Journey toward intimacy

For years I carefully maintained a well-polished veneer to hide "unministeriike flaws" from my congregation. Then a spontaneous moment of personal sharing from the pulpit started me down a totally new path.

By Ron Flowers, who for many years was a pastor, and is now assistant director of the Home and Family Service of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

I was preaching the eighth of a ten-sermon series on the law of God. I had made what I thought were some perceptive points in defining the precept "Thou shall not steal." Among all the other things we know it to be, stealing is a failure to pay one's debts, robbing another of his or her good reputation by slander or gossip, and taking unfair advantage of another's need. I also noted that concealment of defects and misrepresentation of quality is also a kind of stealing. (I'm sure I didn't bring it out then, but in looking back I can see that this matter of concealment of defects applies also to people when they pretend to be something they are not!) As I continued, I felt impressed to share an experience that until that moment had been unknown to anyone else in my family or congregation. It was a very private thing. At first I resisted the very thought of sharing it. Why, not only were my wife and children present but my mother was visiting! What would she and everyone else think of me? But, finally, at an appropriate juncture, I took the plunge. The entire sanctuary became even more silent than usual as I opened to their view a very painful and a very personal episode in my life.

In my years of pastoral experience, I have stood to preach hundreds of times. Many of these past preaching events have faded in my memory mercifully so in some cases, like the time I completely missed a funeral at which I was supposed to preach! There are a certain few preaching occasions, however, that will forever be displayed with joy and thankfulness in the halls of my remembrance, times when, in the very act of preaching, something significant happened within me, as well as within my congregation. One such exhibit is my sharing of this very personal experience with my people. In retrospect I see it as something of a turning point in my pulpit work and in my total ministry. It was a watershed, for streams of blessings have flowed from it. It was a new focusing of my ministry.

I told of a time during my high school years when I had stolen a needed part for my car. As sins are ranked by men, it had not been, I supposed, a ' 'big" sin, but it had troubled me for years. The memory plagued me through college, followed me into Seminary, and dogged the steps of my ministry. At times in prayer meeting or in my private devotions it would return to haunt me. During vacations at my parents' home, I would occasionally pass the scene of my theft, and conscience would prick particularly hard, but I never could bring myself to face the used-car dealer I had wronged. After all, I was a minister and confession now would appear pretty silly! Besides, I rationalized, the part I pilfered wasn't worth all that much, and the owner himself was not known for his honesty. Hadn't he overcharged for the old car he had palmed off on my father?

But all the veneer with which I tried to cover the thing never seemed thick enough. Finally, in anguish I asked God's forgiveness for stealing and for all the excuses I had made to avoid making the matter right. The next time I was home I forced myself to visit the man and to tell him about it, offering to pay. He was shocked and dumbfounded not so much about the theft, but that I had come and confessed! Needless to say, he refused my offer of payment. I felt a great sense of relief when I left his office. The awful burden was gone, and I was free. Furthermore, I felt a strange closeness to this man whom I had disdained so long. It had been a costly thing to open myself to him, but it was worth it. The mistiness in his eyes as we shook hands was proof of that.

After the sermon, I stood at the rear of the sanctuary as the congregation exited. The response was staggering. They pumped my hand and said they identified with me. They thanked me over and over for the story from my own life. One couple, who were new in town and shopping for a church home, said, "We know now where we want to attend. You're human, just like us."

At home I reflected for a long time on what had happened. I was pleased with the congregational response—not in a heady sort of way, but pleased that they too had grasped for forgiveness of their sins as they had seen me reach out for forgiveness of mine. Of course, I was glad the new couple with their children would be attending our church, but I confess that I wasn't so sure that I really wanted to be "human" just like all the rest. After all, aren't ministers supposed to be examples to "ordinary" Christians, to be godly, pious persons living in a world of sinners, but not of that world?

Well secluded within me, usually out of range of my own perception, lay the fact that I was human, just like the rest, but sadly I had come to believe and act as though a minister must under no circumstances ever reveal that fact. "If a man has weaknesses, fears, doubts, if he is in fact a sinner in every sense," I had asked myself, "how can he lead? How can he speak about righteous living and summon his congregation to higher planes of spiritual life?" I had always wanted, since the first sense of God's calling, to be a minister and to take my place among the best. But my pursuit of what I envisioned as the ideal had led me more and more to board up rooms within me. I sealed off from others whole chapters of my life (a minister wouldn't tell that!), many of the personal experiences that I was having (ministers' lives are more holy than that!), wide-ranging emotions (ministers don't laugh much, and they certainly don't get depressed!), doubts and fears (ministers don't have those!). On the outside I would present only that which measured up to my image of a "good" minister. Of course I paid a price. There was a stagnant air of artificiality about my ministry that kept people from knowing me and (as I later came to realize) prevented me from truly knowing them.

From that spontaneous, almost involuntary, moment of personal sharing in a sermon a deeper understanding of pastoral ministry began coming to me. I wasn't sure what had shaped my present attitude—culture, training, faulty theology, or just stubborn aloofness—but I had to admit that I had never shared openly and honestly from my personal pilgrimage and from those inner rooms. Cautiously, timidly, I worked at opening my own life and experience in my preaching and personal work. Important things began to happen. I felt better about myself and I felt more deeply involved with those to whom I ministered. I was trusting them with the real me, and they were accepting me, showing me love! I loved them even more in return. Over a period of time, I watched something equally thrilling happening in the lives of many in my congregation. Sensing somehow that I too had struggles, conflicts, pain, and doubts in the Christian life, they became more honest, open, and comfortable with me and more relaxed with themselves. Together we trusted in the righteousness of Christ for our assurance of worth, for our joy, and for our victories. Together we waded into "deeper waters" in our relationships as a church body, opening ourselves further to one another in small-group fellowship. We found a similar experience with the community around us. Our marriage and family relationships were strengthened.

