I have a confession to make. I hesitate to say it. I really don’t want it to be misunderstood. But here it is:
I dread Pastor Appreciation Month.
Ever since Dr. James Dobson’s Focus On the Family organization started promoting October as “Pastor Appreciation Month” back in the early 1990s, it has become more and more of an annual event on church calendars. Hallmark prints greeting cards just for the occasion (of course). Christian bookstores have big displays promoting it. You can even buy T-shirts that say things like “World’s Greatest Pastor”. (And they look an awful lot like the ones that say “World’s Greatest Dad” and “World’s Greatest Mom.”)
Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate being appreciated. I was brought up to honor pastors, and I have expressed my appreciation to my own pastor, and others who have mentored me over the years, more times than I can count.
And my reluctance isn’t from some “Aw, shucks, folks, I’m speechless”, duck-your-head, dig-your-toe-in-the-carpet show of false humility. I’m always uncomfortable when people single me out in public and say nice things about me. I never know where to look or how I should react. (For the record, I’m always uncomfortable when people single me out in public and say nasty things about me, too.)
No…I dread Pastor Appreciation Month because of my absolutely broken heart over the state of our church.
It would be one thing if the church was prospering and the attendance was up. Then at least I could feel a little bit good about things. But I never dreamed our church would be in the state it’s in after I’d been here over twenty years.
I used to go talk to retired pastor Wes Hensley when I needed advice on different situations. Having another older, more experienced pastor to talk with is an immense boon to a preacher, and I have had several men like that over the years that I could turn to. Along with Wes, there has been Jolly Moody, Paul Jones, Bill Ledgerwood,
Dean Hartman, Glenn Lockwood, and others. Invariably, after Wes and I had discussed the problem and he’d given me his best advice, he would always tell me, “Pastor, preach the Word and love the people.” And I thought if I was faithful to do those things, God would work and the church would grow.
As God is my witness, I have done my best to prepare to preach and teach God’s Word accurately. I have preached my heart out.
And I’ve done my best to see people in their times of crisis, or to talk with them when they come to see me. If I know that you’re going to be in the hospital and you’d like me to be there, I do my best to show up and pray with you. (Sometimes I show up even when I know you don’t want me to be there.)
I thought if I kept my head down and kept plugging along, doing what I was supposed to do, that God would work and He would build up the church. Instead I’ve watched with helpless frustration as the attendance has continued to go down.
We’ve baptized just over 80 people in the last 21 years. That’s an average of about four a year. I wish that it was more, but when I think that there are thousands of churches that haven’t baptized anyone for years, I’m glad we got to baptize eighty-something.
During that same period of time we have welcomed over 170 people into the membership of our church, either by transfer or on the basis of their Christian experience.
But do you know, whether by baptism or transfer, the overwhelming majority of people we’ve received into our church haven’t stayed? Some of them didn’t last much more than a month.
It is a little comforting to know that we are not the only church to experience these things. Repeated studies have shown that there are anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 churches in North America that are either plateaued or declining. No matter what study you pick, that’s a lot of churches. It isn’t so much that “misery loves company”; it’s that you think, “Maybe it isn’t me, after all.”
Twice over the years I have spoken to the deacons and said, “If this were a basketball team, you’d have already changed coaches.” But both times they would not even entertain the possibility.
I had a couple sit in my study talking about the state of our church a few years ago. They said, “It must break your heart.” And I said, “No, loved ones: it has crushed my heart.” Ironically, not long after, that couple left, too.
I get it when some people leave. Sometimes I have to confront people about things. I don’t like it. I never want to do it. It churns my stomach and robs my sleep, sometimes for days at a time. But sometimes they’re sinning, and I have to talk to them about it. The Bible is pretty clear that “reprove, rebuke, exhort” and warning those who sin is part of the pastor’s job description. (2 Timothy 4:2; Titus 2:15). Rarely does anyone say, “Oh, Pastor, you’re right. I shouldn’t be doing this. It’s messing up my life and hurting people I love. Thank you for speaking to me about this!” Most of the time they just get mad and leave the church. And sometimes other people leave because I confronted this person, and I think, “You don’t know the whole story. You don’t know what I know.” And often I can’t really tell them.
