Confessions of a Frustrated (Christian) Preacher, pt 2
“So Christ himself gave the…evangelists, pastors, and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…”—Paul, to the Ephesian Church, 4:11-12
“Preachers must be willing to risk conflict, resistance, and rejection by the church in order to be faithful to the church’s peculiar vocation: joyful subservience to the Word. Preachers are to serve the Word, not be acquiescent to the congregation. In a day when pastoral care for and caring about the needs of the congregation has virtually overwhelmed much of Christian ministry, Barth reminds us that the best and most loving service that we clergy can render to our people is utter subservience to the Word.” (William Willimon, Conversations with Barth on Preaching, 245)
In this installment of my exercise in exorcising of pastoral demons, I’d like to share a little of the journey I have taken to get from there to here.
It’s not a little like A Hobbit’s Tale. I was minding my own business, working, newly married and quite ready to progress on doing nothing for the rest of my life and I was interrupted by a knock on the door. Probably not a literal knock, but no less audible. It was my own fault for answering.
Three or four months later I was at college. I don’t know why I was drawn to the Christian College as opposed to, say, a more useful and secular version of higher education institutes. Don’t get me wrong: Christian college was a wonderful place to spend four years with my wife and to learn to dislike music majors and professors, but practically speaking, the degree I spent a lot of money to earn is worthless (unless the good grades are parlayed into a Master’s degree or higher). Outside of a local congregation within the highly regulated world of Restoration Movement churches (where having the right name means a great deal) there’s not much use for the highly coveted Bachelor’s of Religious Education with majors in Theology and Bible Teaching. Seriously.
Still, I went and I did well. I accomplished a lot in college and I am proud of that. Sadly, no one seems to have recognized it but me. Magna Cum Laude is nothing to scoff at especially when it was earned while failing at two youth ministries, having a child, going through 6 months of chemotherapy and 6 weeks of radiation with my wife, totaling a car, going through a 20+ day stay in the hospital with my wife, and wondering day after day where money would come from to buy food. (And my GPA would have been higher if not for the music department screwing me on two grades.)
Renee and I went on through four years and at the end I got a nice piece of paper and a shiny yellow ribbon (called a graduation stole), a pat on the back, a bill from the library for fines, and a truck loaded with stuff.
I went there with hardly a plan. I know I should have had a plan, but I really didn’t have anyone guiding me even if I had this strange feeling that I should live in Michigan, go to a Bible College, and do something once I had the degree. Do what? I didn’t know. After the first year I was convinced that I was going to be a missionary and go to Vietnam to do so. (At the time I was helping a pastor friend who was working with Vietnamese refugees in Lansing.) I remember one time going to a missions dinner and hearing a missionary speaker talk about the great need for missionaries in the world. I went up to him after that speech ready to sign-up and go. His counsel deflated my enthusiasm. He said that I should stay in school and finish my degree. That was the best thing I could do, he said, that I needed to be prepared when I went out on the field.
2 years later I graduated with a degree in theology. 1 month later I was serving a small family church (literally) in West Virginia. Not quite my idea of ministry, but who was I to question the Lord’s leading? My wife was a little bolder to question my decision making and my choice to move to West Virginia (I may as well have gone to Vietnam.) I didn’t listen. All I wanted to do was preach. That’s what I was called to do. Preach. I needed to get on with it.
We went. We suffered. We failed. We left. And for nearly a year I was out of the paid ministry.
I cannot even begin to tell you how horrifying it was to endure that year and a half of ministry. I was totally unprepared. There is a major, major difference between having a degree in theology, graduating Magna Cum Laude, and thinking that that necessarily qualifies one to be The minister of a local church. One ‘Introduction to Ministries’ and two classes in Homiletics does not prepare one for local church ministry. And in no way qualifies one for ministry in West Virginia.
During that year off I worked as a restaurant manager and I worked as a simple laborer at a plant my dad ran. The restaurant was fun but the hours were long and the pay sucked. The labor job was dirty, filthy dirty, but I saw my dad every day and I liked busting my ass for him. We also went back to church at my home church, the church that had ordained me into ministry. There we began to teach the youth a little, I taught an adult Bible school class, and I was involved in a major Easter production that involved some acting and singing. I was starting to get the itch again.
Then one day I heard about a local church that needed a preacher. I called. The preacher was still there and I was not a little embarrassed (he was leaving, but was still packing his office). But he was gracious and told me about another church, ‘just across the river,’ in West Virginia that needed a preacher. I called. I did some pulpit supply for them. And about two months later or so (I forget the exact timing) I was hired on as their full time paid Senior minister.
A nice, new, big parsonage. A bigger congregation with more resources and ambition. A significant salary increase over my restaurant job. Close to home so my parents and in-laws could see the children. What a dream job! Finally. All of this was mine. Finally, I can put those good grades to work and grow a mega-church which we were all, in Church Growth 101, led to believe was what God wanted from us as ministers, and which, many preachers along the way, assured us would happen with the right techniques in place.
After all, on field trip day in Church Growth class, these were the only sorts of churches we visited. We didn’t go to small rinky-dink, struggling, single-staff churches in the middle of cornfields. We went to thriving, metropolitan, multi-staff churches in Detroit and elsewhere. There, nicely dressed ministers who had it all together waxed eloquent about how God had blessed them with so much and had blessed their ministries and what nice buildings God had given and how they were expanding this and doing that. (Which was always, it seemed to me, nice ways of saying, “Look what I did!”)
My second ministry in West Virginia was two and a half years of pure, absolute, from the deepest, darkest, nastiest places of the pit, chaotic Hell.
If my education did nothing to prepare me for my first paid position, it did less to prepare me for my second.
The thing is, I have no doubts that I am called to preach. What I do have doubts about is that I am called to preach in a paid local way. There are some, indeed many, who are called to such things and have the temperament to do so. What I am learning, some 15 years after my graduation and nearly 18 since my ordination, is that I am not one of them.
There’s another side to these various ministries that I will tell you about in part 4 of this series. But first, there is part 3. In my next installment of this series, I’ll tell you a little about the two and a half years of pure hell I enjoyed at my second full-time paid position and I’ll also tell you what led to my current position (the one I still own).
“It’s a dangerous business going out your front door.” (Bilbo Baggins)
Things or People Referenced in this post: