Things The Pastor Cannot Do

Ed was emphasizing to his church leadership why having a pastor’s residence next door to the church is not necessarily the best thing. They had always enjoyed the luxury of having the minister on the premises, they told him and would hate to relinquish that blessing. That’s why, when the hurricane destroyed the pastorium and the congregation had to make a decision about rebuilding, Pastor Ed thought this would be a good time to move the pastor’s residence.

“Let me ask you something,” Ed said to the five men and women seated around the table. “How many of you have ever taken a vacation and stayed at home?” Every hand went up.

“Well,” he said, “that’s something a pastor can never do. If he’s at home, and everyone in town can see he’s at home, he’s always on call.”

The good folk seated at the table admitted they had never thought of that before.

“And it’s not just the church,” Ed emphasized. “The community comes knocking, too. And I love that — don’t get me wrong. It’s just that sometimes it gets wearisome.”

As his director of missions, I complimented Pastor Ed on explaining that to them. When lay leaders understand the uniqueness of the pastor’s burdens, often they can be counted on to do the right thing and help to ease them.

As a result of hearing Pastor Ed’s account of this meeting, I began to reflect on other things a pastor cannot do as a result of his unique position in the church and community, things “normal” people do without a thought.

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Frank Roderus was not satisfied just to write western novels. He had to put unusual spins on the stories, probably for his own satisfaction, but sometimes to the consternation of his readers.

“Hell Creek Cabin” is the account of some people stranded in a tiny cabin by a winter blizzard. As they try to make the best of the bad situation, two robbers appear out of the frozen tundra and move in. Soon, the two, named Jimbo and BoJim, begin terrorizing the others. The good guy, a fellow named Veach, is not a fighter and carries no weapon, but keeps looking for a way to deal with these two who are both bank robbers and murderers.

In the final chapter of the book, Veach has escaped the cabin and is working his way through the snow, looking for an old gold mine in order to keep from freezing. Inside the cabin, the two robbers have a falling out and BoJim kills Jimbo. Then, while BoJim takes the bucket down to the stream to get some water, inside the cabin the husband and wife dig out their old rifle, load it, and aim it at the front door. They have no other recourse but to kill BoJim before he kills them.

The door opens and a man walks in.

Now, three minutes earlier, Veach had lain in wait for BoJim at the creek with a pick-axe he had located in the mine. He planted it in the bad guy’s back, killing him. Now, all he has to do is take care of Jimbo in the cabin, not knowing he is already dead.

That’s Veach walking in the cabin door as it opens.

And that’s where the book ends.

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Care and Maintenance of the Temple

I felt bad for the preacher that evening. As he walked to the pulpit to do “that thing he does so well,” I had the strong sensation that here is a man of God who is not taking care of his body. Gravity was winning the battle and even though he was some years younger than me, I could not escape the sense that his health was going to decline much too rapidly in the years just ahead unless he took action soon.

Two weeks ago at a funeral in Columbus, Mississippi, I had a brief chat with Stephanie, Stacy, and Sharon, granddaughters of Deacon Paul Cockrell, whose life and homegoing we were celebrating. Both the father and mother of these young adult women — Dr. Jimmy Sams and Helen Cockrell Sams Parker — are in Heaven now, and we spoke of them. I told one of the girls something their father had done for me over 30 years ago.

“In 1975, Jimmy made arrangements for me to fly to Dallas and go through the Cooper Aerobics Clinic for a full checkup. He set up the appointment and paid the entire cost. It was a life-altering experience.”

The clinic did not find anything seriously wrong with me, but much wrong with my sedentary lifestyle. They prescribed a jogging and exercise program and left an indelible mark upon my psyche, a strong impression that “I have to take care of this body!”

With the exception of brief lapses, I’ve tried to do so ever since.

I’ve written here previously about my walking three miles on the levee beside the Mississippi River several mornings a week before sunup. I’ve done it for many years and find it to be wonderful for a lot of reasons. The reason I bring it up now is….

I stopped walking last winter.

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A Special Kind of Friend

When I’m upset, the last thing I need is someone to disagree with me. Yet, it may be precisely what I need — someone to call me down when I’m out of line, let me know what I’m doing wrong, point me to the right way.

“There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother,” says Proverbs 18:24. That’s the kind of friend I need. And so do you, particularly if you are in the Lord’s work.

We’ve said here that the epidemic afflicting the ministry today — at least, one of them—is the isolation of the minister. In my opinion, 95 percent of Southern Baptist pastors go it alone with their work of sermon-building, problem-solving, and ego-control.

