Five years and 262 Sundays ago I became a senior pastor. That was a wonderful Sunday. The sun was shining brightly in the mountains of northeast Oregon. The small town church was packed with the honest and humble of rural America. My sermon was on my life verse, which is 2 Corinthians 12:9 about God’s power being perfected in weakness.
I was coming off of a wonderful seminary career that ended with accolades and compliments. I was holding a newly minted master’s degree with a certificate in biblical languages. My GPA was near perfect. I attained only one B and I got that B on purpose because the quest for a 4.0 was becoming my idol. I was brimming with confidence.
Seminary had ended with two open doors. I was offered a management position at the Rescue Mission where I worked. I loved that place. I had hopes and dreams galore. Many of the homeless men and coworkers who lived and worked there were and still remain great friends.
The other open door was that church in rural Oregon. With great fear and trembling I moved to Oregon.
So in a sermon that now seems a bit more arrogant than I intended, I told those lumberjacks, postal carriers and farmers about my charisma, my wisdom, my optimism and my drive. Then I told them all that was useless, as if they didn’t all ready know, and I claimed that I just wanted my weaknesses to be on full display so that God’s power would be all the greater.
Then we had a good old fashioned northwest barbecue with hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad and other forms of fat with sugar. Then the next day I got to work.
That was 262 Sundays ago.
Here I sit today in the suburbs of Utah. I am a little bit older now. I am a lot wiser. I am even quite a bit more well informed. I have read more books now than I did in college and seminary and more than doubled my library. I am kind of proud of that. I am also proud of the fact that I don’t weigh a pound more than I did 262 Sundays ago. Most pastors gain 30-40 pounds their first years of ministry. I have lost around ten. My marriage and family are still intact. I don’t feel I should have to mention that but I do know a few pastors who, on their 262nd Sunday, can’t say it.
I am little bit less naive and a bit more cynical and a lot angrier. I’ve been verbally abused more times than I can count. Some of the times I deserved it. Most of the time it was just angry people needing an outlet. For some reason pastors are prime targets for those vents and I have come to appreciate that role even if it is painful. I wish I could say I handled all those situations well but most of the time I was so surprised by the elevated voice that I responded in shock and made things worse. In those times, I have learned that this poor world and God’s wretched church are far more wrecked than I suspected. And the darkness isn’t just outside. It’s inside me as well.
I have had my theological beliefs challenged both internally and externally. Some needed to be challenged so as to be done away with. Others I have let go only to realize I badly needed them and ran back to them. Those ones were not just biblical but crucial for survival in life and ministry.
God has saved some lives and given me a front row seat to the miracles. There was a young couple, former addicts with two toddlers. They landed in a motel room in the middle of winter with little food and no money. They were about to get evicted into a foot of snow. Somehow they got my phone number. I raised a couple thousand dollars to get them into a nice two bedroom apartment that their income could afford. I sometimes question the money we spent on them, especially since the mom relapsed shortly after. But a couple years later the father told a friend, “If it wasn’t for Pastor Kevin I would have relapsed with her. But because of what he did, I knew I had to keep the kids and stay sober.” I disagree with his theology. It was God who did it but still, that was worth being a part of.
I think God has saved some souls too, though that one is harder to measure. In the last year alone I have met so many people whose faith has been ransacked by the world. Somehow they have found me and unloaded all their questions and doubts. As I talked to them I realized I am the first Christian pastor they have met who has taken those questions and doubts seriously. God has been able to use me in those moments to bolster their failing trust. It is in those conversations that I am the most “pastor.”
On that note, I have come to absolutely love being a pastor to those who have never had pastors before. To those who have had pastors before, I am lousy. They bring all these expectations and baggage into the relationship that I haven’t quite figured out how to handle. But for those who have never had a pastor, I am a balm in their wounds and they are in mine as well.
I have a friend whose first church was a buzz saw. It chopped him to pieces. After three years of misery, he left the church and the pastorate. He almost left the faith all together but miraculously he found a church and a pastor. A month or so ago his church was praying for young seminarians who were about to take their own churches. They invited everyone to come up, lay hands on them and pray. My friend stayed in his seat. All he could think was, “Don’t do it! Please don’t be a pastor. For your own health and sanity, do anything but!” Then he remembered that if not for his pastor he wouldn’t be a Christian at all. His pastor was a salve in his wounds. In the words of our founder, Phineas Bresee, “she didn’t blight the budding hope or break the bruised reed. She lifted up his fainting heart. She poured oil and wine into the wounds of the poor pilgrim who had been wrecked by the Devil on the journey from Jerusalem to Jericho.” (Prince in Israel, p. 394)
I suppose for that reason alone, I probably have at least another five years and 262 Sundays in me.
You know, I am more hopeful too. I still believe in the church. I still believe in the optimism of grace. I still believe in the God who equips the called. I still believe in my weaknesses, in my insufficiency and my worthlessness. In fact, I believe in those even more than I did 262 Sundays ago. But most importantly, I absolutely still believe in the God whose power is made perfect in weakness.