This past Easter, my wife and I observed my second-year anniversary as Trinity’s pastor. Although it seems longer at times and shorter at others, there have been many lessons learned. Some were affirming; others were eureka moments.
One of the most affirming things I’ve learned is that the sanctuary of a church is just that: a sanctuary. It does not matter how many times I worship in the same place or straighten the same chairs or get annoyed with the same stubborn stains in the carpet, the place will always be sacred to me.
The psalter of Psalm 100 reminds us to “enter God’s courts with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise” (v. 4). There is something about sacred space that focuses the mind on the Holy, tunes the soul to the Spirit, and ushers the heart heavenward towards the Lord.
It is in the sanctuary that the communion table–a centerpiece at Trinity–became a centerpiece in my faith. There, all are invited to enter into Jesus’ welcome and then reorient themselves to welcome others. There, all are equally called to ministry; all of us who are broken eat the same broken bread, a reminder that we are made whole because of God’s grace alone.
Another lesson I learned is that I must cultivate a sense of vocation that works out of that sacred sanctuary rather than works against it. There will always be the temptation to conjure up gimmicks to attract an audience; but, I learned that if I do my job as a minister and priest, then God will do the rest.
Priest: It continues to be the main biblical metaphor for my vocation. A priest intercedes on behalf of and intervenes in the world. A priest stands in the gap; a priest speaks for God when the world fails to hear what God is up to next.
Whether a Sunday morning or special service sees thirty attendees or three-hundred, a priest always serves God and God alone and then invites others to join in the drama of God’s unfolding redemption. I am not responsible for whether or not people come–each person has their reasons for attending or skipping church–my job is to remind people why they come.
A third lesson: The confessions, conflicts, and struggles of each parishioner must be held in strict confidentiality. I am there to walk besides people and earn their trust by being trustworthy, by letting my yes be yes and no be no, by not letting their personal issues become a matter of public debate.
A fourth lesson is tied to the second–since I am a priest in God’s kingdom, then all I can do is tell God’s story and tell our story to God. Preaching is an art, but more significantly, it’s a conversation born out of an intentional dialogue between God and the people. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong. But God is patient, and that’s a good thing.
No matter the direction of the proclamation, however, I concur with Barbara Brown Taylor, who says of us preachers, “The story is all we have.”
A last lesson is the most important: That while it is part of my job to help others get closer to God, I must make my personal relationship with God a priority.
Too many pastors face burn-out and are parched from giving themselves to others. But preachers are people too, and it is important for those very preachers to have a relationship with God that fits their own personality. We are tempted to look, act, talk, and tweet a certain way; but at the end of the day, if we are not authentic with others and God, then we will eventually hit a brick wall.
The greatest lesson for a pastor, then, is make enough room to grow in the Lord. We pastors must fail and grow; and we are no different than many folks in the pew who doubt, question, hope, love, and–yes–sin. But it is that very journey that makes us better, more prepared shepherds.