I’m trying to process what this Sunday means to me.
I “preached” my first “sermon” when I was thirteen. I am now fifty-six so I’ve been at this preaching thing for forty-three years.
For much of my life my preaching has been done in the context of serving as the full-time pastor of a church. I have served the First Baptist Churches of Adel and Fitzgerald, Georgia and The Hill Baptist Church of Augusta as their pastor for a combined total of twenty-two years.
While one cannot predict the future and thus should never say “Never,” it is very, very likely that the sermon I will deliver from the pulpit of the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald this Sunday, April 26, 2015, will be the last one I will ever preach as the full-time pastor of a church.
Beginning next Friday, May 1 I will begin a new career as a Curriculum Editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing in Macon, Georgia. That’s a Monday-Friday job so I hope that I will have opportunities to preach regularly on Sundays as a supply preacher or as an Interim Pastor.
Indeed, I anticipate preaching for as long as I live, am able, and receive invitations.
I am and always will be a preacher.
But I will no longer be a pastor—and that’s a little difficult to get my head around.
I left the pastorate one other time in my life; that time it was to take a position as a Religion professor. I greatly enjoyed the six years that I spent in academia. When I went back into the pastorate it was because I missed three things: (1) preaching, (2) leading worship, and (3) walking alongside people through the broad range of human experiences (births, illnesses, marriages, deaths, etc.). I anticipate that I will again miss the latter two roles; I hope to continue filling the first one.
I confess that I went back into the pastorate knowing that I never did and never would like the administrative role that a pastor is expected to play. I won’t miss that part of the job.
I really don’t think that I’m burned out; I must admit, though, to some level of weariness. Some of my weariness is a good kind--it takes a lot out of you to care about people and I’m glad that I cared enough that it cost me a lot of myself; it takes a lot out of you to pray, to study over, to write, and to deliver sermons that come from God’s heart through your heart and hopefully go to the hearts of the people listening.
But some of my weariness comes from an inability to meet people’s expectations, an inability that eventually evolved into an unwillingness to try.
Most people’s expectations of their pastor are pretty reasonable; they expect their pastor to be faithful to the ministries of preaching, teaching, and shepherding; they pray for their pastor as he or she fulfills those roles and they encourage their pastor in her or his ministry.
But some folks' expectations of their pastor seem to me to be mighty hard if not impossible to meet.
There are the expectations of some that the pastor will be liked by everyone, that the pastor will by force of personality draw more people to the church, that the pastor will preach the Gospel in a challenging way without offending anyone, that the pastor will lead the church into the future while simultaneously leading the church to live in the past, and that the pastor will confirm everyone’s preconceived notions even if they are more personal and cultural than they are Christian.
Please understand that the weariness that I feel is cumulative in nature; I would feel the same weariness had I pastored the three churches I have served in some other order and if any other of the churches had been the last one I served. Please understand too that this weariness is largely my fault; it was wrong of me to want so badly for so long to meet everyone’s expectations and to please everybody and it was wrong of me to value too highly the preservation of peace, defined unbiblically as an absence of conflict rather than biblically as wholeness of relationship with God and with each other, in the congregations that I served.
My greatest weariness, though, comes from all the times that I have let myself be drawn into any ways of leading in or doing ministry that substitute the good for the best. I truly believe that the church should focus on the best things and on the main things.
So after all these years I have decided that the role of the pastor—the role that people should expect the pastor to fill and the role that the pastor should expect herself or himself to fill—is to walk out in front of the church as we learn together how to follow Jesus by loving God and loving people.
If I could start over as a pastor, I would say to the church, “Jesus calls us to follow him all the way to the cross by giving up our lives—our egos, our pride, our biases, our prejudices, our fears, our ambitions—for God and for other people. Jesus tells us that that the most important things we can do are to love God with all we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus tells us that the world will know we are his followers by the way we love one another.”
And then I would say, “So if it doesn’t have anything to do with any of those things, it’s not a thing we should do. But if it does help us to do those things, then let’s do it.”
As a former pastor, which I will be as of Sunday, I hope and pray that our current and future pastors will lead us in that way and I hope and pray that is the way that we in the Church will want to go …