In 2007, there was a denominational shortage of United Methodist pastors in certain districts of the North Alabama Conference. As a result, our home church and sister church were without a pastor.
At that time, Donna and I had been active members of our home church for the majority of twenty-eight years. She served as volunteer pianist, and I as song leader. Seldom frequenting board meetings, we knew very little about the inner-workings of the church. During our time there, however, we had seen fourteen pastors come and go. Eight of the fourteen served only one year or less.
With the churches now in a holding pattern for another pastor, representatives from our home church approached the district superintendent and asked if I could be appointed as supply pastor.
Based on God’s having previously called me into ministry, my longstanding history as a United Methodist Church member, past licensing as a certified lay servant, and experience as a speaker/performer in Donna’s and my magic ministry; the district superintendent deemed me a likely candidate.
After much prayer, soul-searching, urging from my fellow congregants, and consulting with the district superintendent; I agreed to fill, until a pastor could be put into place, the pulpits at a 9:30 a.m. Sunday service at our sister church; West Scottsville United Methodist Church in West Blocton, Alabama; and 11:15 a.m. Sunday service at our home church; Woodstock United Methodist Church in Woodstock, Alabama.
I never could have envisioned that what began as a short-term commitment would evolve into furthering my education, obtaining my local pastor license, and serving ten years as minister to both churches.
An Overly-Full Plate
As I was already gainfully employed as a full-time letter carrier with the United States Postal Service and part-time magician; my committing to help, even short term, both churches was daunting for Donna and me. However, our love for God and both congregations prompted us to stretch ourselves to the limit and make the necessary sacrifices—one of which was walking away from our magic ministry in order to devote more time to the needs of the churches.
In 2008, my second year in ministry, I made the two-hour drive to Fayette, Alabama, for my annual interview with the DCOM (District Committee On Ministry). The purpose of the interview was for me to give an up-to-date account regarding the events of the past year and current statuses of the two churches in my charge.
I gave DCOM a glowing report regarding our sister church, where all had been smooth sailing. I expressed, however, concerns regarding our home church, where my sudden transition from pew to pulpit had caused a chronic case of consternation for one congregant in particular.
Busily taking notes during the course of the interview; one DCOM member paused, looked up, smiled reassuringly, and matter-of-factly responded:
Just one troublemaker in one church? You are lucky! There are usually several in any church.
By the time my ministry at the churches drew to a close, seven sowers of discord had been pinpointed at our home church and duly noted by the North Alabama Conference. Our sister church, however, had none. In regard to the seven at our home church, the congregant discussed at the DCOM interview served as the hub of the wheel and the other six the spokes.
Dating back to 1957, pastoral-appointment records from our former home-church indicate my ten years as the longest stay in the pulpit. Next in line is a pastor who had six years.
The View From The Pew
In his book, Men Sent From God, Richard DeHaan compiled the following list of common complaints congregants raise about their pastors.
An Ode To Pastors
If the pastor is young, they say he lacks experience.
If his hair is gray, he’s getting too old for the young people.
If he has five children, he has too many.
If he has no children, he’s setting a bad example.
If he preaches from his notes, he has canned sermons and he’s dry.
And if his messages are extemporaneous, he isn’t deep.
If he’s attentive to the poor people of the church, they claim he’s playing to the grandstand.
If he pays attention to the wealthy, he’s trying to be an aristocrat.
If he uses too many illustrations, he neglects the text.
If he doesn’t use enough stories, he isn’t clear.
If he condemns wrong, he’s cranky.
If he doesn’t preach against sin, he’s a compromiser.
If he preaches the truth, he’s offensive.
If he doesn’t preach the truth, he’s a hypocrite.
If he fails to please everybody, he’s hurting the church and ought to leave.
If he does please everybody, he has no convictions.
If he drives an old car, he shames his congregation.
If he drives a new car, he’s setting his affection on earthly things.
If he preaches all the time, then the people get tired of hearing one man.
If he invites guest preachers, he’s shirking his responsibility.
If he receives a large salary, he’s a mercenary.
If he receives a small salary, well, they say he isn’t worth much anyway.
Paul, From Sinner To Saint
A tent maker by trade; Paul had been, prior to his becoming an apostle of Jesus Christ, a Pharisee and persecutor of Christians.
With no qualms whatsoever, Paul had made it his life’s mission to search out Christians and expose them as followers of Jesus Christ—thus, condemning them to execution.
After his conversion to Christianity; Paul is credited for having founded fourteen churches, one of which was the church at Corinth. The largest city in Greece, Corinth was a busy seaport and hub of commerce for the Roman Empire.
When it came to ministry; Paul was quick to intervene, either personally or by written correspondence, when problems arose in the early churches. Not one to tiptoe on eggshells, Paul never hesitated to name names and call attention to specific men and women who were causing disruption and dissension in the congregations. Were Paul to do so today, he would have many churches up in arms.
At the church at Corinth, Paul was loved and respected by the majority of members who had been with him from the start. While Paul was away, however, ministering in Ephesus and Macedonia; the church at Corinth had seen an influx of new leaders, who were preaching and teaching the prosperity Gospel.
Popular with many modern-day purveyors of Christianity, the prosperity Gospel is the belief that people who are in good standing with God will be blessed with lives in which everything is coming up roses, minus the thorns.
