“No, Steve, you can’t do that. It doesn’t look good.”
“Yeah, but my friends always go for wing night. What’s wrong with a beer-“
“What kind of example is that?”
I’d just finished my first year at Bible College, about to start my first full time ministry. I was sitting with Jason, a senior who’d already spent three years in ministry as I packed up my dorm room. Boxes lay scattered across the floor, and the not-so-faint aura of old coffee permeated the room. I kicked one of the boxes and slumped into a chair.
“I don’t get it. I mean, I don’t want to be a bad example. But how can I hang with people if I can’t, uh, hang with people.”
“Listen, it’s not easy being a Christian or a pastor. The bottom line is that whatever example you set will be duplicated by young people who look up to you. You have to watch what you do, Steve. Everyone’s looking at you.”
I nodded and started packing up some of my books. I’d accepted that being a Christian was going to be hard, and that being a minister was going to be even tougher. And Jason knew more about this than I did. There were certain expectations in the ministry, and I intended to fulfill them. Jason noticed the sudden slump of my shoulders.
“Listen, it doesn’t mean you can’t live. You just have to be careful, that’s all. It isn’t good for the church to have people talking about their pastor going to a pub or a movie or whatever. God has set you apart for a reason, so you have to live apart.”
“Honestly, Steve, once you live with it for a while, it’s not a big deal. You get used to it.”
He was right. I would adjust. I wanted nothing more than to serve God, and if it meant a few sacrifices, I could deal with it.
I was well past my first year of ministry when I realized that I’d made the adjustment. I’d learned what I could and couldn’t say to people in the church, what topics to avoid, the things that I could do and the places that I could go without reproach, and how to slide away from certain questions without committing to a specific answer. There was a list of unwritten rules that were assiduously followed by both pastoral staff and congregants, especially for those who carried the weight of power in the church.I found the rules to be chafing, and at times it occurred to me, watching from ‘behind the curtain’ one power struggle or another, whether it was about who got what Sunday school classroom to the type of worship, that there was something wrong with the whole system. So little seemed to be organic and free. Even the spontaneous ‘altar calls’ were taken into account when we planned the services. Obviously, organization and planning was important, but was this really what God had in mind? I knew from my own struggles that while my conduct was becoming increasingly smooth and consistent, my faith was shriveling under the constraints of organization.
We were creating a group of professional Christians, but were we making disciples?
The water blinked in the early evening sunlight, and the sound of the geese and ducks waddling along the shoreline filled the air as I ran down the path, dodging a young boy running away from his mother towards the birds. The smell of dried summer grass filled my senses. It was warm tonight, but the breeze off the water was just enough to keep it comfortable.
I’d never been much of a runner. Too short and thick to produce the long strides necessary for competitive running, my formative years had been spent playing football and basketball and baseball. Despite that, I’d grown to like more and more these past few years to enjoy the feel of the ground beneath my feet, the cardio induced exhaustion at the end of the run, and the sense of accomplishment no matter how slow I ran.
I passed another runner, an older man wearing a yellow windbreaker, who nodded at me as we passed. I nodded and smiled, and glanced over again at the water on my right, enjoying the way it sparkled and shimmered like a rich cache of diamonds. A young couple passed me, running almost as slow as I was, talking and laughing. They nodded at me, and I again nodded back. Something I hadn’t known before I’d started running was this almost secret pact between runners. As if I’d joined a club without even realizing it. Not every runner acknowledged you, especially the competitive ones, with their Oakley shades and arrogant air as if you weren’t even there. But they were the exception, not the rule.
I passed a thicket on my right as the ground dipped towards the bridge. Just a bit further. I could feel my legs burning. Every step hurt, and a cramp had wormed its way into my ribs. I pushed harder, and suddenly lost myself in the breathing and rhythms of trying to finish as the gray wall of the bridge came into view. Finally. I touched the brick and came to stop, bending over at the waist to gulp some air before heading back up the hill, walking along the left of the path before veering onto the grass towards home.
The sweat streamed down my face and with the fresh loads of oxygen coursing through my body, I couldn’t help but smile. It struck me that I would never want to race. I could be intensely competitive, a tendency bred through a lifetime involved in sports. But even if I’d been good enough, I wouldn’t want it. Being a professional runner would take all the joy out of it, or so it seemed to me. Watching your form, measuring your times, always understanding that when you ran… you were practicing for the race. I probably wouldn’t notice the ‘recreational’ runners either, and at the end of the run, I wouldn’t be smiling unless I’d finished under a certain time. So much of the joy of running came during the run itself, even the painful parts when it felt like someone jammed a spear into your side. As much as I tried to push myself, it never bothered me to walk for a bit. The goal wasn’t to win. The goal was to run.
The gravel crunched under my feet as I passed by a small church, almost hidden next to a French elementary school. There’d been days recently, where this idea of going back to seminary, of going back to the ministry, absolutely disturbed me. I was no longer interested in being a Professional Christian. To be someone who said all the 'Right Things' and did everything the 'Right Way'.
Whenever I looked at Scripture, Jesus acted as anything but a Professional Religious Guy. He didn’t care what anyone thought, least of all the Religious pros of his time. They ridiculed him, called him a drunkard and a friend of sinners. But Jesus didn't care what they thought of him. He partied at feasts and hung out with whomever and wherever he thought he could make a difference, reputation be damned. He talked to women when no one else would. He extended mercy to adulterers without giving up his convictions. He addressed different races, including his people’s oppressors, without blinking. Even his closest friends questioned ‘his wisdom’ in his approach. Didn’t he realize what he was doing? Did he not realize that his reputation, his credibility, would be ruined?
I waited at the light until it changed. I crossed the street and headed up the hill towards my building. I have often wondered why so many people think that the church is filled with hypocrites. There are some, to be sure, but most churches are filled with people who really do love God, who really are trying to make a difference. Maybe then, the problem isn’t in the people, as much as it’s in the approach. Maybe it isn't what we are, but what we proclaim to be.
If I told people that I was a competitive runner, they’d only have to see me run once or twice to realize the truth. Maybe our problem is not that the church is filled with hypocrites, but that we have convinced people that they are Professionals, and not just the ministers and clergy. Maybe we’ve missed the point of what church is, and instead of understanding that we’re all just ‘recreational’ runners, we’ve outlined rules and guidelines that ‘distinguish’ ourselves from the rest of the pack. But is there really a place for professionalism when we follow Jesus? We can ordain people because we recognize they have a certain calling on their life, but even then, there’s no such thing as a professional disciple. How many times did Jesus have to correct his own guys, the twelve disciples, about that very thing?
My building looms in front of me, and I head around back to stretch. The sun is starting to fade, and it's cooler now as I lay out on the grass. I still have misgivings about re-entering the ministry. I suppose that it’s natural, although that doesn't make it any easier. At least this time I’m no longer worried about my reputation. I’m no professional. I'm an amateur, happily so, and just like my running, eager to do the best I can with what I’ve been given. I’ve thrown away my timer and my goals and my urge to win, and replaced it with a childlike eagerness to merely run wherever God leads, and to enjoy the scenery and community along the way. I know there will be painful moments, and I know there will be moments when I’m alone on the path, but if things get too rough, I can always walk. And if necessary, rest for a while.
This week, ask yourself this question. Are you a professional, or a disciple? Do you run for the end, or is the end the run itself? And most important, is there freedom and joy along your path, or checkpoints and measurements?
My prayer is that we would all realize that God is not as interested in our performance as He is in us, that no one cared more for others than Jesus and yet no one ever had a worse reputation, and that our best, whatever that is, is always enough.