Consider this official. I am issuing an apology to every member of every church that I have served over the last 20+ years.
Two weeks ago, we set a personal record that I never thought I would reach. We hit five. We had missed church for 5 straight Sundays. Somewhat in our defense, we have been out of town for three of those, after rarely having a weekend off in our 24 years of marriage. But for a couple of them, we just stayed home.
In my entire life, I don’t think that I’ve ever missed church more than two weeks in a row. I certainly didn’t as a child, not even in college. I started working in the church as a volunteer or staff person when I was 17. (Besides that, mom wouldn’t let me come home for Sunday Lunch ‘n Laundry if I didn’t go to church).
I hope my parents don’t actually read this blog, because I’m in for a phone call and a lecture if they do. Well, I might be in for that anyway, but maybe it won’t be the “Go to church!” lecture.
I’m taking some solace in the people that tell us our family was due for a “sabbatical”, and maybe that was true. I’ve never worked a job outside of the church, nor did my father. In essence, I’ve been to church almost every Sunday for 43+ years and the break–I’m a little ashamed to say–is doing me some good.
Once in a while, we need to step away from something for a time in order to truly appreciate it. At this point, I am beginning to feel a loss of fellowship, community, camaraderie, servitude, and reflective conversation…all the things that make church worth it. While those may not be the Spiritually Correct things to miss, they are what I long for the most in this absence because they are the things that bring home the reality of the Living Christ. At least to me.
But this Sunday Sabbatical has also illustrated some things to me, particularly now that I am working a 9-to-5 (or, more like 7-to-6) day. Honestly, I’ve never had a real job before, one that occupied a truly specific time slot and required a very specific and demanding schedule. Yes, church work is intense, but the one perk is that it usually has a great deal of flexibility in the day-to-day operations.
I actually think that every pastor needs a season of the workaday world, as it would benefit both the leader and the led. It is amazing how much can be learned by living in the same mode as the people to whom you are called to minister. Here are a few that I’ve picked up:
- Getting up for church is hard:
At times, I worry that I have sounded very judgmental of people who would not get up for Sunday School or showed up late to church or just attended once in a while. Perhaps it’s unfair, but part of a pastor’s job is to try and get people to show up. And I was one of those pastors that assumed something was wrong if people didn’t come to church.
How different it is on the other side.
Maybe all pastors need to work a regular job, if they haven’t done so in a while. When someone is putting in 40+ a week, plus commute time and the daily demands of life/family, it’s tough to choose to give up one of the few days that you have free in order to take on another responsibility. Even if it is a deep-seeded spiritual responsibility, it’s still something else added to the schedule.
- Family Matters
Churches can be notoriously insensitive to family time. We must have one more meeting, event, dinner, Bible study or gathering on the calendar, because that’s what we’re supposed to do. If the church down the street is doing it and we’re not, then WE must be doing something wrong!
We hold events and studies and conferences centered around family issues, while failing to recognize that we are contributing to an overwhelming, oppressive issue in family life: Time.
I can hardly think of a time when a church says, “Why don’t we schedule a little less, so that we put less pressure on our families?” Maybe we could contribute to the spirituality of church members by slowing things down a little rather than speeding them up.
I also understand a lot more about why people choose to go to church with their extended families. It’s that much easier to stay engaged if you’re able to cover two bases at once. It also makes me glad that mom forced me to attend church as a prerequisite to Sunday lunch when I was in college…because I kind of miss that family time now.
- Yes, It’s okay to attend church where your children want to go
It used to make me nuts when parents would look to change churches because their children decided they wanted to. Now that we’re church-hunting with a 15-year old daughter, we are absolutely listening to what she has to say on the matter.
I am not a fan of making a move every six months because the youth minister said something that your child does not like, or because your child’s friends told them about how much better their church is. Once you pick a lane, you need to stay with it. But as children get older, it is absolutely crucial to listen to their ideas and perceptions about church.
- A Sunday off is not a damnable offense
It always used to puzzle me that church members felt I needed a lengthy explanation when they missed a Sunday. As a pastor, it is a fine line between pressuring people to attend and showing interest when they do not. But I always tended to take it a little personally when people missed a Sunday, and I think that showed (even when I tried to cover the emotion).
It probably was not personal at all. Sometimes, people just need a break. While I would never encourage people to take five weeks off, it is okay to step away; in fact, a Sunday or two away (or even visiting another congregation) can help to freshen your perspective on your church home.
- Meaningful relationships are much better motivators than guilt
So for our first trip back to church, we went for a visit to our old church (where I pastored for a little less than three years). Just to make the contrast in experience complete, we sat on the back row–which is a totally different perspective in and of itself!
We were a little concerned that there would be weirdness, and it certainly felt strange to walk in as spectators rather than leaders. But then came the handshakes and hugs and high fives from people with whom we had worked hand in hand during our short tenure. And it was all a reminder that those things are much better motivators than guilt trips. It reinforced all that is good and right about church, even in the midst of the hardships and struggles that occur with any organization (even a religious one).
What we didn’t get was a lot of “‘Bout time you showed up!” or “Well where have ya’ll been?” or “Yeah, thanks a lot for leaving us!” (Okay, we did get one or two of those last ones, but generally in good fun). My guess is that when we say those things to people who have not attended in a while, it’s not much of a motivator for them to return on a regular basis. The handshake or high five or hug is probably a much more pleasant reminder of what is missed, and I’m sure it’s a much greater incentive to return than the healthy plateful of guilt we tend to dish out.
When I was a pastor/church staffer, I felt it was my personal and professional responsibility to get as many people to come to church as possible. In many ways, I was right; and if the numbers fell, then I felt guilty because I must be doing something wrong or not working hard enough. But I fear that I never had a true understanding of church from the other side, until I stepped away from it. After just five short weeks, I can already see some things that I wish I had known 25 years ago.
Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in the church, still believe it’s important to attend. But what I value in it has changed, and my understanding is much different from the outside, looking in, and sitting on the back pew.
So to all those former church members, if I bothered/guilt-tripped/harassed you for not attending church: I’m sorry! I was doing my job and I really didn’t see it from your perspective.
But even greater than that, to those who faithfully attended, participated, led, sang, met, “committeed”, “deaconed”, taught, prayed, practiced, and prepared: Thank you! A THOUSAND TIMES, thank you! I appreciate your commitment a thousand times more than I ever did–and should have–when I was a pastor. Unfortunately, it took this most recent life change to make me appreciate and value you the way that I should have all along.
While I always appreciated those dedicated leaders and members, I never realized just how much they contributed until I was sitting in their pew. I hope some pastors will read this, and learn the lesson a little sooner than I did.