An Ode For October’s End

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October is such a regal month, its golden leaves the color of kings, its early snow crowning the mountain tops with glory.

His sports are festivities for royal olympiads, the days beginning with chilly morning country races, giving way to sun warmed football fights and finishing with a cold evening’s sacred baseball.

His dark, declining days lend themselves to the strategizing of kings who take the candle lit evenings to debate with friends and foes about the items of diplomacy and economy.

October’s apples, too, are fruit fit for throne rooms, jonagolds the jesters, honeycrisps the princes and pink ladies for princesses, of course.  They are surrounded by Braeburns, Jonathans, Ambrosia ‘s and Idared’s, willing and suitable servants and advisers.

Pumpkins too are for royals feasts along with all the other squash kinds.  They are the produce of the domain, a splendor even before consumed, their yield bountiful enough to feed armies.

But October the King’s crown jewel, his reigning attribute, his most prized accomplishment is November, his queen.

There she sits by him, teasing the Pink Lady and smiling at her Honeycrisp as she enjoys the splendor of festivities, rolling her eyes at the advice and aid of His Majesty’s Royal braeburns while feasting on the prized squash.

The air about her is more delicate and deliberative.  Her darker days increase her stature and her more constant chill lends herself to those in aid.  She exudes more grace and gratitude as her train gives way to holy-days.

The King is dead, long live the Queen!

What’s Coach Kevin Reading: Ole’ McDonnell Had A Track Team N-C-A-A-A!

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This was the first week of Cross Country practice meaning I had to become “Coach” again.  A few weeks ago I wrote about the blessings and frustrations of being bi-vocational but in those posts I did not have the opportunity to delve into the tension of being a leader in two very diverse settings.

There are a lot of people who would look to the world of athletics to find meaningful metaphors for a pastor’s role.  I personally know several pastors who call themselves “coach” as an attempt to be hip and relevant.  And I like the coach metaphor to describe some of what a pastor should be but the metaphor breaks down at the point of the sacraments because a clergy’s primary responsibility is to provide the sacraments and there is no room in a “coaching” model to account for it.

You can buy the book here.

With that said, there is much to be gained in pastoral leadership by looking to some of the great coaches and this week my college coach recommended I read the biography of John McDonnell, who is considered the Greatest NCAA Track and Field coach of all time.  He was born in Ireland and had a mildly successful racing career before becoming a part time assistant Track coach at University of Arkansas where he was later promoted to Head Coach.  He built a strong team by recruiting foreign talent and built on his early success to recruit some of the best athletes in the country.  He ended up winning 42 National Championships, with 5 National Triple Crowns (which means winning Nationals in XC, Indoor and Outdoor Track in 1 year) and he coached several National, World and Olympic champions.  (You can read the rest of his accomplishments at his Wikipedia page here).

A lot of McDonnell’s success came from the providence of his connections, personality and that ambiguous trait we call “calling.”  But the thing that impressed me the most about McDonnell, other than his work ethic, was his ability to coach individuals into a team.  Almost every athlete quoted by the book remarked about McDonnell’s skill in convincing over sized egos to work for the team.

It is quite the accomplishment because Track and Field is a highly individualized sport.  Many coaches, even successful ones, fall into the trap of coaching individuals and forgetting about building a team dynamic.  However, McDonnell’s philosophy was that the individuals who work for a team will do better than those who work for themselves.  And, of course, a team full of teammates will go places no other individual has gone.  (My last Track season proved the inverse of that point, unfortunately.)

But coaching the team did not mean McDonnell neglected the individuals.  Although McDonnell was a distance man through and through, his office door was always open for private conversations with jumpers, throwers and sprinters.  He met one on one with every athlete, giving them the attention they needed and deserved.  But when he met with individuals, his goal was to build a better teammate, not a bigger ego.  And the results speak for themselves.

Although I read about McDonnell in order to be a better coach, I think it might make me a better pastor too.  The sad reality of our time is “religion” has become an individual sport.  People use the phrase, “my own personal relationship with Jesus” as an excuse to make up their own gods and rules to live by.  As in Track, to even suggest that “religion” might be a team sport earns you derision and mocking laughter.  The laughter gets worse if you work the word “church” in there.  But the reality is the best teammates make the best Christians and the worst Christians are the lone ranger types who go it alone.

It is a hard reality to face as a pastor, especially one as inclusive and community oriented as I am.  But this week McDonnell reminded me that in such a world you must not neglect the individuals.  In fact, the context means you have to pastor down to that level and meet individuals where they are at, even if that means facing their made up gods.  You have to meet one on one with them, listen to them and support them (even if the stuff they believe is the weirdest stuff you ever heard).  

But the goal of individualized pastoral attention should not be to build a better lone ranger Christian but to mentor a better teammate, someone who will look to another’s interests before their own, whose attitude will be the same as that of Jesus who emptied himself of all but love and became poor that others might become rich.  If I may say it another way, a pastor should not be about helping someone get along with their own personal god better.  Instead we should help them love their neighbor.  When they accomplish that they will probably find their personal relationship with the one, true God has improved drastically, just as when a Track star gains points for the team, he or she finds they ran 10 times faster than they would have if they were out for themselves.

