By the time you read this, It will be my 3rd anniversary as the privileged pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Circleville, Ohio. It has truly been a blessed union of pastor and people; not without its share of struggle, but one where God’s goodness, grace, and mercy have proven faithful to His people.
Often, I hear and read about the difficulties that come with leading a congregation. In particular, I often hear of how many parishes mistreat their shepherd. I even heard a pastor once refer to Pastoral ministry as “the ministry of misery”. Seems as if every other day, I see an article about a church taking their leader for granted, not understanding the sacrifices that a pastor makes for them, or outright disrespecting their person and position. And while I want to regard (and pray for) those have that story, I want to testify that I do not. Now, in fairness and transparency, there have been moments in my ministry where I have felt taken advantage of; moments where “what I do” has seemed more important “who I am”. I actually think that these moments are (if for no other reason, than the position of pastor in relation to the body of believers ), part of what comes with the call to the pastorate, but I digress. The truth of the matter is that these moments are infinitesimal to the moments where I feel valued and important to those whom I serve. My deepest of prayer is that I make those whom I serve feel as loved as they make me feel regularly.
With that principle in play, I wanted to share a few of the ways that the church I serve shows me that they love me. I pray that this encourages clergy and churches to continue to love on each other as they continue to be conjoined in service to our God.
- They Allow Me To Be Myself
This may seem like an obvious thing, but so often clergy are bound by expectations and standards that have nothing to do with their call. This becomes dangerous in a very real way as many brothers and sisters in the ministry faithfully serve others while simultaneously losing the specific things that make them unique. How can God use you if there is no “you” for God to use? Our church loves me enough to let me be all that I am in Jesus Christ without making apologies for it. For example: I have a heart for social justice, in particular, the present plight of the African American. In fact, I do not know how to interpret the life of Jesus (or the will of God for that matter) without connecting it to justice and righteousness. Our congregation is a historically African American, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-generational church. While I attempt to responsibly navigate that reality in my preaching and teaching, it helps me to know that my church loves me enough to not mute me when it comes to issues of racism, sexism, sexuality, injustice, etc. They pray for me when I march or protest or speak out on certain issues (in fact, they encourage me to keep on doing it). It is easy to preach about a God of liberation when I, myself< am liberated by my church daily.
2. They Pay Attention To How I Am Doing
One Sunday, I arrived at church for Sunday School (yes, I go to Sunday School…and I love it! Can’t expect anyone else to go if I don’t go), and I was feeling a little heavy. It had been a particularly busy week at our church; full of meetings and programming, I hadn’t gotten the best sleep the night before, and by the time I pulled up at the church, I was in a funk of EPIC proportion. I walked in and greeted everyone in crude cordiality. As I made my way to my office to get my spirit right, one of our ushers stopped me and said “Good morning, Pastor. Are you alright?” Lying to her face, I replied, “Sure, I’m cool” while forcing the most disingenuous smile known to man in front of her. She smiled and replied “Ok, just checking up on you. It’s just we’ve never seen you this way before. We know that you are so busy taking care of us. You have so much on your plate and we just want you to know that we are praying for you. We love you, Pastor”. She gave me a hug (I almost cried in her arms) and I felt instantly better. Their regard for me was (and is) more than just an appreciation for a hired hand. Their love for me in that moment preached to me well before (and much better) than anything that I could have preached to them.
3. They Tell Me When They Don’t Agree With Me
We have an unofficial motto for any endeavor that takes place at our church: “We Don’t Drag Anyone”. It means that whatever it is we decide to do as a congregation we commit doing it together. It also means that if someone has questions, if someone disagrees, or if someone just feels some type of way about it, someone can ask questions in order to gain understanding. The only way this works is if our membership are honest with me and rather than have separate meetings in the church parking lot or sabotage the stratagem silently, they share their concerns, openly, honestly, and respectfully. As much as I would like to tell you that every single decision I make is perfect and absolute in its correctness, the truth is sometimes my decisions aren’t the best ones. I have even had members tell me “I don’t agree with you, but I trust that God is leading you”. The level of regard & trust in that kind of statement lets me know that they not only respect but love me enough to be real with me.
