Monday, October 31, 2016

2, 4, 6, 8, Who Do I Appreciate?

On this last day of Pastor Appreciation Month, I want to say a word of appreciation for the church.  I’ve only pastored two churches in the last 34 years.  Dayna and I feel that both churches have been better for us than we have been for them.  The church has loved us through the birth of children and the death of parents.  The church was there for us in profound ways as we dealt with an unexpected crisis in the life of one of our children.  They have cared for us through a handful of surgeries.  They have always paid us more than we are worth.  They have followed my lead and occasionally led me.  They have listened to my preaching and taken it seriously—that same not-so-pleasing-to-the-ear voice—for almost 14 years in one place and more than 21 years in the church I currently serve.  They have let us be ourselves, never forcing us into some preconceived pastoral mold.  They have prayed for us, encouraged us, appreciated us.  Not once in all these years have Dayna and I ever had to wonder, “Does the church love us?”—not even once.  In both pastorates, I’ve occasionally had to pinch myself to be sure I wasn’t dreaming.  “God, you mean I really get to pastor this church and these people?”  
When so many pastors get assigned to difficult churches that make life hard on them and happy ministry a pipedream, I don’t know why God had blessed Dayna and I with the churches we’ve served.  My only guess is that we don’t have hearty enough stock to serve in contentious places.  So with my appreciation for the churches I’ve served comes a prayer for pastors who serve in churches that don’t appreciate them, love them, listen to them, follow them.  May God give those pastors grace to endure with joy, and may God transform those churches into places their pastors love to serve.
Someone once said that the church is a lot like Noah’s ark: if it weren’t for the storm without, you could never stand the smell within.  That’s true of plenty of churches, just not the ones I’ve been privileged to serve.  More than once this October a few of my pastor friends have asked me, “Did your church do anything for you for Pastor Appreciation month?”  And my answer is always the same, “Where I serve every month is Pastor Appreciation Month.”
So as this “appreciation” month draws to a close, let me say it one more time: Church, I appreciate you!

Monday, October 3, 2016

Things I'm Glad I Didn't Know—40 Years Later

Forty years ago today I was ordained to the gospel ministry.  I had just turned 20 years old.  I was pretty wet behind the ears in ministry.  I had worked two summers preaching in the campgrounds and assisting the staff for First Baptist Church, Branson, Missouri.  One of the church’s deacons, Russell Martin, encouraged the rest of the deacons to ask the church to ordain me to the ministry.  He told them, “We licensed him two years ago.  We’ve seen his gifts.  He’ll be out of college soon.  If we don’t ordain him someone else will.”  I’m not sure that’s the greatest motivation to ordain someone, but the church agreed with Russell and voted to ordain me on Sunday, October 3, 1976.  Two deacons were ordained alongside me that night.  That took a little heat off me—a gift deacons have given me for most of these 40 years since.

I don’t have a long resume for forty years.  I served on the staff of two churches until January, 1982.  Since that time I’ve only been pastor of two churches—First Baptist Church of Greenwood, Missouri (13.5 years), and First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, Arkansas (21 years and change so far).  I’ve never been sure if I’ve only served two churches because I’m just good enough that a church doesn’t want to lose me but not so good that other churches want to take me away.  Either way, it’s worked for me, and the churches have done okay too.  And by the same token, I’ve never been a man of ambition.  I just always figured God would get me where He wanted me.

I might have picked up my “union card” that night, but I didn’t know a lot more about ministry than I knew.  And that’s a good thing. 

I didn’t know I had so many sermons in me.  Add up all the preparations a pastor makes in 40 years, all the words he has to speak, and you’re probably going to need a calculator to get the number.  In her book, Gilead, Marilynne Robinson gives life to a character named Pastor John Ames.  In explaining his work, Ames said, “Now it’s Sunday again.  When you do this sort of work, it seems to be Sunday all the time, or Saturday night.  You just finish preparing for one week and it’s already the next week.”  I didn’t know how demanding that would be.  I’m glad I didn’t know.

