Ask a group of pastors if they’re any good at what they do and you’ll get a variety of answers. Some will say, “Sure! Why just last week I baptized 600 and tomorrow I’m launching a new non-profit initiative that will cure every disease on the planet by next Tuesday.” At the other end of the spectrum are those pastors who can’t even lift up their eyes to heaven but beat their breast saying, “God, be merciful to me, a bad pastor!” This prayer is most often prayed on Mondays.
The real answer to the question is more complex but it can be found by asking two more questions.
Are you the pastor or the guest of honor?
It’s been said that rural churches are like families and the Sunday morning worship service is a big reunion. There’s a lot of truth to that. And sometimes the pastor is treated like the guest of honor. Other times, he’s treated like the guy who brought the bad potato salad that made everyone sick.
Speaking for the pastors that I know, we prefer being treated like the guest of honor.
There is a danger that comes with that.
If we’re not careful we’ll do or say, or not do or not say, whatever it takes to keep being treated with honor. I have a white pastor friend who stood before a group in his large, thriving, and mostly white church in the days following the Charlottesville riots and condemned white supremacy. A lot of people looked at him like he just brought the bad potato salad to the family reunion. In the eyes of many, he lost the position of honor at the family table.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a reunion for a family that you do not belong to but I have. It’s great! You get to meet new people and you don’t have to help clean up afterwards. But you also don’t get to say what needs to be said. If Mom and Dad are demonstrating severe marriage problems, you don’t get to address that. It’s not your place. You are a guest. And we wouldn’t want to be rude now, would we?
Pastor, will you do the hard work that comes with your position or will you simply settle for the seat of honor at the weekly family reunion?
Are you setting off fireworks or pointing to the sun?
Last month there was an eclipse. Maybe you heard about it. For a few minutes, the moon blocked out the sun. For a full day, the earth slowed down to take a look.
People’s reactions were interesting. Some folks were underwhelmed. How can this be? Were they expecting the moon to turn into blood and frogs to drop out of the sky? But there was no reaction to the eclipse more interesting than the one I heard about from right in the middle of the path of totality. People in that part of the country were blessed to walk out their front door and see what a lot of people drove hours to see.
And right there at the magic moment, the moment when the sky went black and everyone paused to look up, a man did what any rational, forward-thinking person would do at such a significant moment.
He set off fireworks.
I hate to be the one to point this out but no one on that street wanted to see or hear those fireworks. “Hey, kids! I know we’re busy witnessing an astronomical phenomenon, but look over at R.C.’s house. He’s letting off the Blooming Flower and the Roman Whistler he got on his way back from Panama City last year.”
No one said that.
At best, the man with the fireworks was a nuisance. More realistically, he was an obstacle to the main event.
Several hundred miles to the south of Mr. Firecracker, I stood in a school courtyard with my son and his teacher. Every few minutes, she would turn to her group of young star-gazers and say something like, “Okay my special people, put your glasses on and look at the sun.”
The man with the fireworks attempted to draw everyone’s attention away from the sun and looked foolish in the process. My son’s teacher simply reminded her students of what was happening in the sky.
Pastor, is your ministry best characterized by a lot of lights and noise that distract people from the main event or are you just a guy pointing other people to what really matters?
People need answers. And, by God’s grace, good pastors provide those answers. But our work doesn’t stop there. Good pastors also ask questions. We ask questions of ourselves. We ask questions of our motives. Sometimes we don’t like the answers our heart gives us. But instead of ignoring those answers, we must repent. And it’s that repentance, not ministerial noisemaking or seats of honor, that makes them good pastors.