Growing up, when a phone would ring during the middle of the night, it meant someone was either sick, dying, dead or drunk (you’d be surprised at the number of people who want to absolve their soul in the midst of an all night binger). For any of the three former options, it often meant my dad, a pastor, would get out of bed, throw on some clothes, and rush out the door to a hospital or house.
To me, death and dying just seemed like a normal part of life. Who was sick and in the hospital was a frequent topic of conversation at the dinner table. Even today, if I catch a whiff of a home cooked meal, I long for pleasant small talk about health prognosises. That was just the norm in our house.
But I can only imagine my dad’s burden underneath the matter-of-fact dinner discussions. If I know one thing from farming, I know death weighs heavy. Watching animals die that are in your care and husbandry is tough. Being a shepherd of a human flock means facing the grim reality of decay and death, often of friends. Like most traditional baptist churches these days, his congregations skewed older, with more gray hair, with funerals greatly outweighing baptisms and weddings. There were no miraculous healings. People died, and my dad was often by their bedside when they did.
We now live two hours from my parents, so we attend a Baptist church here locally, which is as equally old and gray (my beard now included) as the one I grew up in. Although I’ve grown up with an insider’s view of the church, I’ve never witnessed or experienced a church split. Now I have. Really, as is the case with most church divides, it was a mutual running off, with both sides playing a game of church chicken to see who would leave first and be the last one standing. First, some staff members bucked the new pastor and resigned. Then many families followed them to another church. Then a few weeks ago, the deacons, fearing another large revolt of families, pressured the lead pastor to resign, at which point he did resign, at least until his final farewell sermon, after which an impromptu church conference broke out with lots of finger pointing, some screaming, and little resolution. The final farewell sermon resulted in our pastor temporarily rescinding his resignation, only to resign again, and in so doing causing another revolt of families leaving the church in solidarity with him.
Part of the issue was our new youngish lead pastor was, understandably, a new school pastor–a unilateral CEO, TED TALK type who preaches in skinny jeans sitting on a stool. He had the worthy goal of trying to appeal to millennials and young families, and his focus was on leadership and discipleship, not old school flock tending. Needless to say, it was a tough transition, as evidenced by the implosion of the church.
My dad always said people need to get to know and trust you before they’ll follow you. I think there’s a lot of truth to that, especially if you wear skinny jeans and preach from a stool in rural western North Carolina. That said, the focus on discipleship, on creating lay people who can minister to one another in lieu of the pastor at times is a worthy goal. A pastor is merely one man (or woman), and a regular diet of death and dying takes its toll, not only on the pastor, but his family.
For my part, I remember regularly sitting in the backseat of the car for what seemed like ages as my mom and dad went through long visitation lines at funeral homes. I remember the hospital lobbies and the pungent nursing home hallways with the senile old ladies pushing walkers. I remember going on vacation, only to have my dad return home early to preach a funeral. I don’t begrudge it now, but I remember it now, likely because I begrudged it in the moment as a child. But what child doesn’t begrudge their parents’ work, stealer of time, energy, and attention?
So, I suppose there are pros and cons to both the old school shepherd pastor and new school CEO pastor. How a church smoothly transitions from one to the other is a different story though.