We exhorted, and comforted, and charged every one of you, as a father does his own children, that you would walk worthy of God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory. – Saint Paul, (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12)
What do pastors do all day anyway? Of course, the joke is that we only work for one hour on Sunday mornings.
Sometimes we get strange requests. I’ve been asked to pray for a pet pit bull that it would be healed from a terminal disease. I’ve listened to so many strange stories I can’t tell you. I’ve seen snakes slither across the stage during church. I’ve seen deacons drop the Lord’s Supper elements during Communion.
About a year ago I received a note from someone attending our church…
I have an “unspoken” prayer request and please keep this “confidential.”
Aside from the basics of officiating at funerals and weddings, visiting the sick in hospitals, preaching on Sundays…what do we do? Or better asked, “What should we be doing?”
On two occasions in my ministry, I have been called “Father.” Each time it took me aback. We Baptist don’t think of ourselves that way. It is foreign to our ears. I do find that over the years I have felt that the office has a paternal feel to it.
I’ll the first time this became apparent to me was when a part-time staff person who led our music when I was in my mid-thirties told me that I was a father figure for him. He was forty at the time. I couldn’t understand how I could be a father figure for someone older than me at such a young age. Then it dawned on me that it wasn’t so much me as it was the role and office of pastor.
There is an old adage that says, “a mother is only as happy as her saddest child.” As a father, I know that to be true. Of my three adult sons, I have one son who is struggling with his faith right now and one is not living for Jesus at all.
Remember the famous story Jesus told about the two sons? Jesus never mentions that the reason the younger son wanted his inheritance early so he could leave and squander it was due to any failure on the father’s part. Perhaps I am reading too much into that, but I find some comfort in that thought.
This past summer my father and I were backpacking, and Dad asked a question and told me a story. He asked why me, my brother and sisters were so deeply committed to Jesus. We discussed that for a while then he told me a story. He said that my mothers’ grandfather, Dad Conway, who was a deacon in my dad’s first church and would come to him and say, “Let’s go to the church house to pray.” They would drive down to the church and pray. One time my great grandfather, Dad Conway, made a promise to my dad that he would pray for each of his children by name until the day he died.
He kept that promise.
Dad told me that he would to the same thing for my kids and grandkids. I told my mother this story and she said that she has been doing that for years.
My heart aches for my two sons. Their faces are always at the front of my mind. At the same time, there are many other faces that press against the glass of my imagination. Not children of mine. I see faces of congregants and friends; people who are trying so hard to find their way in this world without Jesus. Oh, they go to church. Some regularly, some intermittently but they are in my flock and I am their shepherd.
And while I am delighted with our church family and I am at peace with Jesus, I am also very aware that my sense of melancholy is tied to the saddest member of my church.
I am careful about boundaries. I am quite willing to let people feel the full weight of the consequences of their sins. These consequences can be their best tutors. It is a delicate balance for a pastor knowing how to be available to and accommodating with congregants and not neglect your own health or the health of other primary relationships.
There is a difference between legitimate needs and perceived needs. You learn on the difference the more kids you have. The first child you are a Shiite protective parent. You are there in the room with him every time he turns over or whimpers. By the third child, a crying baby is like your alarm on Saturday mornings. Getting up when it goes off is really optional.
Part of what pastors do is to discern the difference between an urgent need that is not very important and an important need that has turned urgent.
One time a man who had been recently married called me on Saturday and told me he needed to talk to me. Said it was urgent. I asked him to explain. “Well,” he said, “You know Betty and I have been married for seven days now, but I want an annulment. Do you do annulments? Can you help me?
I said, “Bill, I would be happy to help you. Let’s set up a time to visit the first thing Monday morning.”
He said, “Pastor, did you hear me say that I need to talk to you right away? This is serious.”
I can tell by the tone of your voice that it is serious, “Let’s set a time for us to get together the first thing Monday morning.”
He wasn’t happy with me but agreed to meet Monday morning and they are still married.
Not all pastors are good at this. But being sensitive to legitimate needs in a congregant’s life is one of the most important practices we have to learn. A haunting question I frequently ask myself is as follows:
“Am I daily living the life I am inviting others to live?
A life of reflection?
A life of obedience?
A life of prayer?
A life of silence and solitude?
A life of justice and mercy?
A life of grace and truth?
Other than my own father, Eugene Peterson has had the greatest impact on my vocation as a pastor. Most pastors consider him to be a pastor’s pastor. He is who we all want to be when we grow up.
His son, Leif Peterson preached at his memorial service a couple of years ago. Here is the way he closed his sermon,
When I was in high school, I used to joke with my dad that he only had one sermon. And although it was a joke between us, I believed then, as I do now, that it is largely accurate. My dad had one message.
A few years ago, there was a commissioning service in Colorado for the translation of the New Testament that my dad had completed. I was invited to say a few words. In preparation, I couldn’t shake that thought that for his whole life my dad only had one sermon—one message.
So I wrote a poem.
It’s almost laughable
how you fooled them.
How for thirty years, every week
you made them think
you were saying something new.
They thought you were
a magician. In your long black robe,
hiding so much up your ample sleeves,
always pulling something fresh
and making them think it was just
for them. And that’s just
the beginning. There was more.
Casual conversations at church picnics,
unmemorable chats at the local Denny’s
over eggs and toast. Counseling sessions
that saved marriages, maybe even lives.
And they didn’t know what
a fraud you were. They didn’t know
how simple it all was. They were blind
to your secret, only saw the magic
you performed, how you made the mysterious,
the ominous, the holy, into a cup of coffee,
how you made a cup of coffee into an act of grace,
how you could make
God into something that worked for them.
It’s so funny that they didn’t notice.
So many times I’ve wanted to
expose you. Tell them all what you’ve
been up to. And now you’re doing it
again. You’ve got this new group fooled
into thinking you’re worth millions.
They’re printing it on T-shirts, coffee mugs,
message pads, a new version every week,
for some new flock. But, I must say this,
they’ve widened your audience. Now you’re fooling
them all over the world, in churches, schools, homes,
prisons. It’s so funny.
Only my inheritance keeps me
from giving you away.
Because I alone know your secret.
I alone know what you’ve been doing.
How you’ve fooled them all, taking something
so simple, something a child could understand
and making it into a career, a vocation, an empire.
Because for fifty years you’ve
been telling me the secret. For fifty
years you’ve steeled into my room
at night and whispered softly to my
sleeping head. It’s the same message
over and over and you don’t vary
it one bit.
God loves you.
He’s on your side.
He’s coming after you.
Pastors carry you in their hearts. It is this love that keeps a father on the front porch looking down a long and dusty road for a broken and sad boy to come home. And when he sees the familiar stride of his child, to be quick to leap off the porch and run down the road to embrace his son.
And it is this same heart that makes a pastor stand on the porch of a little church every Sunday morning looking at a parking lot for that troubled family to drive up.
So, I wait and watch—ready to run to both my son and you.
For I am a pastor.