Baby Steps: An anniversary review

given on Sunday, June 28, 2009

One year ago, I joined you for my first pastoral appointment.  Maybe I am a bit selfish focusing on this event today, but I am excited that we get to begin our second year together this week.  Besides, who doesn’t love to celebrate a special event?  Of course, there is another reason to mark this anniversary—to review, to evaluate, and even to plan.
A year ago I had one main goal:  to learn how to be a pastor.  In that main goal I had a few small ones to accomplish during the first year:
• to get to know the members, to learn their stories;
• to learn the church’s traditions and history; and
• to provide a meaningful worship experience.
Today, I ask you to complete a small evaluation for me—on paper.  That may seem like an odd way to evaluate the year, but it is a valuable tool for me, almost like a gift, as I look back at the year and forward to our next year.  First wedding anniversaries are celebrated with gifts of paper, so you are helping me to celebrate with the gift of your evaluation.
As an educator, we are used to assessments and it is difficult for me to really know how I am doing when you are all so loving.  It is not easy to ask for an evaluation, but I want to make sure that I am meeting your needs and expectations.  I know that the pastor’s role is to lead the flock, but one cannot lead if there is resistance or dissension.
Paul knew that the young churches established in those first years were going to struggle.  His ability to stay attune to what was happening to the members and the church led him to write his letters.  He saw the big pictures, as we would say today; and he knew the many challenges that were thrown at the early Christians and their churches.  He knew that it would take baby steps to spread the Word.  It would take baby steps to change a culture that was so firmly in place among the Jewish believers.  He knew that baby steps were needed by the Gentiles as they joined a faith that long expected the Messiah.
Taking baby steps is how I am learning the pastoral role.  Even though I am a cradle Methodist, the move into a pastoral role is a tremendous jump. Fortunately, my training as an educator is very helpful and my first baby step a year ago began in licensing school.  I assure you that the two weeks at licensing school does not fully prepare you for the responsibilities of the pulpit.  I have to rely on God’s guidance to use the gifts he gave me.
Look at verses 6-8 in Romans 12:
“We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.  If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith.  If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it mercifully.”

So often we are not personally aware of our own gifts.  Others around us sometimes better know our strengths and weaknesses; therefore it is good that we ask our friends to be honest with us.  For years I have given students a variety of assessment tools to guide them in learning who they are.  The surveys help them to know their interests, skills, learning styles, personality, and gifts.  The results are always interesting, and they usually are surprised how accurate the surveys are.
Asking you to share what you see are my strengths and weaknesses is one way to see what I need to work on.  When I discussed an annual review with the other local pastors in Clinton, I was asked how was my visitation going.  I know that this is a weakness in my pastoral role, but I know one of the most reasons is time certainly not the gift of gab.  Teaching uses up my days, until I reach summer, but I felt like I was doing pretty well with the help of the other pastors.
What really surprised me is that the question was really about visiting members at home, not in the hospitals or care facilities.  I did not think about how important such connections were to continue learning your stories.  I thought I was doing quite well on this, but this question made me focus on how negligent I am about this facet of ministry.  I have relied on the internet and a few, very few, handwritten cards to serve as my “visiting.”  My baby steps may not have been enough; I need to crawl first.  Here summer is half over and my visiting is incomplete.  My goal for the coming year is to improve the pastoral visits at home as well as in the hospitals and care centers.
I need to learn how to capitalize on the summer time I do have to take those baby steps into your own homes and your own worlds.  I ask you to help me by making an appointment.  I also need you to join me in visiting.  Go with me to meet some of your neighbors or former members or others in need.  I do function much better with a calendar than I do a verbal “yes, I will come visit sometime” promise.
As easy as it is for me to visit and talk with each of you, I also need to look at the next goal I had for the year:  to learn the traditions and the history of the church.  A year later, I wonder if this is a necessary goal, but I know it makes me feel more comfortable with the calendar.  I know what to expect this year.  I know some of the history with former pastors, which gives me direction.  I must take that knowledge now, find the weaknesses in the program, and work to improve those times of the years.  I also now understand the scheduling issues and need to work to keep equity between the two communities.  Here, too, you can help.  Help me look for weaknesses in the Christian year, which we can strengthen.  Help me to establish a tradition of celebrations that is also equitable for both churches.
The final intermediate goal I had for the year was to provide a meaningful worship service.  Over the years, I have witnessed more infighting among church members when the worship service was changed or new music was added or any other type of change made.  Tampering with a worship service is risky, but you have been very flexible allowing me to tweak the service little by little.  I know it continues to follow the basic traditions that were established.  I know, too, that the tone set during a service is so important and I believe the themes I have shared during the sermons and supplemented with they hymns have created a spirit-filled hour of worship which can carry us through the week.
Where do we go with worship?  We continue to grown together as we hear the scriptures, as we lift our voices in song and prayer, and we share.  One area I need your help with is in sharing the story.  During Annual Conference, the Bishop had a number of individuals share how God’s grace has changed their lives.  Knowing your stories is so important, but sometimes we fail to acknowledge God’s grace as a constant presence in our lives.  Sharing our stories will help each of us to see and to hear God in our own lives, too.  My request from you is to continue sharing your story.  Let us each know when you find God in your life.
In each review or evaluation, you reach a time of reflection.  Again I turn to Paul and think about how he worked with the young churches he established during those first years of Christianity.  The words that I keep returning to are those about gifts.  When I turned to the concordance, “gift” is listed in many of the books in the New Testament.  I started sorting through them and the same connections kept popping up:
• I Corinthians 12:1:  Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant.
• I Corinthians 12:4-6:  There are different kinds of gifts, but the same spirit.  There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.  There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.
• I Corinthians 12:11:  All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.

