The best pastor I know

In a society that lauds the large-church pastor, you will read a tribute to small-church pastors who fulfill their duties with equal fidelity.

Loren Seibold, D.Min., is pastor of the Worthington Seventh-day Adventist Church, Worthington, Ohio, United States.

I won’t tell you his name. And knowing him as I do, I’m quite certain he won’t recognize himself in this camouflaged description. Among his other good qualities, he’s humble.

The best pastor I know lives in a small town. He pastors several small churches some distance apart. I attended church with him recently, but I must admit, I didn’t find the experience very inspiring. Small and not especially attractive, the church building needs upgrading. The aging congregation seems more interested in protecting what it has than advancing into any new territory.

My friend preached a pretty good sermon, though not dynamic. He didn’t fall into the trap that so many of us do—he didn’t scold or bewail the state of the church or the wickedness of world. He talked about God’s capability rather than human inability or the world’s instability. But he doesn’t rank as the best pastor I know just because he preached a “pretty good sermon.”

Afterward, he interacted warmly with all of his church members, from children to grandparents. He didn’t pull rank; he helped the deacons set up chairs for the rather unappealing fellowship meal. He tells me that he visits homes regularly, but with only a handful of people in this church, and not many more in the others, it doesn’t take long to see them all.

I could tell he was a good pastor, but I didn’t realize he was the best pastor I know until one afternoon when I took a walk with him to the hardware store.

A block into our walk, a truck pulled up beside us, rolled down the window, and the driver shouted, “Hey, Pastor!” Before we’d gone another half a block, another driver shouted the same greeting. Drivers, other pedestrians, people sitting in front of their houses always greeted him as a friend, and he responded to each by name.

As we walked past a small house, he said, “Come meet these folks. They’re wonderful people.” He knocked on the door and was warmly welcomed. We had to continue on to our destination, so refused their repeated, insistent invitations to come inside for some refreshments.

After we left he explained, “When their daughter died, I visited them and brought some food.”

“Are these people your church members?” I asked.

“Not yet,” he responded.

In the business district, he knew the name of almost everyone we passed. We stopped so often that I thought it would take forever just to get to the store because at the door of most shops one or two came out to greet him. At the hardware store, the owner met him like an old friend.

“I visited her father in the hospital,” he explained. “Later I attended his funeral.” “Their beliefs are probably different than yours,” I said.

“I didn’t talk with them about beliefs,” he replied.

“I just loved them and prayed with them.”

How did he develop such dynamic relationships with so many people in town? I wondered.

“I realized when I came here,” he said, “that if I was going to concentrate on my church family, I would quickly run out of things to do. They really don’t need that much from me. In fact, sometimes I think they resent this young guy coming in and telling them how to do things. So I decided that I would be not just a pastor of this church, but the community’s pastor.”

“How do you do that?” I asked.

“Easy,” he responded. “I just go around and talk to people. I learn their names. I meet everyone I can. I pray with them if I they want me to do so.”

I thought of my first years in small churches. I hadn’t done very well. I was frightened and insecure, and spent most of my time trying to please my church patriarch and matriarch—who, it turned out, didn’t seem to want to be pleased. They mostly talked about how good my predecessor had been. I’d tried to do some evangelism, but nobody showed up. I was lonely and frustrated, and almost quit ministry.

That memory jogged another question. “Have you tried evangelism?” I asked.

“Yes. In this town, everyone has their religious niche. If I approach people with doctrine, doors close,” he explained. “Spiritually, though, people are wide open. Most people appreciate having someone who knows their names and who listens to them. When I stop at a store and the clerk tells me about a difficulty they are experiencing, I say, ‘May I pray for you about that?’ Very few say ‘No.’ Then we slip behind a display or into the back office for a short prayer.”

He has taken an active interest in the community. He introduced himself to the local school teachers and made friends with the town police officers. He joined a softball league and attends high school football games and cheers for the home team. He goes to city council meetings. The fire department and ambulance squad are volunteer organizations in his little town, so he took their training and joined. He reinforces my belief that extroversion is an asset to a pastor. Although he has this gift, not all of us do.

“How do you find time for all this?” I asked.

“I was nurtured in the model of the traditional pastor: one who dresses seriously, speaks seriously, and divides his time between his study, the hospital, his church, and visitation to church members’ homes.”

“My churches aren’t very big,” he explained. “I could do everything they need me to do and still be semi-retired. But that’s not the pastor I want to be—so I pastor everyone I meet.”

“Do other ministers resent it?” I asked.

“I’ve made friends with them too,” he said. “I visit their churches when I can. They look at my little church and realize I’m not much of a threat. Besides, I don’t try to steal their church members. But if someone should want to come to my church,” he said with a grin, “I wouldn’t turn them away.”

He confessed that his biggest fear is whether or not new people could successfully join his little congregation. “My members have been lackadaisical and uninvolved in their community for so long,” he said, “that they’re skeptical. They’re not especially accepting of people who don’t see things as they do. They say they want the church to grow, but I wonder if they really do.”

“But you’re still supposed to ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel,’ ” I said.

“Well, that’s what I’m trying to do,” he replied. “I’m just doing more of it out there than in my church building.”

My church

My own church has many members, and they are very busy people. There’s enough administration, study, and counseling to keep me in the church office all day, if I wanted. Unlike my friend, I don’t need to leave the church to find people to talk to and pray with for they often come to me, and most of them are my church members. I tried to picture what it would be like to know most of the people in my town (mine has well over a million people) like my friend does.

Spending time with the best pastor I know has led me to question why spiritual care has become such a segregated task. Undoubtedly, it has something to do with our separation into doctrinal tribes in the wake of the Protestant Reformation: the Methodists, the Adventists, the Lutherans, the Baptists, and many more. While a government official, a merchant, a doctor, a policeman, a garbage man, has the privilege of serving the whole community, people in my district expect me to serve my congregation and stop there.

“We’ve got our own church,” people have said to me, without provocation, when I introduce myself as a pastor.

In some way, my friend has overcome that. He’s successfully gone through the barriers. Has he had to compromise? It depends upon what you mean by compromise. He certainly has had to be a little less parochial than most of us. He doesn’t put his religious brand on display every time he approaches someone. He’s submerged his tribalism in favor of doing the kinds of things Jesus did.

“Are you just being cagey?” I asked him once. “Are you trying to break down people’s barriers so you can convert them?”

‘”If I were only baiting a hidden hook with friendship, I’d come across as insincere,” he said.

“But,” I persisted, “what about making your church grow?”

“Of course, I pray that my church will grow. But I try to leave the results to God. I won’t turn anyone away. Still, I’ve often heard it’s more important to be faithful than successful. This seems to me the best way, in my circumstances.”

You may wonder why I would rate him as the best pastor I know when I know pastors of churches of thousands, who are gifted preachers, charismatic leaders, and skilled businessmen. While I respect what they do, it seems to me that my friend has actually extended himself more meaningfully (and more personally) into the world around him than other pastors do, and against greater odds. His methods are less like a business and more like those of Jesus. Jesus never had a television program. He never wrote books. He didn’t build a megachurch. Most of His work was personal. Yet He changed the world. If my friend doesn’t get discouraged or bored, and if he stays long enough, I expect he’ll leave some kind of legacy in that community, whether or not his congregation grows.

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Loren Seibold, D.Min., is pastor of the Worthington Seventh-day Adventist Church, Worthington, Ohio, United States.

January 2008

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