On Stealing Pastors

We Baptists have a unique system for hiring pastors, unlike our Methodist friends who have a bishop to superintend the process. The current nomenclature is “pastor search committee,” though we used to call them “pulpit committees.”

I’m grateful I was elected a youth rep as a high schooler on our church’s pulpit committee and had some acquaintance with the process from the layman’s side.

Of course, the process has evolved since those days. Our denomination claims the average church seeking a pastor will get at least 60 resumes in the first month. I’m not sure what this means, though it could mean there’s a lot of restlessness among pastors.

A story circulates about a pastor sanctimoniously declaring he’s praying and seeking God’s will about the invitation to move to another church, while his wife is at home packing!

The Baptist system means we send our elected committee to hear, meet and interview a prospective pastor whom we “steal” away from his present church. Then that church elects a committee to go to another church and do the same. Equilibrium is never reached!

I suppose the most interesting experience I had was several years ago when a committee showed up unannounced one morning and invited my wife and me to talk with them after worship. We met through lunch and weren’t offered lunch. I remember only one of their questions. They asked whether she or I had ever been divorced, which was the unpardonable sin amongst pastors, at least in that day.

At the conclusion of the interview the chair announced they’d go home and decide if I was “God’s man.” If I was, he’d call me that week. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t hear from them again and the church would save the cost of a long-distance call. A telephone call in that day was probably 30 cents, so I got an idea of how his church squeezed a nickel. And in this case, they saved their money.

But I do remember other search teams composed of wonderful, God-fearing people who took their task seriously, prayed earnestly and treated me respectfully, as it should be done.

One of these people called me recently to chat. I told him I’d heard about his 90th birthday, and he told me that was a year ago! He assured me of his love and prayers and his wish to drop by sometime and visit our church. It would be a privilege, for knowing him was a great privilege in my life.

The bumblebee, according to the laws of physics, shouldn’t be able to fly, but he does. And our Baptist system doesn’t seem feasible, but God helps us along most of the time.

The Ministry of Letter-Writing

A friend alerted me to author David McCullough’s visit to Montgomery a few years ago, and I was happy to attend the Air University Foundation luncheon with him. McCullough was invited to talk about his recently-published book on the Wright brothers. I’d not know that the Wrights visited Montgomery and established a flying school there when aviation was young.

McCullough won Pulitzers for “Truman” and “John Adams.”

I told Mr. McCullough in the book-signing line that I learned to love John Adams through his book. It’s on my top ten list of all time.

“Oh, what’s not to like about John Adams?” he replied with a smile.

Well, many people didn’t like John Adams. He was our first president not to be reelected, and in such a huff that he went home to Boston the night before his successor’s inauguration. Of course, being president between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would set one up for failure!

McCullough’s book is based largely on letters John and Abigail Adams wrote to each other and kept. These letters reveal wonderful history. I ponder what history this generation is leaving since letter-writing seems to be a thing of the past. Modern students often need to be reminded that formal papers must be written with good grammar and proper capitalization, unlike hastily-sent emails or texts. And many have long forgotten the art of the “bread and butter” note sent to people who’ve done kind things for us.

Christians have been encouraged for some 2000 years through letters written by people of faith. The apostle Paul wrote 13 we have, and at least one we don’t have (Colossians 4:16), addressing specific churches or individuals. Paul may not have known his letters would be part of Holy Scripture or he might not have called the Cretans “lazy gluttons”! (Titus 1:12-13). Eight letters are called general letters because they were written by five men to the church at large.

God chose human authors to write letters to inspire and instruct his church.

A retired physician told me about receiving an unexpected check through the mail. He decided to divide the money as gifts to his five children and, he said, this was a good prompt to write letters to each expressing his love and hopes for them.

Other parents can emulate him. Perhaps we don’t have “mailbox money” to share, but we can share our hearts. And grandparents can also use letters to encourage our grandchildren. And there are plenty of people we know who would benefit from a written word of blessing. I’m convinced many letters will likely be preserved and inspire others long after we, as Hamlet said, “shuffle off this mortal coil.”

Satan's Storeroom

Charles Chandler introduced me to Metropolis, Illinois—the hometown of Superman.

