Not Much of a Pastor

This week I’m not going to be much of a Pastor.

In the wee hours of this Monday morning my wife got a phone call from a Hospice nurse, telling her that her dad died overnight.  

We had not really anticipated this phone call last night, although we knew it was probably coming.  My wife’s elderly father’s health had been declining over the last several years, and for almost two years he was in a Hospice program.  So we should have known this phone call was coming, but still . . .

One of my wife’s vocations was as a Registered Nurse, so she had many years of experience making these kinds of phone calls to other families, or at least observing them.  She was familiar with the Hospice ministry, and with their usual protocols; we had worked through them several years ago when her mom died.  When the nurse called yesterday morning to tell her that maybe Dad was in the so-called “transition” period that would ultimately lead to the “actively dying” time, nobody expected that these periods would be so quick and so close together.  My wife spent the afternoon with her sister in their dad’s room, and left making plans for coming back to see him again today – but that didn’t happen.

Instead, she and I spent a couple hours this morning trying to wrap our heads around the fact that he has actually died, and trying to figure out what needs to be done next – and then next – and then next.  We both realize that it will be a chaotic week for everyone in the family.  Eventually, she settled in to a morning of phone calls and monthly bill paying (so that wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle) while I headed to the church office to get as much done as possible this morning so I wouldn’t have it hanging over my head later in the week.

I should tell you that my father-in-law was living in a facility less than an hour from us, so my wife has seen him weekly as much as possible as the COVID pandemic has seemed to wane; but although she had his “medical power of attorney” she did not go there in her vocation as a nurse, but as his daughter.  And that’s her vocation today, and the days to come.

And today, when I’m through at the church office, when I turn off the lights and lock the door behind me, I will leave my vocation of pastor behind for several days and take up the vocations of husband, and son-in-law, and brother-in-law, and father and grandfather.  I will help wherever I can, with whomever I can; but I won’t do the funeral service (and I probably won’t even “get up and say a few words” about my father-in-law).  Because that’s the way it’s always been for me.  I didn’t do the funeral services when my mother-in-law died, or when either my mother or my father died, just like I didn’t do the wedding services when each of our children were married – for them, I was “the dad,” not the pastor; for the funerals, I’ve been “the son” or “the son-in-law” or “the brother” not the pastor.  

And it wasn’t that I couldn’t do the job well – I think I could.  And it wasn’t that I was afraid I’d choke up during the service – I’ve choked up doing services for other people.  There were other reasons, and still are:

First, my parents and in-laws were all wonderful, faithful, long-time members of their own churches, not the one I serve.  To put it another way, I never was their pastor.  They all knew several good pastors over the years of their involvement with their congregations, and when each of my parents died those pastors performed those funerals admirably.  In fact, my dad died the week after a new pastor was installed at his church, and that pastor conducted dad’s funeral along with another pastor who had ministered to Dad in his last year of life – Dad wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, because he had waited for almost two years for that new pastor to come to their church!  When my mother-in-law died some years ago, I told my wife that I didn’t want to do her funeral; so the family asked my wife’s cousin, another fine pastor, to do it instead, and he was terrific!

This week I’m thinking that this pattern may be an unexpressed trusting of the Holy Spirit on my part.  We Christians believe and teach and confess that it’s the Holy Spirit who calls and gathers the whole Christian church on earth, and each group of Christians in their congregations.  We believe that it’s the Holy Spirit who calls each pastor to serve these congregations.  Since that’s the case, and since I know that the Holy Spirit has called me to serve as pastor to the specific congregation and location where I’m serving, I also believe that He has NOT currently called me to serve as the pastor somewhere else, at the same time.  That doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally preach and lead worship services somewhere else, but that’s always by invitation from the people involved.  My vocation as a Christian son or son-in-law at the time of a parent’s death has been to trust that the man who has done their funerals has been the one the Holy Spirit has called to be their pastor, whether he’s known them for a decade or for a week.

But there’s one more thing.  I also have a vocation to be the husband of my wife.  We were married for five years before I became a pastor, but for more than thirty years she’s been a single woman in the pews in church.  Sunday after Sunday she’s sat in worship services without her husband next to her, because I’ve been in the pulpit.  She’s even one of those “single church-moms” that got the kids up every Sunday morning by herself, got them fed and dressed by herself, marched them to church by herself, and wrangled them in the pew from the time they were infants until they went off to college, all by herself, while I’ve been in the pulpit.  Sometimes there’s been some tension about that, and sometimes she’s been okay with it all.  But in a week like this week what she needs from me is not a pastor, but a husband.  Other people are around to pray for us, minister to us, conduct the funeral for us; but today, this week, I’m the one who is the “helper suitable for her,” just as she is “suitable for me.”

