Wisdom at Work

Carpentry is a spiritual discipline to me, in a manner of speaking. As someone who spends most of his professional life planting invisible seeds and nurturing spiritual saplings—how can you possibly speak of ministry without such metaphors?—it’s a welcome relief to work on a project with fixed parameters.

Start with a pile of boards. Cut and sand and affix the boards in a certain

Denise tries out the bench we built this weekend.

Denise tries out the bench we built this weekend.

configuration. Once that configuration matches the intended result, call it finished and read a book.

That, at least, is the theory.

The practical reality is that carpentry is also a spiritual discipline because of how frustrating it can be. I hit my thumb flush with a hammer this morning. Thirty minutes later, I stripped out a bolt that was absolutely essential. When we finally folded up our project, we discovered an error in measurement that required one section to be reassembled, I found myself grateful to my mother, from whom I learned patience, and my grandfather, from whom I collected my entire vocabulary of swear words.

This particular project required a hefty dose of both patience and profanity. We were building a picnic table that folds into a bench. It is a simple yet elegant design, but as such requires that everything fit together just so.

When it doesn’t, you have to fix it. Which means you have to know what to fix.

That sounds simple enough. But anyone who has ever had trouble with a car or an appliance or a computer knows that it isn’t. When something isn’t working, and you can’t see why, there’s little to do but throw up your hands, or perhaps wave a wand. Sometimes, you get magic. More often, you don’t.

Better to recognize where you are and decide what to do. And as you gather experience, both the recognition and the path ahead come a little easier. Experience, it seems, is indispensible to wisdom.

As I ease into my middle years of adulthood, I find this lesson applicable in virtually any circumstance—writing, marriage, campus ministry, parenting. It’s applicable in the extreme to church work, even though that vocation requires even more deep breaths and often stretches my carpentry vocabulary.

This is part of why I love campus ministry. Much of my work centers around seeing things clearly on behalf of my students, who are facing a host of grown-up challenges for the first time. I may not say out loud that I’ve been there—that’s a sure way to get eyes rolled at you—but the fact is that I have. Thanks to years of paying attention and to the love poured into me by my own mentors, I can recognize a lot of breakdowns. And I can often make a guess how to fix them.

For this weekend’s project, the culprit was a horizontal support. The plans call for it to be about a half inch too long, which keeps the whole apparatus from folding up correctly. On the first build, I spent an entire day looking for the source of the trouble. Today, I knew immediately what had happened. Half an hour later, problem solved.

With a few adjustments, the bench folded out into a table, just as it was designed. A little experience made this a quick fix.

With a few adjustments, the bench folded out into a table, just as it was designed. A little experience made this a quick fix.

Most obstacles aren’t that easy. But the older I get, the more I learn. Obstacles will always be there, of course. It’s just, with some experience, it’s a little easier to find my own way forward.


Arrived but Not Landed

So Major Life Decision has morphed into Major Life Event. We are no longer leaving Arkansas. We are no longer moving to South Dakota. Both are accomplished facts, no longer part of our planning, now part of our history.

All quiet on campus for now. Great time to be reflective!

All quiet on campus for now. Great time to be reflective!

Now what?

I’m asking that question a lot in these first few days at my new appointment. DWU in July is quiet, to say the least. I’m reading through files and filling out forms and trying to learn the names of the buildings and the offices on campus. But that only fills up so much of the day. Ministry to me is always about people, not programming. No matter how much I plan, I still have to wait on students to arrive on campus before I can truly get to work on that part of my job.

I imagine this is at least somewhat true for my colleagues who pastor local churches. Those who moved this year began their ministries in their new settings in June or July, when church attendance is usually at its lowest. It’s almost impossible to get a true picture of congregational life in the summer, and those who try end up with a skewed understanding of what (and who) a church really is.

Maintaining perspective is one of the most important disciplines for those of us in new settings. We have lived in chaos for weeks in anticipation of the move. The temptation is to rush toward stability, to jump right in and declare ourselves landed.

But that approach only considers our need for order, not our duty to learn and love a new congregation. When the flight is turbulent, the ground looks awfully inviting. But the end result is good only if we have the discipline to grab the parachute first.

A new job—pastoral or otherwise—requires some floating. The first few weeks offer us a unique perspective from which to survey the terrain and decide where we will land.

