While I was attending Bible School almost four decades ago, I happened to notice a cute little Oklahoma girl named Becky Smith. The first thing that attracted me to her was her long hair, which I soon learned had never been cut. I mean never. The midwestern Pentecostal denomination that Becky’s family was involved with, known as the Free Holiness Church, sincerely believed it was a sin for women to cut their hair. So all the Free Holiness women had long hair. The older women kept their hair up in Pentecostal buns (something I’ve always considered a sin!).
Becky’s family lived near the Bible School where we were both enrolled, and I faithfully attended Becky’s family’s church three times a week during the time we dated. I was much more interested in her than I was in her family’s church. But it was at her church that I learned that there were many things people could do to sin that I had never heard about.
Among some of the more extreme Free Holiness folks, wearing jewelry was considered a sin. But I heard some gossip about deacons who wore wrist watches on their ankles to avoid detection.
Most everyone believed that bowling was a sin because beer was served at bowling alleys.
For women, it was a sin to wear trousers since the Bible says it is an abomination for women to wear men’s clothing.
Wearing makeup was also a sin because the Bible mentions how Jezebel “painted her eyes.”
Going to movies was a sin, but for some reason TV was OK.
Becky and her sisters were beginning to question some of these things as they attended Bible School and started fellowshipping with equally-devoted Christians who wore makeup and sometimes went bowling. I took Becky to her first movie ever, Star Wars (which I suppose is my seventh confession in this series). As we dated, we introduced each other to our vastly different worlds.
Three months after graduating from Bible School in May of 1979, thirty-six years ago, Becky and I were married on my 21st birthday. We honeymooned on the coast of North Carolina, and I had the privilege of being there when Becky saw the ocean for the first time in her life. Her first words were, “Wow, it’s really big.” Her second observation was, “It’s kind of sloshy.” I loved it.
That summer, prior to my wedding, I had been leading a fairly well-attended home Bible study for young adults in my hometown of Pittsburgh. Before most of the attendees returned to college, I announced that I would be starting a church when I returned from my honeymoon. As I recall, two people from my Bible study showed up for the first Sunday service.
Eventually we were joined by a few encouraging and enthusiastic middle-aged ladies who told me about a vacant little church building not far from where they lived. We ended up renting it for $100 a month. It consisted of a small sanctuary that we eventually packed very tight with about 150 people, two tiny bathrooms, and a little nursery. There were no Sunday school rooms, so as the congregation grew, children’s Sunday classes were hosted in the homes of members of our congregation who lived near our church.
Before long, we purchased an old movie theater in an inner-city neighborhood that at one time had been a vaudeville theater, complete with an orchestra pit and footlights. We posted our church name on the marquee and added: “Rated PG (Praise God).” And our congregation set out on the Herculean task of remodelling a building that had been neglected for decades, even refinishing and re-upholstering the antique theater seats. God bless all the people who helped. We were crazy!
But here is my eighth confession: I was never 100% certain about my calling to be a pastor even though I was somewhat “successful” at it. Looking back at my pastoral years, I’m glad for all the lessons I learned and for all the good people and memories. But pastoring can be brutal at times.
One common vexation is people who enthusiastically begin attending your church and who love you and everything about your ministry. You serve them with all your heart. But they eventually leave your church, hating you and trying to convince everyone else to leave with them. After a while, you find yourself afraid to get close to any of your parishioners because you expect it will only be a matter of time before they’ll be gone. I once described myself as “a man who has been divorced 300 times.” I think many pastors can relate.
And then there are the complainers. I once had a parishioner blame me for a speeding ticket she had received. During a corrective point of a sermon, speaking to an imaginary transgressor, I had gently used the phrase, “Shame on you!” And because I, in her words, “confessed shame over her,” I was responsible for creating shame in her life the following week in the form of a speeding ticket! (Could it have had anything to do with her speeding?)
And then there is that part of pastoring for which firemen are better equipped.
And then there is the “worship team,” sometimes affectionately referred to by pastors behind closed doors as the “demon team” because of all the troubles and strife they generate. Martin Luther once claimed that when Satan rebelled and one-third of heaven’s angels fell to earth, many of them landed among his church choir! Martin, that was only the beginning.
Most pastors do their best to wisely hide from their impressionable children what goes on behind the scenes at their churches, but sometimes it can’t be hidden, and children grow very cold towards churches and Christianity when they witness hypocrisy or the abuse of their father. Some pastors and their families suffer almost irreparable emotional damage.
Although I think I’ve recovered from any pastoral wounds, I still sometimes introduce myself as a “recovering pastor,” just out of sympathy and respect for pastors who continue to slog in the trenches, pastors who only wanted to feed sheep, but now find themselves being attacked by savage goats. Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker that reads, “All pastors go to heaven…they’ve already been to hell.”
Of course, God uses suffering to perfect us. And perhaps that was some of God’s purpose in my own pastoral sojourns.
I remember hearing a well-seasoned pastor tell a story about an elderly woman who was a member of the first church he pastored. As she shook his hand exiting the church each Sunday, she would never fail to have some negative comment about his sermon that would deflate his heart of whatever joy had filled it. And she was a high-maintenance member, a mixture of sheep and goat, a general troublemaker.
That pastor confessed how his daily prayers always included two requests: (1) “God, make me more like Jesus” and (2), “Please deliver me from that woman! I don’t care if she dies, moves to another state, or just leaves my church. Just get her out of my life!”
