Before I arrive at my favorite country store, I can know instinctively who I might see once I get there. All I’ve got to do is glance at my watch. Based on what time it is, I’ll have a decent idea of who is working. I may even get a good guess on a few of the regulars who will be hanging out.
This time was no exception.
Mickey was sitting on the bench out front. That’s because every day about this time, Mickey always sits out front of the store. He’ll smoke a cigar out there. Sometimes, he might buy an apple and enjoy it while watching the traffic.
Years ago, a local real estate group had spied the large expanse that was the storefront sidewalk. All there was at the time was a Coca-Cola vending machine, an ice machine and an old pay telephone booth. They asked Winston if they might provide a large, fiberglass bench that would hold two or even three people comfortably.
The bench would be free of charge, but their logo would stretch across the upright front of it. When it was empty, the logo of the Southside Reality Co. would proudly shine for passersby to see.
For years now, the bench had long since taken its place right next to the double-doored ice machine. Every afternoon for a stretch, the real estate logo would be obstructed by the reliable form of a relaxing Mickey.
As I rolled up at Bubba-Doo’s about 3 o’clock, sure enough there he was sitting out front. The weather was stunning that day. I was off for the afternoon and didn’t need to be in a rush to head home. I asked him if he would be out there for a while still and if I could join him on the big bench.
“Go get you a cold drink and I’ll be right here,” Mickey replied. The fruit he had just started working on backed up the notion.
“If an old man ever gives you advice while peeling an apple with his pocket knife, and eating the pieces directly off the blade, take the advice.”
These days, there is a popular saying. “If an old man ever gives you advice while peeling an apple with his pocket knife, and eating the pieces directly off the blade, take the advice.” While I find the notion cute, I understand that not everyone who can do such a thing might give out the soundest advice.
Mickey was that guy, though. He sensed things. He knew things. He was savvy and had learned from his years.
As I joined him, we exchanged pleasantries. He asked how things were at home. The usual questions you might trade. Then, he posed an insightful line of questions.
“Pastor, how long’ve you been at that church now?” Sure enough, he took a bite of apple right off the knife blade.
“Well, I’m a little past five years. It has flown by!”
“You think you’ll stay a while longer?” he asked.
“I don’t know, Mickey. Have you heard something?” Then, we both laughed.
“Oh, no. Definitely not,” he said. “I know some of your people. They seem to love you. I know they love your wife!” We laughed again. I told him that every church I’ve served has loved my wife something fierce.
“Five years …” he continued on. He looked off across the road. For a second, we watched the fellow who lived over there. At certain times of the day or evenings, there can be a lot of cars that seem to stop and park at the rather plain white house. Rumor has it that this gentleman is actually selling alcohol from inside the house.
If true, he is basically running a bar without a liquor license. Right at the front door of a legitimate establishment that runs a duly licensed bar of its own inside, that kind of illegal activity nearby doesn’t go down well with everyone.
So, we just sat on the bench and both of us were doing the mental calculus of how he’s supplying the thing. How he’s getting away with it. Maybe musing on why so many seem to know about the operation, yet law enforcement hadn’t shut him down yet.
Truth is, just enough time had passed that I was getting relaxed. OK, between all the transfixed staring and the hum of the road noise, if I am truthful I was beginning to get a little sleepy. That’s when Mickey mumbled again, “Five years. Are they still treat’n you good?”
“I needed to give him a thoughtful and true answer. But also, if I loved my congregation, I needed to be a decent ambassador of the church.”
Now I was awake again. Because I had a couple of basic responsibilities in answering his question. First, I needed to give him a thoughtful and true answer. But also, if I loved my congregation, I needed to be a decent ambassador of the church. Even a facial expression that didn’t match my answer could call into question anything I might say next.
“Yes. Yes, they are Mickey,” I answered without hesitation. “They are better to us than we probably deserve.”
He followed up. “We sure do like you. But I know we aren’t your paying congregation here at Bubba-Doo’s.” Then he continued. “I’m guessing the shine is kinda worn off though, right?”
“Tell me more about your question, please,” I said.
“Well, I mean when you pastors get introduced and the church is try’n to decide whether to vote to hire you or not, it’s got to be a little like being the prize hog at the state fair,” he explained.
I laughed. But I also knew he knew what he was talking about. “Yep. There’s a lot of people who circle around at first and poke you in the haunches,” I responded. “They want to know why the committee stuck the blue ribbon on you.”
“There’s a lot of people who circle around at first and poke you in the haunches. They want to know why the committee stuck the blue ribbon on you.”
“So, is it the same now after five years? Or is it different, even if it’s still good?” he asked. That was a thoughtful question. The kind of question ministers all too rarely encounter.