It is a rather difficult thing to do, what with all the egos running amok in the church and on the Track but I am confident the better a pastor/coach gets at it, the more Christlike we will all become.

Frustrations of a 30YR Old/Millenial Pastor/Coach Stay At Home/Work Dad

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This is part 2 of a post about being a bivocational pastor in a small rural town.  To catch part one click here.

Right at the end of the Track season a lady in our church had her leg amputated at a hospital 2 hours away.  It would have been a 6 hour round trip to get to her and the family was adamant I be there.  Every fiber in my being wanted to go.  However, I couldn’t find 6 hours of free time.  It killed me.  I felt horrible.  In the end some dear saints from our church made the drive to be with her and all was well.  But this story perfectly sums up the frustrations and challenges of my current life.

Most pastors struggle with feelings of inadequacy but us bi-vocational pastors feel super inadequate.  There are frustrations and limitations all around and jobs left half done.  But as I have sought to be as faithful as possible to my calling, I have found each frustration is also an opportunity.  That is the case in the following 5 areas.

Frustration 1: The absolute absence of an 8-5 workday.  Most pastors didn’t do 8-5 when the professional clergy model was popular but there were days when they could pull it off.  There are never days that I could do it.  Track practice starts at 3 everyday.  Fridays are reserved for Track Meets.  The church regularly schedules events on Saturdays and Sundays are, well, Sundays.  During the afternoons my kids need naps and I badly need them to take those naps so I have to be at home for 2 hours while they sleep.  Weeknights are filled with events at the school, in the community or meetings at the church.  I desperately want an 8-5 workday.  I would love it but it is impossible.

The Opportunity: The absence of a “workday” or “workweek” has forced me to rethink a clergy’s job description.  I think one of the weaknesses of the professional clergy model was that it segmented the vocation of the clergy into work time and off time.  I still guard my Sabbath days and I take vacations but they are not “off the clock” times.  The Sabbath days and vacations are every bit a part of my job description as is preaching on Sunday morning.  I am still every bit as much a pastor when I am home reading a book or while I am coaching Cross Country or attending a city council meeting.

Put more practically, the absence of a “workday” means I spend less time worrying about how many hours I “ministered” and focus more on making every moment count for my calling.  The upside of this is I don’t feel guilty (or I shouldn’t) when I don’t “work” 40 hours in one week.  The downside is that I have to think about how I spend even my free time and I definitely have to constantly be asking myself how I am fulfilling my calling at any given moment.

Frustration 2: Pastoral calling suffers.  I think pastoral calling is important but I can’t find time to do it. especially when I am coaching and definitely now that I have 2 kids.  Carting one kid around is difficult enough but taking 2 is near impossible.  My daughter goes to daycare at least once a week and I try to cram as many homes in as possible during that day but more often than not something else comes up and I have to put that person’s house on the list for next week.

The Opportunity:  I think as creatively as possible when it comes to connecting with people.  I send emails, write cards, make phone calls and attend evening community events that I know church people are going too.  I have had meetings in my living room while the kids were sleeping.  And I keep regular office hours every morning so my kids can play in the next room or on the floor of my office while I meet with people.  And usually when someone is the hospital I can find a way to get there if I work hard enough at it.

Frustration #3:  I have no real social life.  Let’s face it, there are not many social events in a small town for a young person.  Everything closes by 8pm and the nearest movie theater, Starbucks and upscale restaurants are a half hour away.  Also, having a master’s degree makes me different from most people my age in town.  In fact my closest friend is 60 miles away and the next ones after that are 170 miles away.

Opportunity:  I am not sure if there is an opportunity here other than taking advantage of clergy conferences, making the 60 mile drive to see my friend at least once a month (some months he comes here) and using Facebook, Twitter, email etc. to stay in touch with as many friends as possible.  I also invite friends to come visit me in my town but few take me up on that offer.

Frustration #4: Student loans.  You read it right yesterday, I pay $500/mo in student loans.  Yes that is overpaying by a few hundred dollars but that over-payment is so worth it, it is almost necessary.

Opportunity: Live by faith and hope.  The reality is I am lucky to be able to overpay them and though I hate sending that money off, I do it knowing that the debt was worthwhile because without it, I wouldn’t have the life I have.  My education was invaluable and it has helped me more than I ever could have known.  Still, I hate those dumb payments.

Frustration #5: Exhausted Sunday mornings.  I know every pastor deals with those Sundays out of the year where they have zero energy but I have more of them.  They increase during the sports’ seasons where many meets happen on Saturdays.  The next day it is everything I can do to get out of bed, go to church, smile at people and give an energized sermon.

Opportunity: God is never exhausted.  I am incredibly inadequate and very limited.  But the one who called me is not.  Even on the Sundays when I have no energy, God is still fully present.  Even on those Sundays when the congregation is half asleep and I have a pillow under the pulpit for when that last person nods off, God is still fully active in our lives and in the world.  My low energy Sundays remind me of that truth.

Therefore, I would actually count these frustrations as blessings because they remind me that the fate of the world (and the church) do not rest on my shoulders.  Instead, I am called to be as faithful as I can be with the details of my situation.  I seek to use every moment to plant tiny, little Kingdom seeds, resting in the hope that God will make them grow.  And certainly God has and does and will continue too.