My Journey to Become Something Else
I became something else, something other than what I naturally would have become—by becoming an evangelical pastor. Do not underestimate the difficulty of the task. While I generally agree with evangelical theology, I am at odds with the evangelical subculture and its version of holinesses. The office of pastor applied pressure that created in me a Christlike character. If I would have said no to the call, I would not have been changed.
Every pastor knows the restrictions of the profession. For one thing, you can't be yourself. For some of us, this is a plus, considering who we really are! A pastor has to act like an adult even though he is tempted to put his hand under his arm and make a rude noise. On the positive side, pastors are required to take people and their anger, hurt, wounds, and troubles seriously. Caring for people creates a depth of character that would be hard to develop otherwise.
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On the negative side, pastors have to put up with a lot of unholy nonsense. Every Sunday when I was pastoring, I was expected to lead the congregation in prayer in a rather priestly way. The pastoral prayer, as it was called, has now faded away in most churches. I didn't care for this ritual; the organ would play in the background for effect while I attempted to pray a really good prayer. If I could make my voice shake or conjure up a tear now and then, all the better. It made me holy.
When I first arrived at the church there was a backlog of young couples that wanted to get married—about ten as I remember it. I began a busy season of premarital counseling. As I interviewed the couples, I learned that several of them were in a hurry to marry because of pregnancy. According to the church wedding policy, pregnant couples had to be married in the chapel. They were not allowed to be married in the sanctuary and only immediate family members were allowed to attend the ceremony as guests. The bride was not supposed to have a white dress. This was the penalty the couple had to pay for the pregnancy. I didn't agree with the policy because it didn't deal with the real issues—premarital sex and a judgmental spirit.
As I quizzed the couples I found that most of them were engaging in premarital sex, but according to church policy they could have the full wedding with white dress and all because the brides-to-be weren't pregnant. I went to the church board and explained that the sin was premarital sex—not getting pregnant—and that most young engaged couples were having sex. I felt that to be consistent, they should have to pay the same penalty as the couples who were expecting babies. Some of the offenders were their sons and daughters. When I finished, the room was silent. I gave the board a choice. I could either bring every case before them, one by one, or they could leave the matter to my judgment as pastor. To my great sigh of relief, they left it up to me. This was a small part of the shame-based Christianity I found in the church. These were well-intentioned people who selectively punished others for a common sin rather than seeing the real evil: a judgmental attitude.
The dead hand of religion works this way. A healthy environment creates openness and honesty; a religious spirit creates people who are closed and dishonest. A closed, dishonest environment that punishes people who tell the truth is destructive. I disliked the pretentious spirit of folks who followed the rules on the outside but were dirty on the inside: church leaders who read Playboy, yet railed against pornography; self-righteous board members who slithered out to the local racetrack and played the ponies; the Sunday school superintendent who smoked a joint in his garage every day to calm himself down after work; the church soloist, a wife and mother of two, who committed adultery with her high school sweetheart when he "just happened" to stop by one day; the junior high youth sponsor who was arrested for child molestation; church members who were arrested for solicitation of a prostitute; the male cross-dressing Sunday school teacher who had a better wardrobe than his wife; the wife beaters and the stalkers. What I marveled at was not the behavior; it was people's ability to just whistle along in life as though living two lives was normal. I am just as sinful as any of them, but in real Christian living, there is repentance, forgiveness, restoration, and living in the safety of an environment of grace. The duplicitous life of many Christians exhausted my sense of credulity; I just couldn't believe that life in Christ had to be this smarmy.
I began to see that people were stuck in these destructive patterns because they didn't know how to change. They needed an environment of grace, a place where they felt safe to confess their sins. If the Enemy can keep us isolated in our own secret compartments of private sins, then we are prisoners. The first great truth that struck me was that God treats me better every day than I deserve to be treated. We call that grace. I needed to start treating these people that way rather than being frustrated or put off by them. To do this, I had to admit to myself that I had some of the same underlying issues. While the religious structure of my profession had kept me from committing many of the hot, juicy sins, my attitude toward people who committed certain sins was just as sinful as anything they did.
If I had not been a leader, I don't think I would ever have been challenged to learn to love people the way Christ loves them. I would have felt I had the option of walking away. Becoming a leader called me to become something else. I was very young then, and I didn't get all the way there, but I made progress. The church was deeply wounded, a root of bitterness had taken hold, and many were acting out of fear and frustration. In trying to establish an environment of grace and reconciliation, I took on a great deal of criticism. I led meetings with the goal of bringing about reconciliation only to be accused of taking sides. I had never had enemies before, at least the kind with names and faces I shook hands with and sat across from at church dinners. I always envisioned grand enemies: editors of newspapers, theologians, politicians, and people of importance. Mine were housewives, retired schoolteachers, housewives, insurance salesmen, housewives, janitors, and housewives. I am sure I would not have reached any kind of Christlikeness without my enemies. What a gift they were to me. I want to say, "Thank you, enemies. I want to give you a big hug." Because of their criticism, I got on my knees and prayed, Lord, I am not afraid of any change you want to make in my life.
In general, being a leader helped me begin to take ownership of the effect I was having on people. I was driving people rather than leading them, pushing rather than pulling. The criticism was deserved in that I was violating people's kingdoms, their natural boundaries that protected them from intervention. I learned that leadership was about helping people see that Christ was the treasure, and selling everything to get him was the wisest choice anyone could make (see Matthew 13:44).
Written by Bill Hull
Taken from The Christian Leader by Bill Hull. Copyright © 2016 by Robert W. Hull. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.