Wednesday, July 30, 2008

I wasn’t ready to come home yet…

This afternoon Angel & I got back from our vacation to BC & southern Alberta. We weren’t even planning to go anywhere this year because money was tight, but then we were invited out to Downie for a few days. Angel’s Uncle Don and his new wife Sylvia (that’s Auntie Sylvia to us now) asked Angel to come & take some pictures of them as they weren’t happy with their wedding photos. So we agreed to come out, but we also decided that since we were down that way, why not bite the bullet, go the extra distance and spend some time in Waterton? So we set out for Revelstoke and the next day did the photo shoot. Angel did such a great job and Don & Sylvia were very pleased with the pictures she took.

On day two we did a trip into Vernon and Kelowna, which gave us the opportunity for everyone to know each other better. This was the first time Angel had gone out without any other family to see Don, and it gave her the chance to forge her own connection with her uncle. We also met up with and took back with us Sylvia’s daughter Jaime, an adventurous young lady who was cycling her way around southern BC. Jaime & Angel seemed to hit it off and it was good for us to get to know her better too. On day three of our visit Angel & I toured the railway museum in town and drove up to Mt. Revelstoke National Park. The view from the top was stunning and the hike around the summit was scenic, but what was also memorable was our tour guide. Pointing out some of the wildlife as he drove us from the parking lot to the summit, he made special mention of a group of young Homo sapiens walking up the road: “These ones have almost reached sexual maturity, and their young don’t leave home til they're 25…”

The next day we said our goodbyes to Don, Sylvia & Jaime and then we were Waterton bound. We haven’t been to this marvelous gem of the Rockies in five years, and the closer to the park boundary we got the giddier we became. We were even happier when we got our old campsite from the first time we stayed. There’s just something captivating about this place tucked away in the south-west corner of Alberta. It’s probably because it’s so remote and small, not world-famous (and commercialized) like Banff. The mountains that tower over you, the lakes glistening just a hundred meters from camp and the roar of the waterfall, which is at the edge of Waterton Village, all saturate your senses. The weather was great for hiking around Red Rock Canyon and the wind was predictably powerful on the ridge overlooking the lakes & village. Here on this ridge is the Prince of Wales Hotel, built in 1927. Waterton is also known for The International, a vessel constructed the same year as the hotel. The International ferries tourists across Waterton’s brisk waves to Glacier National Park which is on the American side of the boarder. Together the two parks make up the world’s first International Peace Park, which was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995.

Twenty-four hours ago I was strolling back & forth along the walkway that takes you around the marina and peninsula; around me the waves of Waterton Lake splash on the shore and above me stands the Prince of Wales Hotel, overlooking the valley. The sun is setting, painting the evening sky pink and gold. The wind is cool, and yet as I wear my hoodie & jeans I’m wearing sandals on my bare feet. Angel is taking some night-time pictures and soon we will be calling it a day. We only got one full day in this marvelous place, having spent most of the day before driving to our destination. The day’s activities fill my mind along with one other thought: I’m not ready to come home yet. I’m glad that we were able to come for the brief time that we did, but I don’t really want to leave this place. Having put off plans in the past few years to return here, for various reasons, I will settle for 36 hours of mountain paradise than none at all. As the wind picks up I wonder if the tent will blow down like it did the last time we were here, but even if it did (which thankfully it didn’t this time) it would be a small price to pay for our stay. God willing we will return and stay a bit longer, as Waterton is our favorite destination. I wonder what kind of work we can get here, and how much the housing here costs…

(Click here for more pictures from our trip!)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Why I walked away from pastoral ministry

I’m going to be very candid here, but before I dive into what I want to write about I want to say that I believe that God is good. So often we blame God for our failures and circumstances and we loose sight of this simple yet life changing truth. I may have lost faith in some things but it doesn’t mean I’ve lost my faith in Jesus. I may be disappointed and heartbroken about dreams that were shattered but I still have joy because of who God is and what He’s done for all of humanity, which is to redeem people from every tribe, language and nation to worship and give God the glory He so richly deserves.

