These are the thoughts of someone who once pastored churches. These thoughts are written primarily to my sons who grew up in the church. Such an experience is more often than not lacking in the beauty and meaning that God envisioned when He first called His church into being.
My ministry as a pastor and teacher spanned the years from 1969 to 1993. During this time I worked odd jobs to make ends meet: painting houses, teaching Biblical Greek, or whatever. This kind of life is very common for the clergy. Many in those days understood the concept of a vow of poverty and became dependent on the members of the local church to provide for them.
This didn’t always work out to our advantage. My family and I were occasionally down to the last jar of peanut butter (never quite the bag of cornmeal), so it was believable to say God was taking care of us. Faith was a real part of our experience. If we were going to ever disown God or blame Him for anything, then was not the time.
Sometimes things didn’t work out at all. February ’72 we ran out of money and had to move out of our rented apartment before we were evicted. We spent three weeks in Buffalo with mother before returning to Pennsylvania and another chance at ministry. I was fired from a painting job a few months later, tried to sell vacuum cleaners briefly, and finally took a job as a custodian in the local school district.
We moved 17 times in those years. I pastored in only five churches, though. One church gave me three months discipline. Over the four years we were there, at least we brought them through the difficulty of bringing on board their first full-time pastor. They built a parsonage for us first, but we moved three times before it was ready. Being the pastor during a church parsonage building, upon reflection, is a dubious achievement at best. At the end of the discipline period, we were on to our next assignment.
Another church was on the verge of voting me out when I resigned. The difficulty for these wonderful people—and that is not sarcasm—was to transition into an age where the lines between denominations within Christianity were becoming blurred. We attempted to join or merge two separate church groups of differing worship and theology. I was credentialed in one and affiliated with the other. Try that! I can only speculate, since I am no prophet, that within a decade or so these lines will no longer exist.
Our longest stay in any one ministry was 7 years when we left for better opportunities. Leaving there was somewhat traumatic, since there is where we grew up in ministry. I little knew then that who I would become as a pastor was defined there. I would reflect back and make future decisions based on those seven years.
One church we pastored had a 150-year history in which the average stay for a pastor was only four years. Such turnover is generally the consequence of all the angry things adults do that children see and remember. It helps define the church as an undesirable place to be. We managed only two years before moving on.
During the worst of times, nothing was clear. It was all just happening, and it was up to one’s theology to determine who, if anyone, was at fault.
Just a footnote: There are three justifiable reasons for a congregation to dismiss a pastor. (1) The pastor has been morally unfaithful in marriage, (2) the pastor’s theology is clearly no longer Christian, or (3) the pastor has totally lost his love for ministry. None of these applied to me, if you were wondering. Likewise a pastor can justifiably want to leave. Maybe his ministry is finished there; maybe by denominational arrangement or by a Divine calling he truly senses it is time to move on. I don’t think this was me either. Generally, however, none of these reasons is why the leaving actually happens. A pastor is usually simply worn out by the infighting or power struggles or some swing in the popular vote against him. This becomes a process that involves many meetings and long hours of discussion with his spouse and less sleep and misunderstood sermons and all such things as finally yield to a resignation to leave.
If I could speak in more general terms about all preachers’ kids, all this up and down has an unseen and immeasurable impact on them. Children are more likely than not tossed about in the tumbler of radical change. No wonder if some come out with a spiritual concussion, where they become only vaguely familiar with a dizzying concept of God.
Salvation for someone growing up in this environment might be a twofold miracle. Not only is his salvation the same as anyone else’s, but also the change in his life has to reconcile with not only his own past sins but also ours, the grown-ups. He must somehow gain a revelation of God through the smog of everything within a church that is not Christ-motivated, and unfortunately there can be a lot of smog.
How could the children see the changes happening around them and not experience these changes’ bad effects? Besides, we adults were too preoccupied with our world of words to see those effects. We would not know this, perhaps, until some of our sons and daughters decided to call it quits to churches and to everything the churches represented, including (sadly) God Himself. They decided to leave for good.
Long before this, they lost interest, a fact that should have been evident in their depressed looks, their disinterested wandering gazes during church and even Sunday School, even their slouching posture. It was a wonder that a few of them didn’t slide to the floor asleep!
But our children were there anyway, and we hoped something good would come of it. We theologized and believed something that was said or experienced would direct them toward good, as adults. Bring them up in the way they should go, the Scripture says, and we took it as our promise. Maybe something good did happen, or maybe it came out of those troublesome days, or maybe we are still waiting and hoping and believing for it.
So, for whatever it is worth, I can look back and sense some empathy for my sons if they discovered that church can be painfully boring or meaningless at times.
The church was never organized with them in mind. It was put together, from theology to air conditioning, for us, the grown-ups. Our sons, all the children, were brought along with us for the ride.
Well, at the time of this writing, I have been working for the past ten years outside the church, to afford some college education, to buy a home, and to play catch-up with a retirement fund. And why not? I hope to be back, though, since ministry is in my blood, as they say. After all it is my calling.
First, I need to address the past. I need to face my past experiences. Like someone entering into a second marriage, it never helps to blame a former partner and assume a second relationship will bring happiness. We fool ourselves if we do, because it won’t. I need to face who I was and what I did. I cannot pretend to anticipate future ministry while carrying the same misgivings, hurts, and suspicions I once owned. I would prefer going back into ministry with an innocence that is wise, a benevolence that knows how to lead, and a knowledge of my reality that knows the difference between selfish interest and genuine awareness of the will of God. If I retire for good, directly from my programming job, so be it. The important thing is to reconcile with the past in a way that makes it more a part of my future than just a reservoir of memories. One’s past, for the most part good, should feed a passion for life, not take from it.
