Confessions of a Frustrated (Christian) Preacher, pt 5

Confessions of a Frustrated (Christian) Preacher, pt 5 (1 of 2)

“In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me. I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of this boast. Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it” (1 Corinthians 9:7-18).

“ ‘I’ve had it with the church. I think that I should go back to school and become a psychotherapist.’

“That’s what a lot of disillusioned clergy do. They still want to help people, but they can’t seem to do it within the church.” (Charles Irish, Back to the Upper Room, 9)

_____________________

My second full-time, paid ministry position began when I was 27 and ended when I was 29 and 5 months. I was too young. Someone told me that, a respected person, when I was at a weekend retreat. Ah, sure. Who at the age of 27 wants to be told, let alone admit, that they are too young for something? Many professional athletes are in their prime at 27, it shouldn’t be any different for a paid preacher. I confess that I was not fully prepared for the level of politics that has to be played in a local congregation and in that sense I was too young. I was naive, easily manipulated, impulsive, defensive, and stubborn. There was yet to be developed in me the spirit of faith, the sustenance of grace, and the humility of defenselessness. Those things are developed in the crucible of turmoil.

I have said, on more than one occasion, that paid ministry is a different animal altogether. The local paid preacher, at least in my own denomination, carries a great deal of responsibility—far more than is biblically mandated or professionally reasonable. If the preacher is part of a multi-person staff, that responsibility is lessened; if he is solo, it is heightened. In all of the churches I have served, I have been solo with no other paid staff. (Please don’t misinterpret me here: I assure you this is not a complaint, just reality.) This means, ultimately, that the bulk of the work falls on the paid preacher’s shoulders. I was young enough to expect the church to work and encouraged the church to be an ‘every member ministry’. Every member ministry is a myth of epic proportions. The American way is easier: Let’s just pay someone to do it.

The paid preacher is chained, literally, to the expectations of those who write his job description and sign his paycheck. He is only relatively free to pursue his gifts and passions. He is on-call 24/7 and is paid for 40. Again, there is no whining here, just brutal facts. The sad truth is that in my experience paid ministry is neither ‘paid’ nor ‘ministry.’ It is something akin to indentured servitude or serfdom if he lives in a parsonage. I don’t think that is an exaggeration. There is the unwritten rule that the preacher can be bothered at any time, for any reason, and by any person. His home phone is published under the words ‘parsonage’ unless he owns his own house.

I believe there is a place for our modern concept of ministry and I believe there are some people who are made for it. It and they are called, collectively, The Church, The Body of Christ, The Congregation. The worker, yes, is worth his wage, but I have grown to believe more and more that our modern model for paid ministry is downright unbiblical and unnecessary when the Church functions according to the biblical descriptions and prescriptions. The Bible describes the church as a place where everyone is gifted by God (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12) to accomplish the work He has prepared in advance for us to do (cf. Ephesians).

The problem, as I see it, is that congregations end up believing they have paid for services—therefore, they do not have to do anything but show up on Sundays—that is, admittedly, a terribly vague generalization and not true in all cases. “It” is the preacher’s job. And if it is done properly, the paid preacher will spend the majority of his time planning, administrating, attending meetings, taking phone calls, or visiting the parishioners in their houses among other things. Most preachers will not be lost in their study of the Scripture or hunkering down in the prayer closet. Yet this doesn’t seem to jive with what Scripture says. Consider Acts 6 where we can clearly see that the responsibilities of the church have clear lines of delineation:

“In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.

“This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”

In the absence of apostles dedicated to the preaching and praying, I believe that some are specifically called to such ministry. As Paul wrote in Ephesians Jesus himself apportioned such gifts (such people!): “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…” Some people are specifically called and gifted for ‘pastoral’ (visitation) ministry; others are not. Some are specifically called to preaching ministry; most are not. Since very few churches are willing (or able) to pay someone simply for their involvement in the Word and Prayer, the line gets blurred and ‘paid’ preachers become hirelings to do all the work that those gifted in the congregation should do—a truly every member ministry. Instead of all of us taking care of one another, it is the ‘pastor’s’ job.
____________________

I think there is a better way to do church, a better way to be church—a better way to be a minister of Christ. I also believe that this is precisely the place where my disillusionment with the church and with ‘paid ministry’ comes into the picture. I know it is not the same for every single preacher on the planet. I know my experience is and is not unique. I know that making one person, effectively, the CEO/Pastor/Preacher/Planner/Etc., is the American way to do things. I know there is not a biblical prohibition against paid ministry per se. (Although I don’t know that the modern version is what the apostles had in mind.)

