These two groups of pastors and the situations they face could not be more different from each other. But one thing was the same for both – the heroic, sacrificial work they do on a daily basis.
One group has the emotionally exhausting task of presiding over a death of sorts. The death of a church and a community, because its reason for being has ceased. And they are doing their best to make it a death with dignity.
The other group is pitching in to help with a resurrection. The resurrection of a country and a culture from the ashes of generations of war.
Let me tell you a little about them.
US Military Chaplains – Presiding Over the Death of a Community
The US military is in the process closing many of our bases in Germany. The Army base in Schweinfurt is one of them. My wife and I were with them two weekends ago.
One of the chaplains got a hold of my book and believed its message could be helpful in the challenging task they are facing, so she passed it on to her senior officer. That’s how ended up with an invitation to speak in Germany.
It’s one thing to pastor people when a church is growing, or at least has the possibility of growing. It’s another thing entirely to pastor a church when you know the church and the community around it is closing down for good. That’s what the US Army chaplains in Schweinfurt are doing – helping a community that is now in its third generation of existence, die with dignity.
The emotional challenges are extreme. These servants of God and of the American people keep their spirits and the spirits of others up as they spend their days, weeks and months helping people phase out their jobs, see basic services disappear one-by-one and comfort their children as they say goodbye to classmates and friends on an almost weekly basis.
Yet in spite of all that, they have a sense of humor and joy that is contagious.
We gathered with them for a chaplains lunch, a prayer breakfast and a Sunday church service. At the lunch and prayer breakfast everyone was in full uniform. It is a moving experience to stand and say the pledge of allegiance with a roomful of active military on foreign soil. I won’t soon forget it. Then I had the honor of addressing them from the scriptures.
At the church service, which I didn’t speak at, the uniforms were gone and rank disappeared as they sang, prayed, worshiped and learned from God’s Word together. The worship team consisted of two local German-speaking musicians on keyboard and saxophone, a serviceman on ukulele and several singers including two of the young daughters of servicemen. Even as they’re closing out their ministry in Germany, they’re actively training the next generation of spiritual leaders.
They played and sang their hearts out. It was glorious.
Chaplains are being used in great ways to minister to those who are serving our nation. It wouldn’t surprise me if, when they do close the base around this time next year, after the politicians have given their farewell speeches, the last person out the door to turn off the lights was a chaplain saying a prayer of thanksgiving.
Small Church Pastors In Croatia – The Resurrection of a Country and a Culture
There’s no way to describe the situation in Croatia. Not what they’ve been through or the attitude of the people as they dig their way out of it. But I’ll try.
The Croatian coast is gorgeous – or so I’ve heard. We didn’t see any of it because we spent our time on the other end of the country. The place tourists don’t go. The region that barely got a mention in our 100+ page Croatia guidebook.
Croatia is one of the world’s most war-torn countries. Because it is situated between the Middle East and Western Europe, almost every European war throughout history has passed through it. It’s not the land anyone wants to conquer, it’s just the roadway armies need to get from here to there. So no one cares what happens to them as they pass through.
About every third building we saw is still riddled with holes from bullets and bombs from the last war that ended in 1995, as evidenced by the photo at the top of this post.
The infrastructure in Croatia is so weak, even today, that we had a very hard time finding a rental car company that would allow us to drive one of their cars there.
But again, Small Church pastors are stepping up to the challenge.
For example, the city of Vukovar is on the border of Serbia. (We actually saw Serbia across the Danube river from there). Vukovar was leveled during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war and is still struggling to come back to life again. One Small Church pastor we spent time with lives with his family in Vukovar. Not because they are from there, but because God called them there to minister to the people of that city after the war was over.
That pastor was of the first-ever people to read The Grasshopper Myth. He recruited other dedicated Croatian ministers who worked for months to translate my book into Croatian (more on that in upcoming posts) which is how my wife and I ended up in Croatia for the presentation of my book to pastors there. They raised the money to print 1,000 Croatian copies for distribution to pastors throughout Croatia, as well as to the neighboring and often warring countries of Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia.
The churches in these nations are not big. And any growth they are experiencing is very slow – glacially slow. They don’t have the same expectations for explosive growth that we’re told to expect in America. They know their churches may never be big – certainly not for a generation or two.
The work they are doing there is slow, tedious and discouraging – as well as joyous, hopeful and immeasurably important.
A Shoulder to Cry On
Not every pastor is called to a place where it’s possible to grow their church bigger day-by-day. Some are called to communities and churches where the ground is so hard that growth will be multi-generational. Others face the unenviable task of ministering in a church and community as it dies a little every day.
So what could I, flying in from my comfortable church in Orange County, California, possibly say to such sacrificial people that could be of any real help to them? I’ll give you some specifics over the next few posts, but for now let me say I took my cue from one of the best pieces of pastoral advice ever given.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” – Romans 12:15
People don’t want “happy talk” when they’re facing a daunting task. They want encouragement. But they want reality, too. And sometimes what they need more than any piece of advice or instruction is a shoulder to cry on.
Crying with those who cry. That’s what these amazing Small Church pastors do for the people in their communities every day – and it’s what my wife and I tried to do with and for them.
So what do you think? Is your church going through a death? A long-term resurrection? What are you doing to meet the challenge?
We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
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(Building with Bullet Holes photo from Shelley Vaters – Use Granted by Permission Only)