Now, think of the foolishness and pure waste of that. Here we have 40,000 men (mostly) in our denomination laboring to do the same thing week in and week out — tasks like construct the sermons and Bible studies they will be bringing the following Sunday, plan business meetings and leadership summits to solve issues facing their churches, and the like. And instead of helping each other, they shut themselves inside their offices and studies to hammer out these matters in isolation.

If these were matters that can only be done alone, that would be one thing. But the fact is God has made His children so that we work great together and learn His Word at a greatly accelerated pace when we open the Bible with a good friend and share thoughts with one another. This does not replace the need for solitude to think through issues and matters and points and to commune with the Father about everything, but supplements it as nothing else can.

Every child of God needs a circumference of silence and solitude to think about his situation and to commune with the Father. In my experience, no one has ever doubted or disputed that.

But, can we assert just as positively that each believer needs one or two or three close friends with whom to share the matters of the Spirit?

I can hear the typical pastor (hey, I pastored for 42 years; I know typical pastors and was probably one myself) protesting, “I have the Holy Spirit within me, my wife alongside me, my staff helping me, and we’re all surrounded and upheld by our church members.”

No problem there. The problem is, it’s not enough.

You need one thing more.

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What Not To Tell the Lord

Monday night at our annual Fall meeting of the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans, Mike Canady was the featured preacher. At one point, he gave a confession.

“Many years ago, after growing up in the town of Sulphur, Louisiana, and while attending seminary in Fort Worth, I told the Lord, ‘I’ll go anywhere in the world you want me to go. I’ll do anything you tell me to do. Anything at all, Lord. Just don’t send me to Africa or back to Louisiana!'”

Mike paused and smiled. “For the past 42 years, I have served the Lord in Africa and Louisiana.” (Mike and Linda are former missionaries to the East African country of Malawi. Then, he was a director of missions in Houma, LA, and now directs the department of missions and ministries for the Louisiana Baptist Convention.)

Mark Joslin was sitting just to my left. I heard him mutter, “I know. I know.”

I leaned over and whispered, “What did you tell the Lord?”

This pastor of New Vision Baptist Church in the New Orleans suburb of St. Rose said, “I told him I’d go anywhere but not to send me back home.” Mark is — as you would guess by now — a local boy.

I did something similar. Now, I grew up in the coal fields of West Virginia and the rural countryside of north Alabama. When we left Birmingham to come to seminary in New Orleans in the summer of 1964, I prayed, “Lord, I’ll go anywhere. Just don’t send me to Mississippi.”

We put in 19 years in Mississippi, and loved every day of it.

Makes me wish I’d said, “Don’t send me to Honolulu.”

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What Is It About Eating?

Some live to eat and some eat to live. Being a Baptist, we eat to fellowship and fellowship to eat.

I’m not sure why some people in the Lord’s work are conflicted on the subject of eating at church. Looks to me like, from reading my Bible, it’s one of the most natural and, at the same time, spiritual activities available to us.

One of my favorite teeny-tiny Scriptures is found in Luke 24. Now, most of that chapter is given to the account of the two discouraged disciples leaving Jerusalem on the first day of the week (not the Sabbath, remember) and the newly-risen Lord Jesus joining them. As they walk along, He begins to open their minds about Old Testament prophecies concerning Himself, His life, death, and resurrection. Reaching the small town of Emmaus, they invited him to stay in their home.

“And He went in to stay with them. Now it came to pass, as He sat at the table with them, that He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” Notice, He’s the Guest who became the Host. “Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight.”

A short while later, Jesus appears inside the locked upper room where the other disciples have gathered. Well, the disciples are so excited they almost lose it. “They were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit.” Jesus calms them down, shows them the scars on His hands and feet, and waits for them to digest this overwhelming evidence of His bodily resurrection. Once again, they almost overdosed on joy.

Now, here’s the verse, one of my favorites.

“But while they still did not believe for joy, and marveled, He said to them, ‘Anybody got anything to eat?'” (Luke 24:41) (Okay, I phrased it a tad different from the NKJV Bible in my lap, which has Him saying, “Have you any food here?” I prefer my way. It doesn’t sound so religious, but normal, the way real people talk.)

Now, in choosing this as one of my favorite verses I’m being serious and not trying to be cute. (If you know me, you know I sometimes have to point that out.)

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It’s Good to Have a Job You Like

This week, two good friends have told me (on separate occasions; they don’t know each other) about the incredible experience they are having in their new jobs. One works for the International Mission Board of our denomination and the other for Samaritan’s Purse, the Franklin Graham ministry.

