If you’re a pastor, here’s an interesting game to play. And that’s all it can be, unfortunately–a game.
If you could go back to the churches you have served, what would you do differently?
Some people say, “If I could live my life over, I wouldn’t change a thing.” I hear that and think, “What? You never made a mistake? Never really blew it? Never did anything stupid?”
We all did, let’s face it. And surely, if we went back and knew what we know now, we would do many, many things differently.
Here’s my take on this subject.
The first church I served was a tiny congregation 25 miles north of Birmingham, Alabama. It was my first attempt at preaching and pastoring and I did poorly, I’m afraid. The good folks at Unity Baptist Church of Kimberly, Alabama, were patient with me for the 14 months I served them. At the end of that time, I resigned and for 6 months served as part-time associate pastor of Central Baptist Church in Tarrant, Alabama. We were living in Tarrant and I worked down the street from the church at the cast iron pipe plant as secretary to the production manager.
If I could do the 14 months over at Unity, the one thing I would do is seek out a mentor.
I would call up a pastor or two in Tarrant or Gardendale and ask if they would let me buy them a cup of coffee. As we sat across the table from each other, I would say, “I’m lost. I have to prepare three messages a week and don’t have a clue how to get started. Give me some advice.”
And, if the advice was something that worked for me, I would have asked if we could meet regularly for a while until I got this figured out.
The folks at Unity would have appreciated the effort and the congregations of subsequent churches would have benefited. As it was, by going alone, I took the far more arduous way to find out to make sermons and lead a congregation.
What would I do differently at Central Baptist of Tarrant City, Alabama, during my six months there? Very little, probably. My duties were to call on people who had visited our services and help Pastor Morris Freeman with anything he asked. For this, no money changed hands, but we received free use of the old parsonage, thus saving us rent.
The one thing I wish I had done was to take a layman with me visiting. It would have done me good, blessed the layman, and made a statement to the people we were calling on.
Both of those churches came in my pre-seminary years, 1962-64.
From 1965-67, while in seminary, I pastored 25 miles west of New Orleans. Paradis Baptist of Paradis, Louisiana was situated on Alligator Bayou. I took what I had managed to learn from Unity and Central and what I was trying to learn in seminary, and did some things right. The church almost tripled in the less-than-three-years we were there. (Note: That church relocated and is now West St. Charles Baptist in Boutte, LA.)
I wish I had brought the church leaders into our home. Only as we were leaving for the church in Mississippi and our men were loading the truck did they see the conditions of the apartment the church had been providing. Among other things, the door facings and window sills were rotting. I can still hear the exclamations of one man who said, “I had no idea.”
As a result, they built a new brick home for the next pastor. I rejoiced that they had done this, but wish I had thought to expose them to the need earlier.
Emmanuel Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi, was my first pastorate after seminary. We served from late 1967 through 1970. The church came close to doubling in size during that time and we did a number of things right. The fellowship was incredible and the members were responsive to everything we tried.
During those years the Mississippi Delta was a hotbed of racial tension. I preached God’s love for all people and took a lot of flack from come who resented it. In 1969 Margaret and I led an area-wide evangelistic crusade at the high school stadium that brought in 5,000 people on two Sunday afternoons and almost that number each weeknight. Perhaps ten percent of the audience was African-American. Evangelist Bill Glass said it was the most mixed congregation he had addressed in his ministry. Several hundred people were saved.
What I wish I had done was to reach out to more of the Black ministers and get to know them. I’m afraid my love for other races was more theoretical than something I actually practiced.
For the years of 1971-73, I served on the staff of the First Baptist Church of Jackson, Mississippi, the church where Bertha and I presently belong. As the church’s first minister of evangelism, my job was to visit and witness and to train members in that practice. The people were infinitely gracious to us and we made lifelong friends.
I wish I had done a better job of what I went there to do. Instead of focusing on evangelism, soon I began to be involved in other areas of the church such as the college ministry. I taught Bible studies and did weddings and filled the pulpit in the pastor’s absence. A lesson I learned that helped in later pastorates was to be aware of the tendency of a staff member to neglect the tasks we hired him for in order to do other ministries. More than once, I have had to call a minister back to his original assignment.
