Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Thanks for the Warning

I got a call the other day from an elder at the Daniel's Run* Church, where I preached a few times last winter. They need me to supply their pulpit for their next Communion Sunday, since IrmaLou*, their graduate minister, still hasn't been cleared by the Presbytery South of Here* to do the sacraments. We settled that I'd fill in, and then the elder said, "We're having our Strawberry Festival next Wednesday evening. You ought to come."

It assuredly is Strawberry Festival season in southwestern Pennsylvania. I don't know where the strawberries come from, California or Uncle Charley's back patch, but the ruby fruit is going to be fĂȘted. One should go to at least one Strawberry Festival in a year, so I decided to drive down to the one at Daniel's Run.

I'd say they did well out of it . . . profuse attendance, loads of willing helpers, and enough pie and cake (strawberry and otherwise) to replace Hoover Dam.

I made myself narrow down my choices, and took my food to a table in the deeps of the fellowship hall. Where, in the fullness of time, I noticed that the people across the table (who were all unknown to me) were talking about the process of calling a new minister.

One woman said, "I feel so sorry for the poor pastor when he does his sermon before the congregation so they can vote on him! He must be so nervous!"

The man in the group disagreed. "Oh, no, by that time he's gotten through the interviews with the pulpit nominating committee [PNC] and he's preached a neutral pulpit sermon at some other church and no, he shouldn't be nervous by that time. Maybe if he's fresh out of school . . . but no, he wouldn't be nervous!"

I gained permission to enter the conversation and said I agreed. Besides, you should be over your nervousness about preaching by the time you get out of seminary. However, I said, "It isn't fair on the candidate when you preach a certain way before the congregation and they vote you in, then start complaining afterwards about the way you preach. After all, they saw what you were like when you preached your candidating sermon!"

I asked him if he were a member of a PNC. No, he said, he was with the Presbytery South of Here and his job was to work with nominating committees and pastor-candidates to make sure the process was going right.

He said, "We're making a list of questions the PNCs should ask pastors to prevent that."

"Actually, I was thinking more of questions pastors should ask PNCs to make sure they understand what's really going on in a church."

We discussed that a little, then he reverted to the matter of candidating sermons. "We advise PNCs to tell the candidate what the congregation is used to. Expositional, topical, theological, social, whatever. He [the candidate] should preach his candidating sermon like that."

"But shouldn’t he preach the way he’s used to? I mean, isn’t it cheating to do something just because it’s what the congregation wants to hear so they'll vote him in, and then revert to his usual style afterwards?"

"Oh, no," replied the official of the Presbytery South of Here. "After that, he should only give the congregation what they want. If he can’t or won’t do that, he shouldn’t take the job."

In a perverse way, I have to agree with that. If a congregation is that narrowminded or set in their ways, a pastor-candidate should know it ahead of time and run as fast as he or she can back where they came from. But when it comes to the Christly duties and responsibilities of the man or woman of God-- good grief! Mr. Presbytery Guy, are you telling me that if a congregation only wants fluff and ear-tickling, the preacher has to give them fluff and ear-tickling till the Trump of Doom? Or if all they want is mind-games with academic theology and no action or application of it, the obedient preacher has to keep on spinning out the theories? Or if the congregation's appetite is voracious for the latest sentimentalized self-centered Gnostic heresy or if their cup of tea is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the pastor is obliged to let them have it?? And what's more, your presbytery will require the pastor to let them have it, or leave?

I didn't put the question to him quite so boldly. What I said was more like, "Well, like, my habit in preaching is to give them law and gospel, in that order. Are you saying that if the congregation wants nice little stories that'll make them feel good, I should give them the nice little stories?"

"Yes," the Presbytery Guy responded. "That's what you should do."

What could I say after that? But I could think: Ye gods, sir, whatever happened to the Book of Order article that says it’s up to the pastor to decide what to preach on and how? More than that, whatever happened to the Biblical injunction to preach the Word in season and out of season, to warn the flock day and night, to rightly discharge the duties of a minister of the Word of God, as one who will have to give an account before Jesus Christ Himself?

Whoa! it's good to be warned. I'll keep this in mind if a church in that jurisdiction is ever interested in me. I guess when it comes to the ministry of the Gospel in the Presbytery South of Here, them as has, gets.

Or in the case of some pastors, gets out.

And if the PNC has told the incoming pastor that the congregation only eats coconut cream pie, he'd jolly well better not offer them strawberry shortcake!


Rev. Mike said...

Years ago, preaching to the small, rural congregations of New Harmony Presbytery in South Carolina, I told my wife that I may just have signed up to be a funeral director. Is it any wonder? [Heavy sigh.]

Sandy said...

While it's nice to hear what you want to hear every once in awhile, it's better to hear all different things. Who knows, maybe you'll find something else you like to hear! (and I would never want to hear a pastor preach like a robot... the sermon should come from the heart, I think!)