Pastors must learn to live with loose ends. Unfinished tasks. Dangling threads that need to be tied up.
When they lay their heads on the pillow at night, God’s shepherds can think of 38 things left undone and needing attention tomorrow….
Someone needs a call returned, a member needs a visit, a sermon needs more preparation, a program needs planning, a colleague needs encouragement, an employee needs to be held accountable, the pastor’s child needs some dad-time, his wife has been wanting to talk about several issues, he had hoped to begin his physical fitness program this week, the nursing home has invited him to hold a service, the seminary wants him to speak, the denominational committee needs to meet and hear his report, and he should have prayed more today. The family that buried their father last month needs a follow-up visit. The postponed dental appointment should be rescheduled and his CPA has a question about his taxes.
“There’s always something,” said Rosanne Rosannadanna (the old Saturday Night Live program). There is indeed.
Pastors will not make it in a longterm ministry if they do not learn to turn this stuff off at night.
You need your sleep.
A second type of sleep-robber involves troubling people and events that did not go as expected….
One of the young mothers in my church was in nursing school. She was having a tough time of it, and frequently called to ask for prayer when she had big tests or difficult assignments. She got through the program and graduated with honors. I was as proud of her as though she were my daughter. And then….
They joined another church.
Almost immediately she and her family–a husband and two children–moved their membership to a church two miles down the street without one word of explanation.
Why? What happened?
That was some years back and to this day, I have no idea what happened. Did I fail them? Did they interpret something I said as being offensive? Or did this have nothing to do with me as their pastor? I do not know and assume I’ll never know.
A family from a church I served a quarter of a century earlier messaged to say the husband was suffering from a terminal disease and they wondered if I could be available for his funeral. Since they now lived much closer, this would not be hard to do. I offered that on a future trip through their city, perhaps we could meet. They suggested a meal at a restaurant.
The wife and her two adult daughters and their husbands came. The dinner was a nice visit, and we caught each other up on our lives. (The near-comatose husband was living in a nursing home.) I did what I always do, and sketched the family, which I interpret as a small gift I can give them. We prayed together and everyone hugged, and I went on my way.
The family was often on my heart and in my prayers and I gave thought to what I might say at the funeral.
When the man died, the family made other arrangements for his funeral and no one said a word to me.
What happened? I have no clue. Did I fail them in some way? Should I have been somber and more pastoral at our dinner instead of “Joe the old friend”? Or were there other factors at work here unbeknownst to me? I will never know.
Can I live with not knowing? I can.
A pastor friend recommended to his deacon leadership that I would be the ideal person to lead a retreat. Two deacons, a man and a woman, made a conference call my way and we must have chatted a half hour, covering principles I would teach in the retreat. I felt I had made two new friends.
And then nothing. Not a word from them afterwards, and that has now been a couple of years.
What happened? Did they read my deacon material (on our website, scroll down to “categories” and click on “deacons”) and decide I was too conservative? Did the woman feel I was opposed to women deacons? (I say it’s an individual church decision.) Was something else going on? I will never know.
And that’s fine. I can live without knowing these things. (Clearly, I remember them; otherwise I’d not include them here.)
A healthy approach to dealing with unfinished loose ends left dangling is fourfold:
1) Give it to the Lord.
True, you might have to hand it back to Him again and again until He keeps it. But do not hesitate to do so.
2) Do not obsess over it.
A healthy mind can turn it off; a troubled mind (bad mental health) cannot leave it alone but keeps “picking at it.”
Should you call that individual and ask if anything is wrong, if perhaps you failed them some way? Short answer: Obey the Spirit. He will tell you in your spirit whether you should humble yourself and make that call or be strong and move on. But in the absence of leadership from the Holy Spirit, I say “No,” that you should not give it a second thought.
3) Pray for the people involved.
The Heavenly Father knows precisely what is going on. Ask Him to bless the people and to help you learn needed lessons from this, if there are things to be learned.
4) Go on to the next task.
You have enough on your plate, pastor, without needlessly worrying over something that may not be an issue at all.
After all, suppose you knew the whole stories…
The family that moved their membership abruptly might say: “Oh pastor, did we not call you? I meant to. Our daughter had friends in the youth group at that church and our son played on their ball team.”
The family that had invited me to preach the funeral might say, “We saw by your schedule you were in Mexico on a mission trip and did not want to bother you. We meant to call.”
The deacon leadership might say, “We discovered the church had no funds for a retreat, so we canceled it. Sorry we didn’t contact you. Should we have?”
They might say that.
Or, being honest, I know they could just as easily say that I transgressed some invisible line, said something to which they took offense, or a thousand other things. We will never know.
If I cannot live not knowing what happened, then I have a problem.
You’ll be happy to know: I do not have a problem. (Smiley-face here.)
“…forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).