When I was a teenager I sensed God calling me into pastoral ministry. That dream, that sense of calling has stayed with me up to this day, but I don’t believe anymore that it’s God’s will to be a pastor (which I know is confusing – at least it is to me!). When I say pastoral ministry, or to be a pastor, I mean having a formal position of leadership, be it vocational or even volunteer, where you give oversight to the church. You get mentored, go to Bible College or seminary, acquire practical skills and experience, and eventually a church hires you. That’s the way it’s been done and that’s the way it will be done for a long time to come. I’ve traveled down this path for years until I came to a dead end. After a lot of thought, prayer and talking with my fellow elders at Calvary (elders & pastors are pretty much that same thing) I made the choice to leave it all behind me.

So what led me to believe that I’m not called to pastoral ministry? There were a lot of little things too numerous to mention, but one reason is that there was no fruit to my labour. In Christian circles it’s been said that we should do our part and leave the results to God; that it’s not about results but our faithfulness to God that counts. I would have to argue that this notion is completely unbiblical and a load of garbage. So much about scripture speaks about people being faithful AND seeing God bring results to that faithfulness. Whether we’re talking about developing our character, serving others or showing generosity, the Bible speaks of God adding to our accomplishments. In my case I expected that if I was faithful in what little was given for me to do then more opportunities to serve would present themselves. They never came. The biggest opportunity I looked for was an offer of a staff position in a church, be it in my own or another congregation. And while there were some possibilities, they all evaporated like a mirage in the desert. But honestly, I don’t think I did a great job at what little was entrusted to me. So much of what I put my hand to seemed to turn to ashes, even though there were a few successes here & there.

Another reason is the lack of emotional and moral support. Pastoral ministry is hard. You are responsible for bringing spiritual guidance to the church; the analogy the Bible gives is that pastors are shepherds and the church is your flock. Well, if you know anything about sheep, they aren’t easy to shepherd. You deal with people’s problems, and sometimes you are their problem! My experience has been that those who oversee the church are treated like elected officials who answer to their constituents, as opposed to being appointed by God through the church body to exercise loving authority. You seldom get any encouragement, and if you do it’s either second hand or non-specific. I cringed whenever I heard the two words I hate to hear the most after I preached: Good sermon. That’s it, end of sentence. But if you messed up you definitely heard about it, second hand or in person, and boy you got details. You also know things that go on in the church that aren’t common knowledge, things you wish you didn’t know about. And because of confidentiality it stays that way, meaning you have few people to turn to when you need to vent. It’s hard on your emotions and it’s hard on your relationships, especially marriages.

The third & final reason I’ll talk about is the discouraging inconsistency I’ve seen between the theory and practice of developing leaders. In theory pastoral leaders are home grown, chosen for their character, who develop their skills and Bible knowledge as they serve in leadership. This is what I call an apprenticeship model of leadership development. These leaders I would call “blue-collar pastors” who may be either vocational or volunteer ministers. But my experience has been that leaders are more “white-collar pastors.” These are leaders who are people of character but are Bible College/seminary grads who may or may not have practical skills or experience, and may or may not already be a member in your church. This is what I call an academic model of leadership development. It’s ironic that churches insist on hiring white-collar pastors when 80% of seminary grads found that their formal education did NOT prepare them for real-life ministry! I’m not saying here that one is better than the other, but I do think that the apprenticeship model is more biblical and that a mix of the two is needed. Unfortunately, in my view, there is an imbalance that favors the professional clergy. And since I don't have any more money to pursue more education this puts a damper on any hope of a church hiring me.

I can go on and on here, but I wanted to give some explanation for my departure from leadership since it’s come up so often in conversation lately. Hopefully it’ll clarify things a bit since there’s a few misnomers about the whole thing. One is that I’m simply taking a break, and that I’ll be back in the saddle again. This is definitely not the case. Another (which surprised me) was that some thought I was already on staff with Calvary and that I’ve gotten another job. Again this definitely wasn’t the case. But I write this to also give people a glimpse into what pastoral ministry is like, and what people can do to help make their church leader’s jobs easier. Show respect for your pastors and church elders; don’t put them on a pedestal but don’t demean their role as spiritual fathers. Balance your feedback; give them constructive criticism but also affirm them in specific and even practical ways. Your pastor is often overworked, underpaid (or not paid at all) and probably lonely. Send them a card, give them a hug, treat them to dinner, tell them how you have been blessed by their service and be specific about it! And most important, pray for them and tell them you are praying for them. In the end they are people just like you and me, and they need you just as much as you them. Don’t give those who are truly called to be pastors any reason to walk away from their calling.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Camping, family-style

