Pastors in the church in America have an impossible job.
Think about it. They are often expected to do 99% of the preaching in a congregation, 98% of the evangelism, and the vast majority of the business administration. People assume that they know everything there is to know about the Bible, church history, denominational doctrines, psychology, sociology, science, the environment and interior decoration of a public building. This is in addition to having a near-perfect relationship with their wives and raising their children to be uniformly well-behaved in public. (Catholic priests are exempted from those parts.) They are supposed to suffer all fools gladly, receive every objection (no matter how petty or moronic) in a spirit of grace, and be available on-call 24/7/365 to deal with whatever crisis – real or imagined – a member of their congregation is experiencing. And I’m sure I’m leaving out a dozen other things that the average congregation or denomination includes in their job requirements for the position.
Look at that paragraph above and you’ll understand why some pastors burn out or fall into public sin. The shock should be that it doesn’t happen more often. There is no doubt in my mind that this is too much to ask of any man except Jesus – and I don’t know if He’d accept such a position if He were physically present on earth. If you think about it, heaping all that work on one man (or, in rare cases, woman) is patently ridiculous. Yet denominations often do it, congregations often do it, and sometimes pastors themselves will shoulder those expectations of their own free will. But it hardly strikes me as fair, to them or to anyone else. It’s amazing that anyone can keep their sanity under that load.
And yet by the grace of God, some manage to not only survive the experience, but still end up setting an example for the rest of us. I’m thinking of two of them as I write this.
A little background might be in order here. A couple of years ago, my wife (the Supermodel) returned to attending Bethany Community Church, a congregation we had both been a part of in Stockton previously. They were going through a rough patch, financially and otherwise, and ended up merging with a larger congregation called The Worship Center. Bethany had a building but also a mounting debt, shrinking attendance and no senior pastor; TWC had a pastor and plenty of cash in the bank but were meeting in a building rented from another congregation. So it was a win-win. The leadership of the combined congregation, seeing this as something of a new beginning, adopted a new name: Lifesong, taken from (I believe) a song by the group Casting Crowns.
Anyway, a little over a month ago, the Supermodel asked me to join her at Lifesong’s Sunday service; I’ve told her I’d be happy to do so whenever she wanted, and this was the first time she’d asked. The reason was very specific: David Shebley, the longtime senior pastor at Bethany, was coming back to speak that Sunday. David had stepped aside from Bethany a few years before in order to return to his passion for foreign missions (he and his wife Mardell had ministered in the Philippines back in the 1970s), and had started a parachurch ministry in Baja California to assist local pastors. So his being back in the States, and in Stockton in particular, was something of an event.
But something struck me when James Byrd, Lifesong’s senior pastor, was introducing David. He talked at some length about how, while he admitted to never having heard David speak, he had been told by several people what a great preacher David was. I had to think about that for a bit. I had been in David’s congregation for six years, call it 250-300 sermons. He was certainly a good preacher – his doctrine was as sound as you could hope for, and he presented his lessons well, without anything unnecessary or confusing. But I didn’t come to see him that morning, and my wife hadn’t asked me to be there, because of his dynamic or unusually high-quality speaking.
No, I was there because I’d gotten to know him a little. I’d gotten to see at least a touch of what he was made of.
David Shebley is a man for whom “pastor” is not just a job title, it is a description of his heart. The word “pastor” is actually a Latin word meaning “herdsman” or “shepherd” – one who cares for defenseless animals. And that’s what David did, and does – he cares for people. He listens to them, sympathizes with them, finds ways to help them, helps strengthen their weak spots and polish their strong points. He was the first person to recognize that a misfit wannabe-missionary who’d just arrived in his congregation in 1998 (me) might be a pretty good Bible teacher if given the proper encouragement and an adequate safety net. He nurtured me and prepped me to minister, and didn’t immediately force me to carry more than I was able or toss me aside when I made a mistake.
But he also was willing to accept that same misfit’s limitations. When I performed a song at a Wednesday night service that dealt with my dysfunctional relationship with my earthly father, he told me how good he thought it was, and asked if I could repeat it the following Sunday. I told him in all candor that I wasn’t sure I could – the subject was emotionally wrenching enough that it had taken me years to get to the point where I could do it once. Did he push me on it? Did he insist or even cajole in order to fulfill his original plan? Not for a moment. He told me he understood, thanked me again, and let it go. A lot of congregational leaders would’ve had a hard time doing that, but not him.
