Hopeful Work

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Saturday morning work days at the Garden of H.O.P.E.

The people who populate my daily life know the value of sweaty, physically exhausting work.  They know how to make the most of a non-rainy day.  Their bodies show the years in laugh lines, stooped shoulders, and calloused hands.  Their willingness to work until the job is done is not the exception, it is the rule.

I spend my days as the pastor meant to inspire and encourage people to work on their spiritual lives.  This type of work is not evident in planted or harvested fields.  It is not evident in well cared for livestock.  It is not evident in academic success.  Spiritual work is the type of work evident in gentle hearts, in compassionate hands, and forgiveness that defies logic.  It is the kind of work that rarely has concrete evidence to be admired from the front porch or tractor cab.

The lack of concrete evidence of spiritual work done well makes for long seasons.  Gentle hearts are grown through many seasons of learning what matters most, laugh lines are often the physical evidence of gentle hearts.  Compassionate hands are developed much like calloused hands, through years of giving until it hurts and your body shows the evidence of sacrifice.  The ability to forgive comes because we have failed enough times to know without forgiveness we would be alone in the world.  All of these traits require years of nurturing to grow.

These long seasons can be disheartening, especially when surrounded by fields that are planted and harvested annually.  Unlike sinking your hands into the dirt of a vegetable bed to plant seedlings you will pick for dinner in a few months, the spiritual work a pastor is tasked with rarely bears fruit in that pastor’s tenure.  It is the work of the pastors who came before me bearing fruit as I work alongside the people of this community.  This leads my prayers to be ones of thanksgiving for the faithfulness of those pastors.

Gentle hearts, compassionate hands, and overflowing forgiveness are evidence of the spiritual work being done by the hardworking people I spend my days alongside.  I remain hopeful the spiritual work I am doing here will continue to bear fruit long after I am but a memory to those who will still be making the most of a non-rainy day.  My work is full of hope, the same as the work of those around me each time they plant a field, teach a lesson, care for a patient, or complete a task.  The fruit of our labors may not be evident right away but it will indeed follow us in this life and the next.

Rural Church Pastor

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The sun shining through the windows in the sanctuary.

In March I had the privilege of attending CREDO, which is a week-long event for pastors to reflect on their call to ministry in community with other pastors.  There are a number of areas we are guided to reflect on over the week, one of which is identity.  Over the course of CREDO I found myself using the phrase “rural church pastor” often.  I used it to explain my own identity and to answer questions about why or how life and ministry intersected for me.  My colleagues understood this answer either from firsthand experience as a rural church pastor, or because they have partnered with rural church pastors and heard their stories.

Being a rural church pastor is an all-encompassing life experience (though my experience is solely as a Christian pastor I suspect this is true of clergy from all faith traditions).  There have been many fiction and non-fiction books written about this truth which help to explain the details and share the funny stories.  Though as a rural church pastor I have found the people who usually read those books are rural church pastors so there can be a lack of understanding about this lifestyle in wider clergy circles.  This leads me to share a lot of stories about life as a rural church pastor in group settings with my colleagues who have not been called to this type of setting.  Thankfully my colleagues speak my language and recognize when it is time to laugh even if they have to ask some clarifying questions because they are not entirely sure why that story was funny.

It is easy to share stories of how as a rural church pastor I have helped in all areas of congregational life; it is not easy to explain how congregational life is more than what happens in the building or on Sunday morning.  Congregational life for a rural church pastor is daily life lived in a community that knows you are one of the town’s pastors.  Just as a teacher is always a teacher regardless of the time of year or their retirement status, a pastor is always a pastor.  In a rural setting each person’s life’s work is their identity regardless of the type of work we undertake.

This was an understanding I had to come to as a rural church pastor because I kept thinking there would be an easy division between when I was serving as a pastor and when I was just me, hanging out, doing regular people things.  Thankfully I am surrounded by a community of people who have modeled what it means to be employed doing your life’s work.  Thankfully these people have taught me it is acceptable to answer a question with the statement, “I am a rural church pastor,” because those who know rural life will recognize how encompassing and vital the role of clergy is in the life of a community.

I am a rural church pastor which means some of my stories are about how spectacularly I have failed at adapting to this lifestyle, and some of them are heartwarming stories of being present at holy moments that would have been missed in a more populated environment.  But most days my stories are about living in a community full of unique people who are doing their best to live fully, while remembering what they do uptown will likely be recounted to their grandmother, father, or pastor.

This all-encompassing life has a way of making a person more compassionate and humble and I am thankful that my answer has for so long been, “because I am a rural church pastor.”  I remain hopeful all of the rural clergy of all faith traditions will know their life’s work is changing the world for the better one day, one story, one failure, and one walk uptown at a time.  I am better for my time surrounded by people who have found a way to meld their life’s work, their passion, their faith, and their everyday life together.