Thursday, September 22, 2016

Sabbatical report

AKA “How I spent my summer”

Going in to the Sabbatical Period I had three main goals:
1) Do a bunch of reading with two focal points to be Congregational/Community Development and Pastoral Care
2) have some “down time” and some family time
3) be intentional about physical activity
Other possibilities included watching some TED talk videos in conjunction with goal 1 (that did not happen) and getting some stuff done around the house and yard (which largely also did not happen).

Goal 1:
Books Read: 18 (11 in Hardcopy, 7 on KOBO)
Fiction – 4
General Spirituality – 1
Congregational/Community Development – 8
Pastoral Care – 5
Then there were some random articles on various topics that I read, usually as a result of them popping up on my Twitter or Facebook feed.

So I averaged roughly a book a week, which I am pleased with. As I finished each book I wrote a bit of a reflection on it as a way to help refer back to them as time progresses. Over time I need to synthesize the concepts in this reading and discern how best to apply them to congregational ministry. Some of the books I found very applicable and helpful, some of them were not quite what I thought they might be. I did find that in order to focus on reading I needed to go to another place (often Starbucks was where I ended up) where there were less distractions than at home. My book reflections can all be found at:

Goal 2:
There was certainly down time. And there was some extra family time – whether this is a good thing may depend on which members of the family you ask. The interesting thing was that I am still unsure if I ended the summer any more rested than I would in a regular summer. I think I was somewhat more refreshed at any rate. And I did a better job than I thought I would at leaving thoughts about what was happening at the church/with church people behind. The only time I really read and engaged with church e-mails that popped up on my phone was around the flood, the rest I deleted pretty much unread. At the same time I learned that it is likely I should have more contacts in town that are not work-related.

Goal 3:
I am satisfied with how well I did on this one. The weeks we were in town I was able to get over to Eastlink 2-3 times a week quite reliably with some other walks with the dog added in. I had hoped to get one or the other in every day but in reality that was probably overly optimistic. The challenge on a continuing basis is to find a way to continue this level of activity now that life is back to its normal busy-ness.

I went in to the sabbatical not knowing what exactly to expect. Now that I have taken one I am not sure I would do it again unless there was something specific I had to accomplish. I am glad I took it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Pastoral Care....some rambling thoughts

From the beginning of my first internship I have found one thing to be true.  The part of ministry that I find the most challenging is Pastoral Care.

There are a variety of reasons for this I suppose, but it remains the truth. The biggest block is the so called "regular" visit. I am never really sure what the purpose of these visits is. For visits with a clearer purpose I am much less uncomfortable.

Further complicating matters is the fact that for many of those who are home-bound it often seems that the biggest need the visit is meeting is that of social companionship.  While that is certainly valued, I am not convinced it is the task of the clergy person to provide social companionship to people (interestingly when I asked one Board Chair that question the answer was a quick "yes" as if it was a strange question) -- particularly when said companionship can be provided better by people who have more of a shared history.

Then this summer I read two articles that were not helpful to someone who tends to do less visiting than he would like. One is called How Pastoral Care Stunts the Growth of Most Churches and the other is Fifteen Reasons Why Your Pastor Should Not Visit Much. Both authors make some sound  arguments, though I believe they may overstate the case. And of course context is key in any of these sorts of discussions, what is a norm in one place may seem odd in another.

And at the same time a very common comment in many congregations is that the minister does not visit enough...

But it brings me back to a key question I have been wrestling with for 20 years now.

What is Pastoral Care? What is it not?  What parts of the broad topic are best taken on by the clergy and what parts are best taken on by the whole congregation?

I think that everything we do as a church has at least a touch of Pastoral Care to it. Worship, Christian Development/Faith Formation, Community Building events, Fundraisers (I always counted the many hours I spent helping make apple pies in my settlement charge as Pastoral Care time), even Council and Committee meetings are part of how we are "church" together and so how we care about each other. But obviously there is a more focused piece as well...

In a Facebook discussion this summer some clergy were discussing who in the congregation gets a monthly visit and why. Some said none except in exceptional circumstances, some (myself included) said that there were some (usually "shut-ins") who it was a priority to try and see monthly.

Whose job is it to maintain contact on behalf of the church?

At the same time there is a little matter of choice.

There are X number of hours in a week. And so a finite number of things that can be done.  How do people know who to go and visit? What responsibility is it of the visitor to know who needs a visit and what is the responsibility of the person wanting a visit to make that need known?