So I’ve arrived at DWU, but I haven’t really landed yet. I’m floating toward stability and trying to not get in a hurry, trusting that solid ground will be here soon enough.

Wishing for Work

I like work.

I am almost certainly naïve, but I don’t think I’m alone in this. In fact, I think almost anyone who love his (or her) job and does it well likes to work.

I’ll go a step further. I like to watch other people work too—not in some sort of taunting, glad-that’s-not-me sense, but in a sense of admiration. It’s a fascinating thing to help my brother in his shop, given his ingenious (if sometimes unorthodox) solutions for how to get his tasks just perfect. I love watching Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha pitch. I love listening to Buster Olney talk about baseball. When someone cares about what they do, I almost can’t help but watch, regardless of what tax bracket they occupy.

Michael Wacha became a star last year in St. Louis, but I got to see him play in Memphis. Obvious how much he loves his work.

Michael Wacha became a star last year in St. Louis, but I got to see him play in Memphis. Obvious how much he loves his work.

Sadly, I don’t hear this same kind of joy in their work among clergy very often. In fact, several friends and colleagues posted an article on social media this week that names “clergyperson” as the fifth most stressful job in the country. I believe that’s probably true. But it leads me to other, more somber musings as well.

Before I go any further, let me say one thing clearly: I do not blame most of my colleagues for the stressfulness of our occupation. True, most of us could stand to take care of ourselves better both mentally and physically. Also true that, as a group, we have a psychological profile that lends itself to overwork and sensitivity to criticism.

But that does not mean pastors are entirely to blame for the high stress level of our profession, nor the relative lack of joy so many of us endure. Congregations must shoulder some of that load, as must the hierarchies and administrative structures that cast such a long shadow over my own denomination.

Still, any pastor worthy of the title will tell you that blame does no good whatsoever. The question is how to address the problem. And that proves a terribly difficult equation to solve.

In healthy situations, pastors should be able to talk to their congregations about their struggles with ministry, whether that’s due to overwork or conflict or just the simple burden of caring for hurting people. Then both parties can work together to find a better way to live together.

I suspect, however, that many of my colleagues don’t feel that freedom. They entered into ministry because they were captivated by the story of Jesus lived out among people. But the cares of this world—budgets, attendance figures, building management, minutia of daily life—keep them more than occupied with lesser things. They fear that letting those things slide will undermine their ability to lead, or somehow prove they are not good at their jobs, or worse, cause more conflict from demanding church members.

I’ve been in those shoes, and some days I still put them back on. So while I know that what pastors who feel trapped really need is the perspective and discipline to change what things we can control, I also know how incredibly difficult that can be. That’s why trustworthy and honest collegial relationships are so important.

Thankfully, however, today finds me in a different place. Arkansas State Univeristy has been closed all week due to icy conditions, and Wesley Foundation has also been closed. Today, I realize how ready I am to get back to work. There is much about campus ministry that I wish was different, but the time I get with students is not one of them. There are few greater thrills in my life than getting to guide, challenge, encourage, and otherwise disciple young adults on the college campus.

So for me, the snow days have served as a reminder of how painful it can be to be a pastor, but also how wonderful it can be to engage in meaningful work.

Here’s hoping the roads clear soon.

Construction Lessons

Done! Sort of. After several weeks of work, staff and volunteers have finally gotten our building up and running again. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned in the process:

1) Be grateful for–but don’t necessarily accept–every offer of help.

New kitchen complete!

New kitchen complete!

2) Experience is a great teacher, and a tutor an even better one. But never underestimate what you can learn by watching YouTube.

3) The uses for silicon caulk may rival duct tape.

4) Measure twice, cut once,” is at once a brilliant and impossible strategy for me.

5) Tile saws can literally freeze up if the weather gets cold enough.

6) Imagination and ingenuity are at least as important as resources available.

7) Those with less to give tend to offer the most. Our biggest single donor to the reconstruction effort was a church of about 50. A sister organization collected money throughout the fall to help with the repairs, despite their own budget difficulties. This is one of the more humbling lessons.

I’m sure there are others, but that will do for now. I would say I’m happy to be back to full time ministry again, but the truth is I never left it. Making space is as much a task of ministry as preaching or counseling. How many other jobs require so much of you, but also teach so much to you? It’s a good time to be in campus ministry.