Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News
October 2, 2016
Small churches endure greenhorn preachers
A greenhorn is an awkward and inexperienced person. That word fit me perfectly when I began preaching. How people endured my preaching back then remains a mystery.
Methodists usually start greenhorn preachers in small country churches. These churches are the training ground for new preachers. After some years I figured out why greenhorns are given a circuit of several small churches. Most of them only have worship services once or twice a month so the people are spared the pain of listening to poor preaching every Sunday.
A greenhorn at age 21, I became the pastor of four small churches near Milstead, Alabama. I had no training. I knew nothing about how to prepare or preach a sermon. But the people seemed to like me from the start, probably because my first sermons were no more than ten to 15 minutes long.
The Methodist hierarchy, after asking me to read and report on four books, had issued me a license to preach. While a student at Auburn University I was appointed by Dr. W. F. Calhoun, superintendent of the Montgomery District, to serve the LaPlace Circuit at a salary of $1900 a year. They provided a parsonage and allowed me to continue my studies at Auburn.
The good people of those churches were not surprised that I was a babe in the woods. All their pastors for many years had been student pastors. I was expected me to learn on the job.
My learning was not without its embarrassing moments. One of my churches was the old LaPlace Church, one of the earliest Methodist churches organized in Alabama. The church was just off Highway 80 in Shorter, now the home of VictoryLand Greyhound Park and gambling center. On a good Sunday 30 to 40 people showed up for worship at the LaPlace Church.
One faithful worshiper was Wright Noble. He appeared to be a pillar of the church so I decided one Sunday to ask him to pray. I figured I could use some help since I was not comfortable praying or preaching.
I learned that day never to call on someone to pray in church without asking permission beforehand. From the pulpit, I asked politely, “Mr. Noble, will you lead us in prayer?”
Without a moment’s hesitation, he stood up and replied in a strong, firm voice, “I beg to be excused; that’s what we pay the preacher for!”
Embarrassed, I stumbled through a prayer while most of my parishioners were quietly chuckling. I have no doubt Mr. Noble was a Christian. I am sure he was a praying man. However, I never heard him pray.
Thus did my training for pastoral work begin. Mr. Noble and others like him made sure that I understood why they paid my salary. There were certain things I was expected to do, none of which was ever explained to me in a “job description.” They were quite willing to teach me my duties in one embarrassing moment after another.
People pay the preacher for many reasons. Some pay him to mind his own business, which does not include “running the church.” The explanation was plain and simple: “You stick to preaching and we will run the church.”
In one church I asked the church treasurer for a report on the offerings. He said, “We are fine, preacher, just fine.” I asked, “Do you make a monthly report to the Board?” He replied, “No, I just let everybody know if we get behind. Right now, everything is fine.” I think he kept the church’s money in a cigar box, but I never found out. He taught me that it was none of my business how much money the church had collected.
Speaking of money, I think most preachers feel like I do about being paid. I was amazed that I could be paid to have such a great job. Our work is not drudgery and we are not in the ministry for the money. Some of us feel that we are paid far more than we deserve. And some of our parishioners agree!
A retired preacher was asked by a senior pastor to join his staff as the minister of visitation, to care for the sick and homebound.
He replied, “You don’t have enough money to hire me to visit the hospitals. When I was a pastor, the church paid me my full salary to visit the sick; I preached for free!”
I think his attitude was unique. I always felt it was a high privilege to minister to the sick and develop strong relationships with people who were hurting and anxious.
A preacher gets paid to do many things. People have a thousand expectations of their preacher. Some people feel like they are not getting their money’s worth; others wish they could pay the pastor more.
In a healthy church the preacher and the people work together as a team, shepherding people with love. Key leaders trust their pastor and realize that he needs their help; he or she cannot do everything alone. Teamwork is essential.
Over many years I have had the joy of sharing ministry with some tremendous lay people who were servants of Christ. They were in my balcony pulling for me and praying for me. My gratitude for those teammates is boundless.
But my most profound gratitude is for the dear country saints who tolerated this greenhorn when I knew nothing and lovingly encouraged me to believe that I could learn how to do the work of a pastor. I am forever in their debt. + + +