Mind the Gap

A few weeks ago, we told the story of Barnabas going to Tarsus to find Saul (who would later become Paul) and bring him back to Antioch to teach. We’re told that for a year Paul and Barnabas taught the new disciples in Antioch.

While telling this story, I mentioned that within this story is an important lesson for those of us who follow Christ. Let’s remember Paul’s story. In Acts 9, we have the conversion story of Paul. We have a few short stories of Paul preaching and then, in fear for his life, Paul disappears. In Galatians, Paul tells us that he spent some time in the Arabian deserts studying and trying to understand what the appearance of Jesus meant to him and his new calling in the world.

In the conversion story, Paul is called to be a missionary to the Gentiles. Paul, however, doesn’t begin that ministry until chapter 11. There was some length of time-probably a long length of time-between the calling of Paul and the beginning of his ministry. There was a gap. When Paul was called to the ministry, for whatever reason, he wasn’t yet ready to engage in that ministry.

There were some things Jesus still had to do in Paul’s life. Or, there were some things Christ still had to do in the world for Paul’s preaching to be most effective. So, Paul stayed in Tarsus.

A lot of us have found ourselves in similar situations. Some of us are there now. We’ve been called to a ministry or mission, but for some reason we’re having a difficult time engaging in that ministry. Most of the time, the gap between being called to the ministry and doing that ministry is a time of preparation. Sometimes, it’s a matter of Kingdom timing. We have to remember God is working on every side of the equation. Most of the time, however, time is needed to develop the skills, knowledge, and aptitudes to do the ministry and do it well.

So, if you find yourself in this situation, most likely there is still something that needs to be addressed in your life before the ministry begins. Do a little self-inventory. Is there some character issue that would limit your effectiveness? Is there a skill you need to develop further? Is there some area of knowledge you need to develop or expand?

The gap between being called to a ministry and engaging in that ministry is a gift. Jesus gives us the time we need to do our best for Him. Don’t waste it. Don’t rush through it. Get ready.

The time will come when you won’t have time to get ready. You’ll have to be ready.

Mom’s Not OK

When people ask me how my mom’s doing, I usually say she’s doing OK. I’m not lying. I’m just not telling the whole truth.

What I mean by OK is she’s not in any immediate crisis. Her health remains impressively good. She doesn’t take any medication (except her dementia medicine). She remains active and engaged. Most days, she’s still sharp in her conversation and still has her sense of humor. While she’s a little less steady in her walk than she was, she still gets around pretty well.

Unless you know her, you won’t pick up the subtle changes in her. The other day she told me a story. While I was listening to the story, I was thinking how coherent this story was. She told it with confidence and all of the details lined up. Here was the problem. The three people in the story didn’t live at the same time nor at the same place. She had pulled people from three different times in her life and conflated them into the same story.

She can’t really tell time. She doesn’t know if I’ve been there an hour or ten minutes. She can’t keep track of her days. She didn’t remember my birthday. She won’t remember hers. She won’t remember our family stories until I start retelling her. She’ll sparkle in a moment of recognition, but tomorrow she won’t remember what we talked about.

My mom is quietly slipping away from me. Every time I see her, it’s like she’s a little further away and I have to shout louder to find her. I know she’s in there. I can see the twinkle in her eyes (OK, sometimes it’s fire), but I see flashes of the woman I’ve always known as my mom.

I lose her a little bit every day, and I grieve a little bit every day. It’s like a tooth ache that won’t go away. It’s never enough to make you stop, but it never goes away. I now read Psalm 23 very differently. Together my mom and I are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. She won’t make it through. Maybe this year, maybe next year, she’ll slip into the shadows, and she won’t come back.

The irony of this moment is she’s grieving for what she can’t remember. I’m grieving for what I can’t forget.

Mom’s not OK. And neither am I.

The reason I’m writing this is, since my mom’s diagnosis, countless numbers of friends and strangers have offered encouragement and support. “We’ve been there,” they will say, and then they’ll tell me their story of their parents or their in-laws. Sometimes, they just give me a sad smile and pat me on the arm. They know. I know. We can’t say in words what we know. You probably know someone who is going through this in their own family. I’m writing to remind you that your friends aren’t OK. They’ll tell you they are, but they’re not. So, pray for them. Grant them a little grace for the day, a little mercy for the journey. Their mom or dad is not OK, and neither are they.

I know. My mom’s not OK and neither am I.

When Your Dysfunctional Family Takes All the Fun Out of the Holidays

Johnny Carson, the famous late night television host of the last generation, said the holidays are when we go home to be with our families to remember why we do it only once a year.

As if Christmas itself didn’t have enough pressure, adding the pressure of going home and being with our families in all of their dysfunction is enough to send a lot of us into a deep depression. Now, let’s understand—every family is dysfunctional. The only difference between families is HOW that dysfunction is manifested and the DEGREE to which that dysfunction affects the lives of the family members.

