Five more words to those new in the ministry

(Recently, we wrote an earlier article for “those just starting out in ministry” in which we made some suggestions on matters they should learn, skills they should have, and such.  Here is that article http://joemckeever.com/wp/5-starting-ministry/ for which this one is the companion.)

I began pastoring churches when John F. Kennedy was president.  That was a long time ago.  Then, 42 years later I moved from pastoring to become associational director of missions. After five years in that (DOM) work, I’m now in my 6th year of retirement, mostly an itinerant ministry, speaking in scores of churches every year.

I love preaching and serving churches, encouraging ministers and counseling church leaders.  It’s the greatest work in the world.

Do I wish I’d done some things differently at the start? You bet. And, I imagine most ministers feel that way for reasons unique to themselves. Here are a few of my “wishes” that come to mind, for whatever it’s worth to you who are at the front end of your call into the Lord’s service….

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Some things, pastor, you do not want to know

“He leadeth me in paths of righteousness, for His name’s sake” (Psalm 23:3).

Pastor, you do not want to know why that committee turned you down for that position you wanted so badly.

I’m rereading my daily journals for the decade of the 1990s.  Much of it I’d long since forgotten, so in many respects, it’s fun.  One thing struck me, however, about the year 1992.

I was looking for a way out of this church!

By “this church” I mean the one where I remained as pastor for nearly 14 years and to which I still belong.  It had come through a crisis 18 months before I arrived that almost resulted in its self-destruction.  The Lord sent me to half a congregation, millions of dollars in debt, a sanctuary that had had major problems from the beginning and needed considerable work, and a dysfunctional leadership team made up of some of the greatest souls in the kingdom as well as some of the strangest birds ever.

We were hurting financially and it appeared to be getting worse.  My wife and I were living in rented quarters and were cutting into the small savings we kept from selling our house in North Carolina.

Some of the leaders were unhappy with us from the first and looked for ways to undercut everything we tried.

Nothing about this was fun.

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There’s one of these in (almost) every church

Young pastors enter the ministry expecting the people of the Lord to be healthy, sane, balanced, spiritual, biblically informed, and Holy Spirit guided.

And then they run into reality.

The image of “running into a buzz-saw” comes to mind.

Some of them do not survive the experience, bless their hearts. But we remind them–when we have the opportunity–that our Lord said those who are whole do not need a physician (Matthew 9:12).  If they were all healthy, sane, balanced, etc etc., they would not need a pastor.

You are there for those who are the unhealthy, unbalanced, spiritually immature, and so forth.

Sometimes, it’s a leader in the church who blindsides you.

Here’s my story (see my two notes at the end)….

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Making ourselves learn new things

“It is good for a man to bear the yoke in his youth” (Lamentations 3:27)

When I was in high school, someone taught me to type.  Just after college, they taught me to run the teletype and then to work a mimeograph machine.  Eventually, someone installed a computer in my office. I said, “Where do you turn it on? It has no on/off switch.”

In the 1990s when teaching (occasionally) at our seminary, I entered the classroom carrying books and a Bible. Everything about the class was hand-written or typed.  In recent years, everyone brought laptops into the classroom, and much of the work was paperless, posted on academic websites set up just for this purpose.  I graded “papers” without leaving my desk, without taking my eyes off the computer, without lifting a pencil.

Recently, I’ve been writing a series of devotions for a quarterly magazine in our denomination.  The process was anything but simple.  The editor emailed me an attachment containing instructions, a contract, samples of past devotionals, and most puzzling of all, templates for the ten articles.  Think of a template as a mold into which one pours his writings. A little goes here (the title and date), a little goes there (the text, and one verse in particular that is typed out), and so forth.  One template for each day, making ten in all.  When these are all complete, I send them in via the internet, my cover letter with ten attachments.

The thought occurred to me today….

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It’s always the 100th anniversary of something or other

On the 28th of this month, people across the world will celebrate–if that’s the word for it–the centennial of the start of the Great War. The First World War.

We commemorate it.  We acknowledge the anniversary and mark it as a significant event.

This was a defining event in the lives of untold millions worldwide.  That war gave us the one which followed it a generation later.

We owe a lot to the First World War.  Tongue firmly planted in cheek.

That date was June 28, 1914.  The United States came to that party late, joining the Allies for the final two years, 1917-18.

A hundred years ago seems like forever to most people today. It wasn’t.

Not by a long shot.

A little background.

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How I got in trouble as a seminary student

Now, trouble and me are no strangers to one another.

As a student in elementary and also in high school, I sometimes earned the reproach of teachers and principals.  As a 7th grader, I was paddled by the principal for something crude a teacher thought I’d said to her.  (It was close enough to being crude for her to think I said something worse than what I’d actually said, so I took the paddling without protest.)

In the 8th grade, a substitute teacher broke a pencil over my head, she was so frustrated.

As a high schooler, I was known to pop off to any authority figure if I thought it would bring a laugh.  (Getting laughs was always big in my book and worth any risk.)

