The Benefit of a Secular Education

“I don’t know why it isn’t working.”

The old man looked over at the young pastor. He saw a well-dressed young man, with an earnest but very troubled expression.

“So that’s what you wanted to talk to me about? It isn’t working?” he asked.

“Right. It just isn’t working, and I don’t know why. I’ve done everything I know, and I just can’t seem to connect with my congregation.”

The old man thought for a minute. He could see that the young man was about to start talking again, but he waved him back with his hand.

“Just what is ‘it’ that isn’t working?”

“My ministry. My church.”

This is a work of fiction. All persons, places, and events are products of the author’s imagination. Copyright © 2011, Henry E. Neufeld

“You need to be more specific. What should be happening that isn’t?”

He could see a look of impatience pass briefly over the young man’s face. The young man clearly thought it was all very obvious.

“Well, church attendance is down since I took over the church. Membership is down. We haven’t had any professions of faith. We’ve had a few people transfer in, but not enough. We can’t meet our budget obligations. It just isn’t working.”

“So ‘it’ is a church with good statistics—membership, budget, church attendance.”

“Exactly! With all your experience as a pastor, I kind of expected . . .” His voice kind of faded. He had probably intended to finish with “you to know that.” But he didn’t.

“Numbers aren’t everything, you know,” said the old man.

“True, but there isn’t much that I can accomplish with a church that’s shrinking and that can’t pay the bills.”

“I didn’t say numbers weren’t important, just that they aren’t the only thing.”

There was another long pause.

“I’m wondering,” the old man resumed, ” what you preached about last Sunday.”

“I preached about the importance of being in church, not neglecting gathering together. It seemed to be what was needed.”

“And what reasons did you give them to go to church?”

“Well, besides that the Bible tells us to do so?”

“Yes, besides that.”

“I told them that it’s essential to our spiritual growth, to overcoming sin, and to becoming true disciples. We need encouragement from one another.”

“Did you mention farming?”

“No.”

“Truck driving?”

“No.”

“Teaching biology?”

“No. What do those things have to do with it?”

“Perhaps nothing at all. How long have you known you were called to be a pastor.”

The seeming non sequitur caught the young man off-guard. “Umm,” he said, “I think I knew when I was about 10 years old. I never told anyone till I was about 12.”

“And what did you take in college?”

“I took a degree in Bible. Many people questioned that decision, but I didn’t want to waste my time on things that weren’t relevant.”

“So you went to a Christian high school, then Bible college, then seminary, and from there to the pulpit, is that correct?”

“Yes.” He looked puzzled. This wasn’t how he expected this conversation to go. The old man had pastored many churches successfully. His reputation was that if you sent him to a large church it would get larger and more active. If you sent him to a small church it would become large. If you sent him somewhere where there was no church at all, there soon would be one. The man must have some secrets to pass on. The young man wanted those secrets.

“And how did you pay for school?”

“I was very blessed with that. I won scholarships that covered most of it. I have very little debt.”

“But you never really worked while you were in school, in a job, I mean.”

“Well, I was a teaching assistant.”

“To a religion professor?”

“Biblical studies. I learned a lot in that job.”

“Oh, no doubt. But how many biblical studies professors do you have in your congregation?”

The young man looked stunned again. “Well, none, of course.” The old man should know that much.

“How many truck drivers do you have?”

“I don’t know. Several, I’d think. There’s the factory and all.”

“How many farmers?”

“Well, again I don’t know exactly. Quite a few.”

“Teachers?”

“Again, we have a few.”

“What do you know about those things?”

“You mean the demographics of my congregation? I have a detailed report on my desk. I just don’t remember numbers well.”

“I don’t mean demographics. I mean what do you know about truck driving, farming, and teaching. Not Bible teaching, but regular secular teaching.”

“Well, I guess not much.” He’d thought of saying he knew something about those various topics, but he was afraid the old man would ask him what he knew, and he actually didn’t know anything about those jobs.

“Precisely,” said the old man, as though he had made a major discovery. “You never had the benefit of a secular education.”

“I see,” said the young man. And he didn’t like it, but he thought he did get it. “You mean I need to understand these people’s jobs so that I can find the hooks to draw them into spiritual things!”

