My first pastorate was the most frustrating of the six churches I shepherded. But I made a discovery that was like striking oil or stumbling over a gold vein.
Here’s what happened.
Just after finishing college, we married and I took a job. The plan was to work for two years and pay some bills, save what we could, and then head to seminary in New Orleans. That, incidentally, is precisely what we did, I’m happy to report.
In the meantime, I wanted to pastor a church. The problem was I was Southern Baptist and had just graduated from a Methodist college (Birmingham-Southern) with a degree in history and political science. My training in preaching, in church leadership, and in theology were practically non-existent.
Not exactly the kind of credentials an SBC pastor search committee was looking for.
Thanks to the recommendation from a preacher friend of my brother Ron, a tiny church some 25 miles north of the city invited me to fill the pulpit. After a couple of Sundays, they apparently decided to live dangerously and made me their pastor. I was elated.
I would remain there for the next year and two months. My short tenure furnished one of the most forgettable periods in that church’s long history. But it taught me a hundred lessons more precious than gold, lessons found only in the school of experience and nowhere else.
The most inspiring moment in that pastorate, however, came the day something hit me which had never occurred to my untutored mind. It came with such force that I laughed out loud at the prospect:
I could resign this church and they would call someone better. I would be free and they would go forward. It was a win-win proposition.
The question on the mind of readers is why leaving that church was such a delicious thought to me.
I was chopping wood with a dull axe.
Bear in mind that I’m a farm boy and most of my metaphors have their origin in the field, the barn, the orchard, or the blacksmith shop.
The fellow who cuts wood with a dull axe exerts far too much energy to produce miniscule results.
–My sermons were chaotic, were haphazard, were long on energy and short on content. My speech was peppered with slang-words that made me sound like a teenager.
–My pastoral visitation was almost non-existent.
–My evangelistic visitation was a disaster. I recall going next door to the church and trying to talk to a father of a child I was about to baptize about his relationship to the Lord. He quickly got me off to discussing where Adam’s sons got their wives, and I was hopelessly lost thereafter.
–My leadership was woefully weak. The teenager who played for the services hated the piano. When we offered to pay for more lessons, I learned in a heartbeat she knew all about the piano she ever intended to learn. The man who led the hymns often as not did not show up. We needed to have a work day and do repairs around the church, but having no skills in that department, I did nothing about it.
My tithe to the church was slightly more than what they were paying me as a salary.
One day, after a year of this, the pastor of a larger church in the city encouraged me to join his staff as an unpaid assistant pastor. He said, “We have a vacant parsonage which you can move into. You’ll only have to pay the utilities.” In return, I would help with church visitation and preach in his absence.
That’s when, for the first time, something occurred to me: I can resign this church and walk away. I’m not married to it for life.
That was like a gift of God, just realizing I could shed this heavy burden without it hurting anyone.
My last act at that church was a Sunday afternoon baptizing of three people, an adult woman and two children. As though to underscore the difficulties I had gone through in trying to pastor that church, even the baptism was an ordeal.
Since our tiny church owned no baptistry, we made arrangements with a church at the edge of Birmingham to borrow theirs on a Sunday afternoon. This was at the end of December when the temperatures in this Alabama city usually hover around the freezing mark in the daytime.
Our little congregation arrived in mid-afternoon, only to be told that the church’s water heater had broken down. We would be baptizing in tap-water. Ice cold tapwater.
I gave the parties a choice: be baptized today or let the next pastor do the honors in warm weather. Since all had family members present, they wanted to go forward.
Getting into the water was the hard part. After that, the bottom half of my body felt nothing. I could have stood there all day. My heart went out to those two children and the lady, however, as I plunged them down underneath the icy waters of baptism.
Personally, had I been them, I think I’d have opted to become a Methodist at that moment. But they were troopers. My admiration for them went through the roof.
I resigned the church and, with my wife and our young baby, joined the membership of the larger Central Baptist Church of Tarrant City. We remained there for six months before heading off to New Orleans and seminary.
The sensation of being let out of jail is how I felt on leaving my first pastorate. In no way is this a reflection on the members. Rather, it’s a commentary on my situation of trying to shepherd God’s people when clueless as to what I was doing.
Over the next several decades and through five more pastorates, we would resign that many more times and move to new assignments. But never again did I have the “let out of jail” sensation about a move. Only the first time.
I have a friend who is resigning his church next Sunday to move to a new assignment several states away. The present congregation is probably typical of Southern Baptist county-seat churches in most respects. The vast majority of church members have been salt of the earth and faithful. However, a few leaders have done all they could to undermine his ministry and run him away. They will rejoice on his departure and doubtless feel that “this time we’re going to do it right.”
My friend will stand in the pulpit and say all the right things. He will tell the congregation that God has led him away, and He’s right on that, I’m certain. He will thank the staff and deacons and members for their faithfulness. The church will honor him and his family with a reception and they will present him with gifts, I imagine. He will tire of having his neck hugged and tears will be shed.
But I guarantee that when the moving van pulls onto the highway and he shifts into drive and begins to follow, one sensation will override all others.
A mile or two out of town, when no other car can be seen in any direction, he will laugh.
Oh, how he will laugh. Deep, hearty, belly laughs. On and on, he will laugh. His wife will join him and they’ll even shed a few tears. But not tears of pain. They are so glad God has heard their prayers and opened this new assignment.
They’ll break into the Doxology, I’m betting. And they’ll sing it with gusto and laughter.
Nothing about this is cruel or mean-spirited. Nothing.
They love the church they are leaving. After all, they invested years of their lives and ministry in it. They want only the best for it. They will pray for its healing and for the Lord to give them the ideal pastor as their next shepherd.
But they are so relieved to be shed of its burdens.
Like being let out of jail.