January 3, 2021
2 Corinthians 4.7-12; Ephesians 4.11-13
Pastor Ken Larson
In my life I’ve had a number of jobs. I was a shipping clerk for a drug company, washed dishes at my college cafeteria, made sails for sailboats, sanded drywall and drove a school bus. I was glad to have each one and the paycheck it brought in, but these are fairly normal kinds of employment. Have any of you had a really weird job? Did you ever consider becoming a golf ball diver? How about standing in a long line at the Apple store waiting for the newest iPhone for someone who doesn’t have the time? Here’s a fun one – a water slide tester! Did you know there are pet psychologists? They don’t converse with dogs and cats but help owners understand their pooch or kitty.
This morning I want to talk about another strange job – pastoring a church! A week from tomorrow your new pastor, Jim Murphy, will begin. In light of this leadership change, I want us to talk about the pastoral role and how the person on the platform and the people in the pews can work together to advance the mission of God’s Kingdom. After all, this is a partnership. Neither vocational ministry nor lay ministry is a “lone ranger” affair. If you work together effectively, your collective action on Jesus’ behalf for your church and your community will have a greater impact.
When I meet someone and they find out what I did before retiring, they react in different ways. Some say, “Oh, that’s great!” but you can tell they can’t imagine why anyone would fill that role. Others think they have to adjust their behavior. I’ve been on the golf course and had a stranger join my foursome. I don’t volunteer what I do, but sometimes it comes up, and then then they might say, “Oh, I’ll watch my language; I hope I haven’t offended you.” I just smile and try to put them at ease. Many people outside, and some inside, consider this a weird job. Presbyterian pastor and writer Frederick Buechner has written about attending a dinner party at the home of a very wealthy family while he was in seminary. During the meal the hostess, who didn’t know his career plans, asked what he intended to do with his life. Buechner said he planned to enter the ministry. To this the woman replied, “Oh, was that your own idea or were you poorly advised?”
The unusual nature of vocational ministry shows up when a pastoral candidate comes to interview. A month ago Jim Murphy was here. A time was provided for people to ask him questions. At one church I was fielding questions in such a setting, when a man got up and asked, “If I came to you and said I’d been to a faith healer who turned my natural teeth into gold, what would you say?” I should have said, “Boy, you really have a million dollar smile, don’t you?” Who else gets questions like that on a job interview?
Pastors may be male or female, and come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. Each has their own style. Some love to draw close to people and are at their best helping the hurting. Others are more professorial, good at teaching and expounding from the pulpit, but maybe not as personable. Some mega church pastors function like a corporate CEO and others are very entrepreneurial. Some wear robes and others don blues jeans and sneakers. What’s true of all of them, though, is that they are called by God to this particular role. In Ephesians 4 Paul wrote, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers…” (verse 11) God who calls women and men into vocational ministry. The church may recognize and affirm that calling, but it starts with the Lord. It happened to me near the end of my freshman year in college. It’s one of those moments in life when you know with absolute clarity that God is summoning you. That encounter doesn’t mean that pastor is perfect or infallible or becomes the wisest person around. It does mean that a pastor’s primary loyalty is not to the church or its leaders or to the denomination, but to God. So when Pastor Jim starts here in a few days, I’m sure that he’ll love and care for you, he’ll want to hear your stories and your hopes for this church’s future, but his first priority is to listen to God.
God gives pastors to the church. What are they to do? The rest of that passage in Ephesians says they are given “…to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (verses 12-13). A pastor’s calling is to help you reach your full potential as followers of Jesus – using your spiritual gifts for the sake of others, living in harmony with one another, and maturing in faith so that over time you come to reflect more of Jesus. How can he or she do that? In the Covenant we say a pastor must do three things well -- lead well, preach and teach well, and care well.
What does it mean to lead well? I love this definition of Christian leadership. It is “energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world” (T. Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains). Examples of this abound in Scripture from Joseph, Moses and Nehemiah in the Old Testament to Peter, Paul and Titus in the New Testament. Of course, Jesus is the best model. Each of these leaders had a calling from God to extend his kingdom, but it always included helping those around them to grow and work together. True spiritual transformation comes about through the work of the Holy Spirit and with the help of our brothers and sisters. When that happens we’re able to bring the good news to the community and world around us in multiple ways.
A leader works at this in different ways. They must build trusting relationships with the people they serve. They have to face reality, and that means recognizing what is good in a church and what needs to change. Pastors must be problem solvers who see what’s going on now and can look down the road and see trouble coming. They also need to have their eyes on the horizon and what can happen, where there are new opportunities for ministry that a congregation has not explored. To do this effectively and in a God-honoring way, a pastor must first take care of his own soul and be sure that the work of ministry doesn’t become so all-consuming that he loses track of his own walk with Jesus. Leadership is a shared task that belongs to the whole church. That’s why you choose lay leaders to fill important functions. Someone, though, has to have their eye on the big picture. In the absence of strong leadership congregations drift into the future. People may feel loved and cared for, and that’s a good thing. However, that model falls far short of the community Christ intended that cares for people and moves forward, helps people feel loved and pushes them out of their comfort zones so that the community experiences God’s love too. That requires leadership.