There is no doubt in my mind that the church is God's medium to convey truth and sound doctrine to a fallen world. But too often as ministers we define our role as being spokesmen for this truth and sound doctrine, charged with the responsibility of informing the ignorant and continually reminding those who supposedly already know. Many a minister has toiled manfully at this task, but often at the cost of great frustration and not a little sense of futility. The church, however, is to be something more than the vehicle of truth, as important as that is; and the minister is to be something more than an expounder of doctrine, as vital as that is. There is some thing that every worshiper, every parishioner, is searching for be they well-established, regular-attending church officers and members, or be they the bewildered, the aged, the divorced, or the youth on the fringes of the church. Students of human behavior call this sought-after quality intimacy. It is another word for deep personal relationships.

Too often we think of intimacy only in a sexual context. For married couples it has that dimension, but we need to think of intimacy also as being fully known, fully accepted, and fully loved—the intimacy of true friendship. From cover to cover, the Word of God speaks of broken relationships and of God's plan to restore the deep personal relationship between Himself and humanity, and among human beings themselves. The church is to be the family, the nest, where this kind of intimacy can be found and experienced. I feel that the early church knew this kind of intimacy with one another and were largely devoid of the cultural taboos that so often cause us to present facades to one another. Keeping our best foot forward dictates that we be satisfied with mere casual acquaintances when we might know the warmth, the support, and the encouragement of deep sharing relationships.

The minister, preacher, or pastor who will launch out to become not only an expounder of truth and doctrine but a facilitator and developer of relationships will find himself in excellent company. Time after time Jesus became intimate in this way with people such as Zacchaeus, the woman at the well, and Levi Matthew. It was risky, but Jesus took the risk, and amazing were the relationships that were cultivated and flourished. Of course, there were those then, as now, who felt that "familiarity breeds contempt." In some cases it does. Those who are so locked into themselves that they cannot become vulnerable before others or come close to other people resent those who can and do especially those in positions like the pastorate.

Perhaps we need to reexamine our presuppositions about church leadership. Peter resisted Jesus' attempt to perform an act of humble service for him—the washing of his feet. But Jesus' response shows the premium He placed on this kind of open sharing and intimacy: " 'If I do not wash you,. . . you are not in fellowship with me'" (John 13:8, N.E.B.) .* To Peter's credit, he was willing to lay aside some of the barriers to fellowship that were part of his past and enter into a deeper experience with the Lord.

The minister who opens himself takes the chance of being misunderstood. His willingness to share honestly that which lives within him may be exploited; he may be perceived as weak, perhaps even judged as being morally unfit for office. It is not a risk that a military commander would take, nor a leader of a secular government or corporation. In those areas, authority, power, and control are at stake, and a very definite distance and separateness is maintained between the leader and the led. But the risk of intimacy may be taken by the leaders of God's people, for our responsibilities are different (see Matt. 20:25-27). When we take seriously the Biblical notion of servant leadership, we will find deep feelings of friendship and compassion emerging between us and our people. The church program will suddenly operate much more smoothly, and sinners will be drawn magnetically to such a theater of grace.

Intimacy with our people does not mean to introduce a low-level coarseness, joviality, commonness, or a reduced standard among ministers. Quite the contrary. The ordained one has a sacred obligation to maintain the dignity and integrity appropriate to his calling. What is important is to realize and to show to the people to whom we minister that we stand on level ground with them as far as our need for sanctification is concerned. We need to identify with the people and allow them to identify with us as did Ezekiel: "I sat where they sat, and remained there astonished among them" (Eze. 3:15).

Accusations of phoniness, hypocrisy, and aloofness have been too often leveled at the ministry, and too often with some justification. Let us raise the standard so that our people perceive us as honest, trustworthy, and deeply spiritual leaders. But let them also see us as individuals wrestling mightily against the same foe as they do. Let us reach out and say, "Come, brother, sister, let us link our arms together as we reach Heaven ward."

David, Hosea, Paul, and others opened their lives for us to see, else we should never have had certain insights into how God works in homes and marriages, with the emotions, and in the midst of conflicts, doubts, and fears of real people. We learn much about close relationships from these and other Bible personalities whose lives are portrayed so forthrightly. We know all about them, love them just the same, and respect them all the more.

If the church today is to grow and flourish as it did in yesteryear, its shepherds must take a cue from the shepherds of God's people in times past. Walking in the footsteps of the Chief Shepherd, they led, not drove, the flock. They exhorted them, but they walked with them. The strength of their leadership lay in their close relationships. We too may find a key to a more fulfilled ministry in self-disclosure the willingness to risk intimacy with the people we seek to lead.

* From The New English Bible.© The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1961, 1970. Reprinted by permission.

 

 


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By Ron Flowers, who for many years was a pastor, and is now assistant director of the Home and Family Service of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

April 1981

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