I started my first pastoring job 45 years ago this weekend. Immanuel United Methodist Church in Olney, Illinois hired me as an assistant pastor: organize the youth, administer the bus ministry for children, lead Sunday morning worship services, preach a dozen times a year, and do whatever else the pastor asked me to do. I also happened to be a full-time college freshman that year.
The early 1970s seemed a good time to enter ministry. After the turbulent 1960s, the world seemed ready to get back to normal. We elected a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who seemed disgusted by all the change. And with his re-election landslide in 1972, it appeared that the whole country was finally returning to normality of the 1950s. Sure...we dressed a little wild in the 70s: white shoes and belts, leisure suits, wide flashy ties, bell bottom jeans... But even most hippies were giving up the "revolution" in order to settle into marriage and 9-5 jobs. Many churches continued in their ways as though the 1960s had never occurred. I had grown up in those churches. As society feinted toward the past, it seemed I was well equipped to lead any church the bishop might give me...as long as the world actually
did return to the 1955...and stay there.
The seminary I attended wasn't all that different from the seminary my dad had attended. I was taught by professors who were trained in the 1940s and 50s. Educational technology was the same in 1970 as it was in 1930. I typed my term papers on my manual typewriter, a typewriter that occasionally required me to clean its keys and change its ribbons. When I needed to submit duplicate copies of my master's thesis, it meant using carbon paper. State of the art technology in both schools and churches included rotary telephones and mimeograph machines. My early churches were too small to have secretaries, and so I made my own Sunday worship bulletins. My finger nails were always black on Sunday morning: partly from the shoe polish I used the night before, and partly from the ink that escaped from the mimeograph machine while I hand cranked the bulletins. (It would be years before I encountered a copy machine or a computer.)
My college tuition, fees, and book rental (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville) cost me $600 per year. My first salary was $2500 per year. I never ate Sunday dinner alone in my first church, someone always had me over as a guest. My room rent was $9 a week, and people gave me enough food (my grandparents lived near the university) so that my groceries never topped $8 a week. Gasoline cost 25 cents a gallon and no insurance was needed for cars. I went to college and seminary in order to lead churches that would operate in
this kind of world. A black man would never be elected president in my lifetime. And the country wouldn't even think of electing a man who was recorded bragging about grabbing women...well...it simply would never happen. Ministry in an everlasting 1950s would be easy! In 1950, America was 88% white (non-Hispanic), 10% black, and 2% Hispanic. (45 years later, it is 61% white non-Hispanic, 12% black, 13% Hispanic, 6% Asian, and 8% other.)
In the 1950s, more than 40% of Americans attended church weekly. We thought (45 years ago) that we would be able to double that number in our lifetimes. A United Methodist General Conference even passed a resolution in the 1980s to double its membership by the end of the decade. (Today, less than 20% of Americans are in a church on a Sunday morning or Saturday night.)
Most professions and vocations have changed in the past 45 years, profoundly. In that vein, being a pastor has turned out nothing like I expected 45 years ago. As we all know now, the 1950s never re-materialized. Life just got curiouser and curiouser.
I wonder if I would have been so eager to say "yes" had known then what I know now. Actually, I
don't wonder...I know. I would
not have said yes. I love being a Christian, but being a
pastor in today's world is a daily exercise in cluelessness.
A Wesleyan hymn has these words, "And are we yet alive?" Written over 200 years ago, it marvels that we are still physically alive. But it also marvels that our spirits are still alive and that we are still involved in ministry...after all that has happened.
I can see clearly how the world...and churches have changed in 45 years. What I'm wondering these days is how people, the world, and God all converged to change
me. How is it that I am still in ministry...and still ready to take up the work every morning? (Okay, not every morning, but still...most mornings!)
What is the rest of the story?
(To be continued...next week) --Mike