As I write this on Wednesday, I haven’t had much sleep since Sunday.
There’s just too much going on in my head and my heart for them to be quiet enough so that I can doze off.
Sunday was my last regular worship service at Salem Lutheran Church in Creston, Iowa. It was my final opportunity to bring the Gospel message of love and hope to this amazing congregation. I know I have complained about some of the frustrations that come with trying to get across the message I want to convey. I realize now that those complaints were mostly just venting and the frustrations were petty.
I understand now more fully what a rare privilege it is to be a pastor in the church that Christ established on this earth:
- to be welcomed and invited to share the most sacred times of a person’s life.
- to be invited into the inner circle of peoples’ lives as they experience the joy of baptism, marriage, anniversaries, and special celebrations.
- to be entrusted to walk with them through the mystery of tragedy, illness, death, and despair.
- to be the one they turn to with questions that come from deep in their souls.
- to be the one to whom they turn when they are desperate for someone to throw them the rope of salvation in Jesus Christ that will save them.
As I think about the ideas I have tried to explore in this column, they have been mostly about the art, style and technique of effective communication. It has been that way because this is where my experience lies; this is the place that my life’s journey has taken me. I cannot imagine what this first-call pastor would have to say on any other subject that pastors would consider worth reading, and so, as I head into my second call, I will continue to write from this perspective.
But I found as I listened to my congregation at the end of my ministry here, that there is a key to preaching far more valuable than anything I have written. As usual, I can’t even remember who first gave me this key, because it was given to me long before I had any plans of being a pastor.
Somewhere along the line, I heard a wise, old pastor say there is only one secret to being a good pastor: “Love your congregation.”
I guess I always equated this with pastoral acts–being physically present when they needed me. But I see now that it is so much more, and I see how it is connected to preaching.
The sermon is my greatest chance to interact with the largest number of people in my congregation. This means it is my greatest chance to convey to my congregation how much I love them. It is my chance to reflect the love of God made visible in the person of Jesus Christ to the people who have entrusted me with so much and, as I am realizing more and more, have loved me so much.
Of all the advice I might give on the art of effective communication, the most important piece is something I never learned from a writing career. Indeed, it’s a lesson I only truly discovered this past Sunday.
I am going to tape these three words on the pulpit at my new call:
“Love your congregation.”
If I can do what these words say, in the sermons I write and deliver, in the stories I tell, in the arguments I make, and in the confessions I speak, they will hear the message of the Gospel as clearly as it can be spoken.