August 1st, 2011
This article is featured in the Men's Church/Women's Church (Aug/Sept/Oct 2011) issue of Circuit Rider

June 2009


“Does your wife play the organ?”

“Excuse me?” Surely I misunderstood her.

“Does your wife play the organ?”

I did hear her right. And she seems serious. This is a serious question. She wants to know if my wife plays the organ. This may be a sign of the apocalypse.

“No, no, she doesn’t,” I say, checking the sky for horsemen.

“What about the piano? You know our last pastor’s wife played the piano.”

“Mollie doesn’t really ‘play’ anything.”

“So she sings? Choir is on Wednesday nights.” Her arms are crossed now.

“No, she doesn’t sing. I mean, she sings, but not in the choir.” Why do I feel the need to rattle off everything my wife does well? How did I get into this conversation?

“Well, our last pastor’s wife sang in the choir. Sang beautifully. We have choir on Wednesday nights.”

Welcome to my new appointment. I have it confirmed by the second month that the “previous pastor’s wife” is really a tapestry of three or four clergy spouses. We are not just up against the legacy of our immediate predecessors, we are now judged against the idealized selective memory of the Body of Christ. It’s like the Greatest Hits album of church history.

After the service, a parishioner asks for a CD of my sermon. For a brief, fleeting moment, I feel pride. Then he tells me, unprompted, that he used to get a CD every week from my predecessor.

We settle in to our new parsonage, the freezer packed with pound cakes and meals brought by church folks as if someone has died. The night we move in, the house is full of parishioners, touching up the new paint job. There is a welcome sign planted in the front yard and baby back ribs in the fridge.

They are giving us the benefit of the doubt, I suppose, trusting that we will be a good match. At least that’s what I think at first. Over those first several weeks, however, I start to realize that this is not about me. It’s not about the family; it’s not about my position in the church. They are simply “being” church.

That does not stop me from trying to prove myself, though. Old habits die hard. I step into the pulpit every week determined to hit a home run, determined to be above average. I spend hours on Saturday night standing in the quiet sanctuary, looking down from the pulpit on empty pews, imagining what this turn of phrase might sound like when those seats are full. I write and rewrite, until my language sounds more like iambic pentameter than talking. I overthink and overprepare, only to find that the same thing happens every week. Namely, that these kind people shake my hand and thank me.

Having served as a college chaplain for a decade, my preaching muscles are used to a season off, a few months every year to build up new material. On a schedule like that, you can choose your words carefully. You can use half your thoughts, carefully selecting the best and most effective language to convey what needs to be said. It is an art form.

In pastoring a church, however, I stand before an endless line of Sunday morning speaking engagements, like a kitchen faucet that has been called into service as a fire hydrant. It is a wartime draft. Every able-bodied word is called into service, regardless of its readiness or its skill. The delicate and thoughtful touch of an artist deftly wielding  a brush has been replaced by a guy in coveralls shooting paint out of a gun.

There is a vacuum that I cannot fill, a skill I can never master, and a well I can never fill. I have to depend on Someone Else.

Sometimes the folks in the pews cry at a story, sometimes they tell me what they are moved to do, occasionally they even spell out what God has said to them. They do not mention my superior sentence structure, or the deft way in which I exegeted the scripture for the day. I am used to being rewarded for intellectual acumen, but that is not what happens here on Sundays.

Instead of talking about me, these folks talk about the Almighty. It is not my preaching they’re judging at all. They have shown up to church expecting to meet God.

I am embarrassed at how much of an impact that simple and perhaps obvious revelation has had on me. But people come to church to meet God. At least that’s why they come to this church.

I suppose, in my arrogance, I never considered that I would be learning so much from the congregation. I am the one speaking on Sundays, I am the one wearing the robe, I am the one with the office. But they are the ones with expectation, and that makes all the difference.

In my first year of campus ministry, a colleague said to me, “Brian, the theme of your first year in any new place is always perseverance. Your only goal should be survival. Anything more than that is just grace.”

I survive my first year as a church pastor. And grace abounds.


This essay concludes a four-part memoir. Miss some? Start at the beginning.

comments powered by Disqus