What a Pastor Can Learn in a Pizza Kitchen

As many of my friends are aware, my career as professor/pastor abruptly came to an end a few weeks ago. Just so you know, I did not commit some horrid moral, ethical, legal, or Biblical violation. It was just time to move in a different direction.

And what did that direction happen to be? Well, I am now a cook at Farmhouse Pizza in Greenville, SC.

How’s that for career development?

Hence the name of the blog, because you may be a guy who made a few missteps and mistakes if you go from professor to pastor to pizza chef. But never mind all that. There is a silver lining to this looming, somewhat dark cloud.

I thought I knew a lot about the “real world” because I spent my days dealing with people and students and helping with all the variety of problems that they may have in life. A couple months in a restaurant kitchen is teaching me that I’ve lived in an ivory tower most of my life.

The truth is that I don’t have a clue, and neither does the church. We are absolutely naïve to what a lot of people endure just to survive from day to day, check to check. We are equally clueless to think that what we are doing on a Sunday morning is going to connect with people cooking food, tending bar, washing dishes, or waiting tables.

We do not speak their language, either figuratively or sometimes literally. We do not have any comprehension of how hard they work, how little they make, and how they struggle just to exist until the next payday. They are students, gamers, musicians, DJs, or maybe just life-long restaurant employees. Some are college dropouts who couldn’t take on the debt of tuition. Some are ex-cons. Some were once homeless.

They might bounce from one restaurant to the next, taking whatever job will give them the best pay or the best hours at any given. The last two months of my life officially ended the mythology that restaurant workers are lazy or don’t “deserve” more pay because they didn’t get a college degree (yet). It’s thankless job, and we work our asses off for peanuts.

To those who say that anyone could work in a restaurant: You’re wrong. Dead wrong. I’m in pretty solid shape for a 48 year old man. I ran a 10k in 53 minutes this spring. And yet, 8 hours in that kitchen on a Friday night will almost put me face down on the floor.

I bet it would do the same to a lot of people who complain about the idea of raising the minimum wage.

Too many people in the church either don’t know or don’t care about the lives of people who are fighting these battles. They ignore their sorry paychecks, long hours, exhausting work or poor treatment that they endure.

We are too far too preoccupied and passing judgement on the fact that they drop a lot of F-bombs, serve/drink alcohol, and do not want to take their one day off a week (if that) to get dressed up and sit in a pew while someone preaches at them. (Just a side note:  I bet most people would let an expletive fly if they burn themselves on a 650-degree oven).

And heaven help us if we ever get onto the topic of the marijuana that some smoke on a fairly regular basis.

Here’s the thing:  The folks with whom I work are not at all anti-God, anti-Christian, or even anti-church. I regularly talk with them about issues of faith and life, or their struggles with belief. We discuss their church experiences and why they didn’t necessarily stay with it as they became adults. There is often depth, thought, and serious self-reflection in these discussions.

In fact, they are often more transparent, honest, genuine, and real than many of the people I have met in church. They’re not perfect, but they’re also not pretending that they are. There is no effort to cover up their sins and flaws. And unlike many Christians that I know–including myself–they are much more likely to own their baggage in an effort to overcome those issues.

I am learning almost as much from them as I did from being in the church most of my life.

They are exhausted by the judgment, the pettiness, the minutia, and the hypocrisy of those who call themselves “Christian.”  They are tired of people who treat them like a target to be sighted, marked, skewered, and tagged in the name of the Lord. They have no patience for preachers hollering at them or people refusing to listen to them in their “un-Godly” state of existence.

Their view is shaped by those who have told them how wrong they are, and perhaps by the dirty looks they received when they walked into a congregation with their tattoos and piercings. It is skewed by the people who left them a Bible tract instead of cash as a “tip,” or wrote “Jesus loves you” on the tip line of a receipt.

Yes, folks, that really happens. If you’ve done it—or still do—please stop. They’re not likely to care for your evangelism if they can’t pay their bills.

What occurs to me is that none of these people would have darkened the door of most of my former churches, or maybe any other church. And I’m not sure there is a thing that any church could do to change that. It’s going to take much, much more than a drummer and a fancy video system.

I am now pondering how we create space to connect with people who live in a world that we cannot possibly understand. Maybe in our educated and comfortable state, we are just too far removed from the reality that most people face every day, of how to get by to the next check or how to get enough sleep to have the energy to get through until closing time.

What most of my co-workers seem to want, more than anything, is to see genuine people who are willing to call themselves Christian. They want to know that people are willing to listen, and to act as if they care. They just want to see people act like good people, in line with the things that they profess to believe.