You see, he understood something that many ministers might lose sight of. He would say point-blank that God’s people belonged to God, not him, and it was for God to say where they go and what they do. If someone felt called to leave Bethany (as the Supermodel and I did back in 2004) and go elsewhere, he would give his blessing and let them go, trusting that God was in charge and would take care of all parties. He recognized that his job wasn’t about piling up numbers and nickels (too often the emphasis placed on and by pastors), it was about building up people who would love God and love each other, just as Jesus had said. That was his focus, and anything that didn’t lend itself to that end – ministering to and edifying people – was largely, and smartly, set aside.
There were only two disappointments to that morning at Lifesong. One was that I didn’t get more time to talk with David – not surprising, since given the work he’s done in so many people’s lives, EVERYONE wanted to talk to him. The other was that, due to a prior commitment, I wasn’t able to stay for the second service that morning. And the reason I would’ve liked to stay is also the second reason for this post: a man named Dean Kenedy.
Long before I knew Dean as a pastor, I knew him as a fellow student in the mid-‘90s, when both of us were taking Berean College courses to work toward ministerial licensing. (He got his license; I didn’t.) After the Supermodel and I had departed Bethany in ’04, one Saturday night we called several congregations we were interested in visiting, trying to get service times. We expected to hear answering machines listing when the services were held, but when we called Faith Tabernacle, we didn’t get a machine – we got Dean, who had slaved his cell phone to the church phone so that if someone called with an emergency, they’d get a human being instead of a recording. We were there the next morning … and every Sunday morning for over two years.
Again, we had been blessed to land with a true pastor, someone who put people first. Dean was in a tougher situation, with an occasionally fractious board, a Sunday school where the teachers often didn’t show up for their classes, an assistant pastor who may have felt that he should have been the senior pastor rather than Dean, and some family hassles on top of that. In the midst of all these difficulties, Dean never lost sight of his calling to love people where they were, and help them however he could. He found opportunities for both the Supermodel and I to use our gifts, was patient with us when we were frustrated, and did everything possible to help us succeed and let us know we were loved.
When I first began to write about the problems I saw in how the American church is organized and how it presents itself, the first person I showed my work to (after the Supermodel) was Dean Kenedy. It was he who encouraged me to keep pursuing the issues and not be discouraged if I face opposition. Later, I had the chance to share them with David Shebley, who had been a minister since the 1950s and could have read me the riot act for questioning the ministry style of his and subsequent generations. Instead he told me I was on the right track and gave me helpful advice on what to watch out for. (I could contrast these responses with things said to and about me by some other ministers regarding such matters. I won’t, but I could.)
And I could add many more examples to my testimony about David and Dean. When the Supermodel and I were still dating and worrying that our relationship might be moving too fast, David reassured us by telling how he and Mardell had married only five months after they met. (Translation: when it’s clearly God working, don’t sweat the timetable. They’re still married, and so are we.) We always remember what day they were married, too, because they spent much of their 49th anniversary apart … so that Mardell could be with the Supermodel as she gave birth to our daughter. And when the battery in our car died the night before I was to drive 400 miles to Orange County to be a groomsman in a friend’s wedding, it was Dean (from whom we had bought a used car once and who knew his way around an engine compartment) that came over, bought us a new battery, installed it and pooh-poohed any thought of our reimbursing him. These were not even extraordinary moments for them – this was how they lived.
Recent times have been hard for both of them. Dean stepped down from Faith Tabernacle intending to start a new ministry in Texas, but the door closed on him there. David and Mardell’s house in Mexico was recently burglarized, and he and Mardell have been dealing with some serious health problems (not too surprising – they are in their mid-seventies, after all – but still nothing you’d wish on anyone). They may have forgotten all about the kindnesses done for us in days gone by, the things the Holy Spirit did through them that blew our minds. But barring senile dementia, I will never forget.
One last memory. I recall talking with Dean in his office, about a particularly difficult member of Faith Tabernacle’s board, whom the Supermodel and I also had to deal with because we were Sunday school superintendents and his wife was one of the teachers. (Plus, it wasn’t a huge congregation anyway.) At some point in the conversation, both of us chuckling over the situation because laughing beat screaming, I remember saying, “I could never do your job.” The patience he had shown with this guy was simply beyond my capability to display at the time. Now, I’ve gotten a bit more patient over the years, but I don’t know if I could be the kind of pastor I’d want to be if I were in that position. I don’t even know if God would ever call me to fill such a post.
But I know that if I ever do become a pastor, I’d at least have two great examples to follow. David Shebley and Dean Kenedy, you are true pastors, shepherds of God’s flock. Thank you, thank you, thank you for doing His will.