November 7, 2014

SPARKS: Moments Of Creation Vol. 7

Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.
-Albert Einstein

What does success mean to you?

What are the perimeters you set for defining how successful you or someone else is? Are they financial? Do you factor in personal character, integrity? What personal and professional marks have to be reached before you can make that call?

When my plans changed as to who my 7th SPARKS Volume would feature my husband said kindly, "If I were successful, I'd do an interview for you sweetie."

My first thought was of his constant willingness to support me in whatever crazy adventure I may cook up. He believes in me. (A lot more than I do most of the time.)

What struck me next and even more powerfully is that he didn't believe that he is a success - a fact that I intend to dispel here and now. My husband is a brilliant man. I often joke that I married him so I could give up thinking and am quick to tell people that when he retires, he's going to become a search engine.

It was obvious to me that he defines (or possibly believes I define) success in terms of dollars and cents. That is not at all the case for me, and I hope it's not for you.

Because November is the season of Thanksgiving, it seems a wonderful time to dedicate my November SPARKS edition to one of the blessings in my life I'm most grateful for. I'd like to introduce you to my husband:


David has spent his life in the ministry as a pastor of several different churches. While he will probably never get rich in this pursuit, I can attest to the wealth of blessings he is and has brought into the lives of so many others.

He's earned quite the reputation - especially for his handling  of weddings and funerals - two crucial crossroads of the human experience. I'm not easily impressed, but the first time I had the opportunity to attend a wedding and funeral that he was officiating, I was blown away at how remarkably different they were from others I'd attended and how much forethought and effort had gone in to making those special moments - well, special.

Enough of my completely unbiased chatter already. I'll let the answers to David's interview tell you the rest.

 What made you decide to become a pastor? 

When I was a teenager I went to a church that really encouraged its teenagers to consider the ministry as a career. We were given the opportunity to preach, lead Bible studies, and take a look at Bible colleges. The minister also always made time to talk to me.
The turning point came when I attended a youth rally and an invitation was given to come forward and make a commitment to the ordained ministry. I had been thinking about it for some time but decided to try something I normally wouldn’t recommend as a way of determining God’s will. I said a prayer and then opened my Bible randomly and put my finger on the page. When I looked I saw that my finger had landed on a passage from Matthew where Jesus is saying, “The fields are white unto harvest, but the laborers are few. Pray, therefore, that the lord of the harvest would send laborers into the field.” I took that as a pretty clear sign and went forward.
So the combination of encouragement, opportunity, and a sense of being called led me into the ministry. That same combination could work for anyone in any profession. Hold something up as a worthy goal, tell people they might be good at it, give them some opportunities to try it out, and then ask for a commitment and you never know what might happen.

You're considered to be an awesome "marrying and burying" pastor. What do you do that makes that true...and why? 

I don’t think what I do at weddings is all that different from other pastors, at least good ones. I try to make it as personal and relaxed as possible and allow the couple to be as creative as they want to be within reason. Having a pretty good sense of humor comes in handy in that regard.

The one thing I do that is distinctive is to go down into the congregation and talk to the family and guests about how they’re not here for a free dinner and drinks. They are a part of this marriage. Their love and support helped get the bride and groom to where they are and that same love and support will help get the couple to where they need to be.

In particular I tell the parents they will have to learn to give the couple some space to make their own decisions and mistakes and yet be willing to step in if and when they see
their son or daughter about to make some truly terrible decision. The analogy I use is when their little one was learning to ride a bike. Good parents let their kids take some falls but they don’t let junior ride out on a busy highway.

I find this little touch gets people’s attention and turns a spectator sport into something a bit more participatory. I actually got the idea decades ago from another pastor but I’ve never seen anyone else do it. The principle here is to make people realize they have a part to play and that relationships are always dependent on more than just two people.

When it comes to funerals I actually do things a bit differently than most other clergy. (A fact that has been brought to my attention by more than one funeral director.)

First, I sit down with the family (and close friends) and have them tell me about the deceased. I start by getting a rough chronological sketch of his or her life. I make sure to get any meaningful names and dates: relatives, schools, places of employment, birthday, anniversary, etc. Then I go back and ask each person to tell me something they remember: a quality, an event, or especially a good story. As they speak, I take notes. This process gives the family the opportunity to gather and really focus on their loved one, which is an aid to healing in itself.

I then take time to read and study the notes until I have what has been said memorized. When it comes time to conduct the funeral service I do the eulogy (sermon) without notes or script, telling the story of the one who has passed and including the names, the dates, and the places that were significant, being as specific as possible. Bob didn’t just get married; he married Betty on June, 24, 1968 at Central Christian Church in Wooster, Ohio. By the time this portion of the eulogy is over everybody there has a pretty good idea of what “Bob” was like and what he did.

