Friday, July 1, 2011

What kind of pastor do you want to be?

Back in the summer of 1999, I was an intern at Irvine Presbyterian Church. I stumbled upon this internship for one reason: my future wife (know at the time as my "girlfriend" - weird) was spending the summer in Irvine. Thus, I felt a strong call from God (right) to find an internship in Orange County, flying all the way across the country from Princeton. It did in fact turn out to be providential, as I built a relationship with a church that has continued to be an incredible support for me and my ministry. Some of my best friends are still there and I return to preach every couple of years.

I preached my very first sermon at IPC and the overwhelmingly positive response I received from the congregation propelled me on through the flaming hoops of the ordination process. A few years later, I listened to the recording of that sermon, and it....was.....AWFUL. I've since heard this sagely preaching advice: Exegesis is like underwear. It should support you and provide a sturdy foundation, but don't show it to people. And I realized that I preached that first sermon with my pants on the ground. It was pedantic, boring, and sounded like an academic paper for a New Testament class.   

So, here I had thought that my moments in the pulpit there were an indication of the tremendous preaching gift that God had given me. Instead, it turned out to be an indication of the tremendous encouragement gift that God has given that church! 

Even more memorable than my first sermon was the conversation I had with the senior pastor, Mark Roberts, afterwards. I was in the last week of my internship and Mark invited me to have coffee. We talked about a number of topics regarding the church and seminary and preaching. There is one story he told me that I have never forgotten. It went something like this:

"When I was a young pastor I attended a retirement party for the senior pastor of the church. I was an introverted, scholarly type who spent a lot of time in study and sermon preparation. I always had one foot inside the academy and considered myself more of a professor than a pastor. But when I attended this man's retirement party, I saw how incredibly beloved he was. Hundreds of people had turned out to honor him, and they told affectionate, tearful stories about him sitting with them in times of loss and grief and doubt. And I realized what an incredible, eternal impact he had had on their lives and how meaningful his ministry had been. At that moment, I asked myself, "What kind of pastor do you want to be?"

Mark's question has echoed in my head ever since. As an introverted pastor, my first tendency is towards study, writing, reflection, and individual spiritual disciplines. And if you have followed my blog or read Introverts in the Church you know how much I value those practices. But I have to keep reminding myself that the goal of the Christian life is love and that means that I can't let my inner life be an end in itself. My inner life must be the fuel for an outer life of love, of self-sacrifice, of hospitality, of listening. And if that means that I work a few midnight-8 shifts as a hospice chaplain, sitting with people in their pain and grief, then so be it. Because that is the kind of pastor that I want to be.