Saturday, February 11, 2006

There are churches I remember, in my life, though some have changed.

One of the great seminarian blogs I read is Serenitipity.

Something on her blog got me to thinking. Seminary students today seem to graduate after three years with only a handful of sermons. My last associate pastor graduated from Princeton Seminary having preached only 3 sermons.

I preached 140 times in seminary. One year I preached every single Sunday for a solid year -- which will never happen again. Since graduation, I get this thing called "vacation" :)

I preached for pastors who were on vacation, for churches that were vacant, and for churches that out of their goodness and graciousness allowed a seminarian to visit the pulpit.

Bethia had services once each month. The town had long since died, but the church remained. My wife and I arrived one Sunday and found the place empty. We waited and waited, and finally the congregation pulled up. They were all in one car -- all 7 of them. One of them got out of the car and went to a rock near the steps, picked it up and found the key to the church hidden beneath it.

We went inside and it was freezing. One of the elders went to the wood stove and built a fire to warm us, and all the congregation sat near the stove.

When no one was looking, I took a deep breath and blew onto the big pulpit Bible. A cloud of dust flew up around me.

One of the ladies asked my wife, "Do you play the piano?"

"Yes," she said.

"Good. We can have music this Sunday."

My wife had already learned at that point to bring some music along. She began to play a prelude on an old, out-of-tune upright piano. I was the only one who even tried to sing.

During the Lord's Prayer, the one little girl who was with the rest of the 70 year olds in the church began to join with me in the prayer. She said the prayer louder and faster than I was able to, and when I was in the middle of the prayer, she said, "Amen."

Since I was still praying, "Forgive us our debts..." she continued to pray, but prayed a different prayer --- "Now I lay me down to sleep."

That's when I learned to always have a laminated copy of the Lord's Prayer with me in the pulpit. At that point I completely forgot what came after "our debts."

At one little church in Georgia, I stood up to give the Call to Worship and to begin worship. An elder jogged down the center aisle and asked, "Son, please don't forget to announce that this is soil stewardship Sunday."

Not being a farmer, I had no idea what that meant, so I said, "Friends, let us not forget that today is soil stewardship Sunday. Therefore, let us worship God and stand and sing hymn number 1."

I went back to that same church again a few months later, and during the first hymn, that same elder jogged down the same center aisle. He leaned over and whispered, "Son, do you have the same hymnbook as everyone else?"

"Yes," I said, "And I'm even on the same page."

From then on, all my singing was done in the shower. In church, I learned to lip-sinc.

While I might not have a great singing voice, I've always felt that most hymns should be sung in their entirety. ALL stanzas! I developed a habit of saying, "Let us stand and sing all stanzas of hymn number whatever."

I stopped doing that when I went to a tiny Presbyterian Church in North Carolina. They used a Psalter, singing only metrically arranged psalms.

The pianist began playing, and the congregation stood up. I opened the book to find the song, and much to my dismay found a psalm that had 17 stanzas.

Pity my wife was not the musician that day -- she would have been looking at me at one point and I could have gestured a "let's stop right here."

Some churches just did things differently than I was accustomed to. At Rocky River, the offering was taken before the sermon. During the sermon, an elder or deacon would change a board that would declare what the offering was for that day. If it wasn't enough, then after the sermon they would take up another offering.

In one African American Church, I noticed a large poster in the narthex. It listed every member's name, and on a chart you could see what each person gave week to week that year. You'd never see that in a White congregation.

Actually, I wasn't supposed to go to that church. Will and I were assigned churches on the preaching circuit for one particular Sunday, and each of us had been to our assignments before. He and I always enjoyed going to new places. Will is Black and I am White, so we decided to trade. He went to a White congregation and I to a Black one.

The next day, we were both in the Dean's office. Remember, that was in 1977 or 1978. Schools had only been integrated for about 10 years. We had known we were going to upset some folks in both churches, but Will and I also believed that someday churches would need to integrate. We figured we were in deep trouble and might be excluded from future preaching assignments. The Dean simply said, "I've had lots of complaints about what you two did on Sunday. If you two want to be prophets, then you need to know what it is like to be martyred. I'm assigning you to go back to the same churches this Sunday. Good luck. You'll need it."

So Will went back to the White congregation and I to the Black one. He and I both decided we would make the same announcement. "The Dean says he received a lot of comments on my preaching here last week. I'm not sure what you folks said, but it must have been real nice because the Dean said that as long as he receives such comments, I'll be coming back here every Sunday y'all are without a pastor."

Apparently there were no further comments and Will and I were never sent back to those churches.

I'm glad things have changed. I now preach in a congregation that is about 50/50 black and white. Will is an Army Chaplain, and has been for many years.

The seminarians would share our experiences on Monday as we sat around in the coffee room. We were always anxious to find out the directions to these churches -- remember, there was no mapquest back then. Just as important, we wanted to know if which churches had indoor plumbing.

At the Mountville Church, there was not even an outhouse. The men went in the woods on the left of the church, and the women at the right of the church.

We went to Mountville a few times, and once I felt we were headed in the wrong direction. My wife was navigating and assured me, "It's right up here, near some damn Baptist Church." I was shocked -- my wife never cussed. But there it was, right near the Beaver Dam Baptist Church.