We talked a while about this. First of all, there is no perfect church. And there is no perfect minister. Five years is long enough that the pastor has discovered all of the disappointments and blind spots the church probably has. One can see the differences in how they represented themselves during the search versus what really is there.
The church, in turn, has figured out that they did not, in fact, hire the perfect pastor. They know your weakness, too. They know what you are likelier to put your energy into and what you aren’t. They have figured out what you are better at and what you aren’t so good at.
When you think about it, if things are still going pretty well after a period of time like that, it feels downright miraculous.
Here’s the other thing, and supposedly there are scholars who have studied this church pattern: When a new pastor shows up, the nice people of the church tend to sit back and watch the least-healthy-behaving members come at you.
They watch to see how you’ll handle things. Unconsciously, they also don’t want to get involved because they value peace so much. So, a new pastor is basically left to deal with the emotionally sick and demonized on his or her own.
“To pastor a church is to be stoned to death with popcorn.”
If you can survive all that, or if you don’t give up, hopefully you move on to more important pursuits. Still, this rite of passage can be a bit annoying. The great pastor Carlyle Marney once said, “To pastor a church is to be stoned to death with popcorn.” You tend to wonder why no one is protecting you. You wonder why the church chihuahuas have been allowed to bark and nip at your ankles.
Now, Mickey came at his inquiry a different way. “Do you still feel appreciated?”
“I think I do,” I said. Then I snickered, “Have you ever heard the saying, ‘Every pastor resigns their congregation on Sunday night, only to reaccept the call by Friday afternoon?’”
“I mean, are they knocking on our door with a bag of corn fresh off the stalk every other day? Not anymore. Are they asking us out to lunch after church as much? No.” I went on. “You sort of become a part of the furniture at some point. And that’s a little bit understandable.”
Mickey grunted, thought for a minute, and said, “That’s probably not all bad, is it?”
“No, no it probably isn’t,” I guessed. “I have a little list of things I wish were different. But as I said, there’s no perfect church out there.”
“So, what’s still here for you?” he asked.
“Oh, there’s a lot left for us to do.” I said. “The COVID pandemic really robbed us of more than two good years. We have a lot of specific mission things from before that we’d still like to accomplish together. Plus, coming out of COVID we also discovered some new needs in the community.”
Then I added, “Here are two more big things: First, with a changing community around us we’ll have to reinvent ourselves a little bit in these next years. Second, we also have some new people getting to know our church. I hope they’ll join. They’re excited. That keeps me pretty energized.”
“If you had to go through a worldwide crisis of this magnitude, these were about as good a people as we could imagine being with.”
What I didn’t say, but should have, is something else my wife and I realized right toward the end of the weird global pandemic. That is, if you had to go through a worldwide crisis of this magnitude, these were about as good a people as we could imagine being with. They are level-headed, wise and caring.
“What would keep you here, pastor?” Mickey asked now. I reiterated that I hoped he didn’t know something I didn’t. He chuckled and assured me that he, in fact, did not.
“Well, I think knowing for sure we’re still wanted is the biggest thing. That, and feeling like there’s still an opportunity to do what we need to do,” I told him. “Besides, I’ve probably never seen my wife happier than right here, right now. That counts for a lot.”
“What could cause you to go somewhere else?” he followed up.
“I’ve always said that the day I feel like the congregation has collectively yawned at me, I’ll know I need to go,” was my answer. And I would. “If I feel like I’m not leading and inspiring them, then they need someone else.”
“Of course,” I added, “I’m not sure most church people have grasped the nationwide shortage of ministers these days. If they did, they’d probably stay awake and really be careful about what happens.”
“They might decide that being stuck with me isn’t so bad after all,” I quipped. “Say, Mickey. I’ve really enjoyed this. Thank you for some questions that matter.”
He grinned. “We sure get a kick out of it when you stop by here. It’s like you’ve been one of us forever. I’ll see you when I see you.”
“You got it, man. It’s always good to see you,” I said. And it is.
It’s always good to find thoughtful, caring people. At first glance, Mickey might look gruff. He might seem to just be a cornbread-fed good ole boy. But he’s got a lot going on in that mind of his. He’s also got a big, soft heart underneath it all.
Truth is, I’d take an army of Mickeys to go through life with, goodness knows. Turns out, you can find people like that in your congregation if you look for them. You also can find them hanging out pretty regularly at a country store near you. Just don’t get in a hurry to try the pocket knife blade thing with the apple. It ain’t for amateurs.
Charles Qualls serves as pastor of Franklin Baptist Church in Franklin, Va. He is the author of eight books.
Articles in the Bubba-Doo’s series: