Sunday, January 12, 2014

Like a Box of Chocolates

            January 2014 marks 18 consecutive years of serving as the Senior Pastor in the local church. As you can well imagine, over that period of time I have had a few experiences that could best be described as “interesting.” When I reflect on the variety of encounters and experiences, I am reminded of the line from Forrest Gump, slightly modified: “Ministry is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are gonna get.” And, it is true. The range of emotions runs from the highs of seeing people give their lives to Christ, seeing marriages restored, and babies born to the lows of the ravages of addictions, the effects of self-centered living, and broken lives – to name a few. I thought I would share a few of the lighter moments over the past 18 years.
            Occasionally I share some of these experiences with church members. I enjoy seeing their reactions to the kinds of things that pastors see and hear in the course of engaging in ministry. Some of these experiences were amusing, some left me speechless (which is no small task), and others simply left us shaking my head.  

            There was the time that my family and I decided to “spring forward” rather than “fall back.” As a result we arrived at the church a full two hours earlier than we should have. To make matters worse, that particular day was a big homecoming celebration – a big deal in the life of a small, rural church. We, however, were dumbfounded at how the people in the church decided to blow off such an important service. Well, no such thing had happened. The majority of the church seemed to understand the concept of “fall back” and they arrived right on time. Indeed, that day was a great day in the life of the church. We had one of the largest crowds during my tenure there. Needless to say, I went to bed early that night.

            On another occasion we decided to accompany our students to the annual youth rally put on by our state denomination. Well, we didn’t really “decide”….when you serve as the pastor of a small church, there is typically no one else to do it. At any rate, one of the boys we took along had never traveled out of our small, rural community. Anywhere. Ever. We decided to treat the kids to supper at a Chinese restaurant. Needless to say, the young man could not find a thing on the menu that looked even remotely familiar to him. The closest thing was “green pepper steak.” Apparently, the word “steak” appealed to him; the appearance of the dish, however, did not. When it arrived he just stared at the plate, wondering why his steak was in little strips and there was no baked potato beside it. I think he decided to fast during most of that youth conference.

            Performing wedding ceremonies is usually a blessed event that pastors enjoy very much. Of course, there was that one time when a strange car pulled onto our small church parking lot. I happened to be walking toward the front door of the church, in clear sight of the driver. He got out and asked, “You the pastor?” I said, “That depends, what do you need?” “I want to get married today,” he responded. “You got a girl picked out?” I asked. “Yeah, the old lady’s in the car,” he said. At that point, I figured this had the potential to be a unique experience. And, boy, was I right.

            It seemed that the man was headed to prison and needed to “get married” so that his live-in girlfriend could receive assistance for herself and their children while he was incarcerated. In fact, the bride giggled through the entire exchange of vows. The guy was a bit more serious. The kids were, well, kids. My wife served as the maid-of-honor; the best man was a friend of the groom. The ceremony did not make the social pages of the local paper. Of course, we did not have a local paper.  

            Now before you start getting all judgmental about my wedding policy, that was an isolated incident. In that situation I deemed it an act of mercy to make sure the family of the soon to be incarcerated man was provided for in his absence. Sometimes that is what ministry is about, making the best decision we can in terribly difficult – or incredibly “ridiculous” – circumstances.  

            Shortly after moving to NC, I remember telling our staff that “I don’t cancel services for snow and ice. I am from the Midwest. I never cancel.” Well, you remember that old adage about “never saying never?” About two weeks after my bold pronouncement, our region was hit with a freezing rain and ice storm. The whole area was covered with a layer of 1-2” of ice. Naturally, the storm came in late on a Saturday afternoon, and, yep, you guessed it, we had to cancel services the next day. Well, I suppose we could have “not cancelled,” but no one, including me, would have been there. I’ll never forget going into the staff meeting the Tuesday after that. One of our Administrative Assistants turned to me and said, “what was that again? I never cancel.” The whole room erupted in laughter; myself included.

             After 18+ years on ministry I have decided the best approach to life in the ministry is to expect the unexpected. Whether it is mistakes with clock setting, adventures with students, or strange weddings and weather, ministry is filled with the unexpected. When those unexpected circumstances arise, be sure to not take them too seriously. After all, a few years later you will likely find yourself laughing about them. 

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