud of witnesses.

And then I got to place the red stole around his shoulders. Representing the yoke of Christ, it is indeed light and easy to bear, for His words are living, active, powerful, healing and forgiving. He finished up the service with prayers and a blessing, and it was time to relax, celebrate and get to work. After all, the harvest is great and the laborers are few.

I may never do another ordination, so I am thankful for the chance to do this one. I am thankful for the musicians, the worshipers, my colleagues who attended, the friend who made him a set of stoles, the many, many hands who prepared the reception afterwards and the powerful work of the Holy Spirit on this extraordinary day!

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Time to Go

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Dr. Andrew Bartelt was the preacher at the morning worship service for the conferring of theological diplomas at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis on Friday, May 17. Working from Isaiah 2:2-5, he recalled the typical welcome offered to an incoming class, “We’re so glad you’re here” and added these words for the graduates: “But we  can’t wait for you to go.” Just as Isaiah gained insight into God’s holiness and grace and was sent out (Isaiah 6), so the students have immersed themselves in His Word, and are now on their way.

While we are so thankful for those men and women who commit to academic preparation for full time church work as pastors and deaconesses, it’s a special time of celebration when they are ready to go and begin that work. As good as seminary life and education is, it means so much more when you’re out there. The Greek and Hebrew words, the history of Old and New Testament people, and the basic teachings of the faith come to life in the day to day routines, struggles and celebrations of the church. New lives cry out as others are commended to graves. Couples come together and others go their separate ways. Our lives are blessed one day and severely challenged the next. Each one who goes out will discover that the black and white lessons learned in the classroom are lived out in full color in the church’s life and ministry.

My son Adam and his wife Sarah, pastor and deaconess, have finished their education and will now begin their work. But there is a cycle they will repeat often. Their experiences will send them back to what they’ve learned, and what they learn will send them back out again in ministry. As natural as breathing in and out, we are drawn to our Lord’s promises, and then go back out into the world.

Thank you Dr. Bartelt, for your insights, images and message to this year’s graduates and families. Thank you Concordia Seminary for being both a place to prepare, and a place from which to go on the adventure of a lifetime that is full time ministry.

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Call Day (part 4:back home)


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After an eleven-hour travel day, we are back home. We were blessed with a much less eventful day for our return. Now, a little time to reflect upon Adam and Sarah’s Call Service at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. 

The worship program was available online earlier this week, and I was amazed to see two of my favorite hymns being sung, “Awake My Heart with Gladness” and “Now All the Vault of Heaven Resounds.” Set those hymns in a chapel full of Lutherans with a great organ, choir and brass ensemble, and you feel like the worship of heaven has touched that spot on earth for just a moment, reminding you of the eternal praises being sung around the throne of God.

It’s nice being near the beginning of the alphabet, for Adam’s name was soon announced, followed by “Associate pastor, Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Dallas, TX.” Just where they thought and hoped they would be assigned.

Pastor. A title never associated with my son Adam’s name before, but one which would always speak to God’s grace, direction and blessing in his life. With humility, amazing communication skills, musical talent, a great sense of humor and a willingness to serve, he will be a blessing to many as he serves the church. He and Sarah embody great hope for the church as they begin their ministry together. I am so very proud and blessed.

You know, we didn’t used to be a family of pastors. But the faithfulness of my mom and dad and my wife’s parents became an avenue for God to lead me, my son, my brother Jim, and my brother-in-law Jeff into the pastoral ministry. On Sarah’s side, her dad and two brothers are pastors, and she is now a deaconess. Our family is now replete with full-time church workers.

Pretty cool.