These words from Paul help me look towards the future.  I may be serving as the pastor, but the church is all of us.  We all have gifts and we all have the responsibility to use our gifts in whatever manner that best fits us.  John Wesley told us to serve.  The primary goal for the next year is to evaluate how the church is serving and how we as individuals are using our gifts to meet the challenge Wesley had for all Methodists.  Secondarily, we should show growth in how we serve, as a church and as individuals.
Peter, the disciple, also encourages me to focus on using gifts to serve in his book I Peter: 4:10:
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.  Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.  Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.

These words surely inspired Wesley as he told us to do everything you can, whenever you can for anyone in need.  In the John Wesley Study Bible which was published just last year, the heading in which Peter’s words are written is “Good Stewards of God’s Grace.”  The sidebar note on social religion adds:
“…For Wesley, holiness is evidenced through acts of mercy, especially toward the poor and needy.  Christians should exhibit the kind of community seen in the “Acts” church.”

Therefore, a year from now, when it is time to review, we need to see evidence that we have served.  We need to know in our hearts that our gifts have allowed us to be “good stewards of God’s grace” for all who are in need.
Personally, I know I have work to do.  I have studies to complete.  I have visits to make.  I have brainstorming to do.  I have prayers to make as we start a new year together.  I have scriptures to read and the words from I Timothy 4:14-16, I take my direction:
“Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.  Be diligent in these matters:  give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress.  Watch your life and doctrine closely.  Persevere in them…”

My request from you:  prayers, advice, ideas, and service using your own gifts.  I know you have graced me with this during the past year, and I am so grateful for that love.  That love and grace carries me through the year; it gives me strength as it says in Philippians 4:13:  “I can do everything through him (Christ) who gives me strength.”  That love and grace is truly another example of God’s grace which validates or proves the verse Ephesians 2:8:  “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…”
Thank you for loving me unconditionally as I joined your family in Christ.  Thank you for living your lives as Wesley asked us—to serve.  Thank you for encouraging me when I was tired.  Thank you for using your gifts in service.   Thank you for sharing your stories.  You are truly my brothers and sisters in Christ.  You are living proof of God’s grace in today’s world.
Dear Heavenly Father,
We have completed a year together and look forward to another year of growing in service to you.  We know we have much to learn and much to do, but we know you are there with us to give us the strength and the guidance we need.  Open our hearts and minds to the needs in our communities.  Let us use our gifts to help others learn of your grace.  Let us love one another so that we can make disciples in Christ in order to transform the world.        –Amen

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