More than two decades ago, I took a call to a conservative church. At the first consistory meeting, an elder commented, “At last we have a minister who is willing to stand up for what he believes.” After numerous letters to the board of a college the church supported about evolution, abortion, and other topics, the same elder asked me, “Why do you always have to stand up for what you believe?”
It reminded me of a joke I once heard a joke about a young lady who didn’t get married until she was in her late twenties because she was waiting for Mr. Right. Unfortunately, she married Mr. Always Right.
A big problem that we have as ministers is that we think we are always right. Not that we should ever fail to defend the faith, but there are battles we need not fight. I know several ministers who were staunch defenders of the faith and were leaders in the opening chapters of the United Reformed Church in North America (URCNA). They faithfully defended the authority of Scripture. They sacrificed their churches, their reputations, and their pensions for the truth.
Some became part of a newly formed federation—the URCNA. Others were independent for a while and joined the federation later. Still others remained independent or joined established denominations.
And then the battle was done.
For a while there was peace. Classis meetings were civil and kind—some of them ending before the ever-present roving reporter forChristian Renewal had even arrived. Very few discipline problems were brought to classis. Seldom did a consistory ask for advice from the classis.
That lasted for almost five years.
Then people discovered that the newly formed federation was not perfect. There were chinks in the armor. Conservatives and traditionalists began to clash with one another. Things that were once considered nonessentials became very important. Strongly opinionated people who were not in counsel began voicing opinions about the direction the federation—and especially their church—was taking. Like soldiers returning home from battle, some ministers who had fought hard to defend the faith found new reasons to take up arms.
Suddenly church visitors became very busy.
When I was a church visitor, I tried to side with the minister unless charges could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. After all, being a minister is not an easy calling. After a while, anywhere the Lord leads you, a certain percentage of the congregation will dislike you. They can be vocal and vindictive. When they are council members it can get ugly.
Even so, there are two characteristics that can almost guarantee that a consistory will seek to release a minister from office by means of Church Order Article 11—a broken relationship between minister and congregation.
Arrogance is a big problem some ministers have. They are right and the world is wrong. When I was in seminary, we could pretty much tell which students were going to have problems just by the way they conducted themselves. They always knew everything better than you did; some even thought they knew better than the professors.
There was one fellow, for example, who upon graduation took a call to a church that had recently celebrated its one hundredth anniversary. Trying to implement some of the things he had learned in his evangelism class, he set out to change the name of the church from “First [denomination’s name]” to the Christian Community Church. After all, that would make the church more accepted within the community. If you know anything about churches that have the word First in their name,1 they are somewhat proud of their heritage. This young man is no longer in the ministry.
I know another minister who no sooner unpacked his bags and suggested the church remove its stained glass window because it was a picture of Jesus and therefore a violation of the second commandment. No matter where you stand on the issue of images, you have to know that that was not a smart move.
Many young ministers wear their clerical collar on their sleeves. They have been ordained to the ministry and now have all the answers. Years ago I sent an e-mail expressing congratulations and encouragement to a young man who had just been ordained to the ministry. I began the e-mail addressing him by his first name and signed it using my first name. I received an e-mail in response addressed to me by my first name and signed in all capital letters, “REV. ______________.” One young man who had just graduated from seminary made it clear he had no use for people who didn’t have a college education. God called him to serve a church in a small town in rural Iowa. Another recent graduate resolves conflict by telling people he knows the Bible better than they do because, after all, he has a master’s degree. I have found that some of the wisest elders I have worked with never made it through high school. They had incredible common sense and a great love for the Lord.
I have to mention yet another “A” that will hurt your relationship more than all of the above. It is another “don’t be.” Don’t be antisocial. Get to know your congregation. Visit your congregation. Visit them when they are sick; visit them when they are healthy; visit them always.
I learn best from negative experiences.
When I was in seminary, my wife, Kathy, and I lived in an upstairs apartment above her grandparents. They were both in their upper eighties, and we would visit with them frequently. We kind of watched over them while living pretty much rent-free.
