It was thirty years ago this month that I began working in congregations. In October of 1986 I was hired by New Bethel Presbyterian Church (USA) in Piney Flats, Tennessee to be their part-time youth director. I really didn’t know what I was doing, but I tried to do it the best that I could. I was fortunate to stay at that little congregation for all of my seminary days and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. It is the only church I have ever been part of where the entire congregation exchanges presents after the Christmas pageant. Everybody always got something from a Sunday school teacher, another choir member, or just someone you sat next to in the pew. It was quite a sight to behold.
Of course, in 1986 I didn’t know what laid before me as far as a life of ministry was concerned. I had no idea that I would be at West Side Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Portsmouth, Virginia in 2016. I also didn’t know I would have a few other stops in congregations along the way. Sometimes, I wish, that like a few others I know, I had spent my entire pastoral career in one place. But for several reasons that was not to be for me. A couple of churches I served along the way never had long term ministries. In fact, they had histories of conflictual relationship with their pastors. I even went to those congregations knowing that. I thought I could break that history. And in one of those places that history was indeed broken. It was seven wonderful years of pastoral work and I left on the best of terms. Because of my time there, I was even asked to teach a work shop for the Academy of Parish Clergy about spiritual strength rising from a broken congregation. At the second such congregation things didn’t end quite as well. I had seven very good years with them, but when the eighth year came things fell apart. I definitely made some mistakes there as we sought to bring the church into the 21st century, but the fact that none of their ministers lasted more than nine years should have been the hand writing on the wall.
Anyway, after nearly thirty years of ministry as a Disciple of Christ congregational pastor, I have had some very good times and some very rough times. And I have learned some things along the way. I thought I would share a few of them.
1. Preaching is still of primary importance for the local church pastor. Each week for about twenty minutes I stand in front of people who have come with the hope that they might hear a word that helps them to better understand their life and faith. In my present congregation that is about 100 people on Sunday morning. Over the course of a year that is about seventeen hours of their time which they are giving to listen to the words I choose to share. With 100 people that is collectively 1,700 hours of time. That people choose to give us that much time to speak a word that will help them make sense out of life is a huge responsibility and needs to be taken with the utmost seriousness. In addition, there are 2,000 years of church history, and thousands of more years for the quest of faith; it is in the shadows of this history and quest that we dare to speak. The work of the pulpit is the work of study, reflection, prayer and practice. For the sake of the church, pastors should enter into the pulpit fully prepared.
2. When you have the occasion to officiate at a funeral remember that you are standing on sacred ground. The question of human mortality is a question for all of us. When death comes, we should do our best to remember the life that was lived. Speak of the grief that is present. Tell of the hope that we all have in the resurrection of Christ. Funerals can sometimes be very difficult events, especially when there has been deep brokenness in the life that was lived or great divisions within the family. Still, we need to always proclaim, even carefully so, the power of the grace of God to redeem that which has been lost.
3. Our congregations do not need us to act of fear. In other words, we should be willing to address the difficult and controversial topics of the day. Those topics might be human sexuality, racism, refugee resettlement, the matter of the Bible’s authority, mental illness, etc., I’ve met too many pastors who were unwilling to have conversations about LGBTQ matters because they were afraid it would cost them their job. We need to wrap our conversations about such topics in love and a willingness to listen to those who have a different perspective than we do. But if the church is not willing to address the current important topics of life, then all we do is render ourselves irrelevant. Maybe one reason we have lost so much of the younger generation is because we have been afraid to talk of the things that they want, need, and have the right to talk about in the church.
4. The size of the congregation a pastor serves is not an indication of that pastor’s abilities. I remember when I first started in ministry, I dreamed about climbing the ladder and one time that is the very reason I moved. Because I thought it was time to take a step up. I was very happy where I was, but I wanted to move to a larger church. I can admit now that it was my ego. I would not have admitted that twenty years ago, but now I can acknowledge it is true. In fact, in the Disciples, I went quite a ways up the ladder and then my marriage fell apart and I fell down the ladder. Now I am in a smaller congregation once again, but I am where I need to be. And the folks who are a part of this small congregation deserve the very best I can give as their pastor. I remember once, I was on sabbatical from a larger church I served and I was traveling to visit different congregations. I went to several “megachurches.” But the best sermon I heard and the most welcoming experience I had was in a small UCC church with about fifty people present. Fifteen years after it happened I can still remember the words that closed that sermon. Whatever size church we are serving, we are serving the people of God and we should seek to do it well.
5. The growth of the congregation is important – but for a specific reason. Congregational growth can happen any number of ways. Growth in the understanding of faith. Growth through the establishment of new ministries. Growth in the number of members and financial capabilities. But to be clear the purpose of the growth of the church, however you define that growth, is to help establish the realm of God here upon earth. The realm where everyone of every class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion – everyone is treated with the dignity that comes with being created in the image of God. The church does not grow itself for the sake of itself. We grow with the hope to further the realm of God’s peace and justice.
6. Finally, I have learned that I need to take care of myself and my own well-being. That is, I have to have interests outside of the church. There was a time when I let my life and the lives of my family nearly drown in my obsession with my work as a minister. That obsession cost me greatly. It was neither healthy for me, nor in the end productive for the church I served during that period. So now, I read some things just for fun. I walk and run on a regular basis. I laugh with my children and fiancé often and I try to attend as few meetings as possible. Most importantly, I have learned that even though doing my job well is of great significance, I am not anybody’s Savior. That work has already been done and for that I am very grateful.
I hear a lot of different statistics about the large number of people going into congregational ministry and leaving within five years. Maybe those folks weren't as fortunate as I was to begin at a small church in Piney Flats. Because I have made it thirty years now. And I would do it again. I wouldn’t want everything to be just like it was. There are some things I would definitely change if I could. But ministry is an art, not a science. And some of the greatest artists had paintings they didn’t like, yet they didn’t quit painting. They picked up a new brush, mixed some new paint and kept working. That’s all I know to do.