Why the “World’s Worst Pastor?”

Last week’s blog certainly drew way more attention than I ever expected. Let me thank you all for taking time to read, comment, like, share, and respond to the ramblings of (arguably) the “World’s Worst Pastor.”

While many people liked the blog, the title apparently bothered a few folks, and it gives me another post. Why call it the “World’s Worst Pastor” blog?

For starters, it’s already worked. People, especially those who don’t know me or don’t necessarily share my faith tradition, get an enormous kick out of the name.

Hey, my friend Jamie Wright made a great cottage industry writing as “The Very Worst Missionary,” so I just thought I’d add Pastor to the mix. And for the record, I asked Jamie’s permission before hijacking her shtick.

Am I the World’s Worst Pastor? That might depend on who you ask, but probably not. Do I think I am a bad pastor? On some days yeah, I certainly do. But most of the time, I think I’m a pretty good pastor. And I have worked extremely hard at being a good pastor.

In all seriousness, some people—maybe a LOT of people–would disagree with my assessment of my own pastoral abilities. Some folks just see “pastor” through a specific set of lenses, and I do not (and likely never will) fit into their view.

Do you remember your school days and your first taste of standardized tests? Back in 2nd grade, we had to “bubble in” the scan-tron sheets filled with circles or ovals. The teachers threatened us with a near-death experience if we did not have 17 No. 2 pencils on hand, or if we DARED to fail to make perfect bubbles for our answers.

Failing to fill in the complete bubble or daring to go outside the bubble lines would result in our answer being marked WRONG!

I will never forget our Room Mom coming to my desk, saying in a soft yet kind yet ominous tone, “Make your circles good.” I was so diligently trying to stay inside the lines that I did not make a complete bubble. Then I was corrected for making my bubbles too big and going outside the lines. Then I was finally corrected for taking too long to fill in my perfect bubbles and not finishing the test.

And that’s what makes me, in some circles, the World’s Worst Pastor. I am sick of wearing myself out trying make the perfect bubble.

It’s time for a faith that colors outside the lines and bursts a few bubbles along the way.

Churches and Christians that are spending so much time trying to make their perfect bubble that they are failing to finish the test. We are so wrapped up in the church calendars, the events we do “every year,” and making sure that Mr. Smith or Mrs. Jones don’t get upset that we cannot even consider following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

Following Christ is a messy business. Christ tried to start working in the church (i.e. Synagogue) but they kicked him out. They did this because He wasn’t concerned about how the church bulletin looked. He wasn’t worried that a song was too contemporary or traditional. It did not bother Him that someone sat in the wrong seat or that something didn’t happen “every year.”

Jesus sought ministry that was dirty and messy and chaotic. It was walking along filthy roads, hanging out with a group of 12 guys—smelly fishermen, murderers, tax collectors, and traitors–who probably would not even speak to each other if Jesus had not called them. And Jesus did this because He had zero interest in creating any kind of perfect bubble.

The mantra of the “World’s Worst Pastor” fits because I usually do not meet many of those typical, traditional images that people have of a pastor. I am certainly not the least bit interested in trying to color in their perfect bubble image.

Here is one example. People have regularly complained to me that I care too much about serving others, feeding the poor, overcoming racial barriers, etc. One former church member even said to me, “All we hear about is feeding the hungry and helping the homeless, and we just get tired of that every Sunday!” She proceeded to say that was all well and good, but she had never heard a pastor who talked so much about that “stuff.”

What she failed to realize is that I took this as a compliment.

If Jesus does anything in His life on earth, He teaches us that serving others is not just a part of the Gospel. It IS the Gospel. If preaching too much about these things makes me one of the World’s Worst Pastors, I am more than fine with it. I hope love for others always comes before perfecting our bubbles.

In dealing with people, my first move is not to call people out because they use a few four-letter words or have a few beers or smoke cigarettes. Nor is it to judge their clothing, question their sexuality, investigate their past, or ask them, “Are you a Christian?” In fact, I try not to ask that question. Ever.

(Even worse, I must confess that I like beer. And sometimes a whiskey. And an occasional cigar—all of which really boost my Worst Pastor rating).

What I try to do is get to know who they are and what they’re about, and I attempt to give them a genuine look at who I am. It’s not always pretty, on either side. But it is real and genuine, eye-opening and life-giving. And I think that is exactly what Jesus tried to do, while calling us to follow the example.

Jesus’ coloring abilities fall far afield of our preconceived lines. But perfect in our eyes was never His goal. Perfect bubbles for pastors are our creation—a defense against the messy, dirty, gut-wrenching life that Jesus calls us to live.

