Tag Archives | church

“Retirement” and this thing called ministry

I’ve been using the word “retirement” for the last few years mainly as a joke, as though it were some distant possibility, certainly not something that I needed to worry about any time soon.

And then, last week, what had seemed so distant and unlikely suddenly became a reality. I am planning to retire early next year, six months from now.

Speaking the word aloud – as in “I am going to retire” – turned out to be surprisingly difficult. I nearly cried the first time I told someone. I don’t know what I expected. I suppose I had expected to grin and pop open the champagne. Certainly not tears.

I have been a pastor for nearly 40 years. I will observe the 37th anniversary of my ordination in September, and before that I worked in churches as a “student pastor” and “graduate intern,” carefully chosen titles which no longer communicate much to me. In any case, when you add it up, I’ve been doing this thing called ministry in a church setting for nearly 40 years without much of a pause along the way.

“This thing called ministry” was not what I imagined doing with my life. I resisted it for what seemed like a long time and only surrendered to it when it appeared that I had no choice. I had seminary classmates who were so eager to get started that they proudly wore clerical collars on their first day of class. That was not me. I sort of backed into this life and even felt mildly embarrassed that first year when I would wear my only suit and funeral directors would call me “pastor.”

Over time, though, I grew into the role. The church people I served taught me how to love them, and I did.

Today I can’t imagine having been anything other than a “pastor,” but those early memories of hesitation and awkwardness are vivid ones. This was not what I wanted for myself, but when I embraced it and started down the long path that has led me to this point, I threw myself into it. I tried to be the best pastor I was capable of being. I am proud of what I’ve done.

And now, suddenly, or so it seems, this life as a pastor is coming to an end. I realize that in many ways I will still live out this role in the months and years to come. There is no way to retire from an identity like this particular one. But I plan to spend my time doing a few other things that I have not been able to do, things not having to do with church.

I’ve already learned a new language – or at least made considerable progress toward learning one – so that’s no longer on my bucket list, but there are a few other things that I have wanted to do.

Being a grandfather would be at the top of that list. I’m happy to say that I had two good role models earlier in my life. And I’d like to do it at least as well as they did it for me. Offering a lot of unconditional love (and having an endless supply of candy) can’t be a bad way to spend the next few years of my life.

 

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Bad timing for my new book? I don’t think so

Timing may not be everything in the publishing world – a few other factors are important too – but bad timing is never good for the launch of a new book.

In the forward to my just-published book, How to Become a Multicultural Church, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson points out that most western democracies are having a hard time right about now with multiculturalism, especially with what feels like a rising tide of refugees, immigrants, and others who are, well, different from the rest of us.

In the recent presidential election, Donald Trump successfully tapped into the fears and anxieties that many Continue Reading →

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“Translation services” on Easter

 

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Last night a church member called to ask if we would be offering “translation services” to Arabic or Kurdish speaking people on Easter morning. She is tutoring refugee women in her village, and a half dozen or more are apparently interested in coming to Zürich for worship. Continue Reading →

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Pierre Spoerri, 1926 – 2017

Pierre Spoerri was born in 1926. He died in late February after climbing into the backseat of a taxi in front of the Convita Bethanien, where he lived with his wife Fulvia. His memorial service was held at the French Reformed Church in Zürich on March 9, 2017. Continue Reading →

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What in the world is God up to?

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If I were standing in a pulpit in the United States today, I would know exactly what to say.

I would say something about the U.S. presidential election, of course, which took place last week, and I would not be alone in that. I am guessing that some very fine sermons are going to be preached today all across the U.S. Continue Reading →

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Becoming the (multicultural) church Jesus has in mind for us to be

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Within the last month I caught up with an old friend, and as is always the case with an old friend, time and distance are never factors in renewing the friendship. When we spoke, the conversation picked up where it left off more than 25 years ago. Continue Reading →

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A day in the life of an international church

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Serving an international church is endlessly interesting.

I really wish I had started at the beginning to list and catalog all of the many curious, fascinating, and sometimes disturbing events in the life of a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-national congregation. With more than two dozen nationalities in worship on any given Sunday, a great deal can happen, often memorable. Continue Reading →

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“Hey, I’m sending you my thoughts and prayers!”

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If you’re anything like me, your outrage has pretty much exhausted itself. Most days, what with the presidential election and all, I feel spent, outrage now in dangerously short supply. I know I’m not alone.

But I can still get worked up about a few things if I try hard enough. Continue Reading →

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Learning from midlife

Doug leanig on BMW

Midlife is a stern, unforgiving teacher. Other than that I liked it a lot.

I am teaching a class at my church right now about midlife, and as every teacher knows I am learning far more about the subject than my students. We are using a fine book, but I am freely supplementing the book with some of my own reading, research, and commentary. I am, after all, a midlife survivor, with scars to prove it. (The scars are real, not metaphorical, and have been left by a series of dermatologists.)

While getting ready to teach the class I learned that most people like to attach the word “crisis” to the word “midlife,” as though the only conversation we can have about midlife is about the crisis that sometimes goes with it.

Far more helpful than the word “crisis,” I think, is the so-called U-curve hypothesis, which rather nicely summarizes what many of us face. We go from young adulthood to midlife filled with anticipation and high hopes about what life will bring, believing what our parents and teachers have foolishly told us about following our bliss, only to run into obstacles, some of our own making and others that are inevitable as we age.

When I graduated from seminary, for example, I imagined that I might become a superstar preacher with my own television network (and satellite). To tell the truth, I have had a deeply satisfying ministry over the years, but the television part of it has, sadly, eluded me. I once appeared on an AM-radio talk show, but that was only for an hour, less commercial breaks (and news on the half hour). And my appearance was to talk about the church and social media, not to present the gospel. I would be surprised if we had more than five listeners. And yet, I spoke that Saturday evening as though to a stadium with 50,000 people. (I was not invited back.)

Doug's brief radio career on WJR

The bottom of the U-curve varies among countries, but the global average seems to be age 46. In case you’re interested, the Swiss reach the bottom part of the curve at the startlingly early age of 35. In any case, the late 40s and early 50s seem to be the age where disappointment, dissatisfaction, and discouragement can add up and become for some a full-blown crisis.

But the good news, I was happy to discover, is that there is life after the dip.

In fact, the 60s, 70s, and even 80s can be (according to the research) wonderful years. Older people tend to be happier, even though we don’t always look like it. This is counter-intuitive, I suppose, and income and education are factors too (as they are at every age), but generally speaking it’s not so bad to grow older. My yearning to be a superstar preacher, for example, has mostly disappeared, and I find myself deeply grateful for the few people who show up each Sunday morning to hear me preach.

All of this happiness in old age assumes, of course, that you can escape midlife with relatively few bone-headed decisions, the kind all of us are tempted to make when we’re feeling disappointment, dissatisfaction, and discouragement. If you are contemplating one of those decisions right now, give me a call. I will do my best to talk you out of it. You don’t really need a convertible.

As a pastor, I tried of course to put all of this midlife talk in faith perspective, and in the class I even presented some impressive-looking charts and graphs about faith stages. Along with everything else, faith begins to look and feel different at midlife, a bit thicker around the middle. And then, as it ages, it tends to grow into something wonderful.

Earlier in my life, for example, it was important to me to be right – and to convince other people of the rightness of my thinking about most things. It was tiring to be right all the time, but I thought I was called to that important ministry. I forget now when it happened, but I seem to have let go of that need or whatever it was. I still know what I believe, but I am far more relaxed when I talk about it. I can listen to other people, even when I don’t agree. I can even change my mind. What’s different is that my faith has become part of me, not something I admire or debate or throw at other people. It’s who I am.

Next month I will be heading down to Lake Zürich after morning worship for a few baptisms by immersion. Since I agreed to do my first one, a few more requests have come along. I’m not sure that “midlife Doug” would have agreed so easily, but “older Doug” is surprisingly accommodating and willing to get wet, to wade out into the water with his clothes on.

There’s no telling what “older Doug” might do or say (or write) next. This next stage of life might even be fun.

(Top photo: Yes, that’s my convertible, the stereotypical midlife decision, purchased at age 44 and sold nine years later. Lots of fun, but very expensive. Next photo: Yes, that’s me, trying out a career in AM-radio at WJR in Detroit.)

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“I want to be baptized”

Frantisek's church photo

After morning worship last Sunday, standing outside in the early Spring sunshine, an 18 year old man I did not know very well approached me and said, “I want to be baptized.”

This was no April Fool’s joke, I quickly realized, and not a prank, as I half-expected, this was the real thing. It was written all over his face – the fear and joy of saying those words aloud. Plus, there was a small group of people – family members? – standing maybe five or 10 feet behind him, watching the whole conversation.

I think my first words were, “So, you’ve never been baptized,” as though this were an administrative or scheduling problem that needed my full attention.

The young man and I talked for quite a long time and then agreed to meet in a couple of days so that I could hear more about this decision, but I still think about what happened there that day and what the situation reveals about me and my training and where I find myself at this point in my ministry.

Frankly, what the situation reveals is not good.

I was ordained on September 20, 1980 – as some of you know, since I insist on observing the anniversary each year – and the ordination occurred after lengthy training and evaluation and psychological testing and even the learning of biblical languages. No one was better trained and equipped for a life of service to the church than I was. That’s not bragging. That’s a statement about how people like me have been prepared for the work of ministry over the last generation or two. And now, thanks be to God, I have been doing this work – without interruption – for more than 36 years.

So, what exactly is the problem?

I’ll tell you. A young man approached me after worship, asked to be baptized, and I forgot for a moment that that is the purpose of my life’s work – to lead people like him to just that moment in their lives and then to nurture and grow their new faith. Over the years I have forgotten (or neglected) this calling. In most of the churches I served over the years I was expected to be the executive director or chief executive officer of a legal entity known as the church. I supervised staff, raised money, built endowments, maintained buildings (and parking lots), managed a board, and responded to customer complaints. I came to think of all of that as ministry.

Coming to this particular church at this particular point in my life has had the transforming effect of reminding me of the call that brought me to this work a long, long time ago. I think it’s been the greatest gift I could have received.

Here’s my job description in its entirety: “The Senior Pastor is in charge of the spiritual welfare [my emphasis] of the congregation, including, but not limited to, conducting worship and preaching the gospel, pastoral counseling and visits, education of adults, youth and children, and the administration of the Sacraments (Ordinances) of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”

I think that’s what I’ve always wanted to do!

(Photo: That’s a photo of my church by František Janák who suggests that we call him “Frank.”)

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