Goodbye Grace, or Good By Grace?

Build Up  Twenty Years ago today on July 17, a Sunday, (a week after I was installed as pastor in my first church) I preached my first Sunday morning sermon as an ordained pastor.

I had already conducted a funeral service on Saturday a week earlier, the day before I was “officially” installed. I had also preached many sermons at the Seminary, in a field work congregation, vicarage congregation, a couple of mission festivals and various places for pulpit supply. But, this was the first official Sunday morning worship where I was the pastor of the congregation and leading the whole shebang (really surprised that word passed spell check).

The text was Ephesians 2:4-10, the title of the sermon was “Grace, Grace and more Grace.” Over the last 20 years I have relied on that grace and yet still felt lost at times. In the Seminary there was a professor who said if you are ever struggling or questioning your Call, you should look at your Call documents and remember your ordination. I’ve preferred to look at my Bible and remember my baptism. Still, among the many joys of ministry, there are many times when a pastor may question their Call.

I’ve spoken with hundreds of pastors over the years and heard the issues that plague them and their ministries. The frustrations are many and that can’t help but create dissatisfaction for the pastor. Being “on –call” 24/7. Dealing with people who only attend worship half (or less) of the time. Knowing people do not financially support the ministry as they could and recognizing the great needs that can’t be addressed because of the lack of funds. Knowing some folks place more value on sports, sleeping and a host of other things than worship. Getting lots of criticism, but not support. Sacrificing family for the sake of the congregation by missing events, days off and vacation time because of needs in the church. The list goes on. Pastors often do not get the grace back that they send out.

Some pastors face not having someone they can confide in. They can’t talk about all the stresses of the ministry with the people of their own congregation, so they may feel alone in dealing with things. Pastors face a balance between being the pastor of church members and having them as “close” friends, and the conflicts that arise because of that.

I’ve known pastors who were so burned out they left the ministry, some have just wasted away in their congregation, some have fallen into infidelity. Some churches have unrealistic expectations of the pastors. For some, no matter the problem, it all comes back to being the pastor’s fault. Some churches have dismissed their pastors, actually fired them. People should remember the church doesn’t grow or falter because of the actions of one person. All the members of the church are part of the body as it functions for Christ. People need to be the heart, feet and hands of the church, not just the finger to point at others.

Back to my first sermon, in the time since then I have written some 1200 sermons, counting weddings, funerals, special services and events. Many sermons received compliments, several received criticisms, and a few I have been told really made a difference in someone’s life. Well, for all those sermons, and the twice as many services where they were delivered, no they didn’t. God’s grace makes a difference and being under that grace and staying connected to the church family makes a difference. But, if people will not live in their baptismal grace and work together as the body of Christ, instead choosing to participate when it’s convenient or tearing down instead of building up the church the ministry and the ministers will continue to fall. The sermons are good reminders and fuel, but it’s the Spirit of God and His grace that moves us along.

For the parishioner and the pastor, God says, “My grace is sufficient.” If anyone should understand that, it should be the pastor. And yet sometimes they don’t because they are as human and sinful as everyone else. We need to encourage our pastors. We need to be a part of the ministries where we pledged our support and participation. We need to work together not in opposite directions. We need to stand together not play a game of Red Rover and call people to one side or another.

Twenty years later I’m still preaching about grace, grace and more grace. I encourage other pastors with the same. I hope congregations are living in that grace and showing it to their pastors who need their support and cooperation in the mission and ministry of the church. The Bible says “the worker deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7), but that’s just one aspect of how the members of a congregation may bless their pastor as he seeks to bless them in continually speaking God’s message of grace. Prayer, faithful attendance in worship and Bible study, tithing, volunteering in service, participating in the ministry, inviting folks to church are all good as well

If I’m still in the ministry in 20 more years, I hope that the message God has given me has not grown stale in people’s hearts or mine. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.”

Pastor’s, keep preaching it and living under it. It’s as much for you as for the people to whom you proclaim it. “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Rom. 10:15) Look at your Bible and remember your baptism.

Everyone else (non pastors), keep listening to it and showing it makes a difference in your life. “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22) Read your Bible and listen to the message of grace that the pastor proclaims.

“And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” (Acts 20:32)

By grace,

Bill

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