But what I have experienced has led me to a place where I can no longer do ministry precisely because of the paycheck that comes along with it. The paycheck hasn’t freed me for ministry, it has shackled me to the expectations of others and it has prevented the full expenditure of whatever gifts and passions I might have (and probably stagnated my congregation since I seem unable to motivate them at any level). In other words, it has limited ministry. What’s better? Preaching to a few people on Sunday mornings, once per week, for about 30 minutes and hoping that the church building will be the primary place for ‘salt and light’ type of evangelism, and being beholden to the whims of the paycheck? Or being out and about among the ‘lost’ all day, every day, doing good deeds, influencing people directly who are without Christ, preaching as we go, wherever we go, wherever we are led, and being free to do ministry out of love and not obligation?

This is the struggle I have been having for a number of years now and it has come to a head in my current ministry. The frustration is born out of the problems I noted above and out of the desire to be free to serve Christ in a more meaningful way because I love and not because I am obligated.
_____________________

“How can they fathom that half the world is too poor to feed its kids when their church just spent two years raising money to build an addition to their building? They gather, they sing, they hear a talk from the pastor, and then they get back in the car with their parent and they go home; the garage door opens up, the car goes in, and the garage door goes down. This is the revolution? This is what Jesus had in mind?” (Rob Bell and Don Golden, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, 138)

I don’t believe it is. Christ has called us to something more as ministers of his Gospel.

Advertisements

Confessions of a Frustrated (Christian) Preacher, pt 3

“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10)

“I am thinking of grace. I am thinking of the power beyond all power, the power that holds all things in manifestation, and I am thinking of this power as ultimately a Christ-making power, which is to say a power that makes Christs, which is to say a power that works through the drab and hubbub of our lives to make Christs of us before we’re done or else, for our sakes, graciously to destroy us. In neither case, needless to say, is the process to be thought of as painless” (Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace, 11).

I’m taking a slight risk with this post, but I believe in order for you, the reader, to fully understand why I have arrived at my current understanding of Christian faith that it is necessary for you understand a little bit of the journey that I have taken in ‘ministry.’ At the end of the last post, I told you I would be taking a short detour in this series of posts. (Actually, I said I was going to share with you about my last paid position in this installment. I’ll save that four part 4.)
____________________

My first paid position, after graduation in 1995, was in a small town in the hills of West Virginia. The church was small, and very family oriented. By that I hardly mean they were interested in ‘families’ (I should have figured that out when one of the elders asked me during my interview, “Do you plan on having any more children?”) What I means is that if you weren’t a member of the 4 or 5 families that owned that church, you really had no chance of surviving life in that town, let alone the church.

The church, comprised of 25-35 people were more loyal to the grumpy old man from Maryland who owned a house next door to the parsonage and another next to the church building. He was, after all, a far bigger contributor of cash to the church than I was—as that same elder told me in a board meeting one time, “He has no say so in this church but if he wants to give us his money we are darn well gonna take it.” He could afford to buy loyalty; I could not.

Well, it didn’t take long for a 25 year old man who thought he could save the world with the Gospel to get bored of preaching to 20 people a week, visiting them every other day and being blamed for the ‘lack of church growth.’ So to supplement my ambition and income (I was raking in a stellar $250 per week back then; we also had another baby on the way) I took a job with the local ‘committee on aging’ and served as a ‘homemaker’ to elderly people (most of whom were not affiliated with any church at all). In this position, I helped clean houses, prepare meals, grocery shop, run errands, give baths, change adult diapers, shave grown men, and clean up everything imaginable among other things. It was a challenging work, but, and here’s the kicker, I could do it. I never would have thought I could do such a thing, but I did. When I left that church after a year and a half or so, I was more distraught about leaving my clients.

No one in the church really had any problem with me doing that work but once I realized the church work was over I knew that I could not keep my family in that town. We were outsiders and always would be.
_______________________

After a ten month lay-off from ministry, during which time I worked as a general laborer and a restaurant manager and served in a variety of capacities at my home church, I was led back into ministry. Back to West Virginia, but a little closer to my home territory. I worked very hard at this church for about the first year and a half and then a friend who belonged to the church needed some help with his business. He owned a local cab service. He needed a driver. So in my spare time I decided to drive some cab for my friend, a member of the church.

