This weekend marks my 44th anniversary as a pastor.
My 34th anniversary occurred while I was serving in Urbana, IL. The 24th anniversary found me in Glen Carbon, IL. The 14th occurred when I was in Granite City, IL. And the 4th happened while I was in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
During this span I have been responsible for 2,999 Sundays, obeyed nine bishops, pestered 15 district superintendents, buried over 700 homo-sapiens (plus two birds, six cats, four dogs, and one possum,) memorized over 4000 names, showed up late at one wedding, and worn out six suits (still have two left.) I'm on my 11th car. (Actually I never really wore out all six of those suits: The lime green leisure suit just disappeared one day and no one in my family admitted responsibility.)
As I look back, I'm mindful how how dramatically the world has changed in those 44 years. My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were also pastors. Each generation of pastors has to adjust to make sure God's relevant and living word is being spoken. I sometimes wonder how much the younger pastors I mentor will have to disregard what I have passed on to them.
American society has changed in many ways that were not evident when I was in seminary. I was taught by a generation that couldn't have prepared me for the changes that have occurred over the last 44 years.
The seven biggest changes I (as a pastor) have faced in these decades:
Electronic communication: computers, internet, cell phones, cable TV, etc. This technology has helped us access more information and communicate quickly with more people. But it has also accelerated the pace of daily life past a healthy speed limit. And the new technology has spawned a host of addictions. Ministry is both easier and harder because of electronic technology.
2. The sexual revolution: more openness in speaking about the subject, broader acceptance of behaviors once considered immoral, mainstreaming of homosexuality, advancement of women's equality, etc. It seems good that we are moving away from bigotry and self-righteous attitudes among church members. But in the midst of our arguments over various issues we have mostly lost a broader sense of sexual ethics: what is harmful and what is life-giving whatever the gender, marital status, or sexual orientation.
3. Cultural diversity: When I began being a pastor, 60% of all immigrants to the U.S. were from Europe. Now less than 15% are from Europe. Our communities are changing. Furthermore, pastors today are much more likely to be involved in interracial endeavors than pastors in my grandfather's generation. We are blessed with opportunities for personal and spiritual growth in this cultural and linguistic smorgasbord. But we are also seeing the intensification of fear and hostility as new neighbors appear.
4. Credit cards: I was a pastor for 8 years before I ever possessed a credit card. Now I have about six of them in my desk drawer. We enjoy more goods and services than ever. But significant numbers of people are dangerously in debt and many more have little idea where their money goes, exactly. Meanwhile, churches are becoming more dependent on people's money than their volunteer services. We are now seeing irreversible financial meltdowns on both the denominational and local church levels.
5. Church music: In the old days, church music varied depending on the denomination. You could go to almost any Methodist Church and sing the same hymns. Now you never know: it can range from hard rock to syrupy lullabies...and everything in between. The expansion of music in worship has enriched our ability to express what is in our souls. But as our culture is more and more individualistic and consumeristic, it is getting really hard to keep the flock happy and on board on a Sunday morning.
6. The Religious Right: With the exception of Black and Roman Catholic churches, religion and politics used to be two distinct worlds. Churches welcomed both Democrats and Republicans, both liberals and conservatives. But when the Civil Rights movement drove southern conservatives into the Republican party, and when the religious right (late 1970s) became a critical mass within the Republican party, many churches became more and more Republican. Things have gotten really unwelcome these days for progressive Christians, both within the church...and in the Democratic party.
7. Corporate Pastors: When I started in the ministry, I was taught to spend mornings in the study and afternoons among my people. Evenings were for Bible studies, prayer meetings, fellowship events, or meetings. Now the pastor's study has given way to the pastor's office. We are told that it is the job of the laity to visit and counsel; pastors should cast vision and teach. I'm not so sure we were right in the old days, but I'm also pretty sure we still haven't gotten it right.
After 44 years, sometimes I feel like an anachronism. But then I am reminded: a good story, some authentic compassion, curious intelligence, tenacious hope in God, and a sense of humor...are always relevant. May God have mercy on my continuing ministry, and on the people of Mattoon who must now endure it, and on all who will face changes in the next 44years.