Some of what I say here in this memoir may be offensive to some, but since I have currently no church to lose and I think God appreciates honesty, I want to say it. Few may be vaguely interested in hearing me out. But it is true of all of us that from time to time we are talking when no one is listening. So be it.
Perhaps I speak for a young minister who may read this account and appreciate the changes we observe in today’s church. Just maybe those of us who have gone before as keepers of the vision may yet be recognized for more than short-lived ministries or unfulfilled dreams. Were we bridge builders, to use Will Allen Dromgoole’s idea? The last two stanzas of her poem “The Bridge Builder” pictures what I am trying to say.
The builder lifted his old gray head:
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followeth after me today,
A youth, whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm, that has been naught to me,
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building the bridge for him.”
There are countless men and women whose godly example, which includes mistakes and failures, should be paraded before us. It would embarrass them to know this, were they not humble persons who learned big lessons from falling down and getting back up again. Their accounts should be written and read to the next generation of preachers and pastors, who may otherwise never know the facts. These biographical sketches and histories do not make it to the seminary text books. They are unimaginable details. They are unknown by congregations of, yes, godly people who are ignorant even of things their own pastors lived through. They should be told.
Unfortunately, I cannot tell their stories. I can only tell my own, which is insignificant unless you multiply it by hundreds of colleagues’ personal testimonials, whose stories are strikingly similar. I know of some.
The church is changing. An introduction to my thoughts may not be the place to note the difference between then and now, but anyone who has seen both knows of these changes.
Perhaps, I speak for the minister whose congregation is slow to catch up with today’s ministries. He might agree with me that some of these changes are good. Maybe he can glean encouragement from this account, or maybe an idea or two of how to endure. The church is changing. Overhead projections are common, and organs are not. The choruses sung are more universal and less the product of one style of worship. Clergy across denominations are meeting for prayer and planning things together. Churches are changing their corporate names to neutralize the old impression that they are denominational in practice. They claim to be more community-oriented. And on and on we could note the differences.
I can relate to the people who grew up in the church and left at first chance, disillusioned and disgusted with what they experienced and observed. Things that should never have happened in front of them did happen.
I will not address criminal issues. There were a few individuals who abused the pulpit by bringing lifelong harm to the children they met. Some of these clergy have been tried, found guilty, and imprisoned, and rightly so. Here we talk only of honest clergy, with whom I hope to be counted, who made mistakes in a real effort to care about their congregations, and about the congregations who sometimes retaliated in kind.
Some things I cannot say, because although this is intended to be self-revealing, it is not intended to show the possible bad side of anyone else, and everyone has a bad side. Some of what I did or didn’t do, say or didn’t say, probably needs psychoanalysis or something and isn’t easily explained. When one church decided not to keep us because they felt I needed psychological help, leaving was imperative. But how could the reason possibly be clear enough for a non-professional like me to explain? (Though I did see a counselor for depression.)
Some things I won’t say because they don’t expound on what I am trying to say about myself and what made me tick as a minister.
And I suppose all of us have a human side that doesn’t need mentioning. Because it is generally true of all of us, so I do not need to stand up and shout the obvious. I do not need to invite you into the private world of my thoughts just to let you know that some of them weren’t so nice. You guessed that already, so why embarrass me into saying it?
I may take a certain calculated risk and say some things that could be misinterpreted or misunderstood. Some people always think the worst. But some things are worth saying.
I write this to suggest that God does heal the broken-hearted. God will yet clarify to those who left the church what His church failed to show them, that He is real and that He is capable of communicating and keeping His promises to them. My hope is that many will find their way back to Him.
Perhaps I speak for the people who attended church because they believed in God and His salvation and genuinely wanted to know Him. They never came into the church to be part of some split or breakup, but they were there when it happened and hoped they had no part in it. They were and remain honest folk who only wanted to be part of a loving Christian community, and they could not begin to explain what happened. They may need to know that everything is going to be alright. God is a God of restoration. Maybe they can see that in some way in these pages.
I write this, again, primarily—and if truth be told, in all honesty, simply—to my three sons. They know a lot. They have seen a lot. They were there through each move, each change, each challenge, each struggle their mother and I dealt with. I hope I can finally in looking back make some sense out of it all.
Because this is addressed to them, I use the second-person “you,” as though no one else could be listening.
The Epilogue is written exclusively for and to them.
As anyone reads this, he should be struck with an impression that tells him that I want to be real. I have no campaign that needs supporters, no political agenda that requires my giving my words some special twist to their meaning, and I have no interest in hiding behind some badge of honor that suggests I am above and beyond mistakes. I am not. But what I want to do is to be sincerely honest in an effort to apologize for what I maintain is centuries of religious confusion. I sense—and perhaps it is psychological, not so much to help me sleep nights, but to help anyone who has been disillusioned by religion to have a chance to take another clear look—I have a need to talk. I have a need to apologize, and I have a need to explain.
I do this in dialog with my own sons in hope for the next generation, our children, who might easily be forgotten otherwise. They have, I maintain, a Biblical right to the truth. I can agree with our second President, John Adams, who once advised, “Children must not be wholly forgotten in the midst of public duties.”
I start at the beginning.