So when I’m done writing this, I’ll post it and then move on to something else I need to do while I’m still in the office, so that this afternoon I can go and be the husband, leaving the pastor behind for another day.

God bless us everyone.

Another Side of the Table (Introduction)

I’ve decided to start a new series in The Basin and Towel Podcast.  This is not a new direction for this podcast, just an occasional side trip into a new area that has come into my personal life.  This current episode is the introduction for this series, and a sketch of some possible future episodes.  I’m calling it “Another Side of the Table” because for over forty years I have been the pastor to I don’t know how many people with some kind of cancer diagnosis:

  • I’ve sat by their bedsides in hospitals and nursing homes, in their personal homes and in hospice facilities
  • I’ve walked with cancer survivors in Relays for Life
  • I’ve listened to the worries and concerns and distresses of their families 
  • I’ve struggled with how to pray on any particular day with a person who clearly has a terminal diagnosis
  • I’ve tried to help families to find a balance between grief and relief when their loved one ultimately dies
    • and there’s probably a lot more, that I’ll think about later

Recently my mom Carolyn was diagnosed with Stage 4 Pancreatic cancer.  Before I delve into that in a little more detail, I’m here to tell you that one effect of that diagnosis has been to put me on another side of the table than the one I’ve been on before – with this one, I’ve been moved from the “pastor’s side” to the “family’s side” of the cancer conversation, and already I’m forced to look at this entire process from this different perspective.  That’s what I’m hoping these podcast posts will help me do – think through this new perspective myself, and maybe give you who are in ministry a few insights that maybe you’ve never thought of before.

I should tell you to start with that my dad Jerry married Carolyn a couple years after my mom Janet died in 2001.  Janet was the mom who gave birth for me, and the only mom I had for my entire life up to that point.  She had had MS for a number of years, and even though her health was declining I don’t think any of us (kids, anyway) imagined her death.  It came after a short hospitalization, so we were a little unprepared – but we managed somehow.  What I do fondly remember about that time was the number of people who came to the funeral home and the funeral service out of love for her and for me – particularly those who came from the church I’ve been serving and from other people I’ve met in ministry here.  The memory of their presence has continued to be a comforting place in my heart ever since.

A couple years later my dad told me he and Carolyn were seeing one another.  I couldn’t be more happy for them, for a couple of reasons:

  1. Our family has known Carolyn since the time we moved from Cleveland to Parma and joined Calvary Lutheran Church there.  She was the organist there, and so we’d known her for decades since then as a wonderful person.
  2. One of the older gentlemen here in Lodi told me that he had married his second wife after he was widowed because people just didn’t understand how lonely he was, and I told my dad that I didn’t want that for him if he didn’t want it either.

So Dad and Carolyn got married, and they were pretty happy about it for over 15 years.  

Since they married I’ve always referred to Carolyn as “Carolyn,” because that’s how we always knew her; and sometimes as “my stepmom Carolyn” because that’s technically correct.  To tell you the truth, though, from the time she married my dad I always really thought of her as “my mom”, and so eventually I’ve been referring to her that way in conversations.  She has always called me “her son” – not “stepson,” so I guess the feeling is mutual.

Then Dad’s health began to decline (he was about 95 when he died a couple years ago), and although we did not expect his death we weren’t all that surprised either.  Again, the memory of the presence of family and friends, church members, and other pastors at his funeral is still a comfort to me.

Now, as I said, Carolyn has been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.  She took the news pretty well and has dealing with it pretty well (in my presence, at least).  She’s said that she watched both her parents die at younger ages than she is now (she’s 86 years old), so she pretty quickly decided what she does and does not want to do – she doesn’t want any surgery, chemotherapy, or other kind of treatment; she just wants to know that she has time to get all her “affairs in order,” as they say.  She’s in the first few weeks after the diagnosis, so she’s not having much pain or discomfort and can be fairly upbeat about life in general (although it’s obvious from the way she talks that she’s also conscious about her apparent time limitation).  She has lots of friends and acquaintances that drop in, call, take her out to eat, and offer to do things for her – that’s a bit overwhelming for her at times, but she’s learning how to handle it.

