Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News
March 18, 2018
The high privilege of serving as a pastor
Like today, March 18 was a Sunday in 1951. It was my mother-in-law’s 51st birthday. It was also the day I was granted a license to preach by the Methodist Church. I had no idea that day what an extraordinary privilege it would be to serve God as the pastor of a church.
I was not prepared either to preach or to do the work of a pastor. At the time I was a student at Auburn University but 17 months later, while still a college student, I was assigned to serve as pastor of a circuit of four Methodist Churches in Macon County, Alabama.
When I moved my wife and infant son into the parsonage at Milstead, Alabama, I had no idea how to write a sermon, conduct a wedding or a funeral, or what would be my pastoral duties. The pastors who licensed me to preach had required that I read and report on four books, none of which included practical guidance for pastoral work. Later it dawned on me that those pastors had approved me and then tossed me in the river assuming I could swim.
Years later I would realize how gracious and forgiving the people of those four churches had been to a greenhorn preacher who had no clue what he was doing. Their love, affirmation and encouragement helped me to stay the course and discover the rich privilege of being a pastor while preaching ten thousand sermons, conducting a thousand weddings and two thousand funerals, visiting in five thousand homes and hospitals, and counseling with hundreds of hurting people. I did all that for free. I took my salary for attending endless “meetings.”
Despite my weaknesses and inadequacies, for 67 years I have known the joy of being accepted and included in the caring community known as the fellowship of believers. That has meant the world to me. What does that mean?
It means that whenever I was hurting, my brothers and sisters in Christ were there for me. They were there for me when our son died. They were there for me when I almost died with a bleeding ulcer. They were there for me when my father died. On the day dad was buried, I was stunned to see the church bus drive up, loaded with parishioners who had interrupted their own plans in order to share my sorrow. Tears mingled with joy as I thought, “These folks are not merely church members, they are my family, my brothers, my sisters!”
Was I admired and affirmed by every church member I served? Certainly not. I deserved some of my critics for my foolish mistakes. I was wrong many times. My judgment was far from perfect. Yet the shining truth is that over the years the church has been family to me. I cherish the word “family.” It means so much. When I was down, my family helped me to my feet, gave me a fresh start. When I was discouraged, my family refused to let me drown in my own self-pity. When I was stressed out, my family affirmed me and lifted my spirit. When I sat depressed in the ashes of failure, my family gave me a chance to start over.
When I needed tough love, I got it. More than once, but one time will illustrate what it meant. One morning a dairy farmer walked into my study. We were good friends. He was a respected leader in our church and the community. I noted the serious look in his eyes as he declined my invitation to have a seat.
As he began speaking I realized he was on a mission. “Pastor,” he said, “You have what it takes to be one of the best pastors our church has ever had, but right now you are not providing the leadership we need. You are out of town too much preaching in other churches; leading our church does not seem to be your top priority. But, if you are willing to make our church your major concern, I believe you could get the job done. If you want to do that, I am ready to help you in every way I can. If not, then you may need to move on, for your good and ours.”
Without waiting for me to reply, he knelt beside my chair and prayed for me, asking the Lord to give me the grace and strength to become the pastor the church needed. Done praying, he embraced me and went on his way, leaving me stunned and weeping.
I sat quietly for a long time, alone with God. I knew in my heart that my friend had said, in love, exactly what I needed to hear. I knew he was right. I had been enamored for years with the idea of being a popular “evangelist” while also serving as a pastor. But I was doing it at the expense of my church and I knew my priorities were skewed.
Before getting out of my chair I decided with God’s help I would heed my friend’s advice and make my church my top priority. I began to stay home more and focus my time and energy on providing the best pastoral care and leadership I could offer. God blessed that decision and blessed our church with new growth, spiritually and otherwise. I had new joy in being a pastor.
While a pat on the back is often helpful, what we need sometimes is a kick in the seat. So I have never ceased thanking God for my brothers and sisters who loved me enough to give me a swift kick when I needed it. It is one of the rich benefits of serving as the pastor of a church.
Today, reflecting on the many years God has mercifully given me to live my life as a servant of Jesus Christ, I give thanks for my larger family, the fellowship of believers that has always been there for me and allowed me the high privilege of serving as a pastor. I shall depart this life with a heart filled with gratitude for such an honor. + + +