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Let’s talk about the pastor!

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“Brother Graham,” as we all called him, was a kind old gray-haired gentleman with dandruff, enormous ears, prematurely bent over at the shoulders and anything but a dynamic orator. Behind the pulpit he was more of a soft-spoken teacher than an exuberant preacher.

In the almost 20 years I spent under his faithful leadership I cannot remember a single word from a sermon or lesson he delivered in which he even slightly raised his voice. What I do remember was an intense kindness and genuine love that flowed from his spirit through our entire congregation and which earned him the full measure of the title, “Beloved.”

Although I truly loved Brother Graham back then, as a young preacher I did not want to be him. I (and thousands of other young preachers in the ‘50s and ‘60s) wanted to be Billy Graham.

Skipping the embarrassing details of my early ministry exploits as a Billy Graham wannabe, I’ll just say that I paid my dues on the evangelism circuit of our denomination. I eventually ate my humble pie, slugged my way through college and seminary and ended up as – you guessed it– the pastor of a small local church. Invisibility in small, out-of-the-way places has characterized my ministry efforts ever since, like thousands of others.

Well, if I couldn’t be Billy Graham, perhaps I could be the pastor of a mega-church? That never transpired either. Being “called” by God to preach, as our denomination referred to it, did not automatically drive a stake through the heart of a fellow’s ego. Egos and every other human trait or frailty may be found in pastors, although for some reason, a few innocent souls are still surprised by that fact.

But I honestly doubt the “calling” of a minister who won’t be fast to admit he’s as human as anyone else – maybe even more. But humiliations come with the calling. God is fully capable of keeping his spokesmen humble. I don’t know what Brother Graham personally suffered to become the humble and faithful servant I knew him to be, but humble he was.

I probably don’t know your pastor. But I already know much about him if he or she’s been at it for a while. He or she rises in the morning with a prayer and a vision of bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to their particular congregation as well as anyone else he encounters along the way. She never feels she’s not “on duty,” because she really is – “24/7.”

He often sacrifices precious time with his own family to minister to the never-ending needs of his church family. While he’s thinking of his flock, it’s safe to say most of them are not thinking of him. Frankly, most folks in the community see him as irrelevant or even useless to their daily lives.

Of course, he will be called to perform a wedding, a funeral, a baptism and maybe a prayer at a public meeting. But to most, he’s not much good for anything else except to deliver a Sunday sermon or homily (the shorter, the better) by which he will be judged, graded and unfairly compared to others in his trade.

Often, no matter how high his profile, the pastor is one of the loneliest people in town. A church leader once lovingly scolded me, “Tom, you cannot be both friend and pastor of the members of this congregation.” He was right – sort of. I think it depends on the maturity of the individuals. It’s kind of like being a parent in that way.

Except for a few, most pastors are underpaid for their work. Ever wonder who determines how to “pay” a minister for his or her work? Who determines the monetary worth of anything the minister is called to do? And on what basis?

The talent, education, experience and long hours they invest are never seen for the most part. If they are not intensely motivated by a real sense of divine mission, the chances are they will drop out within the first few years of formal ministry.

Ministerial “burnout” happened to me at least three times over the last 50+ years. Depression and even suicide are not unheard of among clergymen. But “renewal” also happens. Thank God for the men and women who, having been knocked down more than once in the good fight, have pulled themselves to their feet, taken up their crosses once again, and carried on. The Bible itself is brutally honest about ministerial failures and comebacks. Ever hear of St. Peter, “The Rock?”

Volumes have been written by church researchers today in hopes of encouraging those souls who, for some strange reason, believe they’ve actually been “called” to follow their thorn-crowned Hero in the care of His sheep.

But you’re the one who has the real power to encourage your pastor. You’d be surprised how much a simple word of encouragement and an occasional “Thank you” can contribute to his or her heart and soul.

He or she knows that their calling did not come because they were “special,” but rather because they are not special:

“For you see your calling, brothers, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty … that no flesh should glory in his presence. (I Cor. 1:27-29)

Thank you, pastors!

And, thank you, Rev. Elmer Graham! My pastor and friend forever.