August 5, 2012
William G. Carter
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift...
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
My friend Blair Moffett grew up in the Rushville Presbyterian Church, about forty miles northwest of here. His father served as the pastor in that rural community. His family lived in the manse, which was a home provided by the congregation for its minister. The town was small. Everybody knew everybody else. They kept their doors unlocked. Seventy years ago, when Blair was a little boy, it was an idyllic community. On Sunday mornings, the farmers went to worship after all the chores were done. He sat with his family in the pew reserved for the preacher’s family, and they listened to his father, a graduate of Princeton Seminary, deliver the sermon.
That was a long time ago. The Rushville Presbyterian Church is still there, right along Route 706. These days they do not have an ordained minister as their pastor. The last regular preacher was a full-time truck driver. He had no seminary degree; in fact, he had no college degree. His education came from listening to cassette tapes and podcasts from Bible teachers as he drove his routes each week. He departed rather abruptly this year, and the church scrambled to find somebody to preach.
This is largely a function of economics. The Rushville church has sixteen members, nineteen of whom show up every Sunday (I love small town statistics!). The 2010 budget was about $24,000, about half of it coming from a handful of members with leases for natural gas. Even with such generosity, the congregation cannot come close to the minimum salary requirements of the presbytery. So ruling elders fill in – with sixteen members, most of them have everybody has had a turn. Often a neighboring elder comes over the hills to preach. The presbytery offered a couple of preaching classes about ten years ago, and that is all the training he has.
What do they need a pastor for, anyway?
In the hundred years of our church’s history, that is one of the questions that focuses how church life has changed. This congregation began in a lady’s living room, as a small group of the faithful gathered to pray. As the fellowship expanded, the day came when they decided to get a pastor. The first worship services were held in the Nickelette Theater on State Street, where the offices of Citizens Savings are located. Seminary students drove up from Princeton to preach each week.
And then, even before the building site was established, the congregation called its first pastor. The Rev. J. Hawley Rendell began on December 9, 1912. He was one of those Princeton Seminary students. The congregation liked him, he was freshly graduated, and he served here for three years – and was paid a thousand dollars a year. Oh, the good old days!
But what did a pastor do, a hundred years ago? Certainly he prepared a sermon. If he went to Princeton Seminary, he was told to spend an hour in preparation for every minute in the pulpit. Back then, you couldn’t steal your sermons from the internet, from DesperatePreacher.com. No, the preacher wrote every word – probably in long hand. And he – since all the preachers were “he’s” – probably spoke for thirty minutes every week. That’s how long the average Presbyterian sermon was in 1912. Sermons are important, central to our tradition. They were worthy of the preparation.
What else did the pastor do? He made house calls, often going door to door. There were no church programs back then, few organized study groups, and no Sunday School. So the preacher would put on coat and tie, walk around the neighborhood, knock on the door, and inquire into the spiritual health of those inside.
What else did he do? He moderated the session meetings, maybe as frequently as once a week. There were church committees back then. The session functioned as a committee of the whole. So it was often one meeting per week. There were a handful of elders on the session, all men. They often inquired into the spiritual health of the people in the church – and in the neighborhood. Don Keen will tell you how the session once threw his grandmother out of this church. They discovered she was a troublemaker, so they gave her the boot. Apparently the discipline straightened her out, and she rejoined sometime later. The pastor probably has something to do with both discipline and restoration.
What else did the first pastor do? We really don’t know. Certainly he conducted some funerals, a few weddings, and presided over baptisms and the Lord’s Supper. But most of all, he had a ministry of presence. That means he spent some time hanging around the town, God’s local representative. His life was a symbol that God was present in the community. If a church has a pastor, it was a sign that God was in town.
As for those churches like the Rushville Presbyterian Church, there are more of them every year. Once upon a time, when salaries were small, health care costs were negligible, and the cost of living was modest, a country church could afford a pastor. When I moved here, there were about forty-five full-time ministers in our presbytery of sixty-five churches. Now there are twenty-two pastors in fifty-seven churches. Let that statistic sink in for a second. I may be part of a dying profession. That’s a big change from a hundred years ago.
