Pastoral Reflections from February 4, 2019
For pastors, Sunday is a day of work. It’s good work and work I believe pastors genuinely look forward because of the opportunity it presents to minister to people. I look forward to each Sunday with a lot of expectancy. I look forward to seeing the people I’ve been thinking of praying for during the week. I look forward to having some good conversations. I look forward to the sermon excited about how it will challenge and encourage hearts and lives. And I simply look forward to having a good time, singing, smiling and surrounding myself to the sweetness of God’s Spirit.
On a practical level there’s probably a lot that is going on in many pastors’ minds that most don’t hear or see. At The Resolved we have incredible teams and leaders who really need no oversight or direction because they know and do their jobs so well. It took a lot of years to get to that place and though now, none of the ministry’s need my help or management I still subtly check in on everyone. I usually don’t say anything to anyone but in a kind of fatherly care I walk through the building just quietly praying for everyone and making sure everyone seems okay.
At thirty-five minutes before the service begins, all the teams gather in our Upper Room to pray. It’s always a special time. We sit down in couches all set in a circle and I start things off by briefly sharing my heart for the service and the day’s sermon and then I ask how everybody is doing and feeling about the day. After a couple minutes of discussion we spend around ten minutes praying.
A theology professor I had in college told me you can tell a lot about what a person believes by listening to what they pray. I’m regularly overwhelmed in hearing our people pray. When I hear them pray in genuine love for God and a real longing for Him to work in our service it’s always such a massive encouragement to me. Hearing the prayers of God’s people has this way of filling me up with God’s Spirit and power to go out on stage and in boldness and courage preach of God’s great grace provided for us in Christ.
Perhaps the most overlooked area of a pastor’s work on a Sunday is the conversations that happen before or after the service. I always stand out at our church gate entrance where people first arrive. I love seeing God’s people approach His house. Some come smiling, excited to see friends and to worship. Some come with a weight on their shoulders and they’re coming because they desperately need to hear God’s Word and need His grace. Some come who are not sure why they are there, which always kind of makes me smirk as I think about the wiles of God and His ways.
I have an evangelist’s heart, which means above everything I do, the thing I long for most is to see people come to Christ, genuine conversions. Because of that when I’m at the gate before and after service I especially try to prioritize new people, giving them the most attention and time.
Sometimes a member will pull me aside and ask if they can talk with me, to which I usually oblige as long as there’s time and they say it’s something quick and not something that would be better to meet later about. I learned that one the hard way. When someone brings a complaint about the church or wants to register a concern about another church member or ministry, it can take all the wind out of you and make walking out on that stage the most difficult thing in the world to do.
Most of the time however, those conversations are really good things. Some of the best ministry moments on a Sunday are when people ask for advice and prayer on a specific situation and when people give me encouragement and share what God is doing in their life. I treasure those conversations, even when it’s just a brief check in asking how the work week was or talking about the weather. They are connection points where I can share just a tid bit of shepherdly care for those I’m giving my life away to love and serve.
This last Sunday I had one of those conversations with a member. He’s been with us for a number of years. My sermon was on the word of God and the power of words. After the service he was still processing some things in his mind and said, “Duane, you know your preaching is different these days.” I wasn’t sure what he meant and to be honest I was a little scared about where the conversation was going to go next. So I just said, “Tell me more.”
He said, “Well, you used to preach really hard where you would come at us like the goal was to break us into submission. It wasn’t all bad because you always came around to God’s grace, but you’re different now. Now it’s like you come along side us as one of us and wrap your arms around us. There’s a lot more grace and I think God has used that to change us and mature us as people the last few years. We’re a different church and it’s good.”
I had to fight back the tears when he said that. I had a pretty serious breakdown nearly four years ago, having intense anxiety attacks after running 200 miles an hour for around eighteen years at that time. The doctors said I had completely depleted my serotonin levels and the other pastors of our church sent me on a six month sabbatical. In essence God broke me and it changed me.
When I returned to our church I knew I was different. I didn’t feel the same. I didn’t think about things and people the same way I had for so long. In essence, I think I used to lead a lot more with law and after being broken and experiencing God’s abundant love for me, there’s just a lot more grace for people in me. I’ve been able to let go more, loosening my grip and trusting God to work in His people in His time and His way and not feel as though I have to force things and be the functional Holy Spirit. It’s helped me be more myself because I have nothing left to prove. All that’s left is a willingness to just be a servant and perhaps play some small part in God’s glorious plan.
Continuing the theme of one’s family upbringing having a critical influence in the forming and shaping of one’s identity, Eugene reflects in this chapter on his first job working at his father’s butcher shop. The butcher shop was bloody work. You have to wear a special apron and know how to use a knife well in order to cut up carcasses and slice them into neatly packaged offerings of meat for coming customers.
Eugene remembered thinking of the Old Testament priest who wore a special ephod when working in the temple where they would take animal carcasses, cut them up and offer them to God for the people. The priest and the butcher’s jobs didn’t seem that different to him, especially because of the way Eugene saw his dad work. His dad knew every customer by name, knew each of their lives and stories and always had a kind word to say.
It’s an interesting analogy. I’ve had several conversations with seasoned pastors and a frequent theme is the messiness of ministry. Navigating challenging people and situations is often fraught with a lot of unknowns and frequent mistakes. Helping people who’s lives been torn apart and wrecked by the destruction of sin is not easy. In my earlier years I used to think if people just followed my advice then everything could get cleaned up and be better. The truth is, whether it’s addictions, broken relationships, confusion and doubt, battling disease or a any number of things, pastors often don’t really know exactly what people need.
Pastors know and have a deep conviction that what people need is God but it’s often hard to see what and understand what exactly God is doing in people’s lives and what of the promises of God they most need to hear. It requires a lot of paying attention, knowing people’s stories and regularly trusting the Gospel is strong enough and good enough to clean up even the dirtiest of messes. At its heart the Gospel is message of a special medicine that can remove our scarlet stains and make us white as snow.
I’ve never thought of myself as a butcher, though most days I do carry a knife. I spend a good portion of my week slicing up the coming biblical text for my sermon in hopes I’ll be able to give God’s people good meat and knowing people’s lives and stories is what I think enables it to have the kind of seasoning that makes it taste like God’s grace.