One day, after he repeated those requests yet another time, the Lord spoke to him saying, “I’m answering your first prayer by not answering your second prayer.”
A Big Blunder
Sometimes pastors get burned out from the stress of trying to keep everyone happy, from an endless building project, or from being so devoted to their ministries that they never take a day off. And those things trip them up into making decisions they later regret. That is what happened to me. Which is my ninth confession.
After three-and-a-half years of pioneering my first church, I turned over my pastorate to the youth pastor and went to work for a small ministry that trained pastors in developing nations through three-day conferences. I took my first trips to India, Indonesia and Dominica. In-between overseas trips, my wife and I traveled with our toddler daughter to churches in the U.S. I taught two- and three-day conferences while hoping to raise money to pay for our living expenses and for my next overseas trip. It was not an easy life, and we certainly learned to trust God to meet our needs.
As we put thousands of miles on our little Chevy Chevette (a car that has gone down in automotive history as contributing most to the 1980s surge in Japanese imports), we stayed in the homes of many gracious people who were members of the churches where I would teach. I remember one of our hosts who owned a large furniture store. He told me that the secret to his success was his low-budget local TV ads. He said he found that the more stupid he made himself appear in his ads, the more customers visited his store!
I also remember staying with people in Wisconsin in the dead of winter. One bitter morning, the oil in our Chevette had become so thick that the engine wouldn’t turn over. I learned that people in Wisconsin use special electric-heated dipsticks so their frozen cars will start on arctic mornings.
In the midst of our adventures and trials, I eventually realized that I’d left my first pastorate prematurely, out of God’s will. After I’d resigned, the church struggled financially, which mirrored my own financial struggles to feed my little family. Becky and I were apart for many weeks at a time as I traveled overseas. And my theology was evolving, so some doors to my teaching ministry, which had previously been welcomed in Word of Faith churches, were closing. But it was too late to fix the big blunder I’d made. We were out of God’s perfect will, and we knew it.
And so that began a period of several years of confusion and wandering, trying to fix what could not be fixed. I bounced back to pastoring, and then bounced back to a traveling teaching ministry. There are many more details I could tell you about, but I only share this to help readers understand that I have not always been enjoying the blessing in ministry that I’m enjoying now. We’ve had our share of very, very dark days.
A New Morning
The key to success, however, is to learn from your failures and keep going. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. And God is in the redemption business. His mercies are new every morning.
Rejected, confused, and downcast, I finally found myself praying in desperation, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” His answer was to start again, from scratch, following the vision He had given me years before. And so with fear and trepidation, Becky and I began pioneering our third church, knowing that people would naturally think it was just another bounce. It was, I think, our greatest test of loyalty up to that time. Were we more concerned with pleasing people or pleasing God?
And so we started over, in many ways with less than we had started with years earlier. We felt like wilderness-wandering Israelites, circling the mountain, finding ourselves at the identical spot where we had started years earlier. No money. No building. No congregation. But intending to start a church. I feel sorry for myself just thinking about it now!
We met in various public school buildings. We worked hard. The congregation steadily grew. To our church’s credit, we were mission minded. After a few years, we bought land and built a building. This time I resisted the temptation to run when I felt like running. I stuck it out through thick and thin.
But the biggest spiritual event in my life, besides being born again, was still in my future. God is dedicated to our spiritual growth, and He has promised to complete the good work He’s begun in us. I didn’t realize it, or perhaps could not consciously admit it to myself, but for most of the years that I served that church, I made compromises. They are such common compromises that the majority of professing Christians and pastors wouldn’t notice them. I’ll save the details of my tenth confession for my next e-teaching.
The Greatest Lessons
Looking back at my pastoral days, I do not believe that pastoring is ultimately what God had planned for me. But it was the first thing He wanted me to do, and He used it to teach me and to change me (and hopefully He used me to help a few others change as well). It was, however, only until after I completed my first assignment that I could, with God’s blessing, move on to my second assignment, which is what I’m trying to fulfill now (along with 24 other people whom God has joined together as the staff of Heaven’s Family). When God has a job for someone to do, He never looks in the unemployment line. He finds someone who is faithfully toiling away at his current job.
Also, as I look back at my pastoral days, I realize that I never really followed a truly biblical model of pastoring. Today I don’t believe there is anyone who is called to be a pastor after the pattern modeled in most churches, a model where the pastor’s primary role is to attract as many people as possible to a weekly production with him at center stage, rather than to make disciples who obey all of Christ’s commandments.
Of course I believe that God calls pastors. But the qualifications and the roles required of most modern pastors (at least in the Western world and where the Western pattern has been followed) does not resemble the qualifications and roles of pastors in the New Testament. But I never realized that during all the years I was pastoring. Even though it was as plain as day in the New Testament, it was invisible to me. Tradition often obscures the truth, and tradition tends to perpetuate itself for the sake of its beneficiaries.
God is amazingly merciful towards our ignorance, both innocent and willful. But all of us who are building His kingdom are building with either wood, hay and straw, or silver, gold and precious stones. One day all our works will be tested by fire, and the wood, hay and straw will be consumed, exposed as worthless (1 Cor. 3:5-15). I’m afraid that I’m going to have to look at a lot of ashes on that day. I hope, however, there will be some gems, too.
May God open our eyes! — David