Guarding Relationships

I am surprised and honored by the request.  I am sitting at breakfast in a diner with my father and 6 other men, buddies who bike together twice a week.  My father asks me to say a prayer, and I thank God for the opportunity to enjoy God’s world by biking through the beautiful Pennsylvaniacountryside on a gorgeous summer day.  Yes, I am little Laurie Hartzel, Gerry’s daughter, but I am also a pastor, which opens doors to significant conversation with my father’s friends along the road. 

A few hours later I’m sitting alone on the deck in back of my parents’ cottage at the continuing care facility where they have lived for the past dozen years.  It’s the 4th day of our vacation, and I am just beginning to relax.  I always know when I’m home, and it’s not just because of the sweet corn, pickled eggs, shoefly pie, pretzels, fireflies, PA Dutch accent, and walking in the woods and along the streams of my childhood.  I can feel it in my bones but more so in my heart.  I am grounded and whole.

It’s easy to forget that there is more to life than my job.  I get so caught up in the importance of my “to do” list that I fail to realize that the problems will be there tomorrow as well.  In fact, each time a problem is solved, it seems as if 7 more issues crop up (Luke 11:24-26).  So I am going to set aside the compulsions that hold me hostage and dedicate this vacation time to connecting with my grandson, children, andGary’s and my extended families.  I am attentive and expectant.

My focus for meditation the last 2 weeks has been Proverbs 4:23, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” (NIV)  Guarding relationships with my loved ones who live hundreds of miles away is more of a priority than it has ever been, especially now that our three children are also living far away from home.  We may not share the same political, moral, or religion views, but as long as we are connected heart to heart, the wellspring of life keeps our love strong.

  • My parents will be celebrating their 60th anniversary in September.  I marvel at their love, even though my mother and father are not able to live together anymore.
  • Because of the progression of my mother’s Alzheimers, she has moved to the nursing wing and is receiving Hospice care.  The first day she called me Beulah, her sister’s name, but on the day I left, she greeted me with a great big smile, a hug, and the words, “Laurie!”  A few moments of lucidity are as precious as the pearl of great value. 
  • Visiting our finally self-sufficient son inNew York Cityreminds me thatGaryand I must have done something right as parents, although I am still not sure what it was.  Sitting at a table with my 3 favorite men – my father, my husband, and my son – is not only a rare treat, it’s a sacramental experience.
  • Table talk with my aunt, uncle and several cousins was deep and spiritually satisfying as we picked up right where we left off the last time we were together.  As I continue the struggle to separate my personal life from my professional life, I realize that my calling as a pastor transcends any boundaries that I artificially place around my existence.  It’s okay to talk shop while on vacation!
  • My heart melts whenever our 19 month old grandson, Ezra, runs into my arms and plants a big kiss on my face.  Would that all children were as loved and nurtured by their parents as Ezra is by Sarah and Ian.
  • At 90,Gary’s mother is as sharp as a tack, and it’s a joy to hear tales from her childhood and youth.  Gerry informed us that the government says she will live for 8.9 more years, so she does not intend to die any time soon.

Our vacation reminds me that guarding relationships is at the heart of all human life, even our church life.  As Gary and I were waiting to board a plane last week, I noticed a provocative ad.  3 identical pictures of the same beautiful waterfall displayed 3 different words at the top of each picture: Romance, Danger, and Energy.  The caption underneath read, “Understanding different values helps us serve our customers better.”  HSBC Bank.  Could it be that guarding our heart involves understanding the values of and thus guarding the hearts of those we love and serve?  If so, the HSBC advertisement just might unlock the key to fruitful ministry as well.

Yesterday was the first day that many pastors in The United Methodist Church preached in their new churches.  It’s a time of great uncertainty as well as anticipation for pastors and laity alike.  Pastors wonder, “Will I be successful in this ministry setting?  Will I be able to work with laity to enhance the health, vitality, and outreach of the congregation?  Will we learn to love each other?”  At the same time laity wonder, “Will we be able to connect with the new pastor?  Can we support the pastor in making the best use of his/her gifts to enhance ministry in our congregation?  Will we be open to God’s vision so that our congregation becomes a saving station in our community?”

I have asked every transitioning pastor in the Grand Rapids District to develop a 90 day plan for ministry in their new congregation.  When we take time to systematically think through how we will get off to a good start in a new ministry setting, not only can we maximize the best use of our time, but we also learn how to guard our hearts and the hearts of those we serve and remain connected to the wellspring of life.

Although every 90 day plan is different, each new pastor has the same primary task: to develop relationships and build trust with the congregation.  Just as healthy families intentionally keep connected with each other, so relationships form the core of healthy churches.  Pastors cannot lead credibly until they seek to understand the different values of the congregation and until church members trust them. That means making it a priority to get to know people, from lay leaders, to shut-ins, to visitors, to long-time members, to those being served though outreach ministries, to those in the hospital, to staff, to children and teenagers.  Listening to the hopes and dreams of members and friends helps pastors and congregations become knit together as the body of Christ and opens the doors for vital collaborative ministry.

At the same time, many churches offer new pastors a built-in trust unless and until we betray that trust.  In my travels around the district, I often hear lay persons refer to their pastor not with their first and/or last name but with the word “Pastor.”  “Pastor’s” sermon on Sunday was fantastic.  “Pastor” visited me in the hospital.  “Pastor” is going to teach a new Bible study.

I’m always a bit surprised when people refer to me simply as “Pastor” without adding my name.  I prefer to be called “Laurie” or “Pastor Laurie” because I believe I can connect better with people in a more informal manner.  I am also aware that even though I am a pastor, I am very human as well and not worthy to be placed on a pedestal.  In fact, many lay people are much more gifted and spiritually mature than I am, yet it is my role to empower and lead them in using their skills and graces for ministry.

Lay persons often see more in us pastors than we see in ourselves.  Just as Ezra unconditionally loves his parents and grandparents and comes to know the grace of God through us, so parishioners see us as representatives of Christ.  They see in us the presence of God.  They see us as bearers of the Holy Spirit.  They see us as shepherds of the flock.  The responsibility is awe-inspiring and almost enough to make us turn around and run away.

I suspect that in the hearts of lay persons lies one key question for their new pastor, “Will I be able to trust you enough to share the things that I have never told anyone else?”  To be the kind of pastor that our churches need us to be requires authenticity in building relationships, listening carefully, and understanding different values.  It also demands that we spend time alone with God, cultivate our relationship with Jesus, care for our family, and, above all, guard our heart, for in our heart is the wellspring of life.

How is guarding relationships a part of your plan for the next 90 days?  How will understanding different values offer fullness of life to others?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Blessings, Laurie

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