Aware that Paul’s life was not one of health, wealth, ease, and comfort; the new leaders were having doubts regarding Paul’s qualifications not only as a leader in the church, but also apostle of Jesus Christ. The new leaders were putting Paul under the microscope and asking:
If Paul is in good graces with God, why is Paul plagued with so many problems and hardships? Why is God, instead, not pouring out blessings on Paul?
In response to the scrutiny, Paul penned a letter in which he made a most-glorious appeal to the hearts, minds, and souls of the critics who had questioned his credentials.
2 Corinthians 4:5-9 (King James Version)
5 For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake.
6 For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.
8 We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;
9 Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed;
Woe Is Me, But Great Is He
Paul has rendered a testimony, bar none, openly confessing not only his weaknesses; but also reliance on God for endurance. Paul describes himself and all true ministers of the Gospel as clay vessels that God has filled with treasure.
The treasure, of course, to which Paul referred is the Holy Spirit—indwelling in each born-again believer. Paul stressed that it is not outward, but inward appearance that matters most to God and should matter most to the Church.
Paul made it clear that Christianity does not guarantee a trouble-free, worry-free existence. What Christianity does guarantee is God’s abiding presence, strength, and love to sustain us not only in the here and now; but also carry us, according to God’s timing, safely over the threshold to life eternal.
2 Corinthians 4:10-12 (King James Version)
10 Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.
11 For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh.
12 So then death worketh in us, but life in you.
Paul knew that his physical body was merely a temporary shelter. The passage of time and stresses of life had already begun to take their toll on him, and he knew there would be more yet to come.
Giving Voice To Belief
2 Corinthians 4:13 (King James Version)
13 We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak;
In Verse 13, Paul is quoting the first portion of Psalm 116:10.
Psalm 116:10 (King James Version)
10 I believed, therefore have I spoken: I was greatly afflicted:
Paul is explaining that to believe is to not keep silent, but speak. The story of salvation was deep-rooted in Paul, and his love of God was too loud to not be heard. Although written long after Paul’s time, I am sure I Love to Tell the Story would have been one of his favorite hymns.
I Love To Tell The Story
I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.
I love to tell the story, because I know ’tis true;
it satisfies my longings as nothing else could do.
I love to tell the story; ’twill be my theme in glory
to tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love.
I love to tell the story; more wonderful it seems
than all the golden fancies of all our golden dreams.
I love to tell the story, it did so much for me;
and that is just the reason I tell it now to thee. [Refrain]
I love to tell the story; ’tis pleasant to repeat
what seems, each time I tell it, more wonderfully sweet.
I love to tell the story, for some have never heard
the message of salvation from God’s own holy Word. [Refrain]
I love to tell the story; for those who know it best
seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.
And when in scenes of glory I sing the new, new song,
’twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long. [Refrain]
— Lyrics by Kate Hankey (1866), Refrain by William G. Fischer (1869)
How much did Paul love to tell the story? So much that he was willing to face a beating, stoning, thirty-nine lashes with a whip, or an executioner’s sword just to tell the story one more time.
Eyes On The Prize
2 Corinthians 4:14-18 (King James Version)
14 Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you.
15 For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God.
16 For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.
17 For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory;
18 While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.
While here, Paul knew his time was limited, so he had a sense of urgency to share not the prosperity Gospel, but unabridged and often hard-hitting Gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul was not concentrating on the seen, but unseen; not the mortal, but immortal; not the present, but glory yet to come.
Focusing on the underlying symbolism of Paul’s referencing clay vessels will enable us to better understand the men and women God calls into ministry.
The type of clay vessels that Paul envisioned would have been molded, by a potter’s hands, from raw moist-clumps of unearthed clay. The potter’s creations would have then been placed in a kiln and refined by fire.
As the temperature in the kiln increased, the clay would have actually changed to a form of rock-hard crystal. When the vessels cooled and were removed from the kiln, they would have been durable enough to hold content and withstand normal usage. If subjected, however, to uncaring and/or abusive hands; there was always the risk that the vessels could be destroyed.
These durable, yet frail creations of clay were symbolic of the human vessels into which God pours His Spirit and sends forth His message to the world. Through the use of these vessels, God was and is paving the way with clay.
Beautiful is the fact that the vessels that stayed true to their form despite having suffered wear, tear, and a crack or two along the way were the ones that allowed the Shekinah glory of God to shine forth brightest.
I am always in awe of God’s timing and how He ministers not just through pastors, but also family and friends. A week or so back, I was blessed to receive a telephone call from a friend with whom I had been out of touch. At the time of our conversation, I was working on this Blog entry and contemplating how I would land the plane (pastor jargon for end the message).
Several days later; the friend followed-up our conversation by sharing with me a Blog-worthy verse, which I will now paraphrase and share with you:
Judas had the perfect Pastor, the perfect Leader, the perfect Advisor, the perfect Counselor; yet Judas failed. The problem is not the leadership of the church where you go. If your attitude and character do not change and your heart does not transform, there is no one to blame but you.
Thank you, Redeeming God, for paving the way with clay. Thank you for vessels—all shapes, all sizes, all colors—that shine forth boldly and brightly to keep us on the path of righteousness and lead us safely home to You. Amen.
Yours in Christ,
Featured Image: Greg Huggins; God’s Treasure In A Vessel Of Clay; Pinterest; Color Print; 2017
To accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, all you need do is open your heart to Him, earnestly repent of your sins, and pray the sinner’s prayer.