Principal Andy Davis stood before our senior class at Winston County High School. “There is entirely too much commotion going on in the hallways during the lunch period. And you seniors are the worst.  If this keeps on, we’re going to cancel lunch break altogether and march you to the cafeteria and back to the classroom.”

He went on like that for a bit, making sure we knew how angry he was and how serious we should take this.

Then he paused. “Are there any questions?”

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New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and moi!

My wife and I arrived on the campus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in late June of 1964.  A couple of days later, after we set up the apartment at 4412-C Seminary Place, Margaret’s mother arrived with our one-year-old son Neil and our little English Ford automobile. We were in our third year of marriage and I was moving my bride nearly 400 miles away from her mama and daddy.

Our  marriage got better immediately. (smiley-face here)

We had chosen this seminary from the other five SBC schools rather easily, and it had nothing to do with reputation.  New Orleans is a mission field.  A rather exotic one, I thought. Historic, too. So, that was it.  We would go where we could make a difference for the Lord’s sake.

We lived on campus the first year.  Margaret took a job at the campus Baptist Book Store and I worked afternoons for the Louisiana Coca-Cola Bottling Company.  A few times that fall, student pastors invited me to preach for their churches.  (I had pastored little Unity Baptist Church, Kimberly, Alabama, for 14 months, and served in an unpaid staff position at Central Baptist in Tarrant for 6 months before coming to seminary. That was the sum total of my pastoral experience.)

We joined Pontchartrain Baptist Church on Robert E. Lee Boulevard in New Orleans where classmate Vaughan Pruitt pastored.  Soon he had me teaching a young couples class and leading worship music.  (To this day, my heart goes out to small churches that have to put up with such inept leadership!)

That first summer, I took classes on missions with Dr. Malcolm Tolbert and Old Testament with Dr. George Harrison and loved both.  Because I’d not done my best in college, with grades hardly more than average, I threw myself into seminary studies to make the most of this. Dr. Harrison and I bonded and remain great friends to this day. (He’s in his 80s now, living in the Mobile, Alabama area. I had him guest-preach/teach in every church I pastored except one. I am eternally grateful to the Lord for giving me such a friend and mentor.)

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The single most encouraging thing you can do for a pastor

First a disclaimer: I’m a retired pastor, I have no deacons (and no church members), I love deacons, and I’m loving ministry. However, there was a time when life was tough.

That’s what this is about.

I was having trouble with a few deacons. From the day I became their pastor, these men and their families had dedicated themselves to not liking me and being non-supportive in anything I suggested.

Eight years later, we did something.

Amazing, isn’t it, that we waited so long.  But one must not think we did not try a hundred approaches to bring unity among our church leaders.  However, nothing worked.

Finally, in exasperation I told the deacon officers–all of whom were faithful and supportive–that I had had it “up to here” and was ready to bring these men before the church and ask the congregation to take action.

The officers conferred with each other and came back with a most unusual request.

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Paying your vows, watching your words, and being responsible.

“What shall I render to the Lord for all HIs benefits toward me?…. I shall pay my vows to the Lord…in the presence of all His people” (Psalm 116:12-18)

Scripture says it’s better not to vow anything to the Lord than to make a vow and not keep it (see Deuteronomy 23:21 and Ecclesiastes 5:4).

This happened some 25 years ago….

My wife and I were captivated by the words in Psalm 66 which described the awful time we were enduring in the church where the Lord had sent us to pastor only a couple of years earlier. “You brought us into the net; You laid an oppressive burden upon us. You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water.” And then, we spotted the promise and began claiming it. “Yet You did bring us out into a place of abundance.” (Psalm 66:10-12)

All of that quickly proved to be dead on. We have written on these pages how our reassignment to serve in New Orleans drove us to ask, “Is this the place of abundance?”  It seemed anything but. Then we found Romans 5:20, “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.”  We had our answer: abundant sin and abundant grace.

From time to time over the next year or so, I would return to Psalm 66 to be refreshed on its contents, to consider the larger context, and to ask whether I had missed anything.

Then one day I noticed something.

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The best time I ever had in the ministry

The only reason that plane ride in the T-38 was so much fun is that I survived it, then looked back and remembered it with pleasure. Columbus AFB Wing Commander Chet Griffin arranged it. He said, “You’ve been ministering to these student pilots all these years; you ought to learn something of what they go through.”  As I say, it was great fun–in retrospect. (smiley-face goes here)

The 1977 trip to Singapore (via Chicago, Anchorage, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and finally my destination) and back was part of a long, long process of drawing an evangelistic comic book for the missionaries there, then coloring each of the many pages (with acrylic and tiny brushes!), and printing up 10,000 copies for their use. It was a job! And fun mainly in retrospect because we did it, it was most unusual, we would never be doing anything like that again, and we survived it.

That deacons meeting that went on for four hours with me as its subject (“to fire or not to fire, that is the question”) was exhilarating only in looking back after we saw how God used it and what He did with it. At the time, no fun.

In fact, I have an admission to make.

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