Charles founded the Ministering to Ministers Foundation in the early 90s to offer renewed hope to ministers under stress, including involuntary termination. The number of ministers who face job loss is astounding. I talked with a student pastor lately who was told the church was “moving in a different direction” and he was no longer needed. The pastor put this in a letter and handed it to him just after Christmas, which to me sounded very cowardly. Ministers are often in the same category with football coaches. Growing churches ensure job security, but notable losses bring murmurings.

MTM sponsors Wellness Retreats across the nation for broken ministers. I was able to assist in several of these over the years and was happy to do so.

Charles mentioned that he once portrayed Superman in Metropolis. The city fathers planned a big Superman celebration and privately enlisted him, the Baptist pastor, to be the man of steel.

I persuaded my wife I needed to attend the American Political Items Collectors biennial convention in Springfield, Ill. last summer. After crossing the Ohio River, I saw Metropolis signs, and determined to stop by en route home. Metropolis has a large Superman statue in the square and a museum with every Superman product ever produced.

Most interesting to me was the large barrel of Kryptonite fragments for sale in the museum store. For some reason I bought two or three pieces as mementos. As everyone knows, Kryptonite is the only substance that weakens Superman, so it’s unusual to find it for sale in his hometown!

I’m convinced Satan stocks Kryptonite in his storeroom. Some Christians are vulnerable to the pursuit of money. Some are vulnerable to illicit relationships with the opposite sex. Some have hair-trigger tempers or unguarded speech and leave relationships in disarray. And I’ve known some believers to fall victim to addictions, losing their self-respect and sometimes their careers and families.

God has given us at least two things to help us battle the temptations of life. One is his Holy Spirit. Jesus promised to give his followers the spirit of God after he departed, and the church celebrates this gift on Pentecost. The Apostle Paul declared the Christian’s body is the temple of the spirit who leads us to holy living (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20).

God also gives us his church. A major responsibility in our spiritual family is alerting one another when we fall into questionable practices. Confrontation isn’t usually pleasant, but it’s a godly task when used to restore the fallen. As the military says, “watch my six,” or help me see my blind spots. Christians need this, too.

Falling Out Of Love

Though Alcatraz Island was originally a lighthouse for San Francisco Harbor, it’s better known as the most feared penal colony in American history. Inmates called it “The Rock,” and it was a foreboding place even for my wife and me to visit as tourists several years ago.

The Apostle John was sent to the Alcatraz of his day. Patmos Island was a penal colony for the worst of Rome’s offenders. His crime? Being the apostle of love and preaching a gospel of peace.

Tradition says John as an aged man was pastor of the Ephesian church and constantly walked among the people exhorting them to love one another. He was the St. Valentine of the New Testament.

Like St. Paul before him and John Bunyan after him, John wrote words from prison that yet impact the world. The book of Revelation gave hope to believers suffering under Emperor Domitian, and reminds modern believers that though evil exists, it won’t endure.

John began Revelation with seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey. He addressed the first letter to his former church at Ephesus. He commended them for their ministry, tenacity and commitment to the truth, but he also criticized the church for having “left your first love.” John didn’t explain whether this meant the church had lost their love for God or for one another. Either is sad.

If he meant the former, how strange it sounds that a ministering congregation would serve God for any reason other than our love for him! Jesus warned in Matthew 6 that religious people could give money, pray and fast in order to earn the praise of others, and in so doing, forfeit the praise of God. We must be careful we don’t serve God in order to get praise and commendation from others. As the old hymn says, “winning the smile of God brings its delight.”

But could John have challenged the church because they fell out of love with one another? Sadly, this often happens in the body of Christ. Many have allowed a thoughtless word or deed to separate them from brothers and sisters in the faith and affect their relationship with the church.

Bill was once a parishioner. He stopped me in the parking lot of his business to say he knew he wasn’t the Christian he should be because he hated a man in our church.

“God won’t bless me until I deal with this, will he?” Bill asked.

This was what teen-agers call a “no-brainer.” As John wrote in an earlier letter: “How can you say you love God, whom you can’t see, if you hate your bother whom you know?” (1 John 4:20).