Shepherd God’s flock. . .not out of compulsion, But freely, not for the money, but eagerly, being examples. (1 Peter 5:2,3)
Retirement at last! What a great feeling! Retirement is something we all look forward to. The word seems to offer the possibility of everything we’ve always yearned for since we first became aware that age is supposed to have delightful rewards from all life’s labors. Freedom to live our dream, to relax, to read, and to travel, with fine dining, sports and resorts, time to reminisce, to be visited and to visit with old friends in distant places, hobbies and theatre, or even pursue a new career like, maybe real estate. . .or interim ministry?
We had purchased a condo for vacations and investment twelve years earlier with the possibility of settling in Florida in the later years. When the time came to move, we were trying to figure placement of our furniture and items like a piano in our condo’s smaller space when we discovered that our “vacation unit” was letting us know we faced a difficult choice. We would either have to part with some very special pieces or sell the condo and find a house with enough additional square feet to accommodate our beloved items.
The relator who worked with us on the project of selling our unit and searching for an affordable other kept commenting to me, “You really are a natural for the real estate business.” He was ready to hire and train me, saying, “This is a hot market!” At the same time, the district superintendent of my denomination, whom I had known for many years as the distant cousin of my wife, was excitedly imploring me to come to his aid by taking on interim pastoral assignment that frequently arose. I had never thought of such a possibility, even though I had pastored several churches in past years. I agreed that I’d be willing to help.
On the very same day that I passed the exam for my real estate license, I also accepted the call to the first of my five interim pastorates which would span the next six years. Real estate took a distant second place during those years, with only two sales made in all that time, one of those to a friend who had come to visit us.
It does appear that opportunities are either hard to come by or they come in pairs, making for tough choices. Two churches, nearly one thousand miles apart, contacted me on the very same day. I was familiar with both of them, having visited them in connection with my pre-retirement responsibilities. I knew one of the former pastors personally and had preached in the other church and knew the present associate pastor who would become my assistant. After extended phone conversations with each of the two boards, I made the decision. The church was located in an attractive lake community, affording my wife and I the opportunity to enjoy the pleasant warmer months ahead in such a setting. . .and they had promised a cozy lakefront cottage!
Upon our arrival at this new ministry area, however, we found that the promised lakefront quarters had not materialized and last minute arrangements had to be made in a mobile park ten miles south of the church. There was a parsonage next to the church, but that was now rented to the church secretary to provide extra income for the church. One of the farmers had promised to gather furniture from various members. The first view we had of our temporary furnishings was of a huge farm tractor hauling his flatbed, pulling on to the dusty drive that led to our new residence. So much for On Golden Pond!
It actually took several weeks for us to accidentally discover that the only way to get hot water in the kitchen was (this is the honest truth) to go to the guest bathroom at the other end of the house and flush the toilet. No wonder it took so long for that secret to be revealed! And the landlord would not believe us!
The church could easily seat more than two hundred adults, youth, and children. There was a full basement with an adjoining medium-size gymnasium which would offer me opportunity to practice my old hook shot. We were pleased with the structure and looked forward to getting started. While it had been impossible to totally conceal the presence of a problem in my earlier phone conversations prior to coming, I soon realized the amount of restlessness and the degree of hostility was far greater than anything I could have anticipated.
The church congregation had already drawn “lines in the sand.” The issue was over rebellion against the previous pastor and the actual “excommunication” of those who were being blamed for instigating his departure. Who should I believe? Who could I trust? How could I possibly determine the causes of the dissension?
Aside from personal conversations with representatives on both “sides,” my first few days were occupied with delving into the recorded minutes of the two prior years of board meetings. Some of the uncontested facts that emerged would disturb any consultant regarding the previous pastor’s competence and sensitivity. I share three examples to make the point:
1. A potentially suicidal man openly shared his fears with the pastor about his depression. As he was leaving, the pastor “humorously” advised him, “Well, don’t shoot yourself on the way home!” 2. In the year prior to his departure, the pastor had failed to show up for twenty-five percent of the Sunday services without any explanation. 3. An attractive but overweight woman sought counsel about her weight problem. The pastor explained that she shouldn’t feel so embarrassed about it, but as she turned to leave his office he remarked, “Well, I can see what you mean!”