4) They Understand My Needs (Even When They Don’t Understand Them)
I am very much an introvert. It might seem hard to believe given the visible realities of a call to the pastorate, but it is true indeed. If I had my way, I would just email my sermon to our membership and have them reply with questions or thoughts. Not only am I an introvert, but I emotionally recharge silently and not socially. This means that after the benediction, and greeting parishioners, I normally need about 20-25 minutes to myself to re-center myself. Sometimes, the feeling of lowliness gets so deep that I cannot engage socially after our worship experience. I explained this to our church in my first year of ministry, afraid that I was destroying my ministry before it had even started. But, to my surprise, they not only understood it but (to this very day), they defend the time that I need from others. They will instruct people who come to my office to wait until I am ready to come out or schedule an appointment. They politely knock on the door looking to see if I need more time; they are even thoughtful enough to remind me to take time when I am overstepping my own preset boundaries in the name of ministry. They explain my needs to others who may not know or understand.
I hope that these help both the men & woman of God who pastor but also those who may follow them. I pray you are all able to see that there are real examples of a healthy relationship between a pastor & the people they serve. This can work! And all I can think about on my annIversary is how well it works in my own life. I am grateful to God for a church that shows me its love regularly. I know my church loves me and I know it because they show me every day!
In the 5th Chapter of the Luke’s Gospel, we find a particular passage of scripture. One in which Jesus is having a very curious conversation with an unlikely collaborator. The context in which the text occurs suggests that Jesus has traveled across the sea of Galilee with His disciples for the purpose of releasing a man who is possessed by demons. Jesus arrives in the Gadarenes and is met by this beleaguered brother. The demonic influence upon the man has driven him to the point of insanity. The text tells us that he cannot be restrained, so much so that he has not only become a danger to those around him but has also begun to damage himself. It is a destructive dilemma, to say the least.
But in this moment, Jesus does something both peculiar and powerful. As he is confronted with the reckless reality of the demons, with all of the power to exorcise these demons at His disposal, Jesus goes into frank and honest dialogue with the demons. Before Jesus heals the man, Jesus has deep discussion with his demons. Before my Savior offers deliverance, Jesus engages in discourse with the devils living deep within this brother.
I think about this practice as it relates to efforts of equality and practices in progress in the United States today. The disorders of this democracy are known all too well. To hear that racism, discrimination, sexism, institutional oppression and a host of other issues plague this province is no surprise to anyone. But for all of the professed commitment to change, there is little, if any, conversation about the realities of these issues. The collective cry, across all fronts, is that people want this nation to be better, but in order for there to be meaningful improvement, there must first be frank interlocution. If the demons we see around us cannot be confronted in conversation, how we possibly expect there to ever be a conversion?
If Jesus Christ is the model by which we measure our life standards, then we must be willing to confidently address the demons of this day, just as He did back in His day on the shores of the Galilee. Prophetic communication has been so watered down by political correctness that to be uncompromising in the face of these social demons is often seen as unpatriotic. The purging of this province must start with Christians speaking to the spirits that surround us; even if that speech stretches us to the point of discomfort.
Our love for our Lord, our desire to live like Him, must be at the center of these confabulations. We need to be able to say that black lives are not treated and valued in the same way that other lives are in this country We need to be able to say that women are passively regarded as a lower class of being in almost every way possible in America. We need to be able to say that poverty, war, and fear are all good for business in America. We need to be able to say that “Muslim” & “Terrorist” are not synonyms. We need to be able to say that LGBTQ children of God are still children of God. These (and others) are all present day demons of our nation. Demons that have gone unaddressed for too long and now are completely unrestrained. Demons that ultimately prompt America to damage herself and others.
Not only must we who love God and His righteousness be able to say things like this, but Christians who may not be directly affected by these demons (even Christians who may consciously or unconsciously benefit from the work of these demons) must be willing to listen; to hear these statements as necessary and not paranoid ranting.
When demons aren’t discussed, comedians can be insensitive to the African experience in America and justify it with creative license. When demons aren’t discussed, video proof of a murder isn’t enough to garner a conviction. When demons aren’t discussed more time is spent questioning the character of the victim than that of the victimizer. When demons aren’t discussed, ethnicity is devalued in the name of a warped sense of equality. When demons aren’t discussed, audacity is confused with integrity and democracy devolves into dictatorship. When demons aren’t discussed, the nation, and all of those who reside in it, are left to become the worst versions of themselves; versions that will, ultimately, consume each other.
We, as believers, need to begin to have conversations about things that matter. Talks that create the space for transformation the Lord desires for us all. If we choose not to, we vacate the word “change” of all its meaning. How much longer can we go on living in a world where demons aren’t discussed?