Me?  Well, I’m her son.  I’m also the one who lives nearest to her (about 45 minutes away – my brother and sister live several hours away by car).  So I’ve always been the one for both her and dad that was listed as having “power of attorney for health care.”  For both of us right now, that means she’s glad to have me with her at doctor’s appointments so there are two sets of ears to listen, two mouths to ask questions, and one another to bounce ideas back and forth.  For my part, I’m trying to maintain a “non-anxious presence” for her in the swirl of activities, decisions, and advice from others.  

Today I realize that my “non-anxious presence” posture for her seems to be working for me as well.  I’m determined to hear what she has to say, as well as what the doctors have to say, so that I can keep a pretty good handle on what she wants as time goes on.  That’s not only so I’m equipped to make appropriate medical decisions if that time comes, but so that she’s confident that she has an ally in her corner all the time.  Most days I can do this pretty well; sometimes, when I’m by myself, there are tears or sniffles or a catch in the throat.  

I used to think (and I think I was this way when my mom Janet died, and even my dad), that this is my natural “Elder Brother” in action (for years I’ve resonated with Henri Nouwen’s description of the “responsible” Elder Brother in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son).  I still do think that way, to a certain extent.  But Nouwen also describes the Welcoming Father as the one who has his arms outstretched in love, waiting to welcome all his children home without asking them any questions about where they’ve been or why.  For a number of years I’ve used that image as the model for my own pastoral practice; today I’m wondering if it’s possible to assume the posture of the Welcoming Father to my mom Carolyn as she nears the end of her days on earth.  How can a responsible son be a welcoming father to the same person at the same time?  I have no answers to that today, but I’ll let you know if and when they come.

Meanwhile, I’m thinking that in future episodes of Another Side of the Table I’ll want to reflect on 

  • Caring Friends (phone call from John Milligan, etc.) / “Father Confessors”?
  • Different kinds of helpers
  • Sadness, and determination
  • Responsibilities
  • Resources

To Stream or Not to Stream?

Not long ago I was in a conversation with several other pastors that revolved around the question “What are you going to do with your livestream now that we seem to be coming out of the pandemic?”  Some were very sure about what they were going to do, and why; others, not so much.  I’m going to try to summarize several of them in this episode – maybe they’ll give you something to think about.

  1. “Don’t have a livestream at all / don’t do the technology”
  2. “Discontinue the livestream”
    1. Don’t need it any more
    2. Most people are coming back to church anyway
    3. Lots of issues or complaints about the technology
  3. “Continue the livestream, but modify the delivery platform”
    1. Many people are coming back to church anyway
    2. Some people benefit from it (shut-ins, homebound)
    3. Some able-bodied people “take advantage of it” by choosing to watch from home rather than come to church
    4. A possible modification – move from an open platform like Facebook or YouTube to a “subscription” delivery platform; for example, livestream the worship on ZOOM and only give the ZOOM link to people known to be shut-ins, home-bound, or people recuperating at home (while refusing to give the ZOOM link to suspected “worship malingerers”)
  4. “Continue the livestream (with our without “tweaks”)”
    1. Continue it as is
    2. Tweak the stream to add announcement cards, introductions, etc., or other technology
    3. Reasons
      1. Area shut-ins / home bound / elderly
      2. Members / others who are temporarily sick (rehabbing from surgery, chemo at home, etc.)
      3. Some are still extremely cautious or downright frightened to be out and about
      4. Some folks with special needs (Autism spectrum, sensory processing difficulties, or just too sensitive to loud noises or bright lights) whose worship at home gives them the ability to turn down the volume or lighting to comfortable levels
      5. People living out of the area / out of state / even out of the country!
  5. My approach – continue to livestream as it is

Behind the Veil (or Collar)

Now that autumn is upon us, maybe you’re geared up for the beginning of the new television season.  Major networks are running the season-opening episodes for popular returning shows, and introducing new hopefuls to the lineup.  The same is probably happening on subscription services, although it’s hard to tell with some of them whether they even think about “seasons” or not.  

Among all the programming to get excited about right now is the beginning of season 10 of a Public Television Show that my wife and I have been watching for several years – “Call the Midwife.”  If you’re not familiar with this show, let me take a minute to describe it for you.

