Taking a bullet for the pastor


Pastor and seminary educator Gordon MacDonald relates an incident from 1966, early in his ministry at a time when our nation was polarized over racial issues. Gordon had become friends with the pastor of the only African-American church in that southern Illinois community, so when trouble broke out between white and black young people, the two ministers decided to get together and talk.

At Gordon’s invitation, the other pastor brought several carloads of young men and women into the MacDonald home for a lengthy discussion. Then, they invited other community leaders to join the dialogue. As a result, the community came together.

“I assumed all my church members would be thrilled,” said Gordon.

One week later, at a meeting of church leaders, a deacon stood to announce his displeasure with Pastor Gordon over this incident. The pastor had betrayed his ministry by engaging in “social gospel” activities, he claimed. The pastor had no business interfering in the African-American community. Unless he renounced what he had done and wrote a letter of apology to the newspaper and promised never to do such again, the deacon would resign from the board and leave the church.

MacDonald says, “It was a tense moment.” When the man sat down, silence filled the room. Everyone waited to see what would happen next.

At that point, the chairman of the deacons took the podium.  He stood there for a moment, looked the man in the eye, and said, “Walter, we’re very sorry to lose you from this board. Now, let’s turn to tonight’s agenda.”

An angry ex-deacon stalked from the room.

Every pastor needs courageous lieutenants standing with him—behind him, beside him, sometimes in front of him—people who do not wait to ask what is right, or take a vote on what the majority wants, but who see the right way and take their stand.

A wise pastor will ask the Lord of the Church to provide such men and women.

Ted Traylor pastors the great Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola. He had not been pastor there long when it became necessary to terminate a worship leader with 24 years service in that church. He says, “It appeared to me he was in the wrong place now, given the times and our needs. He was gifted in other areas, skills we needed, and I approached him about making a move.”

The staff member balked, and resisted the move for a full year. Soon the pastor’s recommendation and the minister’s resistance became public, and people began to choose sides. At that point, Traylor asked him to resign.

The day the staffer announced his resignation, the church held its monthly business meeting. People stood to accuse the pastor, to blame him, to express the wish he would leave. Traylor admits that if a search committee from Toadsuck, Arkansas had showed up, he would have gone with them. In the weeks ahead, the tension intensified as anonymous letters arrived and people vilified his wife. Phone calls in the middle of the night interrupted their sleep.

It was the lowest point in Traylor’s ministry.

One night, when Pastor Traylor arrived home with his son, he spotted three men from the church standing under the street lamp in front of the house. He recognized them as his best friends from the church. Were they there to ask him to leave too?

Ted sent his son into the house and walked back to where the men were standing. They greeted each other.

One said, “Preacher, we’ve been on a little trip today.”

Another said, “Pastor, have you ever read Second Samuel 23? That’s where David was fighting with his men, and wished for water from the well in Bethlehem.”

He continued, “We remember how you used to talk about the well back in Pisgah, Alabama. You said it was an artesian well that flows right out of the ground so cold and pure that you’d stick your head down and drink water till you nearly drowned.”

“Well, we got up this morning at 5 o’clock and drove to north Alabama. Preacher, we’ve been to Pisgah.”

“We met your mama and daddy. They showed us the well and we brought you this.”

A quart jar filled with water from the well at home.

Ted Traylor cried. But that was not the end. They were just getting started.

“And Preacher, remember how you said you used to go out on the brow of the mountain and pray? You were a teenager and several from your high school football team were called to preach, and you would walk out on that rock ledge to practice preaching. Well, your daddy showed us that rock. And we brought you this.”

Two large chunks of rock.

“Anytime you get discouraged, Pastor, just go out in the yard and stand on these rocks. The God who called you will be the One who takes care of you.”

And there was more.

The deacon pulled out an old coffee can, full of moss and dirt, with blooms poking out the top.

“Remember those rhodendrons that grow on the side of that mountain? We want you to know that the God who is the Lily of the Valley will always bring a fresh flower to your soul if you will trust him.”

Ted didn’t have the heart to tell them that taking those rhododendrons was illegal.

Toward the end of their visit, one of the men spoke for the others. “Pastor,” he said, “We’ve talked about this all day–six hours up and six hours back–and we want to make this statement to you: We will die for our pastor. We will die for you. If you stay straight and be moral and ethical and biblical, we will die for you.” Then he said, “However, if you are immoral and unethical and unbiblical, we will kill you.”

Another said, “Preacher, we’re not serving you. We’re serving the King who called you. And we are in this together.”

A pastor would give a year of his life to have just one or two such friends to stand with him.

Gordon MacDonald and Ted Traylor’s stories were taken from Leadership Journal, Fall, 2004.

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