Recently I spoke to a gathering of women at our church. It was a bit of a farewell for me and my wife. During the question and answer time, our friend (and leader of the group) asked, “What have you learned as a pastor while at URC?” There are dozens of things I could have mentioned, but here’s what I said.
Note: the following is a loosely edited transcription of my remarks, hence the lack of polished prose.
I’ve learned a lot.
When we came here we weren’t old. Now I’m almost 40. I’ve been here a third of my life. Trisha and I have both lived in the Lansing area longer than we’ve lived anywhere else. Hopefully I’ve grown as a pastor. Hopefully we’ve both grown in a number of ways.
I often tell people that when I came to URC I told the search committee that my philosophy of ministry boiled down to three P’s: preach, pray, and be with people. Those are all really good. They’re still what I want to do in ministry. But I’ve had to learn a fourth P, and that is patience.
I know I was naïve in how change happens—how long it takes to address things and how you have to build up trust and confidence. I always joke about when I first came there were some particular issues that I told the elders would be taken care of in six months. Then I said, well maybe in another six months. Then I said six years. And now I think, well, maybe in heaven.
I know I’ve learned about patience. I wish I had more patience with my children—children are often the last hardest area of impatience in our lives. But I think I’ve grown in understanding how things change and how long change can take.
There are lots of little things you learn as a pastor, and some of them are simply part of growing up. Like how you appreciate little notes of encouragement, or when to send flowers or a sympathy card, or when to write a short two-sentence email that says, “I love you and am praying for you.”
And here’s the last thing I’ll mention. It goes back to the Bible story about Jacob wrestling with the angel. You remember, Jacob is touched in the hip socket and starts walking with a limp. It is true: given enough years, everyone ends up walking with a limp.
It’s not all equal by any means. I’ve had less suffering than most other people. But if you live long enough, you’ll find that everyone is hurting. You’ll discover people’s marriages aren’t as good as they seem, or their kids are more troubled than they let on, or there’s a miscarriage or infertility, or there’s a parent who’s sick, or someone whose death is still the source of constant sadness, or there is a strained relationship, or there is an addiction, or there is an invisible illness. There’s just a lot of pain out there.
Everyone you talk to is a sinner and a sufferer. As a young person filled with good theology, it’s easier to know the sinner part. And we can’t forget this, otherwise we will be poor friends, and I’ll be a poor pastor. Compassion without follow through or correction is not real love. But that’s only one part of the equation. You have to remember people are carrying around a lot of hurt, a lot of sadness, a lot of fears. I’ve had to learn that people are not just sinners; they’re sufferers too. And that shapes how you deal with sin and extend mercy. I hope I’ve learned that.