Coming back from Sabbatical it is my hope that I can only be in the office in the mornings and maybe one afternoon a week. This leaves the other afternoons available to visit folk. Mind you I have tried to get that going before and it has yet to be successful.

How do you define Pastoral Care?

What do you think the "Pastoral Care" piece of the ministerial job description should mean?

If you are clergy how do you define it?

Friday, September 02, 2016

Book 23 of 2016 -- Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

As a final book for the Sabbatical period, I decided to by myself this one when at the mall yesterday.

Then I had to read it quickly because the daughter really wants to read it. Well that and once you start reading you are drawn in and want to continue.

It is an interesting extension of the story. And I admit I do like stories that explore alternative histories, the "what if this had gone differently" plot device.

It largely fits well with what we know from the earlier books (unlike for example the Star Wars prequel movies which do not fit with what we learn in the original trilogy). As I was reading the first act I was trying to determine who the cursed child was (thinking of a curse as in a spell).  But I think really there are 3 cursed children in it -- and none of them because a spell was cast upon them. And of course, as with the original books, this play pushes us to think about relationships and choices.

Though I must say it seems like a really expensive script to put on stage....

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Book 22 of 2016 -- Help, Thanks, Wow

Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers
Anne Lamott (New York, Riverhead Books)

Anne Lamott has a nice simple way of exploring issues of faith. In this volume she takes on prayer. And really it is fair to say that those are the three basic prayers.

Help. When life is challenging (for us or for others) we say help. When we don't know where to turn. When life doesn't seem fair. When there seems no way out. When we don't understand. We say help. Help with a decision, help change the circumstances, help understand, help find meaning. Just help. There was stuff in here that also underpins the act of Pastoral Care.

Thanks. The prayer we too often forget. What I liked was Lamott's recurrent reminder that gratitude is something we get better at the more we practice it. That we say thanks for the big things and the small things. That even when things are falling apart eyes accustomed to practising gratitude see something for which to say thanks.

Wow. How often do we miss the awesome in our lives? How often do we get focused on the mundane and the ugliness of life and miss the wow that is around us? How often do we take the awesomeness of the world around us for granted and forget to actually look? [I was reminded of this earlier this month when we went to Jasper and I got to see the mountains through the eyes of the girls who had never been there before.]

I am thinking that each week our prayers of the people (which generally already include thanks and help) need to intentionally include these three things. Maybe instead of asking for celebrations and concerns our order of worship also needs to ask for the wows....

The one piece of prayer that this book misses is that of confession/examintion of one's actions/attitudes. Though to be fair at one point Lamott does refer to a 4th standard prayer – something along the lines of “help me not to be an ass” which may sort of cover that.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Book 21 of 2016 -- The Church, Change and Development

The Church, Change and Development  
Ivan Illich (Urban Training Center Press) 125 Pages

In the spring I was asking on Facebook for possible books around Community Development. One of my colleagues sent me to a PDF link of this (free) book. Free books are almost always worth the cost so....

Until downloading this book I had never heard the name Ivan Ilich. Then he ended up as one of the people discussed in the last book I read. So as I was reading this I had to look him up and learn more about him.

It was an interesting piece. The book itself is a selection of letters, papers and speeches from the 1960's. They largely focus on Catholic mission work in Latin America but there are insights that also fit a broader (and later in time) context. Indeed in reading the first paper (which is the on the book is named for) I was struck by how prescient Illich is in describing both the era of his writing and the eras that followed.

Illich does a good job of pushing the church-folk he is working with (or possibly against?) to consider seriously the context in which they act. He also pushes them to consider seriously the ways in which their actions might actually be damaging to the people with whom they are working. He challenges the assumptions made about mission work and actively calls the church to focus on the needs of the people.

In the end, for my purposes anyway I found the first paper the most useful. The others were interesting reading and had some good insights but were a bit to narrowly focused for me.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Book 20 of 2016 -- Looking Back to Look Forward

Asset Based Community Development (ABCD): Looking Back to Look Forward: In conversation with John McKnight about the intellectual and practical heritage of ABCD and its place in the world today.
                  Cormac Russell

This is a short little read. The majority of it is transcribed (and one would assume edited) conversations with John McKnight about the people who have influenced him in his work around Asset Based Community Development.

And yet in this short little read I made 37 highlights. The print version is 80 pages so that would be roughly one every 2 pages. It is a short book with a wealth of insight into community and social development and systemic reform.

I like the idea of the Asset Based approach. It pushes us to ask what we have rather than what we lack. It pushes us to realize that we do in fact have what we need to change and develop our communities. And in this book the reader is challenged to rethink their understanding of how the systems around them work and the whole “it has to be like this” idea that often accompanies systems.

In the church we are often unaware of the systems we have built. We are also good at insisting we do not have any resources with which to make change. For some time now I have thought we need a new way of looking at things. Our systems are not working. We are not aware of all the resources we have (or –more importantly– how they might be used in new and innovative ways). If the present system/way of being is not producing the results we want, why do we want to keep tweaking it instead of building a new system?

I see myself referring back to this book in the near future.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Book 19 of 2016 -- Tale of Two Cities

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."  One of the best known beginnings to a novel in English literature (even if upon hearing the first paragraph read aloud the gang at Cheers responded that " Boy, this Dickens guy really liked to keep his butt covered, didn't he? ")

Many ears ago (Grade 6?) we read an abridged version of this book at school. This summer I thought it was time to read the original.  And so I knew the basic story line.  I knew how it would end. ANd I had heard the final sentences (though to be honest I tend to also hear how Frasier Crane adapted those sentences in the episode named above).

Really this is a love story. Of a sort. It is a story set in the midst of social turmoil but not about the social turmoil. Sure Dicken's politico-social sensibilities flood through the descriptions and the plot lines but that is not, in the end what the novel is about. It is about love, a variety of loves, and the sacrifice that love can cause.

Some novels deserve to be read generations after they were written. This is one of them.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Book 18 or 2016 -- The Practice of Pastoral Care

The Practice of Pastoral Care: A Postmodern Approach
Carrie Doehring (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) 184 Pages

From the Chapters web site...
Drawing upon psychological, theological, and cultural studies on suffering, Carrie Doehring has developed an approach to religiously based care for clergy and caregivers who take a postmodern, or social-constructionist, approach to knowledge. Encouraging counselors to view their ministry through trifocal lenses that include approaches that are premodern (where God can be apprehended through religious rituals and traditions), modern (where rational and empirical sources are consulted), and postmodern (where the provisional and contextual nature of knowledge is realized), Doehring shows how pastoral caregivers can draw upon all of the historical and contemporary resources of their religious, intellectual, and cultural traditions...Utilizing case studies, offering student exercises, and concluding with an in depth look at a family situation in the novel Affliction to demonstrate her method, The Practice of Pastoral Care is accessibly written for students yet thought-provoking for seasoned caregivers. ( accessed August 10, 2016)

This is an easy read. It is also a very good read. It is the sort of book I wish we had been assigned when I was in seminary and I was trying to grapple with what Pastoral Care is and how it is done. [Though to be fair it likely would not have been as useful to me at that time since I was a less than stellar student in my first two years and also had not done a lot of work on my own issues – to the extent that I was unaware how those issues got (and still get at times) in my way.] I found the theory fascinating and helpful and at the same time the use of case studies/examples helped make it a much more practical book.

The piece that is missing is the “ordinary time” visits. As with much Pastoral Care writing I have read this volume focuses on the visiting in a time of crisis. And that is valuable, indeed there were many things I thought “I should do more of that” as I was reading. But one of the pieces I find more challenging is the visiting when there is no obvious reason for the visit, the more social visits. That is what I am really wanting to explore. And those are the visits I need to make roe of – largely because they lay the base for when the crisis arises.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Book 17 of 2016 -- The Emerging Christian Way

The Emerging Christian Way: Thoughts, Stories, & Wisdom for a Faith of Transformation
Edited by Michael Schwartzentruber (Kelowna, Copperhouse) 256 Pages

This book is a collection of essays looking at one vision of the future path or the Christian church (perhaps particularly the mainline church). It begins with a chapter by Marcus Borg where he outlines his understanding of an emerging paradigmatic understanding – which he calls Transformation Centered – of how to be the church (as opposed to an earlier paradigm which he calls Belief Centered). This lays out a basis for the “Emerging Christian Way” that the rest of the writers discuss. It is also not new to readers of Borg's work, particularly Heart of Christianity. In reading this chapter I was reminded how much I like Borg. The other chapter in Part One of the book is by Tim Scorer, who invites the reader to participate in an exercise that looks at five ways that faith can help us embrace transformation in looking at a key dilemma or issue in our lives. Interestingly when I was invited to name that key dilemma the first things that came to mind were issues of identity and belonging and acceptance. Some things never change apparently.

