Sometimes a pastor finds a neighboring pastor is sucking all the air out of the room. The new preacher is dynamic and exciting and crowds are flocking to his church. He’s a media star. He’s pulling people out of the other churches.
Sound familiar? It’s not a new phenomenon.
“Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in Scriptures, came to Ephesus.” (Acts 18:24)
Sometimes you’re Apollos, sometimes you are Paul. Early records indicate Paul was short and bald, nothing much to look at. And some said he wasn’t much to listen to. See 2 Corinthians 10:10.
What do you want to bet Apollos was gorgeous to boot. A real hunk. Articulate in the pulpit. Wore these cool suits and had a trendy haircut.
Named for Apollos–a god of both Greeks and Romans, the champion of the youth and the sharpest thing on Mount Olympus!–this preacher would have made a great television evangelist. He made an impact wherever he went.
What’s more, he was good. He was spiritual and godly and not shallow at all. Not a flash in the pan.
A friend on the staff of a large church emailed about a family basically living in the ICU ward of a local hospital in our city. Doctors had told the parents nothing more can be done for the daughter. So they were standing by, waiting for God to take her home.
The friend asked if I could visit this family.
An hour later, I was in their hospital room.
The patient lay there heavily sedated, while family members and friends were seated around the room, talking softly. They greeted me warmly, having been informed that I was coming.
Two things about this family I found amazing. They had lived in the intensive care units of their hospital back home and this one in my city for over 40 days. And yet, there was such a steady peace and beautiful joy about them.
The question I face
That brings me to my dilemma, one I have frequently encountered when calling on the families of Godly people going through various kinds of crises: Do I enter into their joy or remain outside?
I was going to Italy to be the featured speaker for a pastors-and-wives retreat. Those attending are all English-speaking serving churches across Europe as well as a few other countries. I was excited.
My host, head of the International Baptist Convention, pointed out a few things to keep in mind.
While everyone at the retreat will speak English, they are not all Americans. Therefore, I must be careful not to use idioms and references that only those from the USA (or even worse, the Deep South) will understand.
So, I started thinking over some of my choice stories. I have tales of growing up in rural Alabama, of small church preachers and narrow-minded Baptists and Southern ways. I could see I was going to have to revisit all my messages and stories and illustrations. Once we begin in Italy, there would still need to be some fine-tuning and tweaking.
When a preacher ignores the cultural divide between himself and his audience, he could mess up royally.
He must increase, but I must decrease. –John the Baptist. (John 3:30)
The speaker said, “As you know, I urge people to walk by the Spirit, to obey Him. But I need you to know I am not anti-intellectual, not against education. In fact, I am so much pro-education that I have my bachelor’s degree from a college, I have my master’s, and I also own a doctorate. In fact, when I was working on my doctorate, the dean said to me that my dissertation was so profound that I should turn it into a book. That book, you’ll want to know, is on the market right now and you can purchase it in the foyer at the end of this meeting.”
Another time, the visiting preacher, an older fellow, wanted our church to know that he was somebody, I suppose. Early in the service he told how he had started a church many years ago and stayed with it through the years until his retirement, that during this time he had baptized so many, and had enjoyed seeing the membership climb to (whatever). He showed a photo of the huge plant on the screen. He must have talked about his former church for five minutes. We never did know why. We did not need to know of his successes to hear him. In fact, his scars probably made him a better preacher than his awards.
(In our experience, most of the Lord’s people are wonderful and most of His churches are filled with sincere and godly workers. But once in a while, pastors come upon sick churches led by difficult people who seem to delight in controlling their ministers. When they find themselves unable to do this, they attack. Pity the poor unsuspecting preacher and his family. What follows is written just for them.)
“But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to the courts, and scourge you in their synagogues….” (Matthew 10:17)
You and your wife–please adjust gender references herein as your situation demands–went into the ministry with heads high, hearts aglow, and eyes wide open, idealism firmly tucked under your arm, vision clear and focus solid.
As newly minted ambassadors for Christ, the two of you were ready to do battle with the world, eager to serve the saints, and glad to impart the joyful news of the gospel.
Ministry was going to be great and noble and even blessed.
That’s what you thought.
Over breakfast in a Cracker Barrel a few miles west of Nashville, Frank and I talked about his new job. After a quarter century of pastoring Southern Baptist churches, he had become a chaplain in industry. When we talked, he had just gone full-time.
“Basically, we walk the plant and talk to the workers, four or five minutes each. We’re not promoting a church or a denomination, but trying to get to know them.”
“Our object,” he said, “is to gain their confidence by showing them we aren’t selling anything or promoting anyone but Jesus.”
He works with everyone, he says, from Muslims to Jehovah’s Witnesses to Baptists to atheists.
“When we first start inside a plant or company, the workers are suspicious. They think we are a part of management.”
“Gradually, they learn we’re not. In fact, we cannot tell the boss anything they tell us without their permission.”
“Confidentiality is the rule,” Frank said.
You get your chaplains from the pastorate? I asked.
“We do. But first we have to train them, to detox them.”
He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? (I John 4:20)
Luther Little was a pastor any modern preacher could admire and look up to. I became pastor of the church he had served early in the 20th century, some 40 years after he was off the scene. The more I learned about him, the more I admired him.
In the 1920’s, he became the first pastor in America, we’re told, to broadcast his church services over radio. For a time, millions of people up and down the East Coast considered Dr. Luther Little their radio pastor.
To my delight, I discovered this preacher was a novelist. Somewhere along the way–in a used bookstore, I think–I ran across Manse Dwellers, his novel about a pastor and his family. Clearly, he was following the number one dictum for novelists: write about what you know.
I confess I was disappointed to see that the pastor-author was strictly a man of his day with a glaring sin-problem he did not even know about.
Luther Little had a blind spot.
Never volunteer for the pastor search committee unless one of two things is true: Everyone agrees that a beloved former staff member, who is now serving a church in Podunk, is going to be the next pastor, making this the easiest job ever–or, you have a death wish.
It can be the hardest, most thankless assignment you’ll ever undertake.
It can also make a world of difference for good in a church that needs just the right combination of visionary pastor, anointed preacher, competent administrator, and down-to-earth friend.
If your church is selecting such a committee, pray big time for the Lord to lead in filling the slots. Never volunteer for it. Accept it if the Lord leads you and those making the decision. If you are a member of such a group, then this little piece is for you. Think of what follows as a cautionary note, exaggerated in places, attempting a little humor at times, but with much truth.
Jim Mora was the popular coach of the New Orleans Saints NFL team from 1986 to 1996. On one occasion, as he and I shared an elevator, I introduced myself. I said, “Preachers can appreciate what coaches have to put up with. We both work hard all week and everything comes down to a couple of hours on Sunday. It’ll make or break you.”
He flashed that smile that charmed every fan, calmed many a sportswriter, and drove a few referees nuts. “But,” he said, “they don’t call radio stations the next week criticizing every little decision you made, do they?”
No, I guess not. A friend said, “If they’d pay me the zillion bucks these guys get, I could stand that.”
Now, football coaches and pastors probably have more that differentiates us than we have in common. A coach tends a small flock, usually no more than 50 players and a few assistants. At the upper echelon, he gets paid astronomical bucks, is answerable only to one or two bosses, and his actual season lasts just a few months. The typical pastor may have a flock numbering in the hundreds or more, while receiving a salary barely sufficient to keep the house heated and the children clothed and fed. Pastors are answerable to everyone and his brother, it seems, and work year round without a letup.