But sometimes people leave and I have no idea why. I’ve never tried to breathe down people’s necks about why people weren’t in church. I assume they’re travelling, or on vacation, etc. But then I hear, “Hey, did you hear that so-and-so is going to another church now? Said they didn’t like it here anymore.” And I had no idea anything was wrong.
Or sometimes I’ll see someone in public and they’ll act like they’re mad at me. They frown and glare, turn their faces and walk away. And the last time I saw them they gave me a hug! And I honestly don’t know why they’re mad.
Sometimes I see somebody who has left the church, and I make eye contact and start to wave and say “hello”…only to watch as they look away and act as if I’m not there.
I have a pastor friend, a wonderful, gentle man, who was stuck at a railroad crossing in his car once. He looked in his mirror and saw a young man sitting in the car behind him, part of a family who had left his church. The pastor waved at him, only to have the young man scowl and look away. So my pastor friend got out of his car and went back and knocked on this young man’s window. He reluctantly rolled his window down and the pastor said, “What in the world have I ever done to you that you can’t even wave back at me in public?” The young man was speechless…but I think he finally waved.
I’ve felt like my pastor friend a number of times. When I go into a local restaurant with my wife or family, I’m secretly relieved when there isn’t anyone there who’s going to glare at me or give me the silent treatment. It’s always a relief when I can just enjoy eating out without any background drama.
I’m not alone. I talk to so many other pastors experiencing the same types of things. Different locations, different circumstances, but the same challenges: languishing churches, declining attendance, and people moving from one church to another. (I even had one person cheerfully tell me once, “Oh, we’re church-hoppers. We never stay in any church very long.” Good grief! At least act like you’re ashamed of it.)
Why am I telling you all this? These things are almost always on my mind. After twenty-one years as your pastor, I guess I just want to be as honest as I know how to be about all this. I love this church. I beg God all the time to turn it around, to renew His work in the midst of the years and revive this church again.
What has this got to do with Pastor Appreciation? Let me turn it around and tell you from my heart what this pastor appreciates:
I appreciate all of you who have stayed and helped to face our challenges, instead of bailing and going elsewhere.
I appreciate all of you who work unceasingly behind the scenes, often doing multiple jobs because nobody else will do them.
I appreciate the way you soak it up like a sponge when I teach and preach, even on those (too frequent!) times when I sound more like Porky Pig than Chuck Swindoll.
I appreciate the words of encouragement you speak or write to me, often on those days when someone else has said or done discouraging things.
I appreciate your love for me and my family, even when our faults are glaringly obvious. A real friend is someone who, when you’ve messed it up, doesn’t think you’ve made a permanent job of it. Thanks to all of you who don’t think I’ve made a permanent job of it.
I appreciate those of you who have stood by me and my family during some dark, heartbreaking times. I love you for the grace of God you have shown to us.
I appreciate the friendships that have deepened over the years. The only thing better than a new friend is an old friend. We couldn’t imagine our lives without you.
I appreciate those of you who, when you heard the worst about me, didn’t believe it until you’d talked to me.
I appreciate those of you who, when I did disappoint you, loved me anyway.
I appreciate all the laughter we’ve shared over the years.
I appreciate all the tears we’ve cried together.
I appreciate the immense privilege you have given me of being able to stand in this pulpit and proclaim the unsearchable riches of the gospel of God’s grace.
And I appreciate how those of you who have truly experienced God’s grace have shown it to me and my family. Again and again.
So let me turn it around. This Pastors Appreciation Month, it’s this pastor who appreciates you, First Baptist Church of Linton. My family and I really do love this church.
Soli Deo Gloria!