Thirty-one years in ministry afforded many experiences that were…well, funny, crazy, and some were just stupid. In our first job, nearly forty-six years ago, we were youth pastors at a small church, two hundred miles south of where we were attending college. We had a small upstairs apartment across the street from the church, which was convenient, until the landlady decided to put all our belongings out on the curb while we were away during the week. She was upset because some of the youth showed up and knocked on their door after they went to bed.
We were on our way back to school late one wintery Sunday night, with our brand new little puppy someone from the church gave us. In the middle of nowhere, the engine quit and we were stuck, freezing. A kind state trooper rescued us, returning us all the way to our trailer-park home at the college. On the way, our puppy threw up on the back seat of the squad car.
Our second position was at a small church in our college town, so, no more four-hour drives after Sunday night services. Again, I was a youth pastor, but was also the choir director. Directing choirs was just something I decided I could do. I never had any musical training other than piano lessons. I enjoyed directing very much and it came in handy many many times over the years.
One Sunday morning a new young couple visited the church. I happened to notice the man wore a ring that looked familiar, although, oddly, I didn’t recognize him. As we became acquainted in the following weeks, conversation finally included asking about his occupation. “I’m a state trooper,” he said. Yes. The same officer who gave us a ride home over a year earlier. And, yes, he remembered our puppy throwing up in his car.
Being young and eager sometimes combine energy to push common sense into the ditch. A ministry whose big plans and dreams far outweighed resources was looking for young people. We agreed to join them and moved to northern Illinois. We were told we would receive a certain salary, but after we arrived with our belongings in tow, they told us, “We can’t pay you.” Rather than running, we stayed. We told them, “God will take care of us.” There were only two redeeming factors in our year-long ordeal. Our landlords were a lovely old couple living in the other half of the large old farmhouse which was our home. They watched over us like parents, and were especially helpful when our daughter was born. Our beautiful little girl was the second blessing.
When we finally left for a real job, the leaders of the “ministry” actually said, “We couldn’t help you because you told us God would take care of you.” Abuse of employees by those who should know better is far too common in ministry.
We worked for a ministry in Texas the next four years. We were worship leaders on Sundays, and I was the conference planner and musician for the travelling ministry during the week. One Sunday as I was singing and playing the piano I happened to notice a large cricket hopping up behind me. As I continued to play, I waited until just the right moment and stomped the cricket with my right foot, never skipping a beat. Of course, the whole front row was laughing instead of singing.
There used to be a chorus, “All God’s children love livin’, livin,’ all God’s children love livin’ bread” to the tune of “Mama’s Little Baby Loves Shortnin’ Bread.” One Sunday I was teaching the song to the congregation, but when I started singing, instead of “All of God’s children…” I sang, “Mama’s little baby…” The pastor cackled and nearly fell out of his chair.
Perhaps the setting for some of the craziest things was the year we travelled across the country on our own. We preached, played and sang in churches, large and small…some were very small. On one occasion we were invited to California for a series of conferences. One thing that was always difficult for us was staying in homes rather than having the privacy of a hotel. We never knew what to expect and sometimes it was anything but comfortable.
One morning, after having arrived at a pastor’s home late the previous night, I walked into the kitchen where our host was cooking. “I have fried potatoes every morning,” he said. “Want some? Or maybe some toast?” I said toast would be fine. A few minutes later he tossed a piece of toast bouncing and flinging crumbs across the table to me. No plate, butter, or anything else. “Later,” he said, “we’re going to the grand opening of our new grocery store for lunch.”
At lunch time, we all piled in the car for a short trip to the new grocery store. I pictured maybe a buffet, or hotdogs, or burgers. Nope. We went up and down the aisles for small samples of items the new store was selling. This story has been told many times. The pastor and his small family was probably struggling to survive and what they shared with us came at a high price.
We were scheduled to be at a church in another state for four days. We had been with the pastor and his family before, so we looked forward to seeing them again. At the end of a long drive, we met the pastor and his wife at a restaurant. He asked if we would be willing to stay an extra day and do a concert the fifth night. We were happy to do it, until we arrived where we would be staying.
We walked into the old house and immediately felt uneasy. There was a young man sitting at the kitchen table studying. We noticed the coffee maker on the counter had mold growing in it. As the pastor showed us through the home we asked about the owner. “Oh, she died,” he said, “they found her in a coma in the house.” Ugh! We asked about the man in the kitchen, “He’ll be staying here with you.” I told him we weren’t comfortable with that and preferred he not stay. All I could think about was that we had just agreed to stay an extra day! We were creeped out.
One time I was playing and a mouse ran out of the piano by my feet. I guess he didn’t like the music. In one city I was privileged to play a nine-foot Steinway concert grand piano for a four-day conference. What a blast! I also enjoyed playing a Bosendorfer grand piano one time. I don’t remember if I actually used the extra keys.
For seventeen years we were lead pastors, in three churches. We continued doing music and directing choirs. I found the choirs provided relief from the pressures of pastoring. The piano was a constant companion, and at one church I even had the pleasure of choosing a brand new grand piano to be donated to the congregation by a family who lost a loved one. What a pleasure it was to play that beautiful instrument every Sunday and spent many hours playing during the week. I hated to leave it behind when we moved.
One Sunday I was about to play a studio piano which is taller than a spinet, shorter than an upright. I joked with the congregation as I was sitting down but hit my head on the edge of the piano and left a large creased goose-egg on my forhead. I can’t remember what I played.
One congregation met in a rented hall which had a stage with three steps. It was time to begin the service but I remembered something I needed at the back of the room. Walking to the edge of the stage, I tripped and rolled down the steps, plowing into the legs of two women sitting on the front row. As I lay on the floor, trying to decide if I was hurt, a lady leaned over and said, “Pastor, this is my friend, she’s here for the first time today.” I reached up and shook her hand. I don’t remember if she ever came back.
On a Wednesday night during the old-fashioned mid-week prayer meeting, I was giving a handout to the attendees and banged my leg on a pew and loudly said, “Ohhh shhhhiiinnnn!” I’m sure there were several who thought I was going to say something else.
A major leap forward into the 20th century involved replacing the old overhead projector with a very modern digital projector so worship songs could be projected onto a screen. I used my laptop so I could control the new machine while playing the piano. One thing I forgot to consider was the screen saver on my computer. After a Sunday morning service a man said to me, “Can I get equal time?” “What are you talking about?” I asked. “During the morning prayer, ‘Model Railroading Is The Greatest’ was scrolling across the screen.” Yep, my screensaver.
The all-time clincher happened on Easter Sunday morning, perhaps the most solemn, meaningful, revered, holy day of the entire year. The “Easter Sunrise Service,” for those who don’t know, means you have a service at the crack of dawn and then eat cold scrambled eggs and toast afterwards. I was reading the Easter story from the Scriptures, which included the description of Jesus being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. When the soldiers grabbed Jesus, the Apostle Peter took a sword and cut off the ear of a man named Malchus. Later, as Jesus was being questioned, the disciples stood around a fire with several others, trying to keep warm. I continued reading, “And standing at the fire was a woman, the sister of Malchus, whose Peter was cut off…” Obviously, it was supposed to be “Malchus, whose ear Peter cut off.”
I really need some more coffee.