Now, understanding that and also knowing that most of our family members—barring a direct hit from a bolt lightening from God—won’t change, how do we prepare to go home for the holidays?

First, you have to make the decision of whether or not to go home for the holidays at all. Now, I know people are going to be mad if you don’t go home, but chances are the same people are going to be mad about something anyway. Does it really matter what they’re mad about? You can only answer for you. Is it in your best interest to go home? You can always choose to go another time. There’s no law that says you HAVE to go home. If going home is going to make you crazy, don’t go.

But if you do go, adjust your expectations. If your dad has never told he loved you, he probably won’t tell you this time either. If your mom doesn’t like your spouse, then she probably still doesn’t like her. There’s a reason Norman Rockwell painted those beautiful family scenes for Christmas; they don’t exist in real life. So understand your family is going to act just like they’ve always acted. You shouldn’t expect anything different.

  • Protect your boundaries. (Henry Cloud’s book, Boundaries, is a classic on this issue.)
  • Decide to be happy. (Yes, this is always your decision and yours alone.)
  • Keep your focus on the real meaning of Christmas. It’s not about presents. It’s about Jesus.

And Jesus won’t mind if you stay home and have a quiet Christmas without all of the dysfunctional drama.

Any Volunteers?

If you talk to anyone who works on a church staff, they will tell you the most difficult part of their job is recruiting and maintaining enough volunteers to accomplish their ministry. According to some ministers, they spend all of their time trying to run down enough volunteers to run their (fill in the blank) ministry.  No one can seem to find enough volunteers, and once found, volunteers are almost impossible to keep.

What’s the problem? People who love Jesus should be eager to serve His church…right? Well, in theory, but it doesn’t really work that way in real life.

Here’s the usual drill: a minister will realize they need someone to do something this coming Sunday. It could be anything from taking up the offering to teaching a class, but the minister has to find someone, and that person has to be found fast. So, phone calls are made.

The first people called are those people in our churches who always say “yes.” We know who they are. In fact, every minister knows who they are. It’s one of the reasons so many of our members are burned out. We ask the same people to do everything. Why? Because they will. For the minister, it doesn’t matter if the person has any abilities or gifts in the area of need, it only matters that they are willing to fill the empty position for one hour this coming Sunday. When we get through this Sunday, we’ll start the chaotic process of finding volunteers for next Sunday.

Now, church members aren’t dumb. They are catching on to what’s going on. They’ve learned not to return phone calls, not to read emails, and to ignore texts. No amount of “guilting” them will work anymore. They’ve become calloused to our pleas. Every minister complains about not having enough volunteers, and every volunteer complains about ministers who don’t understand the demands of their lives. Our members are angry because too many times, ministers make them feel guilty for saying “no” even when they have a perfectly good reason for declining.

There has to be a better way.

There is.

First, ministers have to make identifying, training, and supporting volunteers a priority of their ministry. Most of us don’t see it that way. Volunteers are last minute thoughts, and we think that once we get SOMEBODY in the position, we’ve accomplished our goal. No, we haven’t. The goal is to find the right person for the right job.

With that in mind, every position should have a written job description with the expectations and requirements clearly written down. When you talk to your potential volunteer, you should be able to walk down a one-page list that lays out what kind of time requirements exist, exactly what the job entails, and what success will look like.

Be sure the job only takes about two or three hours a week. People are maxed out with their time. If the position requires too much time, they won’t do it. Don’t bait and switch. Don’t tell them it won’t take much time when, in reality, it takes a lot of time. There are lot of very talented people sitting in our pews who won’t volunteer for anything else in a church because another ministry misled them in the past about how much time a position in the church actually required. You may have to split one job into several pieces in order for volunteers to be able to handle the responsibilities. That, however, is better than not having your volunteers engaged.

Second, stay in communication with your volunteers. Your volunteers are people. They have real lives outside of what you’re asking them to do in the church. They have ups and downs as everyone does, and they need to know you care about them AS A PERSON, not just as someone who’s filling a spot for you.

Third, listen to your volunteers. Sometimes they have better ideas about how to do something, and often, they are hearing things you don’t. They can be valuable sources of information about pastoral care needs, new families, and other circumstances involving church and community life.

Lastly, appreciate your volunteers. No, you don’t have to bring presents to them every week (although good coffee is always appreciated), but you do have to appropriately recognize their value and efforts. Did they go above and beyond? Then, drop them a note. Did they have good day? Be sure to say thanks or give them a quick call later in the day or week…or text them. Anyway, find a way to make sure they know you appreciate them being there.

The church simply can’t function without volunteers. The impact they have on the lives of others can’t be calculated. That’s why selecting, training, and effectively leading your volunteers is the most important job of any ministry. It’s the way the ministry of the church gets multiplied into the rest of the world.