Right now, they overwhelmingly believe those to be rare qualities among church folk. It’s up to Christians to change that view, through actions rather than words.

At this point, I am not sure I have any interest in going back to another church setting where my primary role is to care for the flock or “manage” the daily life of a congregation. While this is worthwhile work, it may not be MY work. I feel a calling to reach out and get to know those people who are out there that feel abandoned by the feel-good platitudes that too often define “church.”

We probably can’t live for a long time on a pizza baker’s pay, but I would really like to find an avenue for connecting with those who are truly lost. No, they are not “lost” in the traditional Evangelical sense of the term, in danger of the fires of some invention of Hell. They are simply spiritual nomads who have no true place to connect and feel at ease to explore their purpose or calling or the work of God in their lives (in whatever form that may take).

The traditional church is rarely—if ever—going to make space to hear or listen to the concerns of the pizza bakers or bar tenders and thousands of other service workers that make the city of Greenville what it is. Instead of returning to one of the Ivory Tower settings where I have spent most of my life, maybe it’s time to see what the real world is.

I’ve lived there far too long, in the cozy Christianity of Americanized faith that largely disregards those who are not part of the club. Somehow, we have to re-discover the thorny path of a suffering, persecuted, down-to-earth Christ that both encounters and engages people beyond any church walls.

Someone has to sit down and listen to people, in an effort to connect with those whose lives are not like ours. Where do we find that space? I am not sure. But I just do not see how we find that in traditional church.

Maybe this is the opportunity to look outside of the typical. I have yet to figure out what it all means for me or my calling, but this is certainly proving to be an adventure. At some point, we need to stop writing about the people we cannot reach with the love of Christ and start doing things to reach people with the love of Christ. And that is going to look dramatically different from what we are doing now.

The Lord only knows what this may be, or what it may look like. The only thing for sure is that it starts with a willingness to step down a path that is unfamiliar, and possibly treacherous. Such a path may be exactly the one Christ needs us to follow.

11 thoughts on “What a Pastor Can Learn in a Pizza Kitchen

  1. Omy goodness ! As previous bartender many years waitress; I have never read a most honest article about the food/bar industry…you captured it all.
    Thank you
    I hope some of your now fellow employees get to read this.I believe you will see the knowing that you “got it “spread all over their face. Blessings & love to you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t know if you remember the function you and I attended at GWU regarding the racism issues in Charlotte, but I knew then that you are a special man. You have great things inside of you and some of the things you’ve covered here are the things that have kept me from inside of a church for many years. I also know what it’s like to work as a server, a maid, a bartender, and a few other things although my approach was reversed. I sometimes find myself wondering how those in the ivory academic and religious towers can walk around with blinders on.
    Keep on keeping on my friend. You are destined for great things.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved reading your blog. God is working through you. I believe, remembering your personality, you have a special gift to work and serve in places that others could not, or would not go.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Let me see if I can summarize, which may create more questions. Hell is certainly a topic in the Bible, but is not nearly as prominent, clearly defined, or important as we make it out to be. Jesus rarely references or describes it, and most of those descriptions match the prevailing views on the subject before and during Jesus’ lifetime on earth. Yet evangelism has overplayed the Biblical descriptions of hell, in order to use them as a motivator for others. I am not sure that current descriptions and emphasis match what Christ or the scriptures intended. Essentially, I don’t think scaring the “hell” out of people is a primary function of walking with Christ.

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  4. While I don’t really agree with the title of your blog ( you are NOT the Worst Pastor!) I do agree with what you are saying. At church today several of us were discussing the lack of diversity in our own church….and you know it too. But how to truly reach out of our comfort zone to the ones you have mentioned is what we all need to do….but how? Lots of unanswered questions. Looking forward to your future posts Tom.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Tom, I’ve enjoyed reading your blog posts (just now) and again I must admit you are spot on. We are all guilty of being secure in our “ivory towers” and this post reminded me of our mission trip to Pittsburgh. I remember the people coming in to worship that Sunday morning wearing dirty clothing, unkempt hair, smoking and rocking back in their chairs irreverently. Our precious children were appalled! We adults were hit with the realization of, “what have we done to allow them to think these people are not fit to worship in God’s house”!? Hopefully, we have all moved beyond that thinking some 20 years later, but have we? Totally? I think I am getting there…slowly. Sixty plus years in the same church as a way of making you comfortable in that ivory tower!

    Keep up the writing and looking for God’s sign pointing you where He wants you to land once again.

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