Another big change is with the expectations of those pastors that we do have. There are many things laid upon their shoulders, most of them inconceivable one hundred years ago. This past week, a summer week, I spent eight hours in meetings, five hours conversing with people who have challenges in their lives, three hours teaching the Bible, nine hours in study and preparation, ten hours in office administration, and all kinds of little things that I did not document, like sermon preparation. Want to guess how many church e-mails I fielded? About 170. There were at least thirty-five phone calls. In truth, it was a quiet week, although I will always apologize to you that I never get everything done.
Technology is not always a help. As with most of you, computers simplify my work and complicate my work, both at the same time. My laptop computer gives me the nagging sense that I am always working, and my smart phone keeps me constantly tethered.
And when you live somewhere as long as I have lived here, the roots go deep, the branches extend, and all kinds of birds build nests. What that means in a practical sense is that if I go to the store to get ice cream for my wife, there are a few of you that I will avoid in the frozen food aisle. I don’t mean to be rude, but I will answer to a higher authority than you if I return with a half-gallon of chocolate soup.
There are all kinds of peculiarities that come with being a pastor. I don’t need to bore you with my list. My kids can probably give you a list. Certainly there are a lot of pastors who work a lot harder than me; I know that, because I hear them whining about it; the pastoral ministry tends to attract people who are lousy at self-care. And I know there are some lazy pastors out there, too, and I have heard them bragging about it.
I tell you it is a crazy profession. You tell me that only crazy people go into it. I recall the book editor who was reading through a collection of sermons to prepare it for publication. The preacher used the word “pastor” as a verb, as in “I pastored a church.” The problem, said the editor, is that the spell checker on the computer did not like that word as a verb. It suggested alternatives. Instead of “pastoring” a church, it suggested “posturing,” “pestering,” and “pasturing.” I reserve comment.
So I return where I began: to the Rushville Presbyterian Church, with its sixteen members, nineteen of them showing up, and no regular pastor. They have figured out how to have worship without an ordained minister. But what are they missing?
There is no pastor to posture, and declare, “I am better than you,” or “I am holier than you.” God save us from such arrogance! There is no pastor to pester the people into righteous living, to provoke them to good works and annoy them into the Kingdom. God save us from that, too. Most significantly, there is no regular outsider who is also resident insider who points to the green pastures - - and the still waters of God.
Of all the reasons why I am here, that’s number one. To remind you of God. The Rev. J. Hawley Rendell had the luxury of a simple job description and a consensus of expectations on what he was supposed to do. That was a long time ago. But his central calling is the same as with any pastor: to usher people into the presence of God.
From his jail cell, the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians of Ephesus. They were a minority group in an enormous city. The prevailing community ignored them, went about its business as if they did not exist. But Paul understood that life has a governing center: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is the parent of all. And this God is generous to every one of us – Paul reminded them of what they already knew, and what they readily forgot.
This is what the pastor does – sometimes posturing, sometimes pestering, sometimes pasturing. The grace of God in Jesus Christ stands at the center of our lives. As we grow up in faith, in the full maturity of faith, this is where we return over and over again. We come to this Table, reminded of the Christ who stretched his arms out in sacrificial love for you and for me. We come to be reminded how he blows his very Soul into our lungs, ever sustaining us by his Spirit.
We forget these truths, and the pastor is planted right in the center of it all to remind us that God actually likes us, that God takes delight in us, that God covets our companionship and listens for our prayers to learn from our lips who and what are on our hearts.
If these things are not important, then pastors are not necessary. But among Christians, most of us believe they are absolutely essential. All of us are called to grow up, to mature in Christ and become more like him. We need the encouragement and support of one another every day. Sometimes we nudge one another to forgive, to leave the hurts and grudges behind, to drop our heavy burdens. Other times we lift our prayers as incense, called to trust that God will do something beautiful with all our broken pieces.
That’s why we are here – to ground ourselves in the grace of God. To let God be God, and to let ourselves be God’s beloved teenagers, stretching and growing, ever becoming as loving as Jesus. It will take a while, as all good things do. Along the way, we can – all of us – be pastors to one another.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.