Thursday, March 23, 2006
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter
Budgets would double, new buildings be erected...
Dr. Betty Achtemeier was my preaching professor in seminary. She often remarked that new ministers were distressed because their work was not more exciting. I think we students all had visions of our sermons setting off vast upheavals of new enthusiasm in the first weeks of our ministries. Converts would come streaming down the aisles, missionaries would go forth, budgets would double, new buildings would be erected. All that was lacking was the appearance on the scene of, well, us and our obviously great, spirit-filled talent!
It did not take long for each graduating class to become disabused of this notion. Then the new preachers would come back to visit the seminary thoroughly deflated, dragging their tails behind them.
Betty said that we needed to go out prepared for the sameness of daily life in the pastorate. God works slowly, she insisted. You plant seeds. The next minister reaps the harvest. That way, God gets the glory. Remember that, Betty would say.
Lots of times I compare myself to the fireman or the ambulance driver. Because when my phone rings it is usually bad news. People are not so quick to include the preacher when there is some-thing to celebrate. I wish people would think about that, but that is not my point just now.
Wednesday prayer meetings are usually celebrations of bad news. I am grateful for those who are willing to take on their souls the cares and sorrows of a community, but I can also sympathize with my father, who tried to be dutiful as a prayer meeting attender. Once as we drove home from prayer meeting, Daddy said that the long discussion that had ensued about Mr. Xs prostate was just what he needed after a hard day at his store!
Preachers wear lots of different hats. (In fact, I recall an ordination sermon where the preacher put a hat rack by the pulpit and dressed it with all sorts of different hats, symbolic of the various roles a local pastor is called on to play!)
Ministers play the role of teacher, which can be satisfying as long as you do not inquire too closely into what your class has learned. We also are preachers, and for this are told at the church door that people enjoyed the message again, one should not let this go to ones head. What else can one say? You have to go by the preacher to get out the door!
I think many of us feel called to, and relish the idea of, being a prophet that is, telling forth the word of God against whatever evils and ills we identify. It makes a man feel big to speak truth to power as a Washington, D.C. minister friend likes to put it.
Of course, Daddy King told his young son Martin that none of the Biblical prophets earned their living serving a local synagogue, and advised him that if he wanted to pursue a calling as a prophet, hed better look for some other means of support. The church is, however, still a remarkable place. It is one of the few professions (other than physicians who lecture about diet and cholesterol) where people will sit still (and contribute money) to be criticized.
But an effective preacher knows this must be done in small increments. Back to what Betty said, that God works slowly. (It is also helpful if a preacher acknowledges his or her need for personal growth and reform.)
So a lot of the ministers time is spent waiting. And ministers are not, for the most part, agents of primary change in the cultures around them. There are exceptions, of course. But these are, quite frankly, very costly to a parsons job security. Look at the 100 or so white clergy who had to leave Mississippi after speaking out in the aftermath of the James Meredith controversy at Ole Miss in 1962.
Mostly, I think, ministers help people cope with change. Life is full of changes, and change of any kind is difficult for people to face. Moving to a nursing home. Dealing with cancer or death. Finding a new job. Making friends in elementary school. Going off to college.
Change happens constantly, and the minister reminds people that God is there beside them as they walk through these valleys of the shadow. This means wearing the hat of the pastor, or shepherd if you like, for that is the root meaning of the word pastor.
Faulkner used to say that all of his writings dealt in one way or another with the capacity to endure well grief and misfortune and then endure again not for reward but for virtues own sake (not always because the virtues as society declares them to be are in themselves necessarily admirable), but in order to live with oneself and die peacefully with oneself when the time comes.
I think this is what the pastor basically does. The pastor helps people cope not in stoical resolve, but by calling on God, who in my tradition is revealed through Jesus Christ. It is not very glorious work, or even always exciting. Often it is just being there and feeling at a loss for much to say. But I think it is important work. And so I keep on.
Waiting for the phone to ring.
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