I’ve preached thirty-one funerals in the past sixteen years. This included my grandmother’s and my father-in-law’s. Only one time did I not meet the person in the box before they got there. In a way that's a blessing. An acquaintance from work at the time knew I was a preacher, of some sort. That's how he phrased it, "Aren't you a preacher of some sort?" When I told him I was he asked if I would do his father’s funeral.
For one winter funeral there was snow on the ground and it was below zero. A back-hoe broke the ground for the burial. The family wanted a grave-side service. I kept it brief and at the end the machine used to lower the coffin into the earth had frozen. The cemetery workers were short staffed that day and asked if I could help lower the coffin with straps. I did. Another time a paramedic asked if I could help move the body into the bag and then onto the gurney. I did; all for people I knew.
I’ve seriously counseled five couples with troubled marriages. Three of those couples went ahead and got the divorce. One of those couples I did the original services for. For a second couple I did a renewal of the vows ceremony. Of the other eight marriages I’ve performed, three have ended in divorce. Good thing I didn't go into counseling.
I’ve been cussed at and have had to walk away from those I’d known for years. Midnight emergency rooms are always interesting. There was the father of a church member who had MERSA, gurgling in his oxygen tent, covered with palm-sized boils on his face and arms, me in a medical hazmat suit. I don’t know if he recognized who I was. I read him a couple of psalms and prayed. He died two days later.
Then there are the liars, the alcoholics, the porn-addicted, and the one or two heroin addicts I’ve known and tried to minister to. Should I tell you of nursing homes and what goes on in them? I once found a church member in late stage alzheimer’s who had slid out of his wheelchair. His arms were stuck above the straps and pulled up over his head by the seat belt. The rest of him was sitting on the floor. He was moaning loud enough that I heard him from the hall before I entered the room. I called the aide and together we unbuckled him, sat him back in the chair and washed the slobber from his chin and neck. The skin on his face and neck was bruised and he had those deep red indentions across his arms from the straps. That’s how long he’d been there.
Every week people tell me they’ll see me next Sunday and never show. I guess this one sounds petty. But over time even small things take a toll. If nothing else, be nice to your pastor and pray for him.
Early on, towards the end of my “running from God’s call” phase, an older pastor advised me that if I could be satisfied doing anything aside from being a pastor, that I should do that instead. I was young then. I did not know what he could be talking about. Nearly seventeen years later I can say that advice is pretty much true. Layered into that let me add the following: being called to pastor a “small” church means you will pretty much be ruined for any other career path on this earth.
Did I not mention I pastor a small church? When I first started our official role carried just over a dozen names. Two of them were my wife and I. We were the youth group. At high tide we once boasted forty-eight church members. Today we’re in the thirties. The world gauges success by these numbers. This is a non-scriptural reality and staying encouraged can die by it.
Pastoring a small church means leading and caring for a congregation not able to meet your family’s financial needs. So, following the call, the small church pastor has to juggle things like paying the mortgage and buying electricity with teaching, preaching, praying, making visits, and seeking out those who don’t have a church home. Sooner or later it is necessary to find another job, “on the side'; all the while telling yourself there is no such thing as a small church.
I know what that is supposed to mean, and I believe it. But still…
Of course it’s possible to find enjoyable work aside from a pastorate. But for me, and I imagine thousands of other pastors across the nation, the real passion remains behind the pulpit. I can’t see spending 50 or 60 hours a week for some corporation or industry while putting the minimum number of hours into the church. I’ve always tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to make ends meet the other way around.
The job-on-the-side mentality hasn’t been the best for my professional development but it has offered a wonderful perspective about a good number of things; how the world and people work. I can see how it would be easy for the full-time pastor to get tunnel vision and either forget or never learn a few critical things about people. I meet lots of new people, mostly the ones who say they’ll visit on Sunday and never show. I see situations repeated constantly, they’re just dressed different. It’s a wonderful set of life lessons that a good number of people could profit from knowing.
It’s an interesting club; the small church pastors. It’s not a career. I had to learn that. All the time preaching the need to accept the Word of God as is, I had some eye-beams to lift. I mean, the conception is that a pastor has about a hundred and fifty church members, a nice car, insurance, a house, livable wage, nice clothes; all provided by the church. Where’s that guaranteed in the Bible? It took a few years for the truth to sink in.
You know you are talking to a small church pastor by the way he answers the question: "What do you do?" It gets tangled and messy almost from the beginning. “I’m a pastor, but I also…” Then they fill in the blank: janitors, morticians, sheriff’s deputies, salesmen, substitute teachers, computer nerds and office workers, so on, and so forth.
Invariably though, and don’t miss this point: talk to enough of them and you’ll appreciate it doesn’t matter what else they do, just so long as they get to continue in their pastorate. That's the calling right there.
Whatever-it-takes, render unto Caesar and then let me do what I was put on earth to do. There are tired hours each week spent preparing for the leadership and spiritual feeding of the flock the Lord has allowed. And maybe a thousand times a year he is exhausted from mopping floors or putting in a twelve hour shift on the assembly line or from taking his kids to another practice. That’s usually when Sister Overwrought calls, wanting to know why he said that one certain thing, that five word sentence in the middle of that forty-minute sermon. Did he really mean it a certain way? Because, if so, Houston, we have a problem.
The small church pastor will end up questioning why and he will wonder about quitting, just like the time before. But he never quits, until he absolutely drops because his health has been compromised by stress and overwork and age. Maybe after his second bypass and that torn rotator cuff, when his vision dims from cataracts and he don’t like to drive at night, maybe then he’ll slow down. If that’s not passion I don’t know what is.
Such a man can’t help but accumulate life experiences that are not quite normal. By normal I mean things other people seldom stop to consider, are allowed to see, or think about understanding. As an adult I’ve had many jobs. I won't bore you with the list. Just know that through every one of those jobs I’ve been a Pastor.
Many people hate their jobs and complain as though it’s their bad luck to have one like theirs. If only, they think, they could move up in the company or go somewhere else, or win the lottery – then things would be better. Meanwhile they break the speed limit to get to work in the morning, risking their lives and mine for something they hate.
This is the greener taller grass on the other side of the fence, but based on what I’ve seen, most jobs are similar. Only the tasks and the pay scales differ. Of course that means on some levels there is a world of difference, but don’t be fooled. People are people no matter where they work and there are a lot of people whose self absorption doesn’t allow them to like their jobs, just like there are those who think they really do have it that bad.
The pastor of a small church is just blessed enough to have something he is both called to perform and also loves. Most times, in spite of himself, and sometimes in spite of others, he wouldn't have it any other way.