Ordinarily in interim ministry, one of the first matters to attend to is the selection of a search committee that will represent the board membership’s ideas and purposes in constructing a “pastoral profile” for their next shepherd. But how could I even begin to think about establishing a valid, objective committee that would be open, fair, and not vindictive in determining who that would be? And, at this point, the ruling board of the church consisted of the most outspoken and angered of those who had forced out the “rebels.”
One thing had frequently caught my eye as I examined those two earlier years of board minutes: the insight and yearning for a positive salvaging of a hurting, floundering church situation by those now departed leaders! In order to clarify some nagging thoughts I had about the incomprehensible dark cloud hovering over this piece of God’s Kingdom and be totally objective, I set up a meeting with the four dismissed couples and my wife in one of their homes.
Each of the eight people shared their heart experiences, their hurts and pain over the church. We listened for over two hours and could clearly sense their sincere regret over what they now saw as a church divided, injured, and in agonizing hopelessness. I also discerned the great potential of this octet, and the church’s severe loss in taking the strong negative action against such dear people. We concluded our time with prayer for wisdom and direction.
As my wife and I were driving home, I remarked to her, “Honey, I could very easily consider inviting those eight people to join you and me in starting a new church!” Such a decision, however, would have created two weaker churches, based on the nature of the community and its unusual economy. I now knew my task would be much harder than earlier thought.
Things then began to go in fast forward. I had already me with the board several times, with the order of business continuing on as it much have before my arrival: a devotional thought and prayer from me, the typical business or repairs, the sick, maintenance bills, and concern about budget shortfall, quickly followed by the call for adjournment. The spiritual health of the church was never even brought up. After three or four sessions like that my mind was made up.
The next time we met I announced that I had no devotional, nor would I be praying, but every one of them would! There was silence for a while until they realized that I was serious. It took time, but they all managed to get something out, feeble as it was.
Something spiritually bold was called for. I then requested a dinner meeting with all board members, staff, and their wives, a group of about eighteen. I insisted that the wives be present because of my experience of having decisions made by men on boards, only to have them return home and, upon relating what had been decided, be told by their spouses, “What a horrible decision! How could you do that? You should have done thus and so!” For that reason, all wives had to come, ask any question they wanted, and say whatever they wished, but only the men could vote, as it stated in the bylaws.
There actually was enthusiasm as we got into the meeting. It was made clear that everyone was to express an opinion. That consumed the better part of ninety minutes. During that time, they asked me many questions, and I was able to assure them with my answers that all their concerns had been thoroughly investigated, that I had spent several hours with the other four couples, and many more hours pondering the severity of the situation. I had determined, in the light of my research, that the motives of the eight “excommunicants” had indeed been pure, their insight and judgment flawless.
Furthermore and finally, after sharing some biblical thoughts about the true nature of the church and my concern for the entire body of believers, I announced my conclusion concerning the direction and fate of their church as follows: “Unless you people are ready to have some forgiveness, you can’t even call yourselves a church! And I’ll be going back home to Florida as soon as I can!”
That suggestion was met with complete silence. The lone, stunned pastoral associate just looked at me in disbelief, “What have you done?” A couple of moments later, one of the panic-stricken board members declared, “You can’t do that!” To which I replied, “Just watch me!”
That seemed to have the effect that perhaps I was serious. It was the beginning of the end of the self-righteous denial in the group. As one of the wives later remarked to my wife, “Tonight your husband performed spiritual surgery on all of us.” The next day I drafted a letter to the congregation acknowledging that differences do occur, even as in the case of the early disciples, but that this war was over.
Not many days after that we were able to establish a search committee and began to construct a profile of the ideal candidate who would be appropriate for pastoring, nurturing, and building up this congregation. This would not be an easy task, but it was well worth the effort and resulted in a promising young man in his forties accepting the call and giving the possibility of a secure ministry for the next decade. History proved that to be the case.
That is the end of my story, except for two bits of encouragement to anyone who might conclude that the ministry offers too much stress and heartbreak and not enough reward for the effort. Don’t believe that!
First, during one of the most difficult periods of those days, word came from long time friends from college days with whom we had double-dated many times. They had just days before purchased a beautiful lake front vacation home nearby. They showed up at church, surprising us on a Sunday morning. We had not seen them for several years. What a joyous reunion! Our fellowship and times of relaxing for hours with them was a gigantic picker-upper! God gave us many great hours of welcome spiritual peace with them that we remember until this day. Our Lord knows how to supply our needs, even if just for a change of pace!
