“I have nourished and brought up children and they have rebelled against me….” (Isaiah 1:2)
The pastor loves that family and longs for them to do well. Their children are so fine and exhibit incredible potential. He knows their names. He prays for them, encourages them, and goes out of his way to support them. And they seem to respond. They flourish spiritually and seem to love the Lord, love their church, and love him. And then…
One day, they up and leave.
The pastor is told, “They’ve joined that new startup church down the highway. The one where the pastor is so critical of us and our denomination.”
He never hears a word. They just disappear from his radar and he never sees them again.
It’s not that they stabbed him in the back. They did not pull a Judas and betray him. They just walked away with nary a word.
No one but another pastor knows how that hurts.
My son and his family moved to Mobile from the New Orleans area home where they lived for the previous 22 years. They loved their church and their Sunday School class. Neil had coached the men’s softball team for nearly a quarter century. So, a few weeks after getting into their new home, their Sunday School class drove over to visit one Saturday afternoon. Bear in mind that it’s 150 miles each way and the entire class made the trip. Then, a few weekends after, Neil and Julie returned the favor and attended a backyard cookout with their old Sunday School class. On Sunday morning, they sat in their class and attended worship before returning home.
I told them, “One of many things I admire in you is how you keep your friends.”
A pastor cannot do what they did–visiting friends back and forth. We stay at a church for years, and in the natural course of events have wonderful friends and close buddies. And when God sends us to another church, we move on. If friends come to visit us, that’s one thing. But we cannot keep running back to see them.
In time my children joined a church in Mobile and they are extremely active in it. Julie is the pastor’s administrative assistant and Neil is a deacon who sometimes teaches a Bible class. They have a world of friends in the new church.
The lady came up to me at a funeral. “Remember me?”
She was beaming. Like maybe we were long lost cousins.
She had to tell me her name, and then I remembered.
Oh, man. I remembered everything.
Me: “Are you still nursing?”
She: “I just retired.”
Two decades earlier, she had struggled through nursing school.
She had been older than the other students. Her children were in high school and she finally had the time to pursue the degree she had longed for. So, she enrolled in a local nursing school and dived in. Soon, she was in over her head.
She said, “I still have the notes you wrote me with scriptures. And the prayers you wrote out.”
She was beaming. I remembered. Back then, she would sometimes call to ask for my prayers. So, I did what a faithful pastor would do, I thought. I prayed and sometimes dropped her a note of encouragement. I was so proud of her when she graduated.
Clearly, after 20 years if she still had those things, she had appreciated my efforts to support her during a most stressful time.
I wished her well and she went on her way.
I could not ask the question that has nagged at me for these twenty years. “What happened?”
Back then, immediately after she graduated and began work as a nurse, her family disappeared from our church. Then we received a “request for church letter” from the nearest church of our denomination two miles up the road.
Never one word of explanation. Nothing.
Being human, I wondered if I’d done something wrong, if they were upset. Had they interpreted my notes wrongly? There is no way to ever know.
But I will not ask. And I didn’t ask her this time.
Now, lest someone think I lie awake at night obsessing about this, let me ease your mind. I do not. It’s just an example of the hundreds of little pains and puzzles which life hands a pastor for which he never gets an answer.
Novelists say no loose ends can ever be left dangling. Readers want everything to come together. In life, however, reality hands us ten thousand loose ends.
–Someone prays for us and recommends us to a church somewhere. God uses that and we move there and everything in our life changes. And there is the other side of that coin: Some anonymous person calls the chairman of deacons of that church which has been considering you–to which you feel a strong pull from the Lord–and blackballs you. You never learn the names of either the benefactor or the malefactor. There is nothing to be done. You give the matter to the Lord and move on.
It’s His work and you are His child. He will sort it all out in time.
–You lead that couple to the Lord and they flourish in Him. Then, through a series of painful events in the church, your ministry is abruptly terminated. Your family is reeling and friends like that young couple are left dazed, wondering what just happened. And you move away. In time, you begin pastoring again. Your heart hurts for that precious young husband and wife whom you miss like you would your own children. And there is not one thing you can do about it. (And yes, this happened to me. The day they joined the church I had to quietly tell them I would be resigning at the end of this service. They were stunned.)
–Anonymous notes arrive in the mail. Someone accuses you unjustly. But because the note was unsigned, you have no way to respond with the facts. You dare not address the matter in public lest you create more suspicion in the minds of the unhealthy.
My cousin in Richmond presented me with a little collection of letters. “I was cleaning out a file and found your letters to me from 25-30 years ago,” she said. They’re fascinating to read, particularly because they deal with a painful period when I was struggling to pastor a church that didn’t want to be pastored. One letter in particular stood out. I had written to her…
I got three anonymous letters this week. My record, I think. The one today, Saturday, was regarding a breakfast we provided yesterday fro the Housing Authority’s scholarship committee. 200 people attended, most of them black. Their speaker was a representative of the Coors (beer) Company. I eavesdropped on the meeting. He bragged on the volunteers for helping the underprivileged. The letter I received is a clipping of the news article underlining that he is speaking here and that he works for Coors. The note tells how ashamed the writer is of me. The first I even knew of the meeting was a week ago. All I could do was laugh.
By its very nature, you cannot answer an anonymous letter. And only on rare occasions do you share them with anyone else. They are mean and cowardly, but they do their deadly work.
Pray for your pastor. You have no idea what he has to deal with on a daily basis. You would be surprised to know that he actually sheds tears, sometimes cries his heart out. But he does so in private. Only the Lord–and sometimes his wife–knows.
God bless our shepherds and be their strength.