by John Caldwell
As I write this, I’ve been in the ministry for 55 years, and have been retired for nine years from the local church where I served most of that time. I love to preach, but preaching is only a small part of ministry. I’ve been asked literally hundreds of times what I miss most about located ministry. I have a standard answer which is partly tongue-in-cheek, partly serious: “I miss the paycheck, having an administrative assistant, the office equipment … and some of the people.” The truth is that I miss most of the people, people Jan and I came to know and love while serving in the same church for 36 years.
The first year in “retirement” I preached in 48 different churches. Several times, I’ve done interim ministries that lasted as much as several months. After preaching five Sundays in a row at the same church in northern Indiana, something happened that caught me by surprise. As we were leaving the parking lot, I got a lump in my throat, my eyes misted over, and I said to Jan, “I didn’t realize how much I missed it!” By “missed it” I wasn’t referring to the preaching, for I’ve gotten to do plenty of that. I was referring to the relationships. In just five weeks I had come to know each of the elders and many of the regular worshipers. I looked forward to our weekly visits. I had occasion to pray with, laugh with, and sometimes weep with a number of people before and after the services. My preaching also had added meaning as I was taking them on a spiritual journey week after week.
Yes, ministry is first and foremost about Jesus, but it is also about people: connecting people to Jesus, reconnecting people with Jesus, and caring for people in Jesus’ name. The older I get the more I find myself touched by the hurts and heartaches of people. I didn’t get into ministry to build a big church. I got into ministry because of God’s call upon my life and because I cared about people. But there was a time when I was so busy “building the church” that I’m not really sure I noticed all the hunger, illness, fractured lives, insecurities, failure and grief that are all around.
Now, I’m sometimes overwhelmed by it.
As the church grew and grew, the reality is that I had less and less time for people. Some of my mega-church buddies used to tease me about the fact that I still took a day a week to visit people in the hospitals and nursing homes. But that was my favorite day of the week because I dealt with people. And nothing ever gave me more pleasure or satisfaction than personally presenting the Gospel to a seeker and seeing the truth about Jesus bring conviction and conversion to their heart. To be candid, I have no idea how anyone can preach effectively, truly connecting with the people, if they are not personally invested and involved with the people.
Yes, of course every Christian is to be an evangelist, a care-giver, a servant. No, a pastor and staff cannot and should not try to do all the ministry in a congregation. But those involved in vocational ministry must both teach and model those responsibilities. As a matter of fact, we teach far more effectively by what we do than what we say. One of my favorite lines came from an aged preacher named Jake: “It doesn’t cost much to be a preacher. Anyone with reasonable intelligence and a fairly decent voice can prepare a sermon and deliver it. But … if you want to be a good pastor, it will cost you your life.”
Some time ago I got a text message from my son, Shan, an executive pastor at a huge megachurch. It came at 2:30AM as he sat at the bedside of a dying woman from his congregation. And I thanked God that my son gets it. In a day of celebrity and CEO preachers where communication ability is seen as the primary qualification for ministry, I pray that a lot of other ministers get it too.