My pastoral service was retail, not wholesale. That is, I related directly to everyone in my congregation rather than to staff or leadership only. This is retail on the scale of the median sized SBC congregation of seventy or so on Sunday morning or the average congregation of 125 or so.
The vast majority of SBC clergy are retail pastors, most of these single fulltime staff clergy in their church. I have nothing against the megapastors who farm out their pastoral duties to a host of assistants, sub-pastors, associates, and specialists. I understand that the gravity and energy of congregational life is pulling towards larger and fewer churches. Perhaps my day is past.
But the single staff guy, the backbone, the hero, the stalwart, highly committed pastor apart from which our convention would be more like a trade association representing the CEOs of the 500 or 1000 largest church outlets than a voluntary association of actual congregations, he’s the pastor in the truest biblical sense. Feel free to argue that point, just not in this article because I’m going in a different direction here. That is, I assume that every pastor on the retail level has enough character stories to write his own unique book. LifeWay isn’t much interested in such things because they don’t sell like the red hot megapastor celebrity who has a new book out with the latest buzzwords and clever thoughts about how we can all be megadudes. I’m more interested in the stories, the narratives, the anecdotes that teach (and often entertain) using authentic folks in the pews.
I think about a lady in my first church, Mattie. She occupied about one-sixth of a pew in that median-sized country church. The other five occupants were like her, older widows or aged single women. It was pointed out to me early on in that church that this was the “no” pew, i.e., they voted against most everything. As an example, I, the highly educated, degreed seminary grad, introduced to that church the novel concept of having an annual budget. The proposal passed but over the negative votes of the “no” pew. Everyone moved along without rancor.
My practice early on was to visit in the homes and get to know all the folks in the church. Thus, I’d drop by Mattie’s house for a chat, or, as I soon learned, an alleged chat. She lived alone in an old farmhouse that had electricity but not any heat source other than fireplaces. She burned wood in the winter to stay warm and even cooked on an old wood stove. Two sons, Alton and Asa, who lived near her supplied her with stove wood and firewood. When I visited, we’d sit close enough to the fireplace so my toes were warm and my nose cold.
A visit with Mattie was not unpleasant. It’s just that she didn’t much care for talkng. I’d use some of my best pastoral practices and ask questions like, “How are you doing, Mattie.”
She’d answer, “Well, I suppose I’m doing just fine,” which usually brought a full stop to any conversation and I had to start over with another subject.
“I hear Asa and Alton kill hogs behind the house every winter.”
“Yep.” Nothing about all the blood. Nothing about how it has to be cold. Nothing about the large pots used in the endeavor. Nothing about the smoke house, sausage, pork chops or pig brains that they ended up with.
On to the next possible subject.
“I hear that when your husband was living he had a syrup mill.”
“Yep.” Nothing about the mules that turned the gears and squeezed the juice out. Nothing about the wagon loads of cane. Nothing about how they boiled the stuff down for hours at a time. Nothing about how the neighbors would come, some to help, some to watch. Nothing about how sweet the syrup was.
One or two words, sometimes a single syllable was all I got out of Mattie. Her laconic manner didn’t express any dislike of her pastor. That’s just the way she was.
But one day I was sitting with her, trying to stretch a pastoral visit into five or ten minutes without staring at the fire the whole time when she asked me a question.
“Preacher, do you really think men went to the moon?”
“Well, sure, Mattie. We landed people on the moon.”
Just the slightest hint of an eyeroll told me she wasn’t buying that answer, not even from her beloved pastor who preached God’s truth every Sunday morning while she sat amongst her friends in the “no” pew.
There was no further exploration of the subject. I prayed with her and left. In almost forty years since, I still sometimes look at the moon and recall that brief moment. The longest journey ever taken by humans results in the shortest conversation between pastor and curious parishioner.
Mattie was what I imagine one of my great-grandmothers, born about the time of the Civil War, to be like. A farmer’s wife, accustomed to the routine of a self-sufficient household: crops, canning, potato banks, hog killings, syrup mill, mules, wood chopping, a blacksmith shop, smoke house, corn crib, and everything else folks did a century ago.
And on Sunday morning she would be at church in her spot on the “no” pew. Her two sons and their families would be there also. Salt of the earth. Good as gold. Faithful followers of Christ, even if they didn’t have much to say.
She did volunteer to me once, though, about when that church went “full time,” that is, they stopped sharing a preacher with another church and had services every Sunday.
“Church twice a month is plenty enough for country folks, preacher.”
“Well, OK, Mattie. If you say so.”
After I resigned, I paid her one last visit in which she said, “Well, you visited more than most of ’em, preacher.” High praise if you knew her well enough to translate.
Retail pastoral work, brethren.