Dear Disciple of Christ,
Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. – 1 Timothy 4:12
In my office there used to be a picture on the wall of me on my first anniversary of my ordination. I was 27 years old at the time though, if I say so myself, I did look a little like a teenager. In fact that wasn’t just my opinion, it was that of others around me. In fact I remember someone stopping me along the sidewalk in Brooklyn and saying, “I didn’t know they let teenagers become priests.” There were many more Roman Catholic priests in Brooklyn than there were Lutheran ministers (or even if you added Episcopal priests, also known for wearing their clerical collars as I did), so I couldn’t fault him for thinking I was a priest. And I couldn’t be surprised about his thinking I was a teenager, since I did look pretty young even to myself.
To be honest, that brought some challenges (especially while I looked so young which was for a few years anyway). With members of my churches being at the “upper end of the age spectrum” and me looking like a teenager, sometimes there was an expectation that their wisdom would naturally exceed mine and my input, with lack of years of experience, was likely lacking. It could be coming from an ivory tower (my seminary) or some dreams that would be dashed quickly enough once I had some real life experiences. This was despite the serious study and experience of ministry that came from the 8 years of preparation I had with most years being connected to a “field work church” (for 6 of those years, pre-theological students worked with churches to teach and preach, etc). The vicarage year was a full time experience of ministry as well, but, if you don’t look old enough, it can affect your ability to lead.
Thus I began this reflection with my quote of Paul’s first letter to Timothy. He was a young man as well as seeming young to the people he served. As Marshall McCluhan coined the phrase in 1967, “The Medium is the Massage.” If pastors are part of the medium of delivering the message, our age will have an impact on what people hear and how they hear it. Young as we are, our speech and conduct must be our witness. This can impact the message itself to the extent that it is not hearable. In some ways, this was Paul’s concern for women proclaiming the Word at a time when women could not serve as witnesses to present the truth as men could (the “witness of two” to confirm something was understood as the “witness of two men”).
That didn’t help the other challenge I had at my first church and that was the fact that I was a “new” pastor. It can be challenging to bring in new ideas even if new ideas are needed. This is when I (and other pastors and church leaders) hear the refrain, “We never did that before” (which usually leads a death knell sound to new ideas). I have felt that every idea needs to be brought forward, considered and developed or dismissed based on its alignment with the “core principles” of the faith and church (not based on who brought the idea). There are some principles we have from Scripture that ought to guide every church (the gospel is for all people, the care of Christ is offered for all, we gather around Word and sacrament, etc.). Then there are those operational principles that guide the congregation to fulfill and live out those core principles in a local setting.
The third challenge I “cut my eye teeth on” at my first church is familiar to most churchgoers; the presence of a “matriarch” or “patriarch.” This is the member (or members) who has been around the congregation for quite a while, and is known by most, if not all, of the other members. They may or may not have a position on the church council or some committee of the church but even if they do not, their power is great. These members can bring an end to any development in the church. Even after the council votes to do or not do something, it (unofficially) needs to receive the blessing of the matriarch or patriarch. In their pastoral studies, pastors are taught about this person (or these people) and given suggested ways to work with them (and enlist their support for the accomplishing of the mission of the Church).
In my case, as a teenage looking new pastor, I had the matriarch of all matriarchs. This woman was the widow of the first pastor who had been there 42 years and died in the ministry there. They were so beloved by the congregation for his commitment and service that, upon his death, the congregation gave the parsonage to his widow (thus our need to find an apartment when we arrived). She held a revered position in the congregation and deserved the title, “matriarch.” But there were things she did that were based on her power and not the wisdom or good and appropriate practices of a community of faith.
So it was, the second Sunday after my arrival, that she met me and (somewhat formally) handed me a pile of mail addressed to the church. “Thanks,” I said. “I was wondering where that was.” She replied, “The mailman delivers mail to the church and the parsonage and he leaves it there and I bring it to the pastor on Sundays.” “Oh, I’m sorry for that inconvenience for you,” I said, “I’ll talk to the mailman and get it delivered here now.” “Oh, no,” she said, “I’ve done this for all the pastors.” Do you get the idea of what’s going on and that the last phrase (“for the pastors”) should have really been what she did “to the pastors”?
That Sunday afternoon, after lunch, I went back across the street from my house and took a small metal file holder (the ones with a little key and a handle to carry it) and, after cutting a slot in the 3” thick oak doors, attached our church mailbox to the inside of the door. On Monday morning, I waited for the mailman, who I knew would be passing by and, when he came, simply announced, “We were open for business.” And we were. We were going to be about “church business” and with or without the approval of the matriarch, we would be working through the development of a mission for the church. The leadership (including me) would no longer need to seek or wait for her approval (or the church mail). She never mentioned (to me, anyway) anything about the change in mail delivery, but I had indicated my understanding of the structure of the church and it would always be Jesus at the head of our church and the church leadership (pastor and council) providing a vision for the church members.
Our one and only Patriarch would be our heavenly Father and we would do all to serve Him and He would hold the ultimate authority. The doors were unlocked and mail was being delivered. Next would be a frank discussion of the mission of the church.
Peace in His service,
Scripture Readings for Friday, May 12th, 2023
Psalm 66:8-20; Genesis 7:1-24; Acts 27:13-38