“…that the generation to come might know….” (Psalm 78:6)
It was baseball great Satchel Paige who said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
At the age of 75, it’s probably safe for me to look back, at least for a few moments. I’m not racing anyone any more, if I ever was. And the only thing gaining on me is Father Time. (He can afford to pace himself, not having lost a race yet.)
Perhaps now is a good time to pull over into a rest area for a brief retrospective.
The editor of a Christian magazine posed eight questions to jog my thinking. He mostly wondered if I see the pastoral ministry any differently now from “way back when.”
1) LOOKING BACK, HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT YOUR YEARS IN THE PASTORATE ? Did they leave you better or bitter?
I am infinitely a better person for having pastored six churches over 42 years. (Those were followed by five years leading the SBC churches of metro New Orleans.)
I loved pastoring. As Harper Shannon said in his book of the same name, “I loved the trumpets in the morning.”
I liked the challenge of taking a sleeping congregation and awakening it to the delights of Scripture, the needs of its community, and the resources within its own membership. I loved the variety of tasks involved with pastoring–from the study and preaching, to administration and staff meetings, to composing a new message for the roadside sign each week, to the funerals and weddings. I loved the devotional times and the coffee breaks. My group always loved to laugh.
My least favorite things, the worst memories from those years, involve carnal people in places of leadership throwing their weight around, dissension in church business meetings, and division among the deacons. But these were rare, and a small price to pay for the privilege of shepherding the Lord’s flock.
Actually, the pastorate saved our marriage. Had we not been shut in by the padlock of the pastorate–in the words of one deacon, “If you divorce, you cannot continue as our pastor”–Margaret and I would probably have tossed in the towel in the late 1970s and gone our separate ways. But since a divorce would devastate our children and end our ministry in this denomination, we went through a year of marriage counseling and made it work. When God took Margaret to Heaven last January, we had logged almost 53 years of marriage.
2) SOME SAY PASTORAL PREACHING IS DIFFERENT FROM THE PREACHING OF PULPIT SUPPLIES, EVANGELISTS, AND OTHER VISITING MINISTERS. AGREE? If so, in what way?
It is different. I’ve been out of the pastorate since 2004 and retired from the vocational ministry since 2009, so these days my preaching is mostly single shot (what we call supply preaching) or at most, a few days of revival or a retreat here and there. This allows me to work at perfecting a dozen sermons which I preach continually. The beleaguered pastor, bless his heart, not having this luxury, has to re-invent the wheel every week. Several times a week, even. Therefore, he does series or preaches through books of the Bible. (My own pastor is preaching a series through Genesis which may take a year or more.) A supply preacher flies in and says his piece, but a pastor settles in for the long haul and takes a long-range approach.
In churches where I’ve never preached before (the people haven’t heard my “good stuff”–lol), I’ll typically bring a sermon on “What it means to live by faith,” based on Habakkuk 2:4, “The just shall live by faith.” In 25 minutes, the message covers confessing Christ by faith, praying by faith, giving by faith, and worshiping by faith. A pastor would preach one sermon on each of these; the visiting minister loads them all into a single discharge of his hermeneutical cannon.
3) YOU’VE BEEN OUT OF THE PASTORAL MINISTRY OVER TEN YEARS, SO WHAT CONCLUSIONS HAVE YOU COME TO ABOUT PASTORAL PREACHING?
It’s still ground zero for the Lord’s work. Preaching is still “the foolishness” by which people are saved.
The modes of preaching evolve and morph over the decades. Typical sermons contract or expand, become more expository or more application oriented, more story-laden or more instructional. But two things never change: The Word of God lives and abides forever and is the seed of the new birth. And, it is by the preaching of that Word that people hear and come to know the Living Lord and live forever.
Preaching is hard work when done right, but it’s still the greatest work in the world. I’m a writer and a cartoonist, but when asked, “What do you do?” I never hesitate to say, “I’m a Baptist preacher!”
4) DO YOU HAVE ANY REGRETS? WHAT LESSONS DID YOU LEARN?
Only a fool looks back over more than a half-century of ministry with no regrets. I regret choosing denominational meetings over time with my children when they were young. I regret leaving my wife to unpack boxes in our new house so I could visit church members in the hospital and “hit this at a run.” I regret not going with her to marriage counseling in our sixth year of marriage and saying flippantly, “Hey, lady. I am the counselor, not the counselee.”
I needed a whipping.
At times, I regret giving away my study time to everyone wanting a little slice of the pastor’s day. There were weeks when I would make six home visits a day to shut-ins and the elderly, and then enter the pulpit on Sunday unprepared to deliver God’s Word. I regret not having a clear focus on my responsibility as pastor of the church, resulting in a vain attempt to be everything to everyone.
What lessons did I learn? I learned fifteen years into marriage that the counselor can be the best friend a marriage or a ministry ever had. I learned that if the pastor does not deliver the goods on Sunday, it hardly matters how many homes he was in that week. I learned that creativity is nurtured in a circumference of silence. (That’s not original with me, but it’s solid truth.)
And, I’m still learning.
5) SHOULD THE MINISTER TAKE LESSONS FROM SECULAR COMMUNICATORS OR FOCUS ON DEVELOPING HIS OWN STYLE?
Learn from anyone and everyone. The worst public speaker or least effective preacher in town can still teach us something, either how to do it or how not to do it.
After speaking to a convention of realtors, I took a seat in the audience to hear the motivational speaker next on the schedule. The man walked to the podium, stared out at the audience, and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I ‘d like to ask a dozen of you to jump into a pile here in front of me and scratch and claw one another.” Long pause, then he said, “Well, I see you’re going to need some motivating.” With that, he reached into his coat pocket and brought out a fifty-dollar bill. “In a moment, I’m going to drop this 50 dollar bill onto the carpet in front of the podium. Whoever gets it can have it. But first, would any of you like to move to the front?” Quite a few did. When he dropped the bill, everyone on the first row sprang to their feet and rushed to catch it. When the excitement had died and everyone returned to their seats, he said, “At first, you were too dignified to do what I asked. But ladies and gentlemen, never forget. People are always willing to give up their dignity if they are sufficiently motivated.”
I didn’t hear another word of his message, but sat there reflecting on his little demonstration and the wide-ranging application of that truth. That story fueled quite a few sermons of mine over the years since.
I listen to commencement addresses on C-Span in a search for those who get this communication thing right. Often it’s a story or a point. Sometimes, it’s merely an attitude. The public library carries magazines that publish speeches from around the world. Pastors should always be working on improving their craft.
6) YOU STARTED PREACHING WHEN JOHN F. KENNEDY WAS PRESIDENT. OVER THESE DECADES, ARE THERE THINGS IN THE LORD’S WORK THAT USED TO BE EFFECTIVE BUT ARE NO LONGER?
The danger in mentioning anything is that as soon as I post it, someone will provide an exception. In my early years, revivals often went two weeks, bus ministries were everywhere, and door-to-door visitation was often the norm. These days, we rarely hear of those.
In the late 1960s, my 5-minute morning radio program was unique in our middle-sized town in Mississippi and pulled in visitors every Sunday. Later, the television program of the same length stood out in another community where I served. But these days, the air waves are saturated by preaching of all kinds and the ubiquity of media preachers have made many not only household names but household jokes. Unless one has a unique style or approach, I seriously doubt that buying radio or television time is an effective use of one’s time or God’s money.
When I started, for a pastor to write a book was a big deal. But these days, anyone with a laptop and a few dollars can have his own publications. Whether they are worth the effort is another matter.
High-tech in the early 1960s was the mimeograph machine and a rotary telephone. In the 1970s, a pastor in one of our conferences kept running outside to his car. When we asked what was going on, Steve Brown said his church gave him a car phone. “When my horn blows, someone is calling me.” We wondered what his church had against him! These days, everyone carries on his person not only a phone, but his camera, his computer, and internet access to the world–all in one small hand-held device.
It’s an amazing world we live in. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.
7) SOME SAY ‘YOU GET WHAT YOU PREACH FOR.’ DO YOU AGREE THAT PREACHING SHAPES THE CHURCH?
I do indeed. Now, after preaching it, the pastor needs to live it out in his personal life and implement it in church leadership. So, the preaching alone is not enough. But the minister is still given a rare privilege–to stand for a full half hour and address the Lord’s people on a subject of his own choosing. The pulpit is still a bully thing.
8) WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY IF YOU WERE GOING BACK INTO THE PASTORATE TODAY?
That will need to be an article of its own, since this one is plenty long. Give me a couple of days and check back.
However, that said, one huge thing comes to mind. Read the sermons of the great preachers of the past. And never forget that every text in your Bible has been preached by most of them. Study what they wrote, but do not be limited to anything they did or said. The Lord is doing something new through you. Cooperate with Him. He knows what He is about.