I met all sorts of people doing this job from local drunks, to jockeys who worked at the local track, to homeless transients, to strippers who worked at the local clubs. It was after meeting one of these strippers, and making reference to her in a sermon preached the following Sunday, that the proverbial feces hit the fan. I distinctly remember the words of one of the board members, “This cab driving stuff has to stop.” Well, I certainly couldn’t see why. Most 28 year-olds do have trouble seeing beyond themselves. Still, it was my ‘spare’ time. I suspect, and I could be wrong (although I doubt I am), that much of the problem was the nature of the people I was cabbing from place to place. You know, the preacher of a reputable church shouldn’t be seen driving people from and to bars; he shouldn’t be seen with strippers in the front seat of his cab; and he shouldn’t be supplementing his income by hanging out with such shady characters. The children might see.

And good christian people of scruple and sensibilities don’t appreciate hearing the word ‘whore’ from the pulpit even if that is what Rahab and the stripper both were. I know what happened to Rahab and how her story ended. I have no idea what happened to the stripper because I was eventually forced to resign the church and the cab and never saw her again.

I loved the people I drove around in that beat-up old car. I doubt any of them cared a lick about my faith or the fact that I was a preacher. One guy, a fella I’ll call Chuck, was actually quite a theologian. He just wanted nothing to do with the church and everything to do with the bar. Seems he was treated better at the bar. I was treated better by the strippers and drunks and homeless. Go figure. They wanted me; the church did not. They don’t care if a preacher drives the cab that gets them home, but the church sure minded if the preacher did.
________________________

It’s a funny thing about churches. We are very careful to protect our own interests. Don’t misunderstand me. I was younger then and far too easily provoked. When something happened that I didn’t think was just (like telling me what I could and could not do on my free time or telling me that the money of an angry old man was more important than my family) I complained, often loudly, about it. Patience is an acquired virtue. What I learned is that a preacher is always the outsider (unless he has started the church and grown it under his own leadership ideas) and never, I mean never, has any leg to stand on in such situations. The itinerant preacher who is hired by a local congregation is on his own.

He is shackled by a paycheck and by a parsonage. In these two ways, the local congregation holds all the power. The preacher is always expendable and, since he lives in a parsonage, can always leave ‘and find another church.’ It’s quite a lot more difficult than you might imagine—especially for preachers who are hired by locally independent congregations with no hierarchy or diocese to rely on in such situations. I have broken free from the shackle of the parsonage. It’s only a matter of time before I break free from the shackle of the paycheck.

What has happened though is rather simple: God’s grace got hold of me. It’s not that I don’t care about the people ‘in the church’; on the contrary, I do! What I do mean is that I have found that being among ‘those people’ is where I want to be. Helping. Serving. Loving. Sharing. Giving. Listening. Giving them rides. Changing their diapers. Giving them a bath. Cooking them a spam loaf. Feeding the 50 puppies that live under their front porch. Wiping blood, food, and puke off their face on Monday since they had spent the weekend drinking. Like Paul, God’s grace got hold of me and it was not without effect. In fact, the effects are still being fleshed out every single day, with each person I meet. If grace doesn’t change us, then it is not grace we have experienced. We might have gotten religion, but I doubt seriously we have encountered the same grace that Paul encountered, the grace that took hold of him.

What I have learned is this: my ministry is not in the church but in the world. While this has been happening, that is, while I have been realizing it, these words of Mark concerning the life of Jesus have been becoming more and more real to me:

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the “sinners” and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”

On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:13-17)

Yes, there are a lot of sick people in the church, but there are even more in the world. Frankly, I’d rather spend my time with people who need and want help than with those who don’t want it and believe in their hearts they don’t need it.

“The whores all seem to love him, and the drunks propose a toast.”–Rich Mullins

Previous Posts in this Series:
Confessions of a Frustrated (Christian) Preacher, 1
Confessions of a Frustrated (Christian) Preacher, 2

People or things referenced in this post:
Frederick Buechner
Strippers
West Virginia
Rich Mullins

Confessions of a Frustrated (Christian) Preacher, pt 2

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)

Indeed.

Things or People Referenced in this post:

JRR Tolkien
William Willimon
Great Lakes Christian College