Written by Pastor Ed
Ministry: Not for the Faint of Heart
January 21, 2018
Jonah 3: 1-5, 10
Mark 1: 14-20
From time to time, John, my Associate Pastor, would come into my office, flop down on a chair and say, “Tell me again why we got into this business!” Reinhold Niebuhr, who went on to be a prominent theologian, spent his first few years as a pastor in a small congregation in Detroit which he wrote about in a little book called Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. At one point he says something like, “I would rather be a prophet than a preacher. A prophet only has to speak when God gives him something to say, while a pastor is expected to preach a sermon every Sunday, whether they have something to say or not!”
Ministry: It’s not for the faint of heart. I need to give credit to Moni for my title, which is certainly appropriate. When Jesus called Simon and Andrew he said, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Or to use the familiar KJV, “fishers of men.” But you know, dealing with people isn’t always easy. A pastor and a farmer were comparing notes about their jobs and noting that people are a lot like the weather. “Yes, there are a lot of different types of weather”, the farmer noted, “I have to deal with hail and drought and rainstorms and frost.” “But”, replied the preacher, “You don’t have to deal with them all at the same time!”
And if they were any kind of fishermen they would know that fishing can be a pretty frustrating task itself. I mean later on we have an account where they were out fishing all night and didn’t catch anything. Did they think it was going to be any easier with people?
When Jonah was first told by God to go and preach to the Ninevites, he ran the other way. Now I don’t know what Jonah’s experiences were prior to this, but if he had had a few other experiences of trying to preach to people, I can imagine how he might have felt. Perhaps, after spending several hours preaching and discussing what it meant to follow God’s law in some very practical ways, someone had spoken up and declared that the whole time had been wasted and what had been discussed was completely irrelevant.
Perhaps some people had told him as they were studying the Bible that he didn’t take the scriptures seriously, primarily because he didn’t interpret it the same way that person did. Or perhaps he had been told that he really wasn’t up to the task and had taken on more than he could handle. Or maybe he just felt like it wasn’t worth fighting for a cause any more because the opposition was just too great.
I thought some of those situations were difficult, and then I became a Conference Minister and discovered that there were, in fact, some really dysfunctional congregations out there! I particularly recall one congregation whose old-timers came to visit me and complain about their pastor because he was bringing in all these new people from the community who wanted to change things. They eventually managed to drive the pastor away, and of course many of the people who had joined the church through the efforts of the pastor went with him. And then they showed up and demanded that I find them a new pastor! Unfortunately, that congregation soon closed its doors.
At one of our Conference Minister gatherings, Roy Oswald, from the Alban Institute talked about needing to use a triage method when working with congregations, recognizing that you could spend a great deal of time working with some congregations, all of which would be wasted because they weren’t about to change and would die anyway; rather he said you should put your energy into congregations that had a hope for change and renewal. The trick is to know which is which. So maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on Jonah for not wanting to go and preach to the folks at Nineveh. Clearly they had a reputation, and Jonah had to be persuaded that it was worth his time.
The amazing thing is that the people of Nineveh listened! As we heard in the passage read, they repented and changed their ways, and because of that, “God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” (3:10b) Not the first time we are told about God’s mind being changed, but always an interesting little tidbit. And that’s the encouraging part of the story. If you only dwell on the difficulties or the rough places, it is easy to become like Jonah and either give up and run away or hope that the people get what you think they deserve. But people can and do change.
When I began pastoring, back in the 70’s, one of the big issues in the church concerned the role of women in the church, particularly whether women could be pastors. There were pamphlets written, study conferences, and congregations that vehemently opposed women as pastors. After all, the Bible says that women are to keep silent in the church, doesn’t it? Having been in seminary with women who were preparing for ministry, and being of a liberal bent, I became involved in the issue and even ended up chairing a committee that consisted of myself and six women who planned a Women in Ministry Conference held in Ontario. It was a topic debated in my congregation, with numerous people strongly opposed to my position. And yet, several years after I left that congregation, they hired a female pastor, and have had several women pastors since then.
The issue that has been most current in the church has been around at least as long as I’ve been a pastor, and has also evolved over the years. When I began the question was whether persons who identified as gay or lesbian could even be members of a congregation. Today that doesn’t seem to be a question, for the most part, but full inclusion and openness is still an issue in some places. Here in Canada, Mennonite Church Canada has taken a position that allows for the diversity of interpretation to live together, while in the US, division is still happening, even as LGBTQ persons are being called to ministry in some congregation. While we have not addressed the issue formally here, it is one that every congregation will need to address at some point.
During my final semester at seminary, each of us was asked to speak in a chapel service. I chose as my text a passage in Ezekiel, as you know my favourite OT prophet, in which God tells Ezekiel that he was not calling him to go to a foreign country where people would be open to hearing his message and would listen, but rather he was sending him to his own people, who were hard-hearted and wouldn’t listen. Kind of like the idea that an expert is anyone who travels more than 200 Kilometer to speak. But, God says to Ezekiel, you are to go and speak to the people “whether they hear or refuse to hear.”
And for all the frustrations that one could talk about and all the negative things that pastors sometimes have to put up with, in my experience pastoring is also one of the most rewarding professions precisely because people can and do listen and change. To be involved in people’s lives, sometimes at those intimate times like the death of a loved one, is a truly humbling experience. And to see people grow in their faith, come to new understandings and change is truly a joy to behold.
During the workshops I do on clergy misconduct I talk a lot about power and the use or misuse of it. Some pastors want to claim that they have no power. My response to that is to ask why they are pastors if they think they don’t have any power, because part of our role is to bring about change in people’s lives and in the church as a whole. That can’t be done without power. Certainly that power can be abused, but more on that next week.
Have I made mistakes? Certainly. Was some of the criticism justified? Undoubtedly. Nor can I claim to have been any kind of crusader for a cause, bringing about tremendous change is some way. But I, like Ezekiel and Jonah and the disciples have tried to speak a word of the Lord whether people heard it or not. And one of the amazing things is that sometimes people did hear a word from the Lord. Sometimes even when I least expected it to happen.
I’m sure every preacher has had the experience of preaching a sermon that they thought was a winner, truly dynamic and powerful, and gotten no response. And then, in that week when things pile up and you don’t have a lot of time to prepare, and you throw something together and hope nobody notices, someone in the congregation greets you at the door afterwards and says, “Thank you, that’s just what I needed to hear today.”
Because in reality, it’s ultimately not about me or any pastor, but it’s about God working in people’s lives and recognizing that if God can change his mind, well then there’s hope for everyone. We are only a vehicle seeking to be faithful to the call and listening for that voice that says, “Do not be afraid, I am with you.”
That’s the refrain of a song that has become meaningful to me over the past number of years and I invite you to join with me in singing #49 in Sing the Story, “I will come to you in the silence.”