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.)
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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.
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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.
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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