“Call the Midwife” is set in London’s East End neighborhood called Poplar, in the 1960’s.  Poplar is a diverse neighborhood of mostly manual laborers and their families struggling to exist in a changing cultural environment.  The geographic focal point of the series is Nonnatus House, named for Saint Raymond Nonnatus, the patron saint of childbirth, midwives, children, and pregnant women.  Some of the residents of Nonnatus House are Anglican nuns, while others are (non-religious) nurses; all of them are trained midwives.  The episodes deal with prenatal care, childbirth, the ministry of midwives, and a variety of social issues and problems that were widespread on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1960’s – all of which are very intriguing to my wife, a registered nurse by profession.

I confess that these stories have hooked and reeled me in, too; but there’s another aspect to this series that is worth looking into for pastors – many of the episodes interweave religious and theological conversations that are well-written, thoughtful, and engaging.  For example, in the first episode of Season 10, the most elderly of the nuns, Sister Monica Joan, is grudgingly recuperating from a broken leg and bemoaning the difficulties associated with her advancing age.  In one scene she sits on a garden bench while Fred Buckle, a gentle and kind older-middle-aged man who does maintenance at Nonnatus House, sits on another bench and listens to her talk about her current afflictions.  Let me read this conversation for you

Sister Monica Joan says, “It is not my body that has failed, it is my faith.  I perhaps took too much pride in my powers of concealment.  Religious vows are not called “taking the veil” merely because of our attire.  We are trained to hide so many things from others: fear, loneliness, doubt. The less we speak of our faults to others, the more they roar in our own ears – our flaws are a work in progress between ourselves and God.”  

Fred says, “He’s never let you down, though, has He?  It’s always looked to me as if you and Him were right old pals.”

She says, “You seek to simplify the matter.” Fred says, “Well, I could try to complicate it but I don’t think it would help.”  

She says, “In the religious life we speak of an extended period of doubt as a Dark Night of the Soul.  There is no light anywhere, and the very act of seeking it, of seeking HIm, only emphasizes the void.  You are to tell no one; only God can help me, and if He does not exist, then my life has been wasted.”

Those last few sentences contain a very clear and concise explanation of the spiritual phenomenon, the Dark Night of the Soul, of which perhaps you may have heard.  Unfortunately, in current parlance the Dark Night of the Soul is often connected to and confused with depression, but Sister Monica Joan’s comments make it clear that they are two different things:  The Dark Night of the Soul is a season of crisis in spiritual health, whereas depression is a season of crisis in mental health.  But that’s not the only comment that piqued my interest.

In this short scene I heard an echo of a conversation I had a number of years ago with one of our younger church members who wanted to interview me about my life and work as a pastor for a college class project.  I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I do remember that the title of her eventual essay was “Always in the Collar.”  If you’re a pastor, you kind of have an idea of where that article went.

Whether you wear a clerical collar or not, “Pastor” in quotes is not just a job or a career or a uniform – for many of us, it’s a calling.  We may find it hard not to act like a pastor, except perhaps when we’re tucked away behind the locked doors and closed curtains of our own homes.  We seem always to be ready to spring into action as pastors, to accept the request to be pastoral whenever it may come.  I’ve heard that it was Stanley Hauerwas who said that a pastor is “a quivering mass of availability,” and there’s some truth to that.  How well I remember the pastor of the church I grew up in coming out of his office to pitch the kickball to us at Vacation Bible School – dressed in his standard short-sleeved white dress shirt, dark tie, and dark slacks!  It was even rumored that he wore that same outfit to chang the oil in his car.  Our pastoral identity is further emphasized when people refer to us as “Pastor” instead of “Mister” or even instead of our first names (and now, think of all the children in your Sunday School – or maybe even adults – who believe that “Pastor” really is your first name!).

Counselors are taught that one of the keys to effective counseling is to maintain a balance between being too empathetic with a client and being too stand-offish.  Previous generations of pastors were taught in various ways to maintain something like this “therapeutic distance” between themselves and the parishioners they served.  Some were told they shouldn’t make friends at all with their people; this led some pastors to find their closest friendships with other pastors, or people in a completely different community.  Pastors were cautioned not to get too friendly with certain congregation members, so the rest wouldn’t feel slighted.  Pastors were cautioned not to drink alcohol with members, or to vacation with them, or to share hobbies with them (with the possible exceptions of the church bowling team or softball team). 

In one respect, the “therapeutic distance” can be a good antidote to the pastor’s need to be “a quivering mass of availability,” especially in relating to needy or clingy parishioners; in other respects, though, the “therapeutic distance” functions more like Sister Monica Joan’s veil – it can result in the pastor hiding so many of the same things from others: fear, loneliness, doubt.

