My five letters to you this month are reflections on my calling and career as a pastor, a vocation that began in October 1972. I ended last week's letter by pondering whether
I would have been so eager to say 'yes' to becoming a pastor if I could have peered into the future and seen all the ways the church and the ministry were going to change. I concluded that such a crystal ball would certainly have dissuaded me.
If I knew then what I know now, perhaps I would have given more serious consideration to my other vocational interests at the time: becoming a journalist or a professor...or a lawyer or a politician. But alas, prescience about how the world would change those professions would have been equally foreboding. The truth is, I have no regrets, and a glimpse into the future would have simply confused me, not steered me into a better decision.
Back then, the best any of us could do to understand the world that was morphing...or the professions that would be effected...was to let go of what was perishing, pay attention to what was emerging, and fly forward by the seat of our pants.
My life has never been governed by horoscopes, prophecies, or angel visitations. It has instead been fashioned by my obsession (bordering on the neurotic) with goodness. All my life I have had somewhat of a fixation about "being good." It is the primary reason I am so boring to be around. If one is determined to "be good," what better career than that of a pastor? Perhaps it was this fixation about being good that kept me from being a lawyer or a politician.
But in addition to "being good," there is fortunately also such a thing as "doing good." That also drives me. This drive to do good is what causes me to get into fights on behalf of others. It is what causes me to connive and plot to upset the system. It is what causes me to be interesting to others...or insufferable...you pick. Perhaps it is this insistence on doing good that caused me to be a pastor instead of a journalist or a professor (professions that by definition seem to keep one on the sidelines of life... reporting on others who are doing good...or teaching someone else to go out and reform the world.) I didn't want to write articles and books about others. I wanted others to write about
Being a pastor seemed the ideal profession for one who desired to be good and do good.
But after the first 20 years, I tired of being good, big time. Being good chafes me nowadays. It gets in the way of doing good. Pastors who strut their goodness irritate me. Thus, I have become devoted to corrupting every young pastor I can, in order to help them avoid that abomination.
But as much as I have grown allergic to "being good," I find myself becoming more and more enthusiastic about "doing good."For me, "doing good" involves rolling up my sleeves and joining the fight for the underdog. I think they need me...all of them: the underdogs, the has-beens, the losers, the also-rans, the small fry, the wall-flowers, the peons, the second-fiddles, the bench-warmers, the flunkies, and all those who are knocked out, over, around, or up. I fancy myself to be an underdog rescuer. The work of justice keeps hijacking my personality and coloring my perceptions. Perhaps that is partially why I hang out with immigrants, house a cat who makes me sneeze, preach sermons urging the church to not mistreat folks who are female, single, or homosexual, lead pilgrims to Alabama on Civil Rights tours, offer mentoring to new pastors who are about to get roughed up by churches and conferences, and experiment with better ways to help aging persons experience new forms of abundant life. I read the Bible and see revolution, not piety.
In my most formative years I was inspired by three pastors: Billy Graham (who changed individual lives), Martin Luther King Jr., (who changed systems), and Pope John the 23rd (who upended the church.)
I never gave serious consideration to any other vocation. With my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all being preachers, I was easily lured into pastoral ministry. Plus, it seemed to fit my special neuroses.
As the world has changed, however, and as the church has changed, so have I. You may judge whether it has been for better or worse. If we pastors do not change and grow every year, for the better, this profession will either crush us, or we will do inexcusable harm to our parishioners, our families, and THE Church.
Sometimes I have changed consequent to self-criticism and careful strategy. More often I have changed because of another person's nudge or complaint, or compliment. And most often I have been changed by witnessing the stories of persons and systems. In the next three weeks, I will reflect on some of the stories, issues, and opportunities that have most morphed me into who I am today.
In the next three letters, I'll share some stories of the people and the issues that have been catalysts in my work and evolving concept of pastoral ministry. Thanks for reading. --Mike