One night, at about 8:00 while we were visiting, my wife’s grandmother passed away. We called her folks and the minister. The minister lived only a few city blocks away. He golfed with my father-in-law. My father-in-law, a baker, supplied him with all the baked goods he ever needed. They had even vacationed together.
Their minister, however, told my wife that he was going on vacation the next day and would not be able to visit. When my father-in-law called, the minister told him that he would conduct the funeral if my wife’s family paid for a round-trip flight from his vacation spot.
Kathy’s grandfather never set foot inside the church again. Here was a couple who had spent their whole lives in the church. More than sixty years of marriage; going to church; supporting the church; giving of themselves to the church. When ministry was needed the most, the minister was nowhere to be found.
I hope you shake your head in disgust.
Unfortunately, I see this prevailing mindset in many ministers today. They believe the role of the minister is to write sermons, and they cannot be bothered by the people. One minster told me that ministry would be a great thing if it weren’t for the people.
But when they need you, you need to be there.
My father-in-law had a cousin who was confined to his home. He was given six months to live—but he lasted six years. Kathy and I would bring him and his wife Thanksgiving leftovers and put up his Christmas lights. We visited him two times more per year than his own minister for the entire six years. There is absolutely no excuse for that!
I have visited family members of members of my congregation when they are in the hospital. I am told time and time again, “Thank you for coming. My minister hasn’t been here yet.” I find out later on he doesn’t come at all.
That incident with Kathy’s grandfather had a profound impact on me. I was determined and remain determined to be there when somebody needs me. Unless there is a scheduling conflict, I have never turned down an invitation for a visit.2 I average more than four hundred visits a year. Even so, it is easy to miss a lonely or hurting person in the congregation. In order to keep that from happening, I give a written report of my activities to the chairman and clerk of consistory each month. I expect them to hold me accountable if I am missing anyone who needs a visit.
I have to admit, I pretty much read my sermons word for word from a manuscript. When I was in seminary, we had a homiletics professor who was a very well-known minister in Grand Rapids. He was emphatic that we needed to memorize our sermons.
And I tried it for a summer.
In seminary, students had what we called a five-hundred-dollar sermon.3 In other words, you preached the sermon so often and in so many different places that it had earned you five hundred dollars. That was back in the 1980s, when you only got about twenty-five dollars for exhorting.
One Sunday, I was going to preach at a new church and dusted off my old trusty sermon. I thought that if ever there was a sermon I could do from memory, this would be it. As a precaution, I put some brief notes on a 3x5 card and off I went.
I was doing great. Full speed ahead. I got to a point in my sermon where I mention the fact that Peter denied Christ. Dramatically I would say, “Not once, not twice, but three times Peter denied his Savior.” Effective, let me tell you!
I got to that point in the sermon and the word denied escaped my mind. You know, when you talk about what Peter did, there isn’t any other word that fits. You cannot say, “Peter forsook Christ” or “Peter rejected Christ.” None of that works. People expect you to say, “Peter denied Christ.” And it wasn’t there.
My mind was frantically racing. I looked out at the congregation. With deer-in-the-headlight eyes I spotted my wife. She had heard the sermon as many times as I had preached it and was mouthing the words, “Denied, denied.” Then and there I thought, I’m writing my sermons out from now on.
The homiletics professor (who by the way was the pastor of my father-in-law’s cousin whom he hadn’t visited for six years) said it took him ten hours to memorize his sermons. I began to understand why he hadn’t visited.
Think about it: Fifteen to twenty hours to write a sermon; another ten hours memorizing the sermon,4 multiplied by two. You are looking at forty-plus hours of work, and you haven’t even left the study.
I’m sorry, but I’m not buying this for a minute. For me, ten hours devoted to memorization is ten hours I could be visiting parishioners who don’t care if I have my sermon committed to memory or not.
A Holy Man of God
There is a verse in 2 Kings 4 that is perhaps the finest tribute that could ever be paid to a preacher. In 2 Kings 4, Elisha is traveling to Shunem and stops to visit the home of a Shunammite. The lady of the house suggests to her husband that they fix up a room for the prophet so that he can stay there during his travels. She explains to her husband, “Behold now, I perceive that this is a holy man of God passing by” (2 Kings 4:3).
