Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Early Years of Ministry--Bob


Welcome to Conversations with Bob! Better than the Soaps!



For all you Presbyterian Camp people, yes that is a picture at Ghost Ranch. An explanation in a few paragraphs.

I started out in ministry learning very quickly that seminary didn’t give much practical training for ministry, at least in the 1970’s. I knew Biblical languages and all kinds of theology but those didn’t prepare me for what I was to do. My first real test in ministry came with my first funeral. I got a call from a funeral home asking me to do a funeral for a non church member. It was a young man who was in the act of stealing gasoline and had been overcome by the fumes and died. What do you say at a criminal’s funeral who died in the act? I preached on grace.

Most of my work was with youth and taking communion to shut-ins. Youth are a great deal of fun and a real challenge. When they aren’t bored to tears they ask the questions adults are afraid to ask. And when they trust you they will tell you things that their parents wish the pastor didn’t know.

I started a new summer program in 1980. We had Bible studies at houses with pools. We also had dinner. Needless to say, food and swimming attracted lots of youth. The second summer the youth studied the Psalms for the summer. One of the youths had a close relationship with an elderly couple in the congregation. The wife was in the hospital with Alzheimer’s and pneumonia. We read and talked about one of those Psalms that say if you are good and faithful the Lord will reward you with health and riches. The girl got all upset; pointing out that here was a faithful Christian who wasn’t healthy or rich. She questioned the message of the Psalm. It was a very good discussion. The curious thing happened during prayer time. The girl said she wanted us to pray for her elderly friend. I asked what we should pray for and she said we should pray that the woman would have a quick and painless death. We did so. The woman died that night. I’ll leave the questions and debate about the theology and efficacy of prayer to you.

We also took two work trips, both times to Ghost Ranch. There is nothing quite like digging ditches, fixing trails and getting tumbleweed out of the sewer pond to help youth discover the meaning of mission. I’ve always thought that work trips build the faith of youth and adults because of the connection between the work and evening prayer and Bible study.

I did some adult education as well. I spent a year teaching Kerygma: the Bible in Depth. The class members learned something. I learned a lot. Teaching became a spiritual experience for me and on top of that I learned enough about the Bible to develop a preaching style.

The biggest spiritual event during my years in Anaheim was the birth of my son. Any Christian parent knows that you need a deeper faith when your child first does projectile vomiting. It scared the heck out of me! Having children means praying out of a position of helplessness. There are those little lives in your hands and you are responsible for both their physical wellbeing and their spiritual wellbeing. It’s an awesome responsibility.

The other important thing I learned in Anaheim was that there are different styles of church management. The senior pastor went to seminary in the 1950’s. The management style back then was the senior pastor is in charge and the assistant/associate pastor did what he/she was told. I learned a collegial style at seminary. Needless to say, we clashed. Which lead to me seeking a new call in 1982.

We moved to rural central PA, a massive difference from urban Anaheim. I had a lot of farmers in my two congregations. You could buy your veggies right at the farm. You could even raise a pig and have a party to slaughter and start cooking the pig! We didn’t raise pigs, but Debby canned and froze veggies and fruit with the best of them.

Now I was the pastor. Suddenly I had a whole lot more sympathy for my old boss. Now I got the complaints and the weird phone calls about the flowers for Sunday. I really didn’t care about the flowers at all but one deacon called me every week about the flowers. If I wasn’t home she wanted a decision from Debby. Debby was not amused.

I learned that prayer can be a very earthy thing. We prayed for rain. We prayed for the flood waters to go down. Most of all I prayed for and with people in hospitals.

Being a pastor of a couple of small churches meant you knew everyone well. Most of the funerals were for people I knew well. They hurt. I had to learn how to love people and minister too them while my own heart was breaking.

I preached every Sunday now, which took a lot of preparation time. I was very glad when computers came in so that I could edit on the computer! I learned that being pastor of two congregations meant that you could write one sermon but the message had to be different at each church because there were different needs. Worship took on deeper meaning. I discovered that it is difficult for me to be in a worshipful mood while leading worship. The Lord’s Supper became very important to me because as the elders served the congregation I could sit and pray and meditate on the sacrament.

I still led youth groups, including a class for junior highers on sexuality. What surprised me to no end was that parents made their children go to the class! Youth group attendance doubled during that particular segment. And the youth didn’t go into giggle mode but asked intelligent questions. It was a good program. I was very fortunate to have adults who worked hard to talk about the joyful gift of sexuality and how to use that gift carefully as a Christian.

I also learned that rural poverty could be as bad as or worse than urban poverty. One of my congregations was in a community that sat on the flood plain of the river. Almost all the church members had moved out of the community. I was very proud of them when they went door to door in the community, not just looking for new church members but trying to find out the needs of the people in town. We did a lot of work with the poor. I learned about the joys of having rats in your house because the people next door wouldn’t take out their garbage. I learned about the problems of absentee landlords who don’t keep the properties up to code. To my dismay I discovered that some of these absentee landlords were members of my congregation. I became the pastor for the community, called on to meet the needs of people who never went to church.

And Debby became pregnant again. This pregnancy was different. During the third month Debby started bleeding and had to stay in bed for two weeks. Besides giving me both the responsibilities of ministry and care for a 2 year old at the same time it made me think about children and abortion. I was driving down the road one day listening to a tape by Phil Keaggy and his song, The Little Ones came up. Here are some of the lyrics:

Who will speak up for the little ones,

Helpless and half abandoned?

They have a right to choose

Life they don’t want to lose.

I’ve got to speak up, wont you?

I had to pull off the road because I was crying and couldn’t see. I had been opposed to abortion before this on Biblical grounds but now it became real to me in a new way. I prayed everyday for our baby to live, knowing she might die. Others were making decisions that would cause the death of their babies. I came to the conclusion that there abortion is rarely a proper moral choice but mainly on emotional grounds. Our daughter was born with a few physical problems which were easily overcome by surgery. Unfortunately she inherited traits from me like stubbornness that appeared soon after she was born and continue to this day. On the other hand, both of are children were and are delights.

Rural churches can be a lot of fun but they also make a pastor spend a lot of time in the car. The closest hospital was 20 miles away, but a lot of people didn’t go there. They went to Harrisburg, Hershey or Danville, all over an hour’s drive away. Some days I just got in the car and spent the whole day visiting people in the various hospitals.

The other major issue that confronted me was doing counseling for people. I started working with people who were being physically abused, people going through divorces and people on drugs. There was no counseling center close by and there was a great stigma attached to seeing a therapist. Even talking with the pastor was frowned upon. And people found out, sometimes simply by seeing who’s car was parked near my house. Gossip moves in a rural community faster than the speed of light.

After about 5 years I decided it was time to move on. I took some church management courses and circulated my dossier. In November of 1989 we moved to Oneida, NY. While there I met this crazy pastor from up on the Tug Hill Plateau, John Shuck. More on Oneida next time.

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