The Nicolajsens (most of us that is) spent this past weekend camping together, something we've never done before as an extended family. We went to Elk Island National Park, which is 40 km east of Edmonton, and it was such a blast. We ate, hiked, kayaked on Astotin Lake, shot off water rockets and took in an evening at the park theater. After Sunday check-out we went to the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Centre for lunch and a tour of this marvelous outdoor museum. I had so much fun on this weekend, and hopefully we can do this again sometime. Here are some snapshots of our weekend, and if you want to see more just click here. Enjoy.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Lean on your staff and worship God

Today I did something I haven't done in over half a year. I had made a choice to leave a part of my life behind and move forward, as I felt I had come to a dead end with it. But today I stood before my church and preached a sermon. When I stepped down from the Calvary leadership and teaching teams I vowed I would have nothing to do with anything that was pastoral anymore.

So how did I end up delivering the mail this Sunday?

My latest course I'm wrapping up is on worship; it's the last of my Bible/Theology courses in the program, from here on it's a semester's worth of liberal arts courses and then I graduate. My final project for the course was I had to design a worship service and implement it. At first I thought, "Great, just when I thought I was finished with that part of my life I have to do something pastoral." But then I found out that I didn't have to participate in leading it, which was a relief. However, as the planning went ahead there came a snag in who was supposed to speak on the Sunday in question. To smooth things out and keep some consistency with the overall theme I was aiming for, I decided to take on the task of doing the sermon.

Reluctantly, I might add.

So what I did was pick a Bible character, as today was the start of the summer character series, and used the corresponding passage to tie together the new series with the one we finished last week. And the series we just finished up was... wait for it... worship. In a nutshell I talked about how Joseph, a Patriarch of Israel, worshiped God even though his family sold themselves to Pharaoh (Genesis 47). Everyone in Egypt was starving and sold themselves to the Egyptian king so they had wheat for bread. Now God had promised Jacob that his descendants would settle in Canaan, which then became the nation of Israel. From there Israel would bless the nations, and ultimately this was fulfilled in the coming of Christ. By faith Jacob could see the promised fulfilled, which enabled him to worship. How that ties in with us today is there are things in our lives that we are enslaved to which interfere with our worship. Only our faith in Christ's sacrifice can then free us from what binds us so we can engage God in worship.

In addition to picking out the songs and readings for the service I planned out a ritual for the church to do before communion. I went out and bought some wheat (25kg I might add, which was the smallest amount I could buy it in), divided it up into Ziploc bags and passed them out to everyone. After the sermon the grain was collected and taken to the front as an offering to God, just like they did in the Old Testament (except we didn't burn it like they did...) The grain symbolized our bondage (it was for grain that Israel sold themselves to Pharaoh) and our poverty (grain was offered by those too poor to offer an animal sacrifice). Then the people took communion, which symbolizes Jesus' sacrifice for us. Jesus called Himself the Bread of Life, and it was fitting that we worshiped God today by eating food that came from grain. Anyhow, to sum up it was a very moving service; I know this because I saw a lot of people who were tearing up during communion, and a few came up to receive prayer afterwards.

So if everything went so well, why then you may ask did I decide to put pastoral ministry on the shelf? I'm going to be very honest here. One of the many little reasons why is the emotional toll it takes on me. Yes, it was a powerful service and I felt so much joy because of it. But then I take a bit of a hit afterwards and I end up feeling exposed and depressed. I've learned that I need some supports in place after I do a sermon, and even though I got prayed for afterwards and had friends there to support me I still ended up feeling alone and isolated. I'm sure if I didn't have those supports in place it would have been worse, but still I have to deal with it. Maybe that's what binds me up, I dunno. I never preached from the perspective that I've arrived, but that the sermon I'm delivering is just as much for me as for the rest of the church. Maybe there's a promised land that I can't see, but for now I need to just trust God and, as Jacob did, lean on my own staff and worship Him.

I also have to figure out what I'm going to do with 25kg of wheat now...