The Next Faithful Step

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Putting People First

A Pastor's Reflection

I will always remember reading Karl Barth’s opinion that church boards should “see to it that only sermons that have been diligently prepared be presented from the pulpit.” It is a frightening prospect. Imagine a board, council, or session (whatever a church’s particular polity demands) telling the pastor, “I’m sorry, pastor, but you have not given nearly enough attention to this sermon. This simply cannot be preached from the pulpit this morning.” Of course we can foresee all sorts of problems that this might raise. But I do like the sentiment. What Barth is warning against is the “busy pastor.” This is the pastor who is too busy going about the “work” of the pastorate to give due attention to what the pastor is ultimately supposed to be about. For Barth, this pastor’s “industriousness” is in reality “indolence.”

Some pastors wear their busyness as a badge of honor, as if the less time they have clearly the more dedicated minister they are. Others use this sort of industriousness as a defense mechanism. After all, who would dare complain about the poor pastor who is always stretched so thin from faithfully doing the work of the church? Still others truly have the best of intentions, but just can’t seem to get out from under their calendar.

Whatever the case, this idea of the busy pastor consistently reminds me of Jesus’ words about the sabbath. Challenged by those who have caught him caring for his disciples by allowing them to pick grain to feed themselves on the holy day, Jesus responds, “The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). I think there is a word here for the “industrious” pastor. Calendars are made for people, not people for calendars. This may sound trite next to Jesus’ words about the sabbath and his lordship over it. But I think there is a smaller yet still profound truth here. Might people get lost in the things we believe we are doing for them? This is in no way intended to minimize the value and importance of the daily work and details of getting church work done and done well. Things have to get done. But are the things we do working toward Jesus’ intention that people “might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10)? Can we avoid neglecting our responsibilities and at the same time commit ourselves to, in all things, work toward abundant life over and against, say, efficient church?

I am the defensive pastor. I would like to be seen as busy, basically so that no one will be upset with me. I am dutifully doing so much work… please don’t complain. But this fearful, defensive stance can and does easily get in the way of cooperating in the abundant life that the Spirit is brining about in the people I am called to serve. I hate to think how many times I may not have been there for people because I wanted to be seen as working at doing something for them. I don’t know how the other industrious pastors—those who wear their busyness as a badge of honor and those who are generally well-intentioned—find themselves putting tasks above people, but I think Barth is right in that so often our “industriousness” is really “indolence.” After all, as important a divine gift as the developed Church structures have been throughout history in aiding the Church in doing its work, these developments came later. The Gospel for the world came first.

So where does this leave us with Barth’s vision of the church board monitoring the pastor’s sermon preparation and ensuring adequate time has been put in to the proclamation? This would seem to give us the impression that preaching comes before people. The truth is that, for Barth, this might have been true. I have my doubts, though. After all it was Barth who committed himself to regularly preaching at the local prison. For a world famous theologian (arguably the most important of the twentieth century), committing to brining the word on a regular basis to people who had little to no idea of or appreciation for the caliber of preacher/thinker/churchman in the pulpit hardly seems like putting people in anything less than a primary position.

But enough about Barth. I have no idea how he might have managed prioritizing people and preaching. But I do know that for me it has continually been a juggling act. It is difficult to have two number one priorities. In fact, logically it is supposed to be impossible. But for me, preaching and people are both of first importance. And this sets the stage for periodic conflict.

My calendar always looked so promising. But as a pastor, a calendar is often more theory than reality. I would study on Tuesday, reflect on the passage throughout the week, and write on Friday. Sounded good. I can’t recall, however, ever finishing a sermon on a Friday. My second week at the church should have clued me in to what reality would be like.

I was stressed out starting this new job with so many new responsibilities and so many hopeful people watching and waiting. It was Tuesday and I simply needed to get out of the office. And so I decided to drive home (I lived about fifteen or twenty miles away from the church for the first few months that I served that particular congregation) and begin preparing for my sermon for that week.

I got home glad to be in a more known, comfortable, and safe environment. The phone started ringing literally as I was unlocking the door. Someone had just died. This was a nightmare. All I wanted to do was prepare the word for the week and now this. More, the gentleman who had died did not even attend the church. His wife attended and I had not met her yet. (It also turned out that he had been not so gentle of a gentleman, but that is another story.) Clearly not much studying was going to get done. And to make matters worse, I soon discovered that the family was wanting to hold the service (which was going to be a joint service with the local Freemasons—again a whole other story) on Friday afternoon. My calendar never looked so theoretical and it was only my second week! Added to the regular comings and goings of the week, which were stressful for me as a new pastor, was now figuring out my first funeral and writing a second sermon for the funeral service. I was having a hard enough time getting the first one attended to.

Fortunately, that week was more of a caricature than characteristic. But the power of caricatures is that they bring to light often harsh realities. And the reality throughout my time as pastor of that small congregation was that having two number one priorities was difficult—but, for me, necessary.

I don’t remember how I got everything done that week, but I did and everything was fine. I imagine I don’t remember because there is nothing particularly special or memorable about plain stick-to-itiveness. And that is how the conflict been the priorities of preaching and putting people first generally played out for me. I clearly remember many Saturdays on the sofa with my computer, this being the first time I was able to sit down and begin writing what I had been preparing for. So much for Friday writing day. Running out of time I remember telling myself, “I’m not going to get up or stop typing until the sermon is done.”  And I did it. And I did it because of an unwillingness to relieve the conflict between priorities by sacrificing one in favor of the other.

I thought that my first sermons were going to set the tone and direction of my ministry in that congregation. They did. But so did my commitment to put people first. It made for some stressful weeks at times (many times, actually), but in the long run it made my ministry there easier. The people I put first often heard my sermons more clearly. And my sermons were better nuanced because I knew who I was preaching to. And I was better for it, too.