Please keep in mind that I am not saying, in any way, that my definition of Pastor is perfectly in line with Jesus. It’s quite the opposite. Yes, I am sometimes even the worst at being the Worst! I’m simply trying to learn to pursue Christ more fully in my life and work, rather than some notion of pastoral perfection.

No, I am weary from trying to make the perfect bubble. I am interested in those who fall short, or far outside the lines. This is where Jesus was, and is, and where I hope to learn to be. That’s why some people might call me the “World’s Worst Pastor.”

All things considered, that title might not be so bad

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.

Missing Church: Why I’m not a “Done” (Even If I Want to Be)

A couple of months ago, I posted about the experience of taking a break from attending church. It somehow garnered a lot more attention than I expected, enough that it prompted a follow-up question:

Why go back?

It’s a question that is becoming more prominent even among the most dedicated church members. It seems that even those who are committed to the church are actually showing up less frequently than they once did. Some of these may even fall into a new category that sociologists are calling the “Dones”–Christians who just stop going.

Let me establish that I do not intend to be a “Done”. Sometimes I feel like it–usually around 8 am on a Sunday morning. There are four big reasons why I cannot go this route. While these specifics may not hold validity for you, perhaps they will prompt you to think about where you stand with a community of faith.

1. Mom and Dad will not let me do it:  As a pastor and youth minister, I used to consistently get the question from parents, “Should I make my children go to church?” And my answer was always an unequivocal “Yes”.

Why? Well, after I tell you to get off my lawn, let me give you the grumpy old man answer:  Because my mom and dad made me go to church and it never hurt me a bit. (NOW get off my lawn!).

This does not mean that you do not talk with them about where to go, what to do, how to participate or what they expect, particularly as they get older. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with establishing church as a spiritual standard for family.

The inevitable guilt trip (either real or perceived) that I get from Mom when she calls on Sundays to ask, “Well, did you GO to church TODAY?” will not bring me back. But the education my parents gave me in faith, dedication, and commitment to something more important than myself just might. And they are connected to hours of discussion and exploration about what it means to be Christian, both in and beyond the church.

My parents made faith a part of who I was and who we are as human beings, as family. Going to church is not the only way to do that, but it surely did not hurt. Those Sunday experiences–even the ones I did not like–will forever influence my personhood.

Am I ready to turn my back on what my parents taught me by declaring, “I’m done?”

2. Mrs. Nora and The Ballard Sisters:  If you grew up at East Park Baptist Church in the last half of the 20th century, one thing is guaranteed. You had Mrs. Nora for 5-year old Sunday school, followed by the Ballard sisters through elementary and middle school. In Mrs. Nora’s class, you learned to run string across the room and make tents with bed sheets, so you would have an appropriate venue to talk about Aquila and Priscilla. And you would eat dates and wild honey like John the Baptist (thankfully she skipped the locusts and deferred to more appetizing Galilean fare).

In fact, we often tried to sneak back to her class every now and then, even when we were much too old for it.

The Ballard sisters were a little less dynamic, but these four ladies offered unparalleled lessons in faithfulness. They walked down their hillside street every Sunday morning to teach annoying, poorly behaved 10-year olds what a famine was and how Moses discovered a most disturbing piece of shrubbery. Amazingly, they managed us with grace and patience–although they had no children of their own! Maybe they could do that because they knew that they didn’t have to take any of us home.

When we had snow or ice, we called off church because we knew the Ballards would try to walk and were likely to break a hip on the way. And it was not just Sunday mornings. Oh, no…it was Sunday Night Bible Drill and Training Union. It was Vacation Bible School. It was Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting.

Ms. Sarah Ballard did not miss a day of Sunday School for 20 years! Actually, she missed one day, somewhere in year 20…and tried to turn down her 20-year attendance pin (a remnant of Baptists past) because of it.

Maybe these ladies are just that, a remnant of a long gone era of church that is destined never to return. It is hard to imagine them teaching with a power point and a YouTube video. But that does not lessen their impact. For all of us who have a story of stodgy, judgmental old Southern Baptist “church ladies”, we also have Mrs. Nora and the Ballard sisters.

Am I ready to insult their legacy by saying, “I’m done?”

Which brings me to my next point…

3. Past churches wrote on me with Sharpies:  I mean this as a good thing.

Certainly, every church where I served made a positive impact, but the churches I served as pastor have left the most significant spiritual marks. That is not intended as a slight to the places where I served on staff. But serving as pastor simply creates a different level of relationship with the whole church, particularly in my venue of call, the small church.

I often reflect back on the positive impact those churches continue to have on me. More than once I have found myself drifting back to the fellowship of a Back-to-School Bash or a Fall Festival. I even miss church league basketball! (Sometimes).

But the indelible mark on my heart comes from the places where the fellowship and spirituality become one and the same. These are the encounters with real people–open, vulnerable, and willingly exposed to the work of the Spirit. These are the life-giving happenings, genuine and as real as they come. They evoke both joy and pain, laughter and tears. It is weddings and funerals. It is sharing celebration and the reality of heartache. It is the Thanksgiving Eve service at Sawyer’s Creek Baptist, where people opened their hearts to share their greatest joys and deepest spiritual hurts–as well as the faith that emerged from those hurts.

It is the baby dedications at Augusta Heights, where we learned to celebrate new life with tears of joy after years of hoping for such celebrations. It is Mrs. Wilma–the AHBC equivalent of the Ballard sisters and the last remaining charter member–offering gracious wisdom to me as the new pastor. It is the irreverent moments and informal discussions that, somehow, led us closer to this Jesus that we strive to know.

Can I possibly ignore the graciousness, honesty, and hospitality of these people, all of whom greatly impacted my life, by saying, “I’m done?”

And finally…

4. It’s the community, stupid!  I hate to go all James Carville here, but it just fits. You may not need a community to be a Christian, but I still believe that you need one to be an effective disciple.

Jesus beckons us to a life of community. And how quickly we forget just how imperfect that life was!

As we roll our eyes over the blatant and debilitating flaws of the church, we often long idealistically for a “New Testament Church”. But in our vision, we skip the jealous bickering, bitter disagreements and theological or practical disputes that characterized the original 12, right on into the formation of that New Testament church. Why do you think Paul wrote all those letters? It was not because everyone was just getting along.

Yet, those disciples managed to learn, grow, bond, and cooperate with one another in spite of their disagreements. The early church learned discipleship together, in and through the hardships they faced and the sharp distinctions of race, class, religious identity and theological point of view.

Sometimes they separated. Sometimes they decided to go in different directions. But there is no evidence that they gave up and quit. And they certainly came together, bound by spiritual ties of love that outweighed their disagreements.

Can I insult the saints, both early ones and those in my own lifetime, by saying, “I’m done”?

I sometimes remember the hardships and bitterness of ministry when considering my past in the church. Much more often, I long for the community, fellowship, sharing and caring that those churches brought into my life. I long for the everlasting friendships and eternal prayers that I know some believers offer. And I want to find that community again, in the here and now, rather than simply leaving it to memory.

Community is challenging and difficult–and more than worth it! It is the imprint of the community past that keeps me searching for the community of the present. Imperfect though it will surely be, it is also the life-giving face of love.

And it is the reason that I cannot say, “I’m done.”

Perhaps we need to recognize that the perseverance of the saints of the past is a fine example to follow in the present.

5 Things I’ve Learned in 5 Weeks Out of Church

Consider this official. I am issuing an apology to every member of every church that I have served over the last 20+ years.

This past Sunday ended a personal record that I never thought I would reach. We hit five. We had missed church for 5 straight Sundays until this week. Somewhat in our defense, we have been out of town for three of those, after rarely having a weekend off in our 24 years of marriage. But for a couple of them, we just stayed home.

In my entire life, I don’t think that I’ve ever missed church more than two weeks in a row. I certainly didn’t as a child, not even in college. I started working in the church as a volunteer or staff person when I was 17. Besides that, mom wouldn’t let me come home for Sunday Lunch ‘n Laundry if I didn’t go to church.

I hope my parents don’t actually read this blog, because I’m in for a phone call and a lecture if they do. Well, I might be in for that anyway, but maybe it won’t be the “Go to church!” lecture.

I’m taking some solace in the people that say the family was due for a “sabbatical”, and maybe that was true. I’ve never worked a job outside of the church, nor did my father. In essence, I’ve been to church almost every Sunday for 43+ years and the break–I’m a little ashamed to say–is doing me some good. Once in a while, we need to step away from something for a time in order to truly appreciate it. At this point, I am beginning to feel a loss of fellowship, community, camaraderie, servitude, reflective conversations…all the things that make church worth it. While those may not be the Spiritually Correct things to miss, they are what I long for the most in this absence because they are the things that bring home the reality of the Living Christ. At least to me.

But this Sunday Sabbatical has also illustrated some things to me, particularly now that I am working a 9-to-5 (or, more like 7-to-6) day. Honestly, I’ve never had a real job before, one that occupied a truly specific time slot and required a very specific and demanding schedule. Yes, church work is intense, but the one perk is the flexibility that it often has.

I actually think that every pastor needs a season of the workaday world, as it would benefit both the leader and the led. It is amazing how much can be learned by living in the same mode as the people to whom you are called to minister. Here are a few of them:

1. Getting up for church is hard:

At times, I’ve been very judgmental of people who would not get up for Sunday School or showed up late to church or just attended once in a while. Perhaps it’s unfair, but part of a pastor’s job is to try and get people to show up. And I was one of those pastors that assumed something was wrong if people didn’t come to church.

How different it is on the other side.

Maybe all pastors need to work a regular job, if they haven’t done so in a while. When someone is putting in 40+ a week, plus commute time and the daily demands of life/family, it’s tough to choose to give up one of the few days that you have free in order to take on another responsibility. Even if it is a deep-seeded spiritual responsibility, it’s still something else added to the schedule.

 

2. Family Matters

Churches can be notoriously insensitive to family time. We must have one more meeting, event, dinner, Bible study or gathering on the calendar, because that’s what we’re supposed to do. We hold events and studies and conferences centered around family issues, while failing to recognize that we are contributing to an overwhelming, oppressive issue in family life:  Time.

I can hardly think of a time when a church says, “Why don’t we schedule a little less, so that we put less pressure on our families?” Maybe we could contribute to the spirituality of church members by slowing things down a little rather than speeding them up.

I also understand a lot more about why people choose to go to church with their extended families. It’s that much easier to stay engaged if you’re able to cover two bases at once. It also makes me glad that mom forced me to attend church as a prerequisite to Sunday lunch when I was in college…because I kind of miss that family time now.

 

3. Yes, It’s okay to attend church where your children want to go

It used to make me nuts when parents would look to change churches because their children decided they wanted to. Now that we’re church-hunting with a 15-year old daughter, we are absolutely listening to what she has to say on the matter.

I am not a fan of making a move every six months because the youth minister said something that your child does not like, or because your child’s friends told them about how much better their church is. Once you pick a lane, you need to stay with it. But as children get older, it is absolutely crucial to listen to their ideas and perceptions about church.

 

4. A Sunday off is not a damnable offense

It always used to puzzle me that church members felt I needed a lengthy explanation when they missed a Sunday. As a pastor, it is a fine line between pressuring people to attend and showing interest when they do not. But I always tended to take it a little personally when people missed a Sunday, and I think that showed (even when I tried to cover the emotion).

It probably was not personal at all. Sometimes, people just need a break. While I would never encourage people to take five weeks off, it is okay to step away; in fact, a Sunday or two away (or even visiting another congregation) can help to freshen your perspective on your church home.

 

5. Meaningful relationships are much better motivators than guilt

So for our first trip back to church, we went for a visit to our old church (where I pastored for a little less than three years). Just to make the contrast in experience complete, we sat on the back row–which is a totally different perspective in and of itself!

We were a little concerned that there would be weirdness, and it certainly felt strange to walk in as spectators rather than leaders. But then came the handshakes and hugs and high fives from people with whom we had worked hand in hand during our short tenure. And it was all a reminder that those things are much better motivators than guilt trips. It was a reminder of all that is good and right about church, even in the midst of the hardships and struggles that occur with any organization (even a religious one).

What we didn’t get was a lot of “‘Bout time you showed up!” or “Well where have ya’ll been?” or “Yeah, thanks a lot for leaving us!” (Okay, we did get one or two of those last ones, but generally in good fun). My guess is that when we say those things to people who have not attended in a while, it’s not much of a motivator for them to return on a regular basis. The handshake or high five or hug is probably a much more pleasant reminder of what is missed, and I’m sure it’s a much greater incentive to return than the healthy plateful of guilt we tend to dish out.

 

When I was a pastor/church staffer, I felt it was my personal and professional responsibility to get as many people to come to church as possible. In many ways, I was right. But I fear that I never had a true understanding of church from the other side, until I stepped away from it. After just five short weeks, I can already see some things that I wish I had known 25 years ago.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in the church, still believe it’s important to attend. But what I value in it has changed, and my understanding is much different from the outside, looking in, and sitting on the back pew.

So to all those former church members, if I bothered/guilt-tripped/harassed you for not attending church:  I’m sorry! I was doing my job and I really didn’t see it from your perspective.

But even greater than that, to those who faithfully attended, participated, led, sang, met, “committeed”, “deaconed”, taught, prayed, practiced, and prepared:  Thank you! A THOUSAND TIMES, thank you! I appreciate your commitment a thousand times more than I ever did–and should have–when I was a pastor. Unfortunately, it took this most recent life change to make me appreciate and value you the way that I should have all along.

I hope some pastors will read this, and learn the lesson a little sooner than I did.