When I trained to be a pastor, no one taught me how to fight. And as far as I know, not much has been written about it either. It was as though pastors didn't fight. At the time, this misperception didn't appear strange. All the ministers I had known were the epitome of patience and cooperation. It would have been almost impossible for me to picture an angry, unkind, or vengeful pastor. They were saints!
And so, unarmed, unprotected, and very vulnerable, I entered the Lord's army. Feelings of inadequacy dogged my heels, but I believed righteousness would always prevail. Although I wanted desperately to be the Lord's most courageous champion, I doubted I could ever attain such a lofty post. No ministerial intern is fully prepared to take up the Lord's banner, and I was no exception. I comforted myself with the thought that my colleagues would be supportive, sensitive, and helpful.
My training had warned and prepared me for conflict with parishioners, and I accepted that. But conflict with my fellow ministers hadn't entered my mind. For years I felt a terrible feeling of loneliness at workers' meetings. Ministers either live behind a wall of pretense, group together in tight cliques for survival, or are just plain lonely. The absence of a spirit of camaraderie is painful for a young minister. During those early years church leaders and speakers easily intimidated me. And of course, there was the usual tension and mistrust between conference leadership and pastors.
One of the first tasks assigned me was to conduct a last-day events seminar during the midweek service. I invested much time and effort researching my facts. In those days we studied every thing Ellen White wrote on the subject for any inflection that might give a clue to placing the events in their proper order. To make my presentation as clear as possible, I made fluorescent card board signs for each event. These I put up in sequential order on a black felt board under ultra violet light. It was something to see.
All went well until we approached the "little time of trouble." Suddenly another minister on the staff sprang to his feet to challenge my order. What shocked me the most was not him merely questioning the order, but that he was challenging my character for not placing the event where he knew it ought to be! Over the years I have forgotten the specifics of his argument, but not his attack. I can remember the hurt caused by some one from my own ranks stabbing me in public. It was a shock not easily over come.
Eventually I recovered, and I shall never forget how my senior pastor handled the situation. He refused to take sides. Instead, he just poured oil over the troubled waters, and sure enough, they quieted down. There didn't seem to be any limit on the amount of oil that man had in his reservoir.
The healing oil
The lesson of the oil carried me through the next few years. I used it when angry mothers attacked me for making a Halloween haunted house too real. They were right and I was wrong, and oil smoothed those waters, too. Once a pastor friend whom I respected and admired stopped me while coming down a flight of stairs. He poked his finger into my chest and told me that "ministers shouldn't wear tie tacks." In those days they were popular and less noticeable than tie clips. I listened, and when he was done, simply removed the tack and placed it in my pocket. If it offended him, I didn't want to wear it. I haven't worn one since. Battling over such a small item didn't make much sense. And besides, tacks ruined my ties. I was trying to learn how to live at peace with the brethren. What seemed to work was to have a huge reserve of oil handy to smooth over conflicts, to learn to be a people lover.
It wasn't long until I was assigned my first solo post. It seemed that all I had going for me was my sincerity and dedication. To these God added His blessing, and the churches that I pastored grew. We were in a building improvement program, the school was prospering, and evangelism was on. Yet some in the congregation had history of low-level bickering with the pastor. They had just driven out one of the most saintly pastors I have ever known. But I thought that if I just kept the oil flowing and kept smiling I would be able to keep things at least polite.
Without warning the news came: the conference was assigning my territory to a senior pastor, and I was now to work under him. Furthermore, there was some question about my upcoming ordination. A new president had come to the field and had quickly formed opinions about me before even meeting me. My whole career was hanging on a thread that was fraying fast. Surely I could straighten it out by talking to the president. Phoning him failed to settle the issue. I decided to take a trip to the conference office to visit him person ally. I expected at least a fair hearing. Instead, I experienced an iceberg wrapped in a ribbon of smiles!
Those were the most miserable days of my life. I was convinced there was no future for me in the ministry. And I was helpless to do anything about it. But God hadn't abandoned me! The new senior pastor and his wife were sensitive to our feelings and opened up their hearts and home to us. I spent literally hundreds of hours with him, talking out my pain. He applied holy oil to my heart. Eventually I was healed, my hope restored, and my vision rekindled, but only because of this wonderful man and his wife. Through his intercession I was ordained.
