Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Privilege of Pastoring

In August, when my family went up north for Alan Gillies's memorial service, we had the opportunity to get together with some of the people I had the privilege of pastoring about ten years ago. We sang songs and shared. It was a really lovely time. And it made me think a lot about my experience of pastoring.

I was twenty-nine when I began pastoring in Brimley. It was my first and only pastorate, except for a semi-official assistant pastoral position I had had just prior to coming to Brimley, in a small church that didn't really need an assistant pastor. I was about two years out of seminary, chafing to get into full-time ministry, and thinking at times that it would never happen. And then I got a letter out of nowhere, and had to look at a map to find out where Brimley, Michigan was. We looked at the map index, and found the grid number, and followed the column up, and up, and up, and there it was, on the shore of Lake Superior. Cecile burst into tears--not because of where it was, but because she had just had a breakthrough with the girls in the Missionettes class that she taught, and she didn't want to leave them. "Honey, I don't even have to respond to this!" I told her.

"Yes you do," she said, "this is God."

And so I sent the church a resume, figuring it wouldn't hurt to get rejected one more time. And then they called, and wanted us to come up. We met the previous pastor and his wife, and then the board, and they were all very kind, and before I knew it, I was pastoring the church.

And I didn't know what I was doing. My seminary training had mostly been in Biblical exegesis, systematic theology, and church history, not on the practical issues of pastoring a church. I felt my youth; I felt my shyness, which God had overcome in me to a great extent, but not nearly as much as He has since then. I often had the horrible feeling that I was "supposed" to be doing something different from what I was doing at the time, but I didn't know what it was, or I didn't know how to choose. I've learned a lot since then about leadership, about giving direction to a group of people, about the importance of reaching out to people and building relationships. At the time, I was simply responding to needs as best I could, studying for messages, planning youth group activities--just doing whatever seemed to be needed at the time.

And despite all my insecurities, God really did bless us. I credit a lot of that to Cecile, for whom reaching out and forming relationships is as natural as breathing; I'm still convinced that most of the people who love us (and there are a lot) love us because of her. We made some wonderful friendships. We were blessed far, far beyond what I understood at the time. I was going through what most pastors will privately admit to going through, but don't feel they can share with their congregations: deep discouragement. The church wasn't moving in the direction I thought it should as fast as I thought it should. I felt my leadership being challenged. I took criticisms to heart. I felt that I might have found a better fit elsewhere. I wondered if I should be teaching instead of pastoring. I wondered if I was having any positive effect at all, on anyone.

And so I left, after 3 ½ years. I was asking God, if He wanted me to stay, to reaffirm my leadership, and if He wanted me to go, to give me something to move toward. And two opportunities presented themselves. I felt it was God's leading.

Since then, I've had the chance to return a few times, most recently last August. And every time I go back, I am blown away by the kindness and love that the people from that church have for Cecile and me. They make my wife and me feel like royalty. They lavish kind words and fond memories on us. They tell us that they recall and appreciate things I said over a decade ago. They love us, truly love us, far beyond what I had ever imagined.

When we go, we see people we had known as children and teens, now grown up and married. And one of the greatest regrets I have is having lost the opportunity to have been there to watch them grow up, to have been a part of their lives during that time. What a privilege it would have been, to have been involved in their lives for the long haul; to have been more than a memory, however pleasant. If I had to do it all over again, would I have left? Am I hairsplitting too much to say that the person I was then needed to leave, but if I knew then what I know now, I may not have?

I am now in a very similar place to the one I was in just before going up to Brimley: not in a position of formal ministry, looking for an opportunity, dealing with some roadblocks and disappointments and constraints. I truly believe that if I am ever given the opportunity to pastor again, I will do it better, with more purpose, more confidence, more wisdom. And more than anything, I hope that I will understand and appreciate the privilege that it is to invest yourself in the lives of other believers, to encourage their growth, and to have a positive influence on them. I pray that I get the chance.


  1. Keith,

    That's a great post. What a humbling experience, going back to your old church.

    I had a similar experience this past weekend. I went to a function at the church I attended 12 years ago. The church I just blogged about in my post about Satan speaking through people.


    And, of course, rather than judging me and condemning me for leaving, telling me all the ways I now err doctrinally, they treated me with love. Genuinely happy and excited to see me and meet my children. In fact, many of them shared with me how I impacted them or their children during the 10 years I was there.

    Very humbling, indeed.

    I often question whether I would do things differently, given a divine do-over. I've made a lot of dumb mistakes in my life. But I'm thankful for the wisdom I've gained through each decision. And I'm thankful God isn't confined to work on my behalf only if I'm perfect.

    I think God specializes in using imperfect people, who are wholly and completely submitted to Him.

    Sandy Cooper

  2. Kieth, this happens to so many pastors. The seminary that I went to has focused its ciriculuum at combating this trend. I think of all the practical courses I was forced to take, and so many complained about the like of exegetical courses.

    And yet still, I feel inadequate. I haven't had an oppurtunity to pastor on any level yet, but even with that training, the feelings of inadequacy are still there. I think, "What right do I have to say to this people, 'thus sayeth the Lord'". Even if your own theology says otherwise, in the eyes of many people, you speak for God. That's a high bar to have set. Remember, even Luthor spilled the wine his first time out.

  3. Hi Sandy,

    Wow, that would be hard to go back to since you got all that opposition to leaving. I'm glad it turned out well.

    It's a bit awkward for me to go back to Brimley as well, though not for any reasons I gave in my post. I try not to go there over a Sunday, because a number of the people from that congregation no longer go to that church, and I don't like to be in the position of having to choose which contingent to worship with. I was pastor of all the people.

    Hi jc_freak,

    I can't fault my seminary too much, since I went with the more academic program (I thought I was going to be teaching), and since I think most of the practical stuff you need you really have to learn by experience anyway.

    The fact that people feel you're speaking for God is a good thing to remember. Hopefully it should keep our messages scriptural and exegetical. I used to tell people, "My opinions aren't really very important at all. What this Book has to say--that's what's important."