I then take a few moments to talk about the “What now?” questions. Where can I find comfort? What can I do to honor his or her memory? I try to give three general suggestions. First there is the comfort found in the gospel. I don’t shove it down people’s throats (I consider such tactics to be the religious equivalent of blackmail: “Accept Christ or you’ll never see grandpa again.”) but I do make it clear that belief in the resurrection of Christ has some obvious relevance at this particular moment.

Second, I tell them to stick together. Share your hurts and your stories. Be there for each other. Don’t be afraid to open up and above all don’t be afraid to cry.  Don’t think you’re ever going to get over this loss. Given a lot of time and love you’ll get through it, but you won’t get over it. Grief is the price we pay for loving deeply.

Lastly, I ask the people to take whatever they found to be the best quality of the deceased and make it their own. Don’t try to ape the individual. Rather express that quality in your own way. A better or more lasting memorial cannot be given.

This process of focusing on the departed and the gathered loved ones actually goes against the grain of what many preachers are taught in school. There the emphasis is all about how this is your chance to preach the gospel, not go over someone’s life. The congregation can get that info from the obituary.

I think this is appallingly bad advice. A human being has died, an individual with a specific name and friends and accomplishments. That life deserves to be remembered, encapsulated, and put before the mourners in such a way as to help them heal. Only in that context does the gospel become relevant. Otherwise it’s just one more sales pitch that nobody asked to hear.

 How has this impacted you over the years? How has it impacted others?

In almost 30 years of ministry I have received countless comments saying that the funeral I had conducted was the most meaningful, best, etc. one that the person speaking to me had ever been to. What they were really saying is that someone had paid attention. Ultimately, I think that is the thing that has had the greatest impact upon others. Somebody listened, somebody took the time to write things down and memorize them. Somebody truly honored my loved one and thereby honored me.

As for me, what better thing to do than to acknowledge in a unique way the passing of a unique life and thereby provide some measure of healing and comfort to those who mourn this loss?

Once again, there are principles at work that go beyond a funeral. Taking the time to be with people, really listening to their stories, showing that you are paying attention, making it clear that the other person matters. When those things are in place then you have earned the right to present whatever ideas you have. Also, give people some space and let them make their own way in life. No person, product, or program can give the answers to all of life’s questions. Unfortunately, religion, politics, and commerce all too often think they can. Big mistake.

One last touch I add at funerals is that towards the end of the service I go and give an individual blessing to each member of the immediate family, something along the lines of know that your dad was and is proud of you or that your wife’s love will always be with you. As I do so, I lay hands on their head and speak in a voice that is loud enough for them to hear but not the rest of the congregation. In other words, it is their blessing.
I got this idea from growing up with a Pentecostal best friend but I have never seen anyone, Pentecostal or otherwise, do it at a funeral. The point here is simply the power of appropriate human contact and a soft, reassuring word.

If you could give advice to someone starting out in the ministry, what would it be and why? 

Four things come to mind:

First, be as sure as you can that is what you feel called to be and do. Ministry can be extremely difficult and there will be times when you will be wondering what you got yourself into. If, however, you can maintain your sense of call then you can most likely find the strength to get through the tough times.

Second, try and get as good a “fit” as you can with your congregation. You can be a tremendously gifted individual with great ideas but if you’re in a church that doesn’t or can’t appreciate and make use of what you have to offer it’s not going to be a happy or fruitful time for either you or the congregation.

Third, learn quickly who the real power brokers in a congregation are. Just because someone is the board chair doesn’t mean they’re in charge. If the true leaders are good ones and you can work with them, you’re in good shape. If they’re not good folks and/or you can’t work with them, then eventually one or the other of you will have to go. Lest this sound too “unministerly” keep in mind that every human organization has a power structure. When that power is used positively, good things happen. When used negatively, bad things happen. When not uses at all, nothing happens. Knowing who has the most influence is important in a church just as it is in a corporation or even your family.

Fourth, pay attention to your finances. I think if I had to do it all over again I would have another profession from which to earn a living. So many problems and bottlenecks arise in churches because the church has to raise the funds to pay its minister and/or because the pastor is dependent upon the congregation for his or her livelihood. What’s more, in today’s world it’s becoming harder and harder for small churches to pay a full-time pastor. By being able to support yourself you will have freedoms and opportunities that more traditional pastors can only dream of having.

Thank you David for sharing your journey with us. I'll leave it to each person to determine their own definition of success, but in my book, you're extremely successful, not only in your profession but in your relationships as well.

David Stout has won numerous academic awards, writes a column for the religion section of the local newspaper and is a sought after presenter. He is currently the pastor at Riverview Park Christian Church in St. Joseph  Michigan and can be reached at: or 269-429-0700

No comments:

Post a Comment