It was the old man’s turn to be stunned. “No! No! No!”

“I don’t understand.”

“You need to know about their jobs and their lives so that you can help make those things sacred.”

The young man looked confused. “Make them sacred?”

“Where do you think the congregation impacts the world? In the church?”

“No, I suppose they do it at work. But I thought they should learn about spiritual things and then share those things at work. It’s my job to teach them spiritual things.”

“True, but only partially so. It’s your job to equip them to do ministry. You can’t equip them to do ministry if you don’t understand where it is that they’re going to do ministry. They do it at the office, in the cab of a truck, on a tractor, at the market, and in many other places.”

“I’ve tried to get more of them involved in the church . . .”

The old man interrupted him, “And that’s where you make your mistake.”

“But they need to be involved in the church!”

“Yes, but it’s even more important for the church, and I don’t mean your building or your committees or your programs, but the Church, the people, to get involved in the world.”

The young man looked at the old one for a couple of minutes. It was the first time of silence he wasn’t in a hurry to interrupt. He knew that. But he certainly hadn’t put it into practice.

“So what do I do now. I can hardly go back and change the way I was educated.”

“Perhaps so, but think about this. There are many ways to get a secular education. One is simply by paying attention to what people are doing. Now that you have the idea, I think you’ll think of ways to do it. And you may find it’s not all that secular after all . . .”

(This post has been submitted to the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival – Secular.)

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Our Pastor is Lazy

“You know why I wanted to talk to you today?” said Jim. His intonation indicated a question, but Emily Wall, Rev. Emily Wall, knew she was expected to know.

“Yes, sir,” she said.

Jim Evans, district superintendent looked across at the young lady on the other side of his desk. She had no right to look so calm and poised, even comfortable, under the circumstances. Truth be told, he felt a little intimidated by her. That PhD in New Testament from a prestigious university along with her intelligence and self-possession just seemed out of place in someone so young.

“You can call me Jim,” he said. He’d said that many times before, but she was always a little formal with her superiors in the church organization.

“Yes, Jim, I do understand.”

Jim wondered why he felt that there was hostility in the atmosphere of the room. Emily seemed calm and was not challenging his authority in any way, yet he felt challenged. “Your church is going to ask that you not be reappointed, but they’ve asked me to talk to you first, before they make this official. This is entirely informal.”

Jim waited for Emily to say something, but she simply sat there. Why couldn’t she take her cue? It was time for her to ask what she needed to do, how she could be reverse the decision of the SPR committee.

“Well,” he said after a few moments, “your evaluation by the members of your congregation is not good. The members say that you’re arrogant, pushy, and, worst of all, lazy.” Jim thought he sensed a little bit of a reaction on the last word, but he wasn’t sure. She still looked peaceful. Again, she didn’t react.

“Do you have any response to those comments?”

“I’m not sure. I don’t believe I’ve been any of those things. I’ve been given a number of complaints, but I’d rather hear more specifics. Why do they think I’m arrogant?”

This is a work of fiction. All persons, places, churches, and events are products of my imagination.
Copyright © 2011, Henry E. Neufeld

“Well, they mention here your emphasis on your doctoral degree. ‘Throwing it in our faces,’ is one comment.”

“But I haven’t made anything of my doctorate. Other than my resume, where it’s kind of required, I don’t believe I’ve mentioned it at all.”

“But it’s on the church sign.”

“Yes, but it was put there without my permission, and I’ve asked to have it removed. In fact, I was promised it would be, but it just has never happened. It’s possible that I got a bit pushy about getting it removed.”

Jim grinned at her reference to the second complaint. He wasn’t surprised. He’d never heard her say anything about her degree either. It was there. She’d done it. She was, in fact, brilliant. But you’d never know about it unless you read the actual record. “OK, I see that.”

“Actually,” Emily continued, volunteering something for the first time, “I asked that they remove my name from the sign entirely. I don’t see any need for my name on the sign. What does that accomplish? And the way it is now just looks pretentious: ‘Rev. Dr. Emily Wall, PhD, Senior Pastor?’ That’s … I don’t have a word for it. It makes me shudder every time I see it. I’m the only pastor, so I suppose I’m ‘senior’ but Reverend Doctor?” She’d showed an emotion other than calm for the first time in the conversation.