You may recall that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai, he felt compelled to cover his face with a veil.  He did this because the people were too frightened of the glory he had soaked up from being in the presence of God.  If a pastor thinks he wears the collar to hide the glory that he’s soaked up from being in God’s presence like Moses, he’s got the wrong idea.  If a pastor thinks he should hide his fears and loneliness and doubts behind the collar like Sister Monica Joan’s veil, he’s also got the wrong idea.  The collar is not a veil, something we can hide behind.  The collar is an indicator of our calling as forgiven sinnners proclaiming the forgiveness of Jesus to others who need that assurance week after week.

In many churches, the worship service begins with a “corporate confession and absolution.”  The congregation gathers, and they all say (as individuals) something like “O almighty God, merciful Father, I confess unto You all my sins and inquities, with which I have ever offended You.”  In theory, the pastor joins in that confession as well.  He’s not saying to God “Here are a bunch of miserable sinners for you to forgive – and thank God I’m not one of them”; Saint Paul might have said it this way (thinking of I Timothy 1:15) “Here are a bunch of miserable sinners for You to forgive – and I’m here at the head of the line.” 

These days we think it can sometimes be appropriate for a pastor to drop hints about their “humanity” or their “sinfulness” from the pulpit – we think it can sometimes be helpful to describe with generalities a situation where the pastor has messed up, but God has given grace – we think it may be reassuring to the congregation to know that the pastor does in fact understand the temptations and sins that beset other human beings.  We sometimes call that “openness” and “transparency” – but we (appropriately enough) don’t want to be so transparent that our hearers become offended and turn away from the Gospel because of something that we say, or the way we say it.  Still, even Sister Monica Joan felt the need to pull aside the veil for a moment or two to reveal to Fred Buckle what was underneath – and maybe surprisingly, she found Fred to be a sympathetic and kind companion for that moment.

Maybe those of us who wear the collar – no, maybe those of us who have a tendency to hide behind the collar or the title – would find that if we pull it aside for a moment to share our fears, our doubts, our loneliness with some gentle, kind and trusted companion – even one or more of the people we are called to serve with the Gospel – we might actually find consolation and understanding in such a surprising friendship.


Here’s a link to the episode of Call the Midwife in this post (the conversation between Sister Monica Joan and Fred Buckle comes at around 49:00):

Suicide Prevention Resources for Pastors

You may or may not know that September is Suicide Prevention month, so I want to suggest to you some good resources that may help if you consider addressing this issue from the pulpit, in Bible class, or in your newsletter.  By the way, before I start I should mention that neither I, the Basin and Towel podcast, nor Christ the King Lutheran Church have received any consideration or remuneration, financial or otherwise, from anyone regarding these recommendations and suggestions.

  1. The first set of resources comes from The Lutheran Foundation of Fort Wayne.  This is a great enterprise that is doing a lot to address mental health and illness in northeast Indiana, from a pastoral and theological perspective.  They’ve sponsored a couple of terrific conferences, and offered some good continuing education modules with excellent speakers. In cooperation with the website they offer these excellent resources (there are links to each of these resources in the show notes):
  1. The second link I just mentioned is a webinar recording by Dr. Karen Mason of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, who has also written an excellent book titled “Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains and Pastoral Counselors” (you can order it on Amazon HERE>>).  In this book Dr Mason talks about suicide myths and realities, suicide and Christian theology, current theories of suicide, and how a pastor and church can help people in crisis, survivors. helpers, and the whole Christian community.
  2. Karen Mason has a second book (with Scott M. Gibson) titled “Preaching Hope in Darkness: Help for Pastors in Addressing Suicide from the Pulpit” (HERE>> is the Amazon order link).  This one contains sermons, examples, liturgies, and more.
  3. There will be a FREE online Clinician’s Suicide Prevention Summit on September 9- and 10, 2021.  HERE>> is the page that describes the event.  It’s being offered for FREE by an organization that offers a lot of Continuing Education events for clinicians, social workers, etc.  The FREE Registration (do you get the idea that it’s FREE?) gives you access to the live webinars, plus later access to the recorded talks, power points, etc. for another 30 days.  I’ve attended several events from this group, and found them interesting, informative, and helpful.  Note: these presentations are from and geared to professional, licensed clinicians in mental health, social work, and other non-theological areas, so you’ll have to supply your own theological / pastoral understanding.  Nevertheless, the presentations should help you to get some grasp on current clinical theory regarding suicide causes and prevention.