Fresh out of Youth Ministry, I took my first preaching ministry position.
I actually knew a few things by now. During my nine-year run with a church in Los Angeles, I’d gotten my masters degree in marriage and family counseling, while I toiled away leading missionary teams into sweltering, third-world barrios of Mexico’s border towns, facilitating parenting seminars, and overseeing teen-led Vacation Bible Schools. There had been opportunities to supply-preach for smaller congregations in the area, which meant I was no longer completely useless behind the pulpit. In fact, while the rest of my associates were on vacation, and a fill-in was needed, I could actually provoke a roundelay of ‘amen’s’ from the home crowd. Some even requested that I be put in the preaching rotation, which I secretly wanted, as I was eager for God to expand my ministry.
On the strength of my resume – and my willingness to work for the smallest of congregations – I landed a job almost right away in the suburb of a midsized city in the southeast. It was my first experience as a Senior Minister. I was willing to do whatever it took to prove myself, and when I got up to preach that first Sunday, it felt like I was blasting off to the moon. It was what I had been waiting for - my own thing - and my heart was filled with hope and the promise of an enviable future.
The head elder of this congregation, my putative master, was a textbook example of People Who Should Never Be An Elder. On the ‘very first Sunday’ he visited the church, I am told, he and his wife began campaigning for eldership by alerting every one to his experience and sound doctrine – ‘should space on the board become available.’ His principle business had something to do with the government and high-level security clearances in a neighborhood which was forty-five minutes away by metro. As this, apparently, wasn’t prestigious enough, he had chosen the church as a way to bolster his social standing more quickly and assuredly.
From the get-go, Max seemed intimidated. At every suggestion I offered, he’d snort with contempt, roll his eyes with world-weary derision and shoot down whatever outrage – be it a contemporary worship style, improving the condition of the rat-infested building, or simply changing the look of the bulletin – I’d come up with. He was merciless in his naked contempt for every idea I came in with, and tried to bully me at every turn.
As the principal change-agent to this dying institution and already a veteran of church politics, I established formal lines of written communication – faithful re-creations of the church I had just left: proposals, memos, accompanied constantly by handshakes and smiles. I began the work, facilitating a congregational meeting which surveyed the group’s self-perceptions, copiously recording each stated strength, weakness, opportunity, and threat as it was expressed. Compiling the list of responses, including the opinions of every individual in attendance, building consensus and ownership, I then presented the felt-needs to Max, requesting him to join me in building strategies to best meet the challenges at hand – it felt like an act of congress, but it was effective. If my apathetic, imperative head-elder was not already thoroughly spooked by my ability to inspire change, he certainly was by this action.
We squabbled all the time, Max and I. He was indignant that I repositioned the desk in my office to facilitate a more open, counseling-friendly environment and wanted to argue over the ‘correct’ way for a minister’s office to be configured. He frequently and passive-aggressively would forget to attend regularly scheduled Elder’s meetings – knowing full-well any decisions made in his absence were academic. He poked, prodded, sulked, conspired and competed. When the water well collapsed, I suggested that we improve our situation by connecting to the city waterline. Predictably, he assured me there was no money to meet the exorbitant $12,000 expense. I yearned for this tiny congregation to bring glory to God, and in that vein, I came up with the most ambitious idea my super-heated, endorphin-overloaded blend of faith and ambition could muster, a sort of Elijah-Calls Down-Fire-From-Heaven challenge. I asked the congregation ‘to pray and honor the Lord with contributions to offset the financial need in one, single, solitary special-offering’ . . . and they did. Just one month from the day the request was made, this thirty-member, suburban outpost of middle-class Christian soldiers glorified God with their giving to the tune of $15,642.40. Yet, rather than rejoicing in what great faith had been displayed, rather than being happy, truly happy, like Gideon’s lucky few - a band of outnumbered warriors who achieved total victory over the circumstances – Max viewed it as a personal defeat. “Chalk one up for the preacher,” he sarcastically grumbled at me . . . then waddled away.
I was thirty-two years old and the minister of a dying church. As would become something of a recurring theme in my career, I was following close on the heels of the departed burnt-out minister who, it had been said, was a great people person but an ungifted leader. I, it was hoped, was the solution to all their problems: a fresh-faced, eager minister just out of a master’s program, who would respond to my aged constituents’ wishes, and was willing and capable of turning an already bad situation around.
This place was an old-school operation. Located in an unincorporated area named after a Scottish tobacco plantation and slave owner, the building was a long, narrow, brick-and-mortar gymnasium of a place with a basement and adjoining entryway. The members, principally, were retired and semi-retired government employees and ex-military personnel. They were genuinely lovely, intelligent, warm-hearted and funny older people who could be counted on every Sunday, had remarkable resiliency and were considered (rightly) to be wonderful, charming and welcoming hosts, especially under the cloud of the devastating attrition they’d encountered during the last decade.
Entirely Caucasian, it was the only Independent Christian Church on the overwhelmingly African American eastside of town, and in spite of the fact that the community was experiencing historic population increases and a booming housing market – the church remained in decline. Being the minister, and nominally in charge of my own ministry – I was not happy about continuing with the same anachronistic style of programming that was well past its heyday. But I was patient, changing very little during the first year.
A support staffer, far younger and healthier, uncharitably referred to the auditorium as a ‘wrinkle room’ and made fun of the somewhat sad, even funeral-like atmosphere of a typical organ-only worship service. They may have owned the building outright and had a nice nest-egg in the bank, but the future was decidedly not bright – every Sunday staking out the welcome table, peering at the front door in search of first-time-visitors that would never come. I did my best to punch up the worship service, assembling a black-gospel choir accompanied by a partial band appealing to the preferences of the community. I administered over the work responsibly, spent the church’s money wisely, and generally behaved in such a way as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of the old guard.
Despite some inroads into the community, things were not going as planned. Long-time members were uncomfortable with the changing demographics and migrated to churches outside the county. I don’t think they were prepared for the required cultural changes and modernization. Some in the congregation had given their life to the building, having, years ago, taken out second-mortgages to build the thing. So it pained me to see their dream of rekindling the past die in increments.
‘But we all love that hymn’ Max would protest when I suggested removing a particular moribund song from the repertoire. He’d keep certain things on, favorites which brought back memories of the glory days, week in and week out, waiting for those folks to return. But they were not coming this Sunday, I could have pointed out – in fact, they weren’t ever coming back. The place was dying. The smell of desperation was in the air. You could detect it halfway down the block, as we were surrounded by larger but equally visitor-hungry congregations. You could see it on member’s faces when a few straggling visitors would on occasion happen through the door, they would pounce on them like starved remoras.
But I soldiered on. I didn’t know what else to do. Restrained from putting much of an imprint on the place – and unprepared to offer a viable alternative – I became distracted and depressed and settled down into the role of an overpaid Bible study leader rather than a minister. What I learned on this assignment was a sad lesson that has served me well since: I learned to recognize failure.
The trajectory of many ministers after an experience like this - should they survive it - is to move on to the next establishment, usually already hemorrhaging when they arrive. They become hooked on a Senior Minister-size paycheck and end up chasing money rather than effective ministry. In fact, some are condemned to being a travelling Mr. Fixit, always arriving after a former minister messes things up. More often than not they end up functioning as more of an undertaker than a minister.Having only recently achieved my dream of becoming a minister, I began looking for something more. And rather than feeding off the expiring dreams of a succession of misguided souls, I moved back to Southern California and started a new venture.