Confessions of a Frustrated (Christian) Preacher, pt 4
“From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Ephesians 4:16)
“A Church is the new humanity on display.” (Jesus Wants to Save Christians, Rob Bell, 155)
I believe this is true, but if it is I think it is scarcely a compliment to the new humanity. As this series continues, and as I draw closer to telling the story of my current ministry experience, you will see that I am not kidding at all. One caveat. Please don’t misinterpret my point. Don’t mistake ministry for Christianity. I love being a Christian and wouldn’t change it for the world. I’m just finding it more and more difficult to live it out while being paid to preach. That said, there’s a lot that needs to be said about the way preachers are treated within the church by other Christians.
The key to this post is to remember this: Preachers are Christians too.
While I was in college, still learning to preach and still developing a theological perspective, I volunteered for the school to do what is called pulpit supply. Simply put, a church would call the college if they needed a preacher for the weekend (perhaps the preacher was on vacation or had been fired), the school would call upon its pool of volunteer student-preachers, and we would go. Some of my best times at college were doing pulpit supply. I traveled all over Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio preaching. At one point, a church asked me to stay on for several consecutive weeks preaching. I loved it because I knew after the morning worship, I could leave. Freedom.
Pulpit supply was also some of my worst times. Two times in particular come to mind. The first instance occurred once when I was preaching in a church down around Detroit. My wife and I arrived early and went into the auditorium and selected a seat in a pew down near the front. After a while, an older lady came in and was looking rather glum. My wife, tactfully asked her if everything was alright. The woman responded, shaking her head, “Oh, not so good.” My wife asked, “Oh, what’s wrong?” And the woman responded, and I kid you not, “Well, it’s just that you are in my seat.”
We were 24 years old. I was the guest preacher.
A second incident was about as bad. I will say this, most of the churches I preached in as a pulpit supply preacher paid well. Among those of us who did supply preaching, there were a couple we really hoped for on any given Sunday. One was in Michigan and the other in Indiana. Both were decent trips, requiring several hours of travel, and paid $250 per week. For college students, this was amazing money. It was motivation to preach well and get invited back the next Sunday (incidentally, when I was hired at my first church in West Virginia, I made, you guessed it, $250 per week).
I visited a church in Ohio as the pulpit supply preacher. It was easily a 3-4 hour trip. It was as close to my parents as it was to me because I distinctly remember my mother and grandmother making the trip to listen to me preach. It was no small church hurting for cash, but at the end of the day, I received a paltry $30. It was not even an official check from the church treasurer. It was a personal check from one of the members.
Even back then, that barely covered the expense of the fuel required to get there (and there was no lunch afterward). It sounds petty, but these two experiences were the mere beginning of my experiences as a ‘professional’ preacher of the Gospel. I learned early that some things in the church are sacred and it is not the things one might expect.
I didn’t learn my lessons well during pulpit supply. I didn’t get any smarter when it came to interviews. The interview is where a preacher ought to decide if he is going to a church not if the church is going to call the preacher. Sadly, however, not many preachers are afforded the luxury of being so picky. To be honest, I was just plain stupid when it came to interviews, and young. I’ll share a couple of examples.
I interviewed at a small church in West Virginia for my first paid position. Admittedly, it was a small church and I should have listened to my wife’s concerns, but I wanted to preach and I was graduating soon. I needed to work, I wanted to work; I wanted to preach. So I hurried the process along. I don’t remember too much about the interview except for one particular question that came from one of the ‘elders’ of the church. I was not yet 25, my wife was just barely 24. We were about one and half months from graduation. We had one son.
The question? “Are you planning on having any more children?” I should have known at that point, but I wanted to preach so I answered that we weren’t planning on it (my second son was born less than a year later). I learned later what that question meant. My wife had gone home for a visit one weekend. My son was only about 2. We started the worship: singing, praying, and then the preaching. While I was preaching my son, about 2, grew restless as he sat by himself in the front row. He started talking and wiggling and clowning. I was stared at by the congregation while I preached by eyes that seemed to be saying, “What are you going to do about your son?” No one lifted a finger to help. Not one.
So I picked him up in my arms and preached the sermon with him on my hip. I learned that day what they meant by, “Do you plan on having any more children?”
In a second interview, at a different, yet another, church in West Virginia, I was asked an equally astounding question. I had been ‘out of ministry’ for about 10 months or so but I had started working myself back into shape by serving in my home church in a variety of ways and by doing some pulpit supply at a nearby church in West Virginia. At some point, ‘they’ decided they liked me well enough to begin conducting some rather informal interviews. One such informal interview was with one of the elders who, probably not incidentally, had been the mayor of the town at one point in his career.
Don’t get me wrong. He was a great friend and my closest ally while in the church. (I’ll have more to say about this congregation in my next post.) Yet it was during one of these informal interviews that he asked me a question that I should have listened to more closely. The question? “How do you feel about the gays?” Honestly, I had no idea what I thought about ‘the gays.’ It wasn’t something I thought I needed to put a lot of thought into and, to be sure, I’m not really sure how I even answered. I must have answered well enough because I was hired less than a month later.
Back then, I was too young to know better because all I really wanted to do was preach. Preaching is what I do, it is what I love. What I learned, though, is that no one can enter into a church with the assumption that all he will do is preach-even if that is what he knows in his heart he is called to do. There is, without a doubt, an agenda in most established churches that is incomprehensible to the outsider looking in. The agenda is spoken in one way, “We want the church to grow.” But it is fleshed out in another way, “We want it to grow on our terms and you must conform to our ways in order for that to happen.”
Please don’t misunderstand me: I love the church because it is the bride of Christ and because I belong to it. My criticism is not of every church, nor of every Christian. What I am saying is that a large part of my reason for making plans to leave the paid ministry is because of the way I have been treated as a preacher.
There is a simple way to look at this: The preacher is not a member of the local church despite his confession to the contrary. He is never a member who is paid. (The paycheck always, always, dictates and controls.) This is the only explanation I can come up with for why local churches treat preachers the way they do. I’m writing from experience: I know this to be true. I am willing to bet there are many more preachers in the church who know exactly what I am talking about and until the local church accepts preachers as equal members, and not as mere itinerants or transients, they will continue to do so.
You see, it is not the responsibility of the local congregation, so goes the logic, to do what Paul said in Ephesians 4:16 for the preacher they have hired. It is assumed, however, that this is the preacher’s job to do this for the congregation who hired him. He has a responsibility to the local congregation, but they have none to him. The hired preacher is always expendable (hence the evils of the parsonage and the pay).
It’s almost like churches are saying: Preachers aren’t Christians so we can treat them however we want. And if this is how they treat preachers who are Christians then just imagine how they treat those who truly are not Christians.
Things referenced in this post:
Previous Posts in this Series:
Confessions of a Frustrated (Christian) Preacher, 1
Confessions of a Frustrated (Christian) Preacher, 2
Confessions of a Frustrated (Christian) Preacher, 3