“They’re proud of their pastor,” said Jim.

“Yet they want to get rid of her.”

“Well, not precisely. They want to make an arrangement to work with you. But before we look at that, let’s look a bit more at why they say you’re pushy. It’s not just about the sign. They say you have asked every mission committee meeting what they’re going to do to be missionaries before the next meeting.”

“Yes, I ask that.”

“Every meeting?”

“Yes.”

“But why approach it that way?”

“Because they aren’t doing anything to be missionaries between meetings. The mission committee meets to distribute the mission budget money to various causes. Then they talk about how they can raise more money. Sometimes they come up with ideas, but they never implement them. But more importantly, they don’t actually do anything. They want to give away a little money, but they don’t want to get involved.”

“Well, perhaps that’s their role. Not everyone can go.”

“I think everyone can do something. I think everyone should do something. There are dozens of projects that could be undertaken within a couple of miles of the church.”

“But couldn’t you come up with a more gentle and tactful way of bringing it up?”

“I tried tact. My predecessor tried tact. So did his. I wanted to get their attention.”

“You did, but not in a good way.”

“Why do you say it’s not a good way?”

“Because they’re going to ask not to have you appointed again. You can’t do any good at all if you’re gone.”

“Perhaps I’ll do some good somewhere else.”

“I don’t think I like that dismissive attitude.”

“I didn’t mean to be dismissive. It’s important to me to try to get the members of the church to be disciples, and I believe that means being missionaries, whether it’s down the block or around the world. If doing so offends them, I’ll have to live with that. I don’t want to come up on judgment day and have Jesus ask me whether I ever told them they were called to be missionaries.”

“I see. I do think you could find a better way to do it. But let’s go on to the next issue. They think you’re lazy. Do you know why they think that?”

“Yes, that one I do know. I only preached at two services in the last two months.”

“That’s what the lay leader told me, but I wasn’t sure whether I should believe it. Why didn’t you preach those Sundays? Were you sick?”

“No, I wasn’t sick, and I was right there in the congregation. I had lay speakers preach on those Sunday mornings.”

“Lay speakers.” Jim paused. “I know you’ve really pushed lay speaking in your church, but if I had known that was happening earlier, I would have put a stop to it. You’re expected to be in the pulpit regularly on Sunday morning.”

“I think that’s wrong.”

“Wrong? It’s our standard practice.”

“The standard practice is wrong.” He was amazed that it didn’t sound arrogant. The conviction behind the sentence seemed to be beyond arrogance–absolute conviction. Then she continued. “When I arrived at that church there was only one lay speaker, and he had never spoken at anything. I arranged to have him preach for the first time. His training was not really that good, and I spent hours helping him with his sermon. He did very well. Now we have half a dozen lay speakers. That first lay speaker is now working full time at another church.”

“Where? I didn’t know that!”

“It’s a small non-denominational church, but it has doubled in membership since he started preaching there. I think they’re going to ordain him.”

“So it’s not a Methodist church then. You know we didn’t lay hands on you so you could send members to other churches. Your job is to build the church to which you’re assigned.”

“My job? Perhaps. But my call is to make disciples. My call is to equip the church for ministry. That man was ready to go out and serve. He just needed the confidence and a push. He needed someone to recognize what God had gifted him and called him to do.”

“But what about those other lay speakers. Do you have to have them preaching all that often? Perhaps you could have a lay revival every year and give them the chance to learn.”

“I don’t think that would be enough. To learn to preach the gospel you need to preach the gospel. Where better to learn than in your home church?”

“But what about the ministry to your own members. I got a separate letter from one of your church members. He brought a business associate to visit the church, and a lay speaker preached. He had hoped to have the man hear one of your sermons. Don’t you think the impression you make on visitors is important?”

“Yes, I think it’s important. But the impression I want to give is not of my intelligence or my speaking ability, but of my commitment to Christ.”

“Of course we want them to see your commitment to Christ. We want you and the church to be committed to Christ. But people don’t necessarily look at the things we want them to see. The church member who wrote the letter hoped his friend, a prominent businessman, would join the church. But he wasn’t interested in hearing lay speakers.”

“Again, I believe my job is to equip the church, the whole church for ministry. To do that I need ministry for them to do. For those called to preach, I need to give them the opportunity.”

