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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"Bearing Witness" in 3 Minutes

One of my professors from seminary repeated two phrases that defined his ministry:

1) Don’t be dumb.

2) Be brief.

Although pastoral ministry is much more complicated than just these two rules they do capture the practical importance of how we manage our time with people. Don’t make dumb decisions. Don’t drag out sermons, funerals, hospital visits, or counseling sessions. If you can master these two simple rules, you’ll do well.

Part of the ministerial vocation (and the Christian identity) is to “bear witness” to the world that the Kingdom of God has drawn near to it. We announce the truths of the Gospel in our words and deeds, in our actions and in our non-actions. The church stands as a witness to the world that God is real, active, and desires the redemption of all people. The minister, wherever he or she goes, is to be the presence of Christ.

I’ve been able to practice “bearing witness” lately over the phone. It is no secret that my resume is available through both the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship database and the Mississippi Baptist Convention database of resumes for churches to download. I receive calls from churches in the South about twice per month. Usually the person who calls me is the Chair of the Search Committee. The Committee has just had their first meeting and the members have passed around resumes that they’ve downloaded from the CBF or MBCB databases. They see something they like on mine and put it in a pile of “contacts.” The Chairman then calls me to ask if my resume is still currant and if I would be interested in being considered for the Pastorate of their congregation.

Two things happen at that point. The Chairman tells me a little about the church, which often tells me everything I need to know about the congregation and how the phone call is going to end. Usually I get things like “we’ve had a problem with Calvinism” or “we need young families” or “we’re a very traditional church.”

The second thing I’ve learned to do is to be up-front with my two “deal breakers.” I tell the caller that I attended Truett Seminary at Baylor University, which is not one of the Big Six SBC seminaries like Southern, Southeastern, or New Orleans; usually this has been overlooked by the Committee in their quick survey of my resume. Secondly, I tell the caller that I am married to an ordained minister who works at a Baptist church in Jackson. I’ve learned that by being up-front with these two facts avoids their “inevitable discovery” later and questions from the committee.

When I tell the caller these two things I can usually discern a change in their tone. A bridge has been crossed, a mental box has been checked, or a light bulb has gone out. The brief, optimistic relationship I’ve made with the caller has changed.

They don’t call back.

There are several things going on here, most of which are beyond my intent in this post: going outside the SBC seminaries to the “liberal” seminary; implicitly supporting women in ministry (which is anathema to many Baptists); and the implications of the combination of these two facts, specifically my “liberalism,” which is actually an assumption of my spirituality and theology based on the “bogeyman” many churches have had painted for them.

My focus instead is the brief relationship I have with the caller. In the roughly three minutes it takes us to meet, share information about ourselves, and finally part ways I have an opportunity to bear witness to the Kingdom of God. These phone calls are the perfect time to follow my old professor’s advice: don’t be dumb, and be brief.

After so many calls over the last few years I’ve struggled with resentment over not being welcomed into a conversation with a church Search Committee because of my theological commitments. I’ve decided, though, that my 3-minute conversations with the movers and shakers of Baptist churches in the South is an opportunity to firmly, honestly, and confidently communicate my faith in who God is and what God is doing in Mississippi. It is a choice that I have to constantly reinforce, especially when the caller’s tone becomes so dismissive of me. I understand that I am probably more progressive than many SBC pastors, but I believe that if a longer conversation were possible these Committees would understand that I am not the caricature they assume me to be.

Our witness to the world includes our witness to other believers and to the organizations they represent. Even though we have significant differences on important issues, being part of the Body of Christ means that I must bear witness to my brothers and sisters, however briefly, that I am unwilling to let those differences prevent me from being honest, forthright, and kind.

Sometimes we cannot help but be brief, especially in the phone calls I’ve received these last few months. But it would be a gross violation of the ministerial axiom “don’t be dumb” to waste an opportunity to say, “I know we probably disagree, but I want you to know that I’m willing to sit and talk about our differences and similarities rather than to be cut off from you.”

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