In 1978 Dick Jefferson was pastor of Temple Baptist Church, located on 19th Avenue in San Francisco. I had heard about him at Simpson because he had done something rather extraordinary. He had led the transition of his American Baptist congregation from traditional to charismatic. I had only heard of churches splitting in response to the introduction of spiritual gifts into a congregation. I was interested in the gifts of the spirit and had ambitions to be a pastor. A man who had successfully guided his congregation in this potentially dangerous process was someone I wanted to meet.
The Pastor’s Question
The location of the church was familiar since I passed it on my way home from Golden Gate Baptist Seminary in Mill Valley. When Diane and I were looking for a new church, we settled on Temple Baptist. I sat in Pastor Jefferson’s office about once a month, talking over whatever was bothering me. One afternoon, after quite a few of these conversations, he asked me, “Ron, what do you want from me?”
I said quickly, “I don’t have much of a relationship with my dad. I think I need you to be like a father.” He nodded, murmuring his acceptance of my response. I was not expecting the question, and was mildly surprised by how quickly I replied. The answer actually felt just a little on the glib side.
The Best Sermon I Ever Heard
One of his sermons had a strong impact on me. He spoke about the church at Corinth. I don’t remember what he said, but what I do remember is how I responded to it. It was an excellent sermon, and struck me as profoundly insightful. I admired that sermon and thought, “I want people to feel like this when I preach.”
In subsequent years I became a real fan of Ecclesiastes. When I read Ecclesiastes 4:4 — “And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor” — I realized that my admiration of this one sermon had, for my preaching, set the bar high and provided a powerful motivation. I had heard hundreds of expository sermons, sermons filled with information, some entertaining, but most were filled with fundamentalist fire. Now I wanted to move people the way Pastor Jefferson had moved me: with insight, understanding, and fidelity to scripture. Or, to put it another way, I wanted to be admired.
The Leadership Training Group
In a Bible study we attended I learned that the pastor led a leadership training group. I knew one of the young men in the group, Randy, from Simpson. Tall, with bushy black hair and a black mustache, Randy had been a year ahead of me in college. I didn’t know him well, but he once helped me make a particularly difficult decision.
I asked Pastor Jefferson if I could attend the leadership training group. He told me yes, and that he would discuss it with the group. The following Sunday we talked after church. “Ron, I’m afraid you won’t be able to attend the group. We made a covenant, that the group would have to agree on anyone new joining the group. I’m sorry, but they’re holding me to that agreement. I overstepped my bounds when I said yes.” I was disappointed, but I accepted the bad news graciously.
That Night at Work
That evening, after Diane and I watched The Prisoner, I went to the Holland Oil gas station on the frontage road in Pacifica where I worked the graveyard shift. When the late night business died down I left the pumps and sat on the metal chair in the barren office that faced the islands. Across the street was a car dealership. I began thinking about the news Pastor Jefferson had given me that morning.
As I thought about their refusal to let me join the leadership training group, I stiffened. Sitting completely still, I grew angry. I thought of Randy, the only person in the group other than the pastor who knew me. I sat in stony silence for many minutes. Glaring at the showroom across the street, I imagined shooting out the plate glass windows with a gun, one by one. Glass shattered on the sidewalk after each shot.
Eventually my anger subsided. “I guess the Lord doesn’t have this for me now,” I thought to myself. I soon connected this rejection to my plans to enter the ministry. “How can I really minister to laypeople if I don’t know what it is like to minister as a layman? I need to minister as a layman to know how to equip laypeople for their ministries.”
This was based, of course, on something Paul’s taught, that the work of pastors (indeed, the work of all the official folks in the congregations) is not to do the work of ministry, but to “equip the saints to do the work of ministry.” (Ephesians 4:11-12)
One summer during college I told an elderly woman that I was preparing to be a minister. “Really, a minister! What a fine young man you are!” she said with genuine enthusiasm. It only takes a few comments like that to convince a young person of the soundness of a decision to enter the ministry. But Jesus warned us about this kind of recognition.
The scribes and Pharisees . . . love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to be addressed as “Rabbi.”
The kind of recognition and respect I got was something I wanted, something I needed. But when they were threatened, my natural response was quite carnal. Although the “outbursts of wrath” and “selfish ambitions” were completely private, internal, and hidden from public view, they really were “the real me.”
It says in one of the pastoral epistles, “Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task.” During this period of my life, I spent a lot of time in Timothy. One of the requirements of an overseer is, however, to be “not violent, but gentle.” (I Timothy 3:1,3)
I’m not telling you something you don’t know. “Man looks at the outward appearance, but God sees the heart.” And when I’m really hungry and someone wants my food, I still growl.
I am sorry, I am not getting why this group would not let you be part of the leadership group??? What did they know about you? What inside information did they have that this pastor didn’t have and what about the leadership role of this pastor who allows this kind of authority to go rampant??
Okay, I dont get it…an EX. American Baptist Pastor.
I don’t think the group’s decision had to do with me, or at least not much. At the time, from Pastor Jefferson’s reply, I had the distinct impression that the group was holding him accountable to abide by the covenant rules to which he had agreed. If a pastor makes a commitment (in this case to submit all new members for the approval of the group), but the pastor renegs on the commitment, then the pastor loses credibility. I don’t fault him for abiding by the rules they had agreed on, nor the group for holding him accountable for an agreement he helped formulate. I assume the episode was a growing for everyone involved. I know it was for me.
Apart from any scriptural or spiritual interpretation of this event is the psycho-social one. Classic group dynamics are at play here, as it is in most churches and small groups. What I find sad about that is that Christ’s message is so INCLUSIVE. But humans often use the words of Christ and the doctrines of the church to draw distinctions that EXCLUDE others. How many times did Christ take the Pharisees to task for their so called righteous behavior? It does not really matter if this was directed at you or not, what matters is that the pastor allowed a restrictive situation to develop. It created a sense of entitlement among the members of the group and denied you to the opportunity for spiritual advancement. The benefits to the group is a sense of empowerment and feeling “select”. The benefit to the pastor is the allegiance of the group.
James, I have to disagree with your characterization that the pastor “allowed a restrictive situation to develop.” The rule regarding group approval for new members was agreed upon at the outset as part of the group’s covenant. It was a deliberate element in the covenant. You can agree or disagree with the “policy,” but it did not passively develop.
Personally, I think for pastors to participate in one church group as an equal, where the “rules” apply to them as much as anyone else, is a concrete, healthy step toward the experience of egalitarianism. The pastor violated the agreed upon rules, and the group’s experience of calling him on it, and his willingness to submit to the covenant he had agreed on, was likely a valuable experience for all of them. But I’m speculating here since I wasn’t part of the formation of the covenant.
What you’ve characterized as “entitlement” can just as easily be called “empowerment” or “a sense of ownership,” both of which are vital elements in community organizing and community building.
Just to clarify: I have an abiding antipathy for exclusivity and for hierarchy. Paolo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) and Howard Snyder (The Problem of Wineskins) are among my favorites. I have never formed a “closed group.”
I was pretty young when Leon Uris taught me the danger of human groups (i.e., National Socialism), but I doubt that psycho-social phenomenon are by definition evil.
(James, is my response an example of closing ranks or circling the wagons? Hmmm…)