Who Are We Reaching?

    “Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Luke 14″12-14

Who are we reaching?

Who are our churches reaching?

What are we doing about it?

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Confessions of a Frustrated (Christian) Preacher, pt 4

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.

Pulpit Supply

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.

Interviews

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.
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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.

Imagine.

Things referenced in this post:

Rob Bell
Michigan
Indiana
Church Elders
Ohio

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

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.
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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.
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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.
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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

Confessions of a Frustrated (Christian) Preacher

“My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.” (John 17:15)

I don’t know how many of you are ‘regular readers’ of the Relevant Christian blog and how many of you just happen to be tag surfing or accidentally googled us. I don’t know how you got here, but I am glad you are here.

I don’t know where you are, either. That is, maybe you are a Christian, maybe you are not; it doesn’t really matter. I don’t know, and I won’t presume to have all the answers to all your questions or concerns or problems. I don’t know where you are in life, but I am glad you are here. I hope you can and will engage us in conversation regardless of where you are.

There is a far better life that is the life of faith. It is a life that has decided to be done with religion and to get on living in Christ. It is a life that has decided, in the words of Graham Cooke, to ‘live in Christ and not in circumstances.’ It is a life that, again in the words of Graham Cooke, ‘loves his life more than [your] own.’ It’s a life that has decided to follow Jesus.
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My name is jerry. My friend Joe invited me to blog here and I’m glad he did. I love writing and blogging has afforded me an outlet to enjoy my habit and hobby unfettered by the chains of deadlines, budgets, and someone else’s vision of my work.

My name is jerry. I am a sinner saved by grace. I am also a preacher, by calling and not by choice. People ask me about my ‘calling’ and I tell them frankly, “I can’t explain how I know. I just know. I didn’t choose preaching, it chose me.” I can’t explain how I know I am a preacher, I just know.

But I’m a frustrated preacher; a terribly frustrated preacher. You see, I love preaching. I am never more alive as a christian than when I am standing in a pulpit, in the power of the Spirit, under the authority of the Word of God, and authorized by Jesus preaching the Gospel. When I get up to preach, however, I am a basket case, a bundle of nerves and anxiety, ready to throw-up at any minute, and weak. Then I get started and the Spirit of God gives me strength and the words start pouring out of my mouth and I wonder how it happens and where it comes from. Then it’s over. 30 minutes preaching is nothing like 30 minutes listening. When I go home on Sunday afternoon, I am exhausted.

I am a frustrated preacher and this has led me into an area of my life that I’m not yet fully understanding: I am a frustrated Christian. I can’t explain it yet, but I am working on it intensely. I will be sharing with you some of my history in a several post series blog entries. These post are aimed at serving two ends. First, they are cathartic. I need to share what I have been learning and the path that I believe the Lord has set before me in recent days. Not that my particular story is special but that, second, I know there are people in the world who have the exact same sense of frustration and anxiety over their faith walk. I hope to engage you in conversation or be an encouragement to you.

As such, I am writing from a particular point of view: the pulpit.
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I think it happened this past Thursday evening when I went to a conference where the speaker was Graham Cooke and the worship that led up to the speaker was decidedly Pentecostal in flavor. I’m from a traditionally conservative (read: boring) worship tradition so being involved in a Pentecostal worship service was rather like leaving the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and entering a mosh pit at an Anthrax concert. I spent most of my time trying to worship, but mostly sitting slack-jawed and observing the worshipers.

There were people barefoot dancing. There were old ladies with hands uplifted. People in wheelchairs. Old men. Young men. There were young people laying on their faces. There were open eyes, open mouths, open hands and open hearts. There were babies. There were people who desperately wanted to wave their banners and flags and bang on their tambourines (space considerations had driven the leadership to put a ban on such things that evening.) People had a joy in their eyes that I knew could only come from their hearts and from the Holy Spirit. I took in as much as I could. I was amazed.

But I was sad and a large part of me suffered mightily during that worship. I didn’t have that joy that literally everyone around the room had. I felt terribly out of place and alone. I texted my wife something to that effect. I told her that I hadn’t had that sort of joy for a long time. Then I texted her again and told her why: preaching in a local church had robbed me of joy. I thought about it through the next song only to have my suspicions confirmed: Even my preaching had recently been reduced to a mere religious exercise and not an act of Holy Spirit inspired Faith. It’s not that I needed the experience to validate or create the joy but that I think the joy will lead us into a fuller experience.

I have allowed, in one way or another, the Holy Spirit of God to be quenched in my life. And I can attribute that quenching to only one thing: Paid ministry.
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In the next installment of this series, I will give you a little bit of background on how I got from ‘there to here,’ that is, some of the journey I have taken into the dark cold world that is the paid ministry.

I have no illusions that everyone will agree with my conclusions. That’s OK. I’m giving voice to my journey because maybe there are others who feel trapped in paid ministry and maybe there are some who are considering paid ministry as a vocation. Todd D Hunter wrote, “We don’t need to add ‘spiritual’ activities to our life as much as we need to make our actual, everyday life spiritual. What we typically think of as ‘spiritual’ often ends up creating a false dualism” (Christianity Beyond Belief, 115).

My aim is to help prevent someone from creating such a false dualism in their own life.

Links to things or people or other referenced in this post:

Preaching to the Dead
New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Anthrax (**content warning**)
Graham Cooke
Todd D Hunter
Google