The 25th anniversary of my ordination into Christian ministry will be coming later this year. If you add to those twenty-five years the four years I worked in congregations before my ordination, I’ve been at this work of congregational ministry for nearly three decades. I suppose I’m getting to be one of the old guys. That was reinforced last week when my invitation to join AARP came in the mail. My daughter also wants me to check at our local Goodwill to see if I am old enough to get the 30% senior discount they offer on Wednesday.
Well, after nearly thirty years of working in congregations and experiencing the highs and lows of church ministry, I thought I’d share a few of the lessons I’ve learned along the way. If another minister were writing this post the list of lessons learned would likely be different. And that is just fine. We all have our own lessons to learn in life.
One very important lesson I have learned is that preaching still matters. Despite all the jokes we hear about people “falling asleep” while we are preaching or about the importance of “keeping it short,” the truth is people long to hear an important and relevant word spoken from the pulpit. People hope to hear something that engages their life. It might be a word of comfort or it might be a word of challenge. It might soothe or it might provoke. Either way, the sermon is an important part of a congregation’s life and thus should be given priority in a pastor’s life. To preach on a regular basis to the same group of people, I have found it necessary to have a consistent schedule of study, reflection, prayer and writing each week. In addition, I spend about an hour every day reading – novels, journals, works on faith and theology. I allow the words of others to become a primary source of helping me speak words to my congregation. Though many weeks present challenges to staying on the regular schedule for sermon preparation, I have tried never to step into the pulpit without having done the work appropriate to the task of proclaiming the truth we claim to believe. I think the congregations I have served have benefitted from this practice. I also think the parishioners have been appreciative that the time they give to listening to a sermon is valued by their preacher.
Tied to the first lesson is the second. I have learned over time that it does no one any good to avoid difficult subjects because of the fear of conflict. The church should be the place that we address in-depth the matters that our media laden culture often turn into sound bites. Our fear of death, sexual orientation, our cultural obsession with violence, our uneasiness with those who are different, the relationship between faith and science – all of these, and so much more, are matters that the church should be in conversation about. We should wrap our conversations in prayer and humility, and have a commitment to be respectful and loving to each other when there are differences. But to not address the important matters of life out of fear of conflict is to render the church irrelevant. That’s the last thing our world needs. I have heard the church described too often as a river that is a mile wide and an inch deep. Such a river can dry up quickly. The world needs a church that has depth; a church that is thoughtful and engages the important questions and matters of life.
I have learned during these thirty years that I am not called to be a chaplain to the congregation. Appropriate pastoral care to people is one of the most beautiful and sacred parts of ministry. I have sat with numerous families over the years who have suffered tragic loss and been with many people who have had to deal with unwelcome changes in their life. It is an important part of what I am called to do. Yet, I have learned that the primary role of a pastor is not that of a caregiver to the congregation. Our primary role is that of a teacher of the Christian faith. Even when we are offering pastoral care, it is with the goal of helping people understand what their faith means in this situation. Though I strive to be as present as possible with people of my congregation, I no longer believe I have to be present in every moment of crisis. In fact, if I have done my job well they understand that God is with them in all places and all times. They will remember that God is with them through the gifts and graces of many people, not just the pastor.
During these years, I have learned that the people in the church I serve will sometimes disappoint me. And it is mutual, because I will sometimes disappoint the people in the pews. We are all human beings and thus none of us are perfect. We seek to live together as a community of faith and sometimes that living together, because of our mutual shortcomings, is not easy. But recognizing that it is a relationship of mutual shortcomings allows us to practice grace toward one another. In the church, where we acknowledge that sinfulness is part of the human condition, we should not be surprised that we don’t always measure up to the way “it is supposed to be.” So hopefully we practice grace, forgiveness, and patience toward each other which helps us move one step closer to the way “it is supposed to be.”
Over the last fifteen years, I have learned that even though technological advances play a role in helping the church share the gospel in this day and time, we have to be very careful with where, when and how we use this technology. One of the important parts of our work is to help people live into their full humanity and today what that sometimes means is for people to disconnect and look up from the screen and see the life that is happening all around them. Smart phones and ipads have their place. We should not fear them, loathe them or honor them. We have a screen which we utilize in our worship services and for a while I was preparing power point presentations to go along with the sermon. I soon discovered I was spending a lot of time making certain I had just the right picture for a slide. Then when I showed it during worship, I was losing something I think is vitally important in public communication – eye contact. I still use the screen occasionally during my sermons, but don’t utilize it on a regular basis for sermons anymore.
Finally, I think the most important lesson I have learned is even though I take my work as a pastor very seriously, I don’t take myself too seriously. Over my thirty years of ministry, I have pastored four different congregations, having been in my present church nine of those years. All three previous congregations I served continue to gather for worship and be engaged in ministry in their communities. The work I did as their pastor was important while I was there, but I was by no means indispensable to their life as a faith community. There is a wonderfully freeing aspect to that lesson learned. It isn’t all about me, and I am just fine with that.
Well, those are some of the lessons I have learned over the past three decades of pastoral ministry. Even as I was writing I thought of a dozen others – one of those being it is better to say too little than too much. So, I am done except to say that because of the lessons I have learned I am able to laugh more freely, love more deeply, and care for others more honestly. After thirty years, I’ll take that.