Collar color change

August 16th, 2023

A few times a year, our church holds a two-hour long new member class led by one of our members who is also a retired pastor. One of the perks of leading a larger congregation with other skilled leaders like him is that I get to participate in these gatherings as a co-presenter. 

In the recent class, during the icebreaker/introductions portion of our gathering, my beloved brother leading us asked everyone to share not only their names and their places of origin, but also what career(s) they had prior to their current role.

When he asked the question, I could feel all the blood rush to my head. I was unprepared to reveal to these people my long list of past employments prior to entering the ministry. Thankfully, he started with person to his left, which meant I would be near the end of the circle. I began making a list of all my past jobs from the age of 18, until I entered into seminary as a student pastor at the age of 30: Furniture factory, satellite television call center, material coating manufacturer, furniture factory again, satellite television call center again, newspaper writer, pizza delivery guy and then manager, brake pad manufacturer, material coating manufacturer again. I worked at Wal-Mart for one day, followed by semi-truck interior production, log home manufacturer, railroad cross-tie manufacturer, with small stints as a fur-trap runner and a roofer between the log home gig and the cross-tie job.

As you can imagine, when it was my turn, these prospective new members were a little shocked to hear all of these jobs from their senior pastor’s pastor. It was equally shocking for me as I jotted them each down and then said each one aloud. I was, and remain, uneasy with the realization that I probably forgot a job or two.

The reasons for my high job turnover rate are a conversation for a different day. Most folks in our church and new members class understand that I did not come out of the womb as Reverend Doctor Jabe, and getting to this point in life has been quite an interesting journey through opioid addiction and the many challenges that come with that illness.

But at this point in my own ministry and leadership, that somewhat embarrassing-yet vulnerable moment in a new members class was quite revelatory. The revelation came by way of reminder: a reminder that I learned just as much (if not more) on the third shift factory floor as I did in the seminary. To be clear, I always felt more comfortable on the third shift floor than I did in the seminary.

The only seminary I applied to for my M.Div asked me to write a paper on which Christian theologian had formed me the most. I wrote about Max Lucado. He was all I had in my reading log at the time. It wasn’t until a year later that I learned that most people wrote about Bonhoeffer, Augustine, Cone, and Barth (a friend finally told me that the h in Barth is silent halfway through the first semester; it felt like someone finally telling you after hours of conversation that you had something in your teeth the whole time).

On my first visit to that school, I entered into a dim grey building where I asked the most distinguished professor at the school if I was in the right place, not knowing who he is or how distinguished he is. In a squeaky Texas drawl, this world-renowned theologian told me, “This is it,” with a look of shock on his face. A year later, when I realized who he was, I felt awkwardly like the Samaritan woman at the well who asked Jesus for a drink.

Almost without my awareness of it happening, my collar color changed during those years. And even as it slowly faded from blue to white in those early seminary years and beyond, I still found myself deeply connected to the folks with whom I shared life in those many vocational settings along the way. God knows I understood them more than I understood seminarians.

I believe my experience of driving forklifts on freight docks combined with my years as a student pastor and then a full-time pastor in rural America have provided me with a great foundation from which to lead in a culture that is divided still too often by the color of our collars. The diversity of experiences with felons and deacons, athletes and bookworms, church board members and biker gangs, Carolina Tar Heel fans and people who make good decisions in life has been a tremendous blessing and privilege for me. 

Because of these vastly different life interactions and experiences, when I look out into the congregation on any given Sunday I do not simply see white and blue, or even red and blue, but something more diverse, more purple even, and that is a gift.

Don’t get me wrong, I still get frustrated when I log on to social media and see some of the things that my blue-collar friends post. Conversely, I still get frustrated when I log on to social media and see some of the things that my friends with all their postgraduate educations will say. The gift comes in being able to identify with them both, understanding where they are coming from, and how they got to where they are. The gift comes in being able to recognize that I have frustrated folks with all kinds of different collars at different times and seasons in my own life.

As the old adage goes (it’s hard to know if it’s something I picked up on the factory floor or a classroom along the way): “Things change when you know people.” My own experiences, which that new member class reminded me of so clearly, show me again and again the importance of going out into public and striking up conversations with people we would otherwise avoid based on their appearance and our perceptions. That new member class and that introductory question reminds me even now that I need to be more intentional about continuing to practice that, too. Getting to know real people while allowing them to know the real you is our best teacher, far better than any book, world-renowned theologian, or online article.

Navigating differences of opinion amongst those we lead is far easier when we know them and where they are coming from and how they got there. No one’s opinions or character is formed in a bubble, and as leaders in the church we would do well to step outside of our own echo chambers and comfortable bubbles to learn how and why those we shepherd have become so resistant to certain ideas.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that all church leaders need to go and get a job on third shift. The people already working there probably don’t want you there for a variety of reasons. What I am suggesting is diversifying our experiences and interactions with others with an intentionality that opens up possibilities of mutuality and understanding amongst all parties involved. What I am suggesting is that as leaders in our congregations, we invest more time and effort in getting to know those whose collars are different colors from our own, whose life experiences have taken them to different places with their own struggles and needs. It may seem obvious to say that, but sometimes in our efforts to emphasize that we all one in the body of the church, we forget that everyone brings with them a whole range of colorful experiences and stories that we need together. I remain enough of an optimist to believe that if leaders take such work seriously, the diversities and differences in thinking and belief we find will be revealed for what it actually is: not weakness, but one of our greatest strengths. 

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