One of the very first things I learned back when I was a brand-new, still-wet-behind-the-ears, didn’t-know-any-better young pastor was that there is more to leading a church than to just show up on a Sunday morning and step up to the pulpit; indeed, it turned out to be much more than simply engaging in the usual and expected “clergy-type” activities. For instance, in that little church in northern Maine where I was the student pastor, one of my most important responsibilities every Sunday morning was to make a big pot of coffee for the fellowship hour! Thinking back, I’m not really sure how I got the job; I really wasn’t much of a coffee drinker at that point, and I had little to no experience actually making coffee. It just happened that early on folks in the congregation started talking about how much better the coffee was when I made it; so suddenly I was the resident barista, a position I held for the next five years!
Through those years I also discovered that I was one of very few in our small congregation who were trusted to light the pilot lamp on the old gas cook stove we had in the kitchen for our monthly church dinners; and probably the only one who knew (or, more likely, would admit to knowing) how to operate the old crank mimeograph machine on which our weekly bulletins and newsletters were printed (and, I’ll have you know, I had the ink-stained hands to prove it!). In fact, I now realize that a small but significant portion of my pastoral education those first few years involved, amongst other things, shoveling snowy walkways, fixing plugged toilets, and removing more than a few of God’s small, furry creatures that had found their way into our sanctuary!
I do remember thinking at the time that this wasn’t exactly how I imagined the ministry to be; but I also was realizing that not only was I beginning to take some pride in this somewhat unexpected role as church caretaker, but also that I was not alone in the effort.
There was Roger, who used to spend hours polishing all the brass fixtures on the altar, and together with his wife Ruth, would arrange flowers for the sanctuary every Sunday (Roger always had this little tape measure to assure that the flowers and candles were perfectly and symmetrically placed!); and Helen, the retired schoolteacher and women’s fellowship leader who spearheaded a yearly Christmas Fair that was the envy of all the other (larger) churches in town. Then there was Percy, the Church Treasurer, and his wife Marilyn, who would always somehow manage to have a home-cooked meal waiting for the then-single pastor when he went over to their house to pick up his paycheck; and Tim, a local musician who ran a music store who used to put guitar strings for that same pastor in the offering plate. And of course, there was Mary, who was confined to a wheelchair and had been reluctantly forced to live at a local nursing facility; but who for a good many years – right up until the day she died, in fact – embraced a new calling as a cherished caregiver to all the residents of that facility: they used to call her “Mary Sunshine.”
Yes, in those formative years of my own pastoral ministry, I learned that a good part of this job requires becoming a jack of all trades, even if clearly I’m a master of none! More importantly, however, I learned that just as it takes a village to raise a child, so it takes a whole community of believers – each one with their own individual unique skills and talents and interests and passions – to truly do the work of the church of Jesus Christ. What I continue to discover in each and every congregation where I’ve had the privilege of serving as pastor is the amazing truth that we are each and all ministers; it’s just that some of us do our ministries in a pulpit, while others do those ministries with brass polish, a mixing bowl and spoon, or maybe even with a paintbrush or a hammer and nails.
“There are varieties of gifts,” Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “but the same Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:4): God’s various ministries of love and care that are carried out in a variety of places and in a multitude of ways, but all originating in and through God’s Holy Spirit. As The Message translates this passage, “all kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people!” Wise counsel, clear understanding, simple trust, acts of healing and proclamation and so much more besides: all these are gifts of the Spirit that when properly harnessed, become the skills and talents you and I have to share with the church and with the world.
The challenge for each of us is where and how we’ll choose to share those gifts; and it turns out that this not only has a profound impact on the course of our own personal journeys of faith, but also in a very real and practical sense, it has everything to do with how the ministry of the church moves forward. This is an essential component of our Christian stewardship (specifically, the “talent” portion of the “three T’s” of time, talent and treasure); moreover, it’s one good sign of a healthy, spiritual church: a community of faith where the pastors and people work in partnership with one another to seek out those unique spiritual gifts and then make use of them in becoming all that God wants and intends for them to be. Regardless of its shape, size or location a thriving, growing church will always be the place where each one is equipped and empowered to be the minister – whatever kind – they’re called to be!
How all of this happens in the day to day life of a church family and what kind of fruit these ministries might well yield is one of the great mysteries – and a good deal of the fun – of this job. All I know is that as even as I’ve been writing these words today, there have been several women of our congregation scurrying around the church getting ready for what will be another successful Holiday Fair at East Church coming up on Saturday; one of our resident handymen was willingly drafted to bring in some boxes and move some tables; meanwhile, another couple, with their infant grandson in tow, no less, took it upon themselves to do some raking around the church yard so things will look good for the weekend…
…and the blessings abound.
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry