There you are, sitting in the speaker's chair on the platform, with a stiffly self- conscious elder on either side of you. You look like a nice person. We're glad you're here, and we hope you like us.
I don't want to add to your already-burdened shoulders, but I've got some things I wish to say to you. You've already driven 75 miles to get here this morning, and as soon as your sermon is done you'll shake a few hands and speed toward an early-afternoon service 50 miles farther down the road.
By the time this large, sprawling district lets you spend enough time with us so we really start knowing you, and before you get a call to greener pastures, here's what I would like to say to you while you're still fresh in the saddle.
You're a stranger to us
It's more important than you think. We're off the beaten track here. We don't have a lot of practice dealing with strangers. You're probably the first new person through our doors in what? Six or seven months? So you'll find most of us cautiously polite while we learn about you. You may feel like an outsider for a while, but bear with us.
There are a couple ways you can help move us more rapidly through this period.
Tell us about yourself. True stories. Tell us where you grew up. Were you a farm kid or a city kid? Describe your childhood home and tell us what your parents were like. Tell us about your hobbies then and now.
I'm not saying make your entire sermon a string of autobiographical adventures, but right now you're like one of those life-size cardboard celebrity photographs people stand beside to get their pictures taken. The quicker you tell us who you are, the quicker the "card board you" will disappear. The more human we think you are, the quicker we will tell you our stories, if you care to listen to them.
Assume we mean well. You don't know Grandma Growl yet, but trust me, you will. That's her across the aisle, giving you a penetrating gaze. (Don't call her Grandma Growl, of course, and if it slips out, don't tell her where you heard the nickname.)
Grandma Growl rules the organization she still insists on calling "Dorcas." Her deep concern for the poor is lacerated regularly by the cynical knowledge that every third client is probably "working the system." All this internal pressure doesn't always make her a pleasant person. Grandma can't stand change. She's seen fads, including earnest, whirlwind-change-stirring pas tors, quickly come and go. She's convinced that change often signals erosion of principle, that first lurch down the slippery slope.
But if you'll just listen to some of Grandma's stories and deep concerns, and try to see things from her point of view, in a couple years she'll be your most loyal backer and cry like a baby when you have to leave.
Because she cares, she cares fiercely and uncompromisingly. We all care, in our way. Otherwise we wouldn't be here any more. And if you show us that you care too, you'll find that as we watch you and how you care, the way you care will begin to rub off on us.
We wonder why you're here
I mean, get real. Nobody begs the conference for this district. So (a) you're very inexperienced and we're supposed to train you; (b) you're entering the ministry after coming from another career, and we're your launching pad; (c) you're within a few months of retirement and this was the only place they could find for you; or (d) forgive my frankness, but you've been a bad boy or girl some where else and you're starting over here.
One thing we are sure of: if you're like our previous pastors, the very instant you get a sniff at something better, you're outta here, maybe to a two-church district, or maybe a plum single-churcher. And of course, we don't blame you you've got your career to think about. But again, there are a couple things you can do to help defuse our cynicism.
Promise us a specific time period. If you can solemnly vow you'll stay with us three years or maybe four, this will give us a deep sense of encouragement. Time and again we've come to the place where we've just begun to see those humorous chunks of humanness in our pastor and have dared to let ourselves begin to love him or her when we hear by the grapevine that the following Sabbath is his or her last.
We've seen our church program just be gin to gather momentum and enthusiasm only to be swept out of the way to make room for someone else with a different personality and set of skills.
Turn down a couple calls while you re here. And let word of those refusals get out. That will refresh us like watered flowers. You re fused a better offer because you like us! And I can promise you one thing the longer you stay here (assuming we're both willing to work on the relationship), the more you will be loved and respected.
Tell us why you love us. We've had precious little positive feedback about our selves. Nobody ever sent a Mission Spotlight team out our way to talk about our exploding growth. Rather than encouraging us, it seems as though the conference is always riding us about goals we never had a hand in setting.
Give us a pat on the back once in a while. One single, solitary personal note from you, written in your own handwriting (even though you claim it's wretchedly unread able), will earn you a place in our hearts. A relaxed, lean-back-on-the-couch, non-fundraising visit (call ahead first, please, so we can show you our best side) can charge our spiritual batteries for weeks.
We're rather discouraged about our role in the remnant
Evangelists have conditioned us to believe that Jesus' coming is right around the corner. If that's true, we ought to be grabbing friends and relatives by the wrist and hauling them to church every week. But we're not. We're proud of our faith and ashamed of it at the same time. Our last evangelistic series, six years ago, brought in a beautiful young family that has now moved across the state, and a woman who's now living in a halfway house for the developmentally disabled. People who've lived out here a long time (normal people, anyway) don't change affiliations very quickly.
And you need to remember that church really isn't a huge part of our lives. We're not a large congregation with something happening every night. Basically, church for us is 9:30 to noon on Sabbaths, and for six or seven diehards, prayer meeting.
Tell us true, recent, and as-local-as-possible stories about how the church at large is going forward. Be our grapevine for good things that are happening in the big church in the state capital. Tell us the latest news about the thrilling radio ministry that several physicians are sponsoring in the next state. Keep us posted on the evangelistic explosion among migrant workers. And please don't tell us these stories merely to "guilt" us into getting our own program going. Even though such stories aren't quite as thrilling as if they were happening to us, they might just spark a flame of creativity in our own hearts someday.
Remember to cherish Mary Ann and the Jensens
I mentioned Grandma Growl earlier. Mary Ann and the Jensens also work hard and care a lot but best of all, they're happy Christians.
Mary Ann teaches our one adult class and spends as much time preparing for the 17 who attend as she would if the class were 300 strong. She encourages class discussion and keeps us going with her humorous comments and questions.
The Jensens are quieter, but just as friendly. They don't toot their own horn, but you will notice that somehow the church budget is always met at the end of the month. And you'll probably never know how many potlucks Mrs. Jensen has saved with her three casseroles or how many kids' boarding academy tuition they helped pay.
I've got a few suggestions for cherishing these saints of God.
Lavish attention on them. Behind her quirky smile, Mary Ann is struggling with some of the same theological issues your professors guided you safely through back in the seminary. Once she thinks she can trust you, she'll ask you about them, and she will gasp with relief as you explain the reasons you still believe.
And the self-sacrificing Jensens need to be earnestly and regularly thanked. Write them notes every time you hear of some benevolence they've bestowed. Spend time with them too. They, like Mary Ann and Grandma Growl, are your disciples.
Back our dreams. Don't let us fool you. At first we'll give you the impression that we want you to come up with all the programs. Maybe a few of us even believe that. But what you need to do is get us all together formally for a visioning session or informally after a church potluck and ask us what dreams we have for our community.
We will watch you cautiously for a while to see if you're serious or whether you're just going through the formality of asking us our opinions before you launch your own care fully crafted plans in our direction. But if we sense you really mean it, we'll step forward cautiously and offer our views. And then if you stay out of the way, we will catch fire, and you will not be able to extinguish us!
So welcome, Pastor. Glad you're here. I'll be praying!