This second event carries with it even greater meaning for life’s ministry. Do you remember the man who was about to commit suicide? I chatted often with Jim, and he ultimately became a leader in the church. On one occasion he visited a local businessman in town who never went to church. The man had moved to this rural area because his life had been threatened by illegal traffickers that he had attempted to report in connection with his work in a distant city. When they threatened his wife, he fled across country to this faraway town, seeking seclusion and safety for both himself and his charming wife. His heavy, bushy beard hid most of his face. Jim knew this reclusive entrepreneur, and when he invited him to church, the hideaway asked why he should bother to go.
Jim answered, “We’ve got this new man here now, and he’s different. Maybe you’d enjoy his kind of preaching.”
“What’s his name?” he asked. When told it was Reverend Bishop, the unchurched man asked, “Do you mean Al Bishop?”
Jim was amazed and said, “Yes! But how did you know his first name?”
“He’s my pastor!” he answered. The following Sunday, clean-shaven and smiling, he came to church with his lovely wife. He stood before Ollie and asked, “Do you remember me?”
Now this is the kind of “end of the story” that Paul Harvey enjoyed telling. Twenty-five years earlier I had pastored a new church in a suburban area where about forty people were meeting upstairs in a local lodge hall. We set up the chairs for every service and covered some of the “icons.” It was a low-budget church, and the “call” was based on growth, since the salary package was fifteen percent less than the board itself agreed would be a bare minimum cost of living in this rather affluent town.
In less than four years, two building projects, a 250-seat sanctuary and a full-size gymnasium were completed. The attendance was already past two hundred, and the general income had quadrupled, as had the money designated for missions. Believe it or not, four of the sixteen board members had not been happy with our sudden growth of newcomers, nor with my type of expository preaching and application to everyday life and societal trends. They managed to control both the funds and the “politics” of the church. Following a secret meeting with the superintendent, I was asked to submit my resignation.
The young man who had not been to church for twenty-five years was one I had spent considerable time with while pastoring that church. We played ping-pong and pool, eaten burgers together, and talked about God and life. He felt left out at home, like he was only a part of his father’s portfolio, “that men in his father’s profession always had a proper house, in a proper section of town, with a proper wife, and two proper children.” When he found out I was gone, he asked his father why I was no longer there. His father merely told his son, “He left.”
What a tremendous joy it was to renew a long, almost forgotten relationship. Johnny had never wavered from his faith and had become an astute student of the Scriptures. He soon took an active part in the ministry, and our times together were very special.
That first day after Johnny and his wife came to church, he went home and made a phone call to his mother. This conversation was related to my wife the next Sunday after the service, “Thanks for calling, Johnny.”
“Aren’t you going to ask me where I’ve been today?”
“OK. Where have you been today?”
“I’ve been to church.”
There was the obvious sound of a sobbing mother heard.
“Aren’t you going to ask me who the preacher was?”
“All right. Who was the preacher?”
“My pastor. Remember? Al Bishop!”
The sobbing escalated into a combination of weeping and laughter, releasing twenty-five years of unanswered prayer.
Can there possibly be a lesson in all of this?
Upon Ollie telling me this story, it seemed that my twenty-five years of wondering about some of the barren times back in that church had now been made precious and meaningful above all else. And, the temptation to “vindicate” myself by telling Johnny how it came about that I had been involuntarily terminated twenty-five years earlier was quickly dismissed as a sin far worse than that of his father!
By the way, the superintendent who chaired that secret meeting calling for my resignation twenty-five years earlier was at that very time my assistant pastor.
One of the finest compliments I ever received was form a youth worker who had never been asked to share a word in our church. One Sunday, after one of his advisory board members had introduced us, I offered him some time to talk about his ministry. After the service concluded, he came to me and said, “Al, I know why I like you. You’re not out to prove anything, are you?” Oswald Chambers in My Utmost for His Highest (June 30) observes, “Our insistence in proving we are right is nearly always an indication that there has been some point of disobedience.”
God knows what He is up to. Give it all up to Him. Then trust and obey.