“But you’re talking about working yourself out of a job. If the pastor isn’t in the pulpit, the people won’t think she is needed.”

“I’d love not to be needed in that sense, but I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon. I’ve spent more time with each of those lay speakers before they preached than I would spend preparing my own sermon.”

“But the one thing the people really like about you is your preaching. Yet that’s precisely what you won’t give them. What do you expect them to do?”

“I expect them to get into ministry themselves. In evaluating myself, I would not rate my preaching as all that effective. I entertain people. I’m good at fashioning a speech that they like, but I’m not that good at getting people moving.”

“Well, you do have your fans. I know the district coordinator for lay speakers thinks you’re one of the greatest. He wants to make sure you’re reappointed somewhere in the district so he can use you at training events.”

“I appreciate that.”

“Unfortunately, you don’t have many fans at the church.”

“So why didn’t they just recommend I not be reappointed?”

“I think they’re rather proud to have a 26 year old pastor who has a PhD from a prestigious university. That’s probably why they put so much emphasis on the sign.”

“But it’s the wrong reason for them to want to keep a pastor.”

“You may have to work with whatever reason they have.”

Again, there was an awkward pause as Emily didn’t offer any further thoughts.

“What they’ve proposed is a covenant for next year.”

“I believe I’ve seen this.”

“Well, there are several major points. First, they want you to preach 48 out of the 52 Sundays during the coming year.  I believe this is quite reasonable. I’ve known pastors to commit to 50.”

Again Emily added nothing.

“They want you to commit to personally doing all the hospital visitation. They want additional church office hours.”

“But they don’t make use of the hours I am present.”

“Nonetheless they want more hours. What are you doing with your time anyhow? You’re not preaching, you’re not doing visitation, you’re apparently not in your office. What do you do?”

“Well, it’s not true that I don’t do visitation. What I have been doing is taking gifted church members with me and then letting them do visitation on their own. I’m often not in the office because I’m doing some of those mission projects that I want the members to get involved in.”

“But I thought you couldn’t get the church involved in those missions.”

“No, I couldn’t get the mission committee involved. I have church members out serving in the community every day, and I work with them.”

“So you do it without the approval of the mission committee.”

“I don’t think I need the committee to approve my going to a soup kitchen with a few members and serving people.”

“But the mission committee probably thinks you need their approval.”

“Did they complain?”

“No.”

“They wouldn’t.”

“Yes,” said Jim after a moment. “That wouldn’t fit with the pattern.”

“Why haven’t I heard from any of these other members, you know, the ones who are out doing service projects with you?”

“I think it might be because they’re busy doing things. And they’re not really all that knowledgeable about church politics. Some of them may not even know one can complain to the district superintendent.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter a great deal. The people who have the power are the ones who are complaining and they’re demanding that you sign this covenant they’ve proposed or they’re going to ask that you not be reappointed.”

“I see.”

“I think it’s your best option. We need you where you are. That church needs you. The only way you can continue in the ministry God has called you to is to accept these conditions.”

“So in order to be permitted to do ministry I have to agree not to do it?”

“I wouldn’t put it like that. I’d suggest that you take a little more time. Work more slowly and carefully.”

“Pastors have been doing that for years. It hasn’t worked.”

“It’s the only option.”

“But that’s not true, is it?”

“What do you mean?”

“The bishop can appoint me where he wants me. He can go against the church’s recommendation.”

“Is that what you’re expecting?”

“I’m not really expecting anything. I’m just pointing out that the SPR committee of that one church doesn’t have the final say.”

“I’ll tell you not to expect it. Your choice is clear. Sign the covenant, or plan to be reappointed elsewhere, probably to a smaller church.”

He pushed the document across the desk toward her …

 

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Pastoral Candidate

[This is a work of fiction.*]

Vernon noticed the arrangement of the room. As manager of a regional chain of restaurants, he was used to reading the way a meeting was set up and evaluating peoples’ attitudes.

It was hard to be precise about the five men sitting across from him. He saw eagerness and uncertainty in nearly equal measures. He was surprised to notice some fear and hostility as well. He didn’t see any reason for it. These five men could decide on their own who they would invite to be pastor of this church, and there was no threat he could hold over them. Not that he wanted to!

“Vernon,” said the chairman. “It’s OK if I call you Vernon, isn’t it?”

“Sure Mr. Wilson,” said Vernon. “You knew me when I was in the nursery around here!” He chuckled, both because he was relaxed, and because he wanted the members of the board to relax.

“OK, Vernon, I think I’ll get right to the point. We’re wondering why someone like you, who hasn’t been to church for over 10 years, thinks he is qualified to become pastor of this church.”

Vernon was surprised. “I think we’re working under some misapprehension here. I thought you had invited me here because you were considering asking me!”

“So you didn’t send us your resume? You didn’t ask Mrs. Thompson to deliver it to us?”

“No, I didn’t . . .”

“Well, then there is a misapprehension!”

“I was going to say,” Vernon continued, “that your mentioning Mrs. Thompson explains what happened. She visited me the other day and told me she believed God was still calling me to be a pastor. Then she discussed her son’s resume, and … I’m not quite sure how it happened … but she walked away with mine as an example. When you called, I assumed she’d talked you into inviting me to talk.”

Everyone was grinning now, even Gerald Adams, the senior member of the church, who was known never to smile. It was just a slight grin, but he clearly was amused by how they all had been had.

“So, do we actually have anything to talk about?” said both Vernon and Tom Wilson at nearly the same time.

The silence that resulted had a couple of board members laughing, while a couple of others were trying to restore dignity to the meeting.

“Well, Mr. Wilson . . . ”

“Call me Tom,” said Tom Wilson.

“OK Tom,” continued Vernon. “I think I need to answer your question. The reason I think you should consider inviting me to be pastor of this church is that I agree with Mrs. Thompson. I believe God is calling me here, and it’s time for me to quit sailing for Tarshish.”

It took some of the men a few moments to get the reference, but to their credit, they did.

Tom appeared to be trying to gather his thoughts. “That’s a good answer, and I admit I hoped you’d give a good answer. We could really use someone with your skills to try to revive this church. We just don’t have the numbers we had when you were a child.”

He paused again for a long time, but Vernon could tell that he wasn’t finished. Finally, he continued. “Here’s the problem. I know that you’re smart enough about finances to know you’d take a pay cut to take this position. With an MBA on top of your M.Div, no doubt you could command a much larger salary than we could offer even if you went to pastor at another church.”

“I won’t be taking a salary.” Tom’s words stopped all sound in the room.

“No salary?” asked Tom.

“No salary.”

“How are you going to live?”

“I’m actually going to demand much more than a salary.”

“Just what do you mean?”

“Do you mind if I give you a fairly long explanation? I’d like to make clear what it is I’ll provide and what I’m going to ask of you. I also want you to understand why.”

“Take your time,” said Tom.

“You may regret that!” Vernon paused a moment, making sure he had everyone’s attention. He was used to doing this sort of thing to rooms full of management trainees, but it was hard for him to do it with these men who had been the pillars of the church in his youth. They were the people he had learned to respect as a child and young person. You might not like them, but you didn’t ignore them.

“Some of what I’m going to say is going to sound insulting, but I’m asking you to hear me out.” He wouldn’t have said that to management trainees. He just would have given them the facts, and then used a combination of good humor and biting challenge to bring them up to standards.

“If I looked at this church as a branch of my company,” he continued, “I would have to rate it as a failure. I’d probably suggest closing it down and opening another store serving the same market. The reason is that this particular branch has a reputation to live down, and employees are stuck in a losing way of doing business.”

“As evidence, let me point out that your membership is half what it was when I last attended your church. The Board of Elders has only one new member, and the average age has gone up by 10 years in those same ten years. Finally, though you’re searching for a pastor, you have only had one interview, and he decided he didn’t want the job.”

“You’re wondering how I know all this. I know it because I’m a businessman, and I find such things out from habit. I’m thorough. I looked at my old church as I would have looked at a business.”

“Here’s the problem: When I looked at this church as a business, it looks terrible. Hopeless. No point. I can’t live on any salary you could reasonably offer me. It’s not even close. I couldn’t live on your entire church budget. That has a great deal to do with choices I’ve made since I left seminary, but I’m stuck with the results of those choices.”

“You’re all good men, and I believe you love the Lord. That’s why you’re still sitting there while I’m telling you things are hopeless. When I had all the numbers together I decided that I wouldn’t bother to talk to you, because there was no point. But I couldn’t shake that sense that I was being called.”

“So I started to pray. Then I started to read. I read the gospel of Mark. I read 1 Corinthians. I read Ephesians. I read Philippians. Finally I went back to Ephesians 4. Then I had my answer.”

“But before I could call you and talk to you, you called me. Mrs. Thompson was busy helping God out!”

“So what is this solution?” asked Tom.

“First, let me ask you a question you’re not going to like. Why is it that I see five men before me, but the entire work of the church is being done by the women?”

“What do you mean?” broke in Gerald Adams. “You aren’t suggesting we should have women on the Board of Elders, are you?”

“Well, I work with women on committees in my business all the time, and it works out quite well. But no, I was actually planning to challenge you with something much harder.”

“What is that?” asked Tom.

“I’m challenging you to bring your level of service up to your level of leadership. You will need to work according to Mark 10:44: ‘… whoever will be first among you will be servant of all.’”

“How many of you have visited one of the church shut-ins during the last week?”

“My wife does that,” muttered one man.

“Good for her! But do you think God wants those visits done only by the women? What about Mr. Jefferson. He’s 93 years old, but he can still carry on a pretty good conversation if you pay attention. I went to visit him yesterday, just so I could see what it feels like. I’m sure he appreciates the older ladies of the church bringing him flowers, but he’d really love a conversation with one of you men.”

The business evaluation had been something they could take easily. They knew it all, and this, Vernon was someone they had known as a child. They could pretend to be grading him on his work. Now he was under their skin and it was making them angry.

“I know this is not what you want to hear, but if the men of this church joined the women in visiting people in need, it would make a tremendous difference in this community. More importantly, it would make a tremendous difference to each one of you. Why? Because you would be doing what Jesus told you to!

“But let me ask you another question. How many of you have spoken to someone else about your faith during the last week?” He paused. “Nobody? You are believers. I know you are. You do work out there in the real world. I know you do. So what is the problem? Do you not think the gospel is important?”

“And before you get too angry, let me confess that I didn’t share with anyone either. I can talk about being a backslider at the time, but I still believed; I was just frustrated with the church. I guess I didn’t think it was that important either.”

“So here’s what I’m going to propose. I think you’re angry enough to throw me out of here. But I also know that you’re honest men and that you know your Bibles.”

“I’ll become pastor of this church. But I will do it part time and for no salary. I’ve been supplementing my income by consulting and teaching seminars. I’m going to give that part up. Instead, I’m going to teach right here at this church.”

“But there’s a condition. Every person in this room is going to become a servant along with me. I’m going to operate according to Ephesians 4:11-13. I’m going to equip. You’re going to equip. We’re all going to be teachers. But as we lead we’re also going to be servants.”

“From what I hear you really believe I have been called to do this. I believe I have been called. You wanted a pastor to do all that visiting, to reach the people of the community, and to bring in young people. You’re going to do all that, and I’m going to teach you how.”

“Now you can throw me out, and continue on the path to stagnation and death, or you can choose to answer the call to ministry–as a church.”

Vernon sat there and looked from one to another of the men. He waited for them to respond, to tell him to leave. If they did that, he could go with a clear conscience. But he felt in his heart, more desperately than he had when applying for his first job, the desire to have them say “yes.”

Finally a voice broke the silence. It was Gerald Adams.

“Son,” he said, “you have made me madder than I have been in at least 20 years. I could go whip your butt as a disrespectful, arrogant young pup.” He paused, gathering his thoughts. “Problem is, Jesus did say what you said he did, and you’re right. So mad as I am–and I’m still mad!–I want you to be our pastor.”

It only took moments for the rest of the men to agree. After all, nobody argued with Gerald Adams. Jesus, maybe, but not Gerald.


* In a story dealing with theological issues, no character represents my own view. My short stories are intended to raise and discuss issues, not provide answers to theological questions.

**This story came to me while I was editing The Jesus Paradigm by David Alan Black, just released by my company, but Dr. Black is not to be blamed for my ideas or attitudes.