The IMB friend said, “I’ve been there for six months now and everyone is so super nice. There’s no backbiting, no gossiping, just kindness and graciousness.” She thinks she has died and gone to heaven.

The Samaritan’s Purse friend said, “The co-workers are such godly people who are in this work because of the call of the Lord. I feel I have found a new family.”

Music to my ears.

Sometimes when we offer jobs to people, we make the mistake of thinking that salary and benefits are all that matter. Not so, particularly for those with the call of God upon their lives. Working relationships with colleagues can be the most crucial factor of all.

It has long been noted that longevity in staff relationships is directly proportionate to the relationships between team members. I’ve known a few churches where the pastor and ministers of education and worship served together as a team for 25 years or more.

Conversely, I’ve known some churches where the staff positions rotate every year or two, with no one staying any longer than it takes to find a new position in another town.

What accounts for such turnover? There are people and institutes that study such things and they have solid answers. What I have is anecdotal evidence based on my observations and experience.

Here are my candidates for the top ten reasons people in the Lord’s work change jobs often.

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Read My Mail

Recently in the message I wrote concerning the bottom-dwelling U.S. economy, I told the story of Randy and Charlene McCall, our neighbors in Columbus, Mississippi, who, after he lost his job managing factories some years back, bought a ServiceMaster franchise and did well. I did not ask their permission to tell that, but knew Randy had shared his story at the national meeting of the franchisees of that company, and felt confident he wouldn’t mind my using them as illustrations. Well, I found out a little more today….

In the early 1990s, the McCall’s franchise grew to be the largest in the USA, and that’s out of a total of 4500! These days, my buddy Randy putters around the house, the way self-respecting retirees should, and their son Chris–my son Neil’s best friend from childhood onward–runs the company and is maintaining that exalted ranking.

Randy reminded me of something I had forgotten but should not have. He writes, “Do you remember me making a copy of the first major account proposal I bid on in Columbus (it was Weyerhaeuser) on the church copier? You and I prayed before I presented the proposal. Well, for some reason I was more confident in that proposal than I had a right to be and got the account. The rest is history. Thank you.”

Then, true to form, this friend uses up the good will he had just established. Commenting on plans for me to preach at the First Baptist Church of Columbus next Sunday, he writes, “Charlene and I are scheduled to keep the nursery, so I sent out an e-mail to all church members asking if anyone would rather sub for us that Sunday than hear your preaching. We had 436 volunteers.”

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Catching Up

Tuesday morning I was telling my 92-year-old mom in our daily phone call about my flight to Virginia the day before. I said, “Mom, the flight from New Orleans to Atlanta took one hour and 5 minutes. The flight from Atlanta to Newport News took one hour and 10 minutes.” She said, “Goodness. Why do they go so fast?”

I laughed, “That’s the whole point of airplanes–to get us where we’re going as quickly as they can.” She said, “It sounds scary.” I said, “You try not to think about it.”

Sunday, my son Neil and I logged 625 miles round trip for a quick visit to Columbus, Mississippi, for the funeral of our dear friend Paul Cockrell. The church was packed for the celebration of this dear brother’s life. One man said, “If ever there was a saint in this church, it was Paul.”

“I never saw Paul Cockrell without a smile on his face,” someone said. I thought, “But it would be a serious error to think of that as untested faith or shallow optimism.” This man had walked through the fires of suffering. Over 30 years ago, I preached the funeral for his wife Helen. Then, some 15 years ago, preached the funeral for their daughter, also named Helen, who died after a long illness. The family had known as much difficulty and grief as any I know.

Paul knew about broken hearts and shattered lives, yet he chose to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ who said, “Let not your hearts be troubled…..Believe in me.”

The fellow at the funeral home told me Paul had planned his funeral service himself. He wanted the present pastor Shawn Parker, previous pastor Bobby Douglas, former staff member Ed Nix, and me (pastor before Dr. Douglas). I said, “I’m confident that if Dr. Woodson and Dr. Franks were still alive (the pastors before me, going back to 1921), he’d have put them in the service too.”

What that reveals is that this was a man who always loved his pastors. And, frankly, to me that says more about him than it does us preachers.

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Grist For Your Mill

1) Saying No.

Edmund Wilson was a well-known writer and literary critic of a generation ago. When he grew tired of people constantly asking his advice or input, he composed a postcard which he mailed to everyone seeking his counsel. “Edmund Wilson regrets that it is impossible for him to: read manuscripts, write articles or books to order, write forewords or introductions, make statements for publicity purposes, do any kind of editorial work, judge literary contests, give interviews, take part in writers’ conferences, answer questionnaires, contribute to or take part in symposiums or