Part Two of the book is called “Key Perspectives”.The writers in this section look at creeds (Tom Harpur), the “great work” of our era (Thomas Berry), relationships to nature (Sallie McFague), post-denominationalism (Matthew Fox), multi-faith issues (Bruce Sanguin), inclusion (Anne Squires), and social justice (Bill Phipps). Some were very good – I was surprised how well the Tom Harpur piece resonated with me and could easily affirm his draft creed. Some were disappointing, in particular the last two. Squires' piece on inclusion was very familiar in this United Church that has made inclusion/inclusivity an idol. I agree that we are called to be a place where all are welcome, but that does not mean we need to be a place where everyone will be able to find a spiritual home. But in UCCan circles it is almost a heresy to point out that we are not called to be a spiritual home for every one. Phipps' piece was not something I disagreed with, but was also not new to me and so I had a “been there” feeling.

The third and final part of the book is “Emerging Forms” and is, I think, intended to give some practical advice for living into the emerging Christian way. The chapters here look at worship styles and liturgy (Mark McLean), singing in worship (Bruce Harding), Christian education (Susan Burt), pastoral care –though really focused on spiritual formation not crisis care – (Donald Grayston), and spiritual discernment (Nancy Reeves) before a short concluding essay by the editor to wrap things up. The most challenging piece in here was the chapter by Donald Grayston and his ideas about providing rites of passage (separate from confirmation) for youth. The Bruce Harding piece was good but again not new to me as I have hear Bruce say many of those things before.

All told this was a good read. Probably would make a better read within a group context, preferably with a leadership group/team of a Christian community, so then the group could discuss “what does this mean about how we are a community of faith?” in response to the various chapters.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Book 16 or 2016 -- A Pastor in Every Pew

A Pastor in Every Pew: equipping laity for pastoral care
Leroy Howe (Valley Forge: Judson Press) 179 Pages

What is Pastoral Care? Whose “job” is it?

To answer the first question, in the end I think that Pastoral Care is part of everything we do as a church – and everything we do as a church needs to be part of how we offer care to each other's souls/spirits. Worship, Christian Education/Faith Development, proclaiming the Kingdom, sacraments, Scripture study, social/political action, polity & administration – everything we do as the church needs to be about caring for ourselves and our neighbours and helping us grow a deeper faithful relationship with God. Or, as some wise fellow said a few centuries ago “...“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself(Matthew 22:37-39). As we live out those verses we are doing Pastoral Care.

And so the task of Pastoral Care lies with all people of faith. We all have a calling to care for each other and to help each other grow in faith.

That being said, that is not what this book is about.

This book is about the more general understood meaning of Pastoral Care. It talks about the people who are specifically called to walk with those who are hurting or struggling, to listen to them to (to use the term the author prefers) be their shepherd. This is more than just friendly visiting and spiritual chit chat. Some of the examples Howe uses are pretty deep stuff (some deeper than I suspect many lay Pastoral Care teams are really expecting to go). But Howe is clear that his vision of this care does not rely on the person who is paid to do it. He is clear that this is a ministry in which many could, should, and need to be involved. It is part of the work of the Church, not the Pastor alone.

This book is set up to be used as a training manual. And as a person for whom Pastoral Care is the most challenging part of ministry I appreciated it as such. It had some helpful insights that I had not heard before (it is equally likely that either they had not been shared with me or that I was not able to hear them at the time).

There are some things missing in the book. Things around the art of pastoral conversation, the “how to go deeper” piece could have been helpful. Some discussion of what I have heard referred to as pastoral diagnosis, the picking up what is really happening, would have been helpful in a training manual (especially since there was a phrase in the chapter on homework which reads “...had Betty not given the homework, she might not have unearthed some valuable clues...” (p.100)). But the biggest exclusion was in the chapter on confidentiality where he spends the whole time talking about the need to break confidence in issues of imminent harm to self or others and not once mentions the ethical (and usually legal) requirement to break confidence if child abuse and/or neglect (past, present or future) is named or reasonably suspected. This appears to me to be a big miss. In the same chapter he speaks as if shepherds (lay or clergy) can claim the “seal of the confessional” in that he never speaks to the possibility of being called upon in court (admittedly this is likely a more detailed discussion than a introductory piece would contain).

On the whole this is a good book. It got me thinking about how pastoral care as a church-wide piece might work and why it does not seem to happen as readily as (I think) it used to.