My first pastorate was in a little town with a population of five hundred people. All the retired farmers would go downtown for coffee every morning at 9:00. I made it a point to walk downtown and have coffee with them at least two or three times a week.
After five years I took a call. During the farewell, a member of our church, the owner of the body shop that I passed every time I walked downtown, came up to me and said, “During the five years that you have been here our business has at times been good and at times it wasn’t so good. I want you to know that many times when things were not going well I would look out the bay door, and there you were walking by. And it helped. I felt better. I thought, There goes the preacher and all is right with the world.”
He didn’t elaborate on what he had said, but I have never forgotten it. It has been my prayer for myself—and I would encourage you to make it your prayer, as well—that along the way as you go through the years, that it can be said of you in some small degree the very same thing that the Shunammite woman said of Elisha: “I perceive that this is a holy man of God passing by.” That should be the ambition of every Christian in his pilgrimage thru this world, but especially that of the minister.
In this same pastorate, I heard a lot about one particular minister who had been there years earlier. There had been other ministers. Some of them had become quite prominent. One became the president of a Christian college. I didn’t hear too much about them, but this particular minister’s name kept coming up.
And I wondered, Why him? What made him stand out among all the ministers of that church?
I decided to ask Henry. Henry and his wife had been married for more than sixty years. He knew everything about everybody in town. If you had a question, he was the one to ask. So I did.
“Henry,” I asked, “all I ever hear about is this one preacher of yours. Now, you’ve had a lot of preachers, but all I hear about is this one. Were his sermons that good?”
“Nope,” Henry replied. “Can’t say as I remember one sermon he ever preached.”
“Then what was his secret?” I asked. “Why do the people in this community all remember him?”
He thought about it for a moment. Then his wife quietly responded, “He loved us.”
Henry agreed, “That’s what it is. He just loved us.”
I thought about that for a long time, and somewhere in my heart came these words: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels but do not have love I have become a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. And if I have the gift of prophecy and know all mysteries and all knowledge and I have faith so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.”
And so I prayed, “Lord, help me to move into the middle of the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians and settle down there for as long as You want me to be a minister.”
That’s a good place to live.
I don’t write any of this to boast in myself. May it never be so! I have made plenty of mistakes in the last thirty years. I have found out over the years that if you love your congregation they will forgive you an awful lot. Believe me, I have needed that, and I dare say every minister does.
In this day and age the term “man of God” can mean all kinds of things. It can refer to all kinds of odd people who have all kinds of odd ideas and do all kinds of odd things. In the Bible it means a man who kept company with God Almighty.
Elisha could stand before the king and say to Ahab, “As the Lord God lives before whom I stand . . .” Wow! When you stand before the Almighty God a king doesn’t mean a whole lot. Big potentates are small potatoes when you have been standing in the presence of the Most High.
The Shunammite woman did not say, “I perceive this is a famous man of God” or “a popular man of God” or “a successful man of God.” She said, “This is a holy man of God.”
In this series of articles I have mentioned a lot of things. Some of them may make a person think twice about entering the ministry. After all, preaching the Word of God is an awesome task. So is leading and loving God’s people.
But it is also the most rewarding task that you can ever enter. I am no scholar by any means. When I graduated from seminary a church that interviewed me for a possible call asked me about my grades. I told them I had graduated with the top 10 percent of my class.5
It is beyond me why God ever called me to the ministry, but I am so glad that He did because once in a while He uses me to help one of His own. When you let the Lord lead you, He will! He will give you the sermons to preach and the words to speak at the appropriate time. If He can use an old forgiven sinner like me, He can use you.
1. Unless it is in reference to the street where the church is built.
2. Especially if they serve ice cream.
3. This is probably somewhat higher today due to inflation.
4. In my case that would be fifteen to twenty hours of memory work—at least.
5. So did all the other students.
Rev. Wybren Oord
is the co-pastor of Trinity United Reformed Church in
Lethbridge, AB, and the editor of The Outlook.