I didn’t know how much heartache I would share with people—terminal cancers, deaths, divorce, unexpected tragedy, joblessness, depression, grief, mental illness.  I had no clue all the tears I’d see and all the tears I would add to the mix.  I’m glad I didn’t know.

I didn’t know church people could be so mean.  I learned this when I was a staff member.  I watched this happen to my pastor and never knew church people could be so cruel to a pastor.  I’m glad I didn’t know.

I didn’t know pastors have to wrestle with temptation as much as we do.  The enemy often targets leaders.  Hurt the leader, wound the team.  I thought being a pastor made it easier to be holy.  Man, I wasn’t just na├»ve, I was dead wrong.  I’m glad I didn’t know that.

I didn't know I would have to fight for my time alone with God.  Nobody holds me accountable for that or asks me about my walk with God.  They assume it is where it needs to be.  People are more concerned about what a pastor produces—visits, sermons, budgets, programs—than about what produces a pastor: time alone with God in prayer and Scripture, meditation and study.  I didn't know that.  

I didn’t know that I would have to lead an organization, set goals, build buildings, call and manage church staff, and raise money.  I figured if I loved God, loved the people, and preached decent sermons, everything would take care of itself.  I’m glad I didn’t know that wasn’t the case.

I didn’t know I would only serve two churches as pastor and that those churches would do a lot more for me than I have ever done for them.  They have loved my family and me, encouraged me to be myself, listened for years to the same whiny voice and still come back another Sunday.  If I had known I’d only pastor two churches, I would have worried about how I would stay fresh, how I would come up with new sermons, how I would lead the church over time without killing it.  I’m glad I didn’t know this.

I didn’t know I would get to do kingdom work in several countries around the world.  When I became a lead pastor I had only been in six states in my life, let alone outside the country.  Had I known I'd go to some hard places in the world, I would have been scared to death.  I’m glad I didn’t know.

I didn’t know I would get to pastor some of God’s choicest people who would teach me more about God than I have taught them.  I didn't know this, but it didn't surprise me.

I didn’t know I would ever pastor a church that could have full-time staff members, let alone get to work with some of the best in the kingdom.

If I had known most of these things on October 3, 1976, I would have probably run for my life.  “God, I can’t do it.  I’m not up to it.  I am a nobody from nowhere.  I am young and inexperienced.  Who am I to lead your people?  How can I help them find Jesus in their hurts?  You’ve got a lot better options than me.”  Except for the “young and inexperienced” part, I still find myself praying this way … a lot.  And that’s okay.  It keeps me depending on Jesus who I have learned gives me what I need when I need it.  I am not so dependable; Jesus is.  I am not so insightful; Jesus is.  I am not sufficient in myself; Jesus and His grace are sufficient for every sermon, every need, every encounter, every project, every crisis, every day.  That’s probably the most important thing I’ve learned in these 40 years.

About 1985, three years into my first pastorate, I was reading The Walk-On-Water Syndrome by Edward Bratcher, and I came across a prayer attributed to Martin Luther. 

   Oh Lord God, Thou hast made me a pastor and teacher in the church.  Thou seest how unfit I am to administer rightly this great responsible office; and had I been without Thy aid and counsel I would have surely ruined it long ago.  Therefore do I invoke Thee.

   How gladly do I desire to yield and consecrate my heart and mouth to this ministry.  I desire to teach the congregation.  I, too, desire to ever learn and to keep Thy Word my constant companion and to meditate thereupon earnestly. 

Use me as Thy instrument in Thy service.  Only do not Thou forsake me, for if I am left to myself, I will certainly bring it all to destruction.

That has been my prayer for all these years.  And it will be my prayer as long as God sees fit to make me a pastor in His church.

So thank you, First Baptist Church of Branson, for believing in me 40 years ago.  Even more, thank you, for believing in a great God who can take a little life and use it for His glory.