After more than 20 years in the ministry, the awe once associated with pastoral service wanes. I've seen actions taken toward ministers that could only be described as cruel. Place a sword of righteousness in certain hands, and a butcher is born. One Sunday my heart went out to a conference president who was voted out of office that day. He opened the meeting with smiles and fled in tears. How that man endured that pain and still returned to the ministry only God knows. But I admire him for it.
What should a minister do when someone in the congregation or conference administration advises an action contrary to policy or conscience? How do we tell a conference president that church policy is not made by any one individual, but by the General Conference in session? How do we handle situations with potential for interpersonal conflicts? Convictions and circumstances at times may demand a bold stand, but it is not always easy to argue with a conference president or a prominent member. Ministers need help in these areas. Where do ministers learn about creative tensions in problem-solving?
Kind and firm
I am no longer the idealistic young pastor I once was. The years have forced me to see that oil and kindness are not the only traits a minister needs. There are situations that demand courage and the ability to speak up and be counted. The church can ill afford timid ministers. Ellen White's classic statement is just as true for pastors as others. "The greatest want of the world is the want of men—men who will not be bought or sold, men who in their inmost souls are true and honest, men who do not fear to call sin by its right name, men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole, men who will stand for the right though the heavens fall" (Education, p. 57). Our church must begin to foster such persons in the ministry, persons who know how to be gentle and strong at the same time. But how do we do it? Where do we begin? Who will be the first to break the ground? And how will the rest respond?
I once worked with a pastor who illustrated the tragedy of ministering with a survival mentality. He was near retirement and had learned his survival skills well. While I say I knew him, I really didn't. He had learned to hide his true self. He could dodge and parry as deftly as a fencing champion. All the while he was carefully studying you to see if you were "safe" to talk to. As soon as retirement came, however, he threw aside a lifetime of pretense and left the church. He officially didn't leave; he just left physically and emotionally. The smiles and politeness could no longer hold back the years of bitterness and loneliness.
I tried everything I knew to win back this wounded man, but to no avail. He could feel at home with only those who shared the same paranoia. Those years of pretense and the absence of freedom to express his opinion had destroyed trust—the very heart of human and spiritual relationships. What good are words and actions without trust? Unable to share his inmost thoughts, this man took to labeling people, judging them with out benefit of clarification from them. He became impaled on his own sword because he never learned how to use it properly.
Studies reveal our youth face similar problems: they do not feel free to think for themselves in our schools and churches; they view our church not as a place of acceptance, but as one of control. If we cannot change that, how do we expect to win them through indoctrination? And if we do win them, will they in turn become like my ministerial friend?
The church I serve is crying for champions, men and women who can move the gates of this great church for the Lord. The Lord's champions need both holy oil and fiery swords. Up until now swords have had to be checked at the door before entering church. How ever, pastors and church members can not function without both. To wield the sword without compassion makes one a butcher. To be only compassionate yields the gall of bitterness and loneliness. To be proficient in both is a divine art. Both demand total devotion and transparent authenticity. Sometimes I've wished to take up just one and leave the other behind. But God would not claim that type of warrior as His own.
Over the years I have seen ministers with this holy oil and fiery sword, though entirely too few. When young ministers enter the ministry they dream of doing bold things for the Lord. What is it that drains the holy oil of compassion right out of them? Are Seventh-day Adventist pastors kept from having swords be cause we are afraid of what they might do with them? Are we afraid the battle will get out of our control if we allowed the field officers the privilege of command? Who knows where they will strike? Maybe the greatest enemy is ourselves. We don't want to train warriors for fear they may someday attack us.
I entered the ministry thinking I would never need to fight. But I know now that if I don't fight, Satan and his hosts will destroy all I care about. The sword I shunned is still awaiting its champion. If I pick it up, what will become of the cruse of oil I have been carrying these many years?
Holy oil and fiery swords—can we afford them? Can we afford to be with out them?