Some of the churches we went to simply could not afford an ordained pastor. After one service, an elder came to me with the offering plate and handed me half the contents -- $7.50 and a check. The check was my offering. Oh well, "cast your bread on the waters and it will come back to you."

I took it -- we were always in need in seminary. Once I cooked a pizza, using the last bit of flour, pasta sauce and cheese in the apartment. My wife and I were so looking forward to that pizza that we didn't preheat the oven. We just fired it up and put in the pie.

Little did we know that a roach had been crawling on the stove's ceiling. When we checked the pizza, there it was in the middle of our meal.

"Let's cut the middle out and eat the rest," my wife suggested.

So we did.

That was a Saturday night and we were hoping the next day's church would be generous.

Thankfully they were!

One couple took us out to lunch after church and fed us well.

"Let me take ya'll for a drive -- I want to show you my store," our host insisted.

It was a grocery store. He grabbed a buggy and said, "I want you to fill this buggy up and the food is on the house." He wouldn't let us be stingy. If we put in one box of cereal, he'd put in another. He insisted that we load up on steaks and a turkey.

We didn't have to worry about eating the roach's left overs for a long time after that.

In one church there must have been almost 700 people. At the end of the service, there would often be one or two who would quietly slipped me a check. I would thank them and put the folded check in my pocket to look at later, thankful that so many wanted to support me in preparing for the ministry.

At lunch on that day, I pulled out 8 checks -- far more than I usually received. One was the "official honorarium." That would sometimes be $20. Sometimes $50. I looked at the other checks, only to discover that not a single one of them was a check I could cash -- they were notes offering advice about my sermon and preaching.

"Shave the beard" was one.

Having a beard was a problem in the late 1970s, and my professors advised me to shave it, but I never did. I went in one church and sat behind the pulpit, waiting for the prelude to end. A child in the congregation yelled out, "Look, Jesus has come to preach today."

Someone else -- an adult -- said, "That ain't no Jesus. It's not even a real preacher yet."

True, but these Sundays helped me to become a preacher and I'm grateful.


Blogger dctoo said...

Hi AJ..
I'm glad to have come across your blog through my finding adam's pomomusings...

I'm interested in some of the choices you've made about blogging while being a pastor at the same time: whether you've made a choice to keep the existence of this blog from your church or how you sort out issues of transparency and authenticity.

Any chance we could talk over some of that by email? dimpledc at ftupet dot com

Anyway, I'm glad to have found your blog. Blessings in your ministry...

9:56 PM  
Blogger Apostle John said...

dctoo - I may have made a mistake admitting my location -- a few months ago there was a fellow, RG, who tried to figure out who I was. He thought he had me ID'd, but it was someone else. He finally went away.

So I generalized the area as South Florida -- someday that may become "south eastern US" :)

Everything in the blog is authentic, and there are some experiences I have that I really want to write about but can't because I have revealed my location and denomination. Occasionally I write about those experiences later.

Names are always changed. If you notice in some of the posts, a long list of people are alphabetized.

11:47 PM  
Anonymous Bill said...

Hey -- RG visited Rob's blog about a month ago to get him to give a comment on mine -- because he didn't think I would read it if it came from him!
Anyway -- this post brings back fond memories of Seminary days and preaching in rural Georgia and Alabama!

6:32 AM  
Blogger ~**Dawn**~ said...

those are some awesome "experience stories" Apostle John! enjoyed every one of them! i think those are what one would refer to as "character-building" huh? ;-)

9:30 AM  
Blogger Maryellen said...

what an enjoyable, nostolgic read!
In many cases I was able to say...been there, done that.
my husband never shaved his beard either.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Adam said...

Wow! Glad to see you were well-prepared for parish ministry...I think I'm probably going to flounder after graduating from Princeton...


8:40 PM  
Blogger bethany said...

It's really interesting to read your experiences; it sounds like God has given you a lot of material to work with! And it also sounds like you have a very patient wife, who is certainly a minister in her own right!
One thing I do take issue with though, is that you seem to claim that your way of preparing for ministry is somehow the "best" way. Now, I have no doubt that preaching every week for a year forces you to grow in some really valuable ways--what a difficult but important time that must have been! But I don't think that is *the* way of preparation for everyone. For some others, I think that sitting in the congregation of and being mentored by a good preacher every week for a year could also be an important way of preparation. I won't bother to list all the possible ways God might prepare a person to be a preacher.
Suffice it to say, I think God is very big, and there is more than one way God chooses to prepare us all for whatever work is in store for us.

10:16 PM  
Blogger Apostle John said...


I don't think MY way was the best -- not by any stretch of the imagination.

However, having worked with a number of Associate Pastors who had no experience in preaching beyond a half dozen sermons, I know it strains the church and the Associate both.

11:07 PM  
Blogger DennisS said...

Thank you for the laughs!

My seminary required at least 12 different sermons which had been evaluated by at least 3 people. Of course, we were encouraged to do many more. I had a couple dozen. We also had at least one summer of full-time placement.

The craziest pulpit supply I experienced? Preaching in an empty hospital chapel (the hospital was huge). They had closed circuit TV, so I had to follow a checklist to get all the equipment ready. During the service I had to push a button to switch between the full altar view, and the up close view of the pulpit (during preaching and prayer times). I still don't know if anyone tuned in.

9:49 PM  

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