For the next dozen years, 1974-86, I pastored the First Baptist Church of Columbus, Mississippi. We had moderately good growth, built a new building, went on mission trips, and I became deeply involved in the life of the community. My children grew up here and we made a lot of permanent friends. As I write this, I will be in that church in ten days, for a deacon training event and to fill the pulpit on Sunday. This remains our favorite pastorate.
What I wish I had done better there was to dream bigger. About halfway through my tenure at Columbus, our growth plateaued and I probably grew complacent. I wish now I had sought God’s vision, then led our people to stretch toward far greater things.
In the summer of 1986, I began pastoring the First Baptist Church of Charlotte, North Carolina, a church where two previous pastors had served as presidents of our denomination. I was excited to minister in such a pristine urban area and to oversee the construction of a new sanctuary. The church plant was located among large downtown buildings without a residential community within sight. I was slow to gain a vision for what the Lord wanted us to become, however, and pretty soon was in a fight for my life.
That church did a live telecast of the services into several states, and I had a daily radio program. Interestingly, some of Billy Graham’s family were members. Once when I preached a funeral alongside Dr. Graham, my message was broadcast over The Hour of Decision, the worldwide radio outreach of his ministry.
The downside of that ministry is that some of the lay leadership had their own agendas, and I was not part of it.
The list of “what I wish I had done differently” in that pastorate would be a lengthy one. However, from the vantage point of over 30 years, I wish I had brought in an associate pastor to handle the administration–which was killing me–thus freeing me for the two things I always did best and enjoyed most about pastoring: preaching and pastoral care. After 3 years and 2 months, I took a paid leave of absence and resigned.
When I hear friends say they would not change a thing about their past ministry, I think, “You never served where I did!” I would change a hundred things, particularly in the Charlotte assignment. .
From 1990 to 2004, my final pastorate was the First Baptist Church of Kenner, Louisiana, a part of metropolitan New Orleans. We moved from one of the newest, cleanest cities in America, Charlotte, to the exact opposite, New Orleans. The adjustment was stark and difficult.
The Kenner church had experienced a split two years before we arrived. Half the congregation was left to carry on, and saddled with several million dollars in debt. Most in the congregation felt traumatized by the split and, as their new pastor, I was feeling beat up by my recent experience. On paper, that would appear to be a perfect recipe for a time of healing for all parties. It was not to be.
Members with unresolved anger and undealt-with guilt now turned their focus on the new pastor. Suddenly, I was the bad guy. Instead of facing it and dealing with their opposition, I tried to ignore it and go forward. I was so tired of conflict and wanted no more of it. It was not until the summer of my 7th year–almost exactly at the halfway point of my ministry–that I confronted the troublemakers and drew a line in the sand. From that moment on, the church began to get well. The last 7 years of this ministry were wonderful.
Clearly, I wish I had been strong and bold from the first. I wish I had had the courage to deal with the spiritual problems that were destroying the church’s foundation and undermining all our efforts to serve the Lord.
I wish I had not been fearful or timid.
Then, following this pastorate, I became director of missions for the 135 Baptist churches and missions of the New Orleans Baptist Association in 2004. Before long, it became apparent that the Lord was using the difficult pastorates in my history as preparation for ministering to our pastors and churches. “God does not like to waste suffering,” they say. It’s true. Everything serves as grist for His mill.
Regardless how all this reads, as I approach my 84th birthday, I’m not looking back. The Lord has blessed me with a reasonable supply of energy and invitations from churches keep arriving, so I’m going forward. Every day of my life, I ask the Lord the best prayer I know: “Father, what will you have me to do?”
Two constants in my personal prayer are: Father, find me faithful. And, make me fruitful.
The best sermon of my life is the next one. The best revival I ever preached will be the next one. The best article I ever wrote is the one I’ll pen tomorrow.
Tomorrow also is the day the Lord hath made. I plan to rejoice in it, too.