Monday, July 14, 2014

Fine Woodworking and the Fragility of Small Churches

Scott was hauling lumber. I spied him from down the street. He wore a lime green collared shirt with the name Jordan Fine Woodworking embroidered on the front. Scott was the newest man in the crew. He told me about the job less than a week ago at our regular pastors' lunch.

Scott is a laborer-by-day and pastor-by-night. He estimated that about a third of the fine bunch of Fine Woodworkers comprised clergy (former and current). Like me, they are (and were) leaders of smaller churches that suffer great strains from losing but a few families.

In smaller churches, the budget can turn blood red with the departure of one or two key "giving units." In smaller churches, ministry programs can burn out when a committed leader moves on. In smaller churches, morale can nosedive with shrinking attendance. In smaller churches, pastors may have to learn new skills (carpentry and coffee making) to keep their families fed and mortgage paid.

I guided my bike toward Scott when I spotted him. I called his name as he slid a ten-foot board into the back of his company van. He stopped, turned, and nodded at me. Sweat covered his brow and stained his shirt. His work day began well before mine. His work responsibilities threatened splinters, a sore back, and calloused hands. And when he came home at night, church business awaited him.

I felt a bit guilty. I made a comment or two and left him to hauling wood. Then I rode on toward the bookstore to start my pastoral work of reading and writing emails. It's not my fault Scott has become laborer-by-day and pastor-by-night; regardless, my pastoral vocation suddenly seemed lite.

But then I remembered what brought Scott to his current situation: Leading small churches is fragile work. The solo pastor is shepherd, teacher, volunteer coordinator, project manager, custodial worker, nursery aid, jack-of-all-trades (and master of none), court jester, marketer, and punching bag. The job description evolves with every business trend and change of season.

Moreover, pastoral ministry cannot claim the satisfaction of a daily progress report or finished product, unlike the construction site. Only Sunday marks our progress--that we held a service, that we preached a sermon--and many Sundays tell us more about the passing of time than the transforming power of life with Jesus.

These thoughts captivated me as I finished my commute to the bookstore. Instead of feeling guilty about Scott's situation, I began to feel jealous for his new job that guaranteed perspiration and productivity. I wanted something more concrete to mark my output for the day than my Inbox. I began to scheme how I might pick up work as a third-shift doughnut maker or early morning landscaper. Bi-vocational dreams began to accelerate my heartbeat.

Then I stepped into the air-conditioned bookstore and the guilt and jealousy melted away. My appreciation for full-time, pastoral ministry--unproductive and precarious as it is--was born again.

1 comment:

Jeremy David Miller said...

This post may be miss-read by me and miss-guided by you. As a jack of all trades, we need no sweatless pity from desk jockeys and motivational speakers and ask not for understanding of why we do what we do. Enjoy your job. I'll enjoy my life.
I like that you wrote this post as writer and (almost) not a pastor.