Pastors must lead well, and they must “preach and teach well.” It’s a privilege to have a job where you are expected to spend time each week in God’s Word and then present it to the church. It’s also a challenge. A church needs to hear the portions of Scripture that offer encouragement and inspiration. They also need to hear the parts that confront and convict. Delivering a message is also difficult because anyone can turn on the TV or radio or download podcasts and hear the most gifted preachers in the world. There is a lot of competition out there for people’s attention, but I believe most local church pastors work hard and do the best they can. It takes a great deal of time to study, think, pray, craft and deliver a sermon that engages the head and the heart, is full of compassion and truth, draws listeners toward God, and sends them off ready to act. John Stott, one of the great Christian leaders of the last half century, once said about preaching, “The Holy Spirit takes our human words, spoken in great weakness and frailty, and he carries them home with power to the mind, the heart, the conscience, and the will of the hearers in such a way that they see and believe.” This is what every preacher prays will result from their efforts.
The third vital area of pastoring is “caring well.” This is the “shepherding” aspect of ministry. It includes hearing peoples’ stories, caring for them in difficult times, praying for them. I was invited to be a pastoral candidate at one church, and while there I was treated very well. There was a session where I answered questions from the people, and at the end I said, “You’ve all been so nice, where are you hiding the grumps?” People chuckled, and then one woman stood up – and everyone laughed harder. Her name was Carol, and she had a reputation as somewhat of a curmudgeon. She asked, “Are you going to stay here till I die so you can do my funeral?” I thought she was just giving me a hard time, so I replied, “How long do you plan to live?” Later that night my wife, who is much more perceptive than me, said, “Do you know why Carol asked that question? It was because she liked Donn so much and misses him.” Donn was the pastor before me. Carol loved him and was sad to see him leave. She and I became good friends who delighted in ribbing each other. I stayed at that church eighteen years, and when I left Carol was still going. Over time I’ve learned that when people talk, words come out of their mouths but there is often a message underneath that needs to be heard. That requires listening. A pastor also gets invited into the high and holy moments of life when no one else is: baptizing a baby, joining two people in marriage, talking to parents who are anxiety ridden over a depressed adolescent, standing at the bedside of a dying friend or holding a grieving widow at the graveside. No one deserves such access at such critical moments, but that’s when you come to share people’s joy or bring them God’s comfort or hope. It’s all part of caring well.
That’s the pastor’s role. What can you do to come alongside and work with the one who has these responsibilities? First, see your pastor as a person. In 2 Corinthians 4.7 Paul wrote, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” The “treasure” Paul referred to here is the ministry of the gospel. The “jars of clay” are those who bring the message. Clay pots are common and ordinary, but can be used for high purposes. Every pastor is a person just like you called to a specific purpose. But he or she is imperfect, flawed and limited. That means they’ll make mistakes and sometimes say things that come across the wrong way. When you act and speak in public all the time, you will make some bad decisions. Great ideas may fall flat. Comments sound critical that weren’t intended to be. Please be understanding and forgiving. Accept your new pastor for who he is, not who he isn’t. You may have loved Tim Anderson or Marc Eix and really liked the way they spoke or led or cared. Jim will be different, so find out who he is and the gifts he brings.
Reach out to Jim and his family. Invite him out for lunch or have the whole family to your house. Don’t worry if your looks doesn’t look like a show place or if the meal doesn’t turn out just right. He’ll be grateful just for the opportunity to know you better and that you made time to know him. The better you know each other the quicker you’ll form a lasting and productive relationship.
Be respectful of his education, experience and the role he fills. He knows a few things. He understands the Scriptures and how churches work. That means you should give him a chance to lead. I’m not talking about blindly following someone. It’s absolutely OK to ask questions, challenge new ideas and share your own view point. But at some point you do have to trust your leaders to take you in the right direction. That trust is a gift that you can give.
It’s almost certain that a time will come when you disagree with your pastor. When it happens, be honest but be kind in the way you express it. If you get offended, don’t’ stew about it or tell someone else, go directly to your pastor. You are probably familiar with the term “passive-aggressive.” That means having strong negative feelings about someone’s words or actions, but not expressing it directly. It hurts everyone and hinders a church from doing effective ministry. Disagreement requires a conversation, not sending a nasty email where you level accusations or question motives. Jesus said that when you are upset with someone, go talk to them. It’s far too easy to sit behind a keyboard and unload on someone with words that you would never say in person. Back and forth emails don’t work either. You can’t look in someone’s eye, hear their tone of voice or see their body language. Talking with one another is the best way to truly understand and find a way forward together.
Finally, encourage your pastor’s own spiritual growth. I often had the chance to say to someone, “How is it with you and Jesus?” Almost no one ever said that to me, and I wish they had. It’s not that you are “keeping tabs” but showing interest and expressing that you care about his soul. If you call the church to talk to the pastor and Sarah says, “He’s praying right now,” be thankful and call back later. Make sure that your pastors get enough time off. See that he has some money to spend on books or go to conferences. Those experiences feed his soul and encourage his spirit so that he can continue as your shepherd for a long time.
I hope and pray that the partnership between the pastoral leaders, the lay leaders and the whole congregation here at First Covenant is a long and effective one. You have a mission to extend the kingdom of God in this community, but it can only happen when everyone is working together. AMEN