CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter –
I think what success I had as a minister was due largely to my conservatism.
When I was the Wesley Foundation campus minister at IN State U, I was friends with a whole raft of young professors who came there at the same time I did. Andre’ Hammonds in Sociology, Jim Knoblauch in Business, Bob Epps and Bob Clouse and Richard Pierard in History, Phyllis Graham in math, Rich Stephens in Education.
Rich was a very active Free Methodist church layman and went on to become president of Greenville [IL] College [now Greenville University]. He and I were chatting one day about the role of a pastor. He said, “I need my pastor to be more conservative than I am.”
That surprised me. From what I had seen of the church, I thought a pastor had to be more liberal than the congregation, to pull people out of their conservatism, out of their ruts.
Rich explained, “I am personally conservative. But I need to be liberal in dealing with other people. That’s the Jesus way. So I need a pastor who is a little more conservative than I am to be my anchor, so I can venture out into more liberal waters, but know I have someone to pull me back if I get into danger. If my pastor is more liberal than I, then as I try to follow him, if he gets too far ahead, I might drown.”
I’m not sure I ever fully understood that, and no pastor can be just the right mixture of conservative and liberal, because each person in the congregation is a different mixture than any other. As I look back on my career, though, I think I fulfilled Rich’s maxim most of the time by being conservative in dealing with myself, but, as he wanted to be, liberal in dealing with others, trying to find ways to include rather than exclude, even if, especially if, the “others” were not like me. As Rich said, because it’s the Jesus way.
By conservative personally, I mean that I was opposed to booze, drugs, promiscuity, gambling, tobacco, profanity, greed, lust, pornography, envy, adultery, lying, etc. All the traditionals. The ones that don’t seem to matter much to people who call themselves conservative or evangelical in the 21st century. I was not perfect, especially when it came to envy—mostly of people who got grandchildren before I did—but I was generally pretty consistent in personal conservatism, so anyone who needed a more conservative pastor could assume I filled that role.
But theologically and politically I was liberal, meaning I was more eager to try new ways of living the Gospel, that fit the present time, than requiring people to live it in the old ways, that fit a former time, more eager to include than to exclude. I wanted to gain converts instead of burn heretics.
Unfortunately, today “conservative” has little to do with “my” behavior but everything to do with “your” behavior. “Liberal” has little to do with anybody’s behavior. Do I sound like an old guy, or what?
But I’m not an old guy, because society won’t let me be one. I was so looking forward to being a curmudgeon in my old age and criticizing others for being too liberal, for wanting to try new ways that I don’t like because they are different from my old ways. Instead, no one else is willing to be personally conservative while being socially liberal. I have to keep being me. This has NOT turned out the way I hoped!
John Robert McFarland
“If you don’t learn to laugh at trouble, you won’t have anything to laugh at when you’re old.”
This is Vacation Bible School week at St. Mark’s Down From the Polly Grimshaw Trail. I stopped by about 11:00 Monday to see if I could pick up a little extra funeral business, assuming a teacher or two would have committed suicide. I told the director why I was there. “Come back Wednesday,” she said.
And I should have put in a plug for There’s No Wrong Way to Pray before VBS got started all over the place, but it’s good for Sunday School, and home, anytime. Written by ten-year-old Kate Watson, with a little help from her mother, Pastor Rebecca Ninke, with delightful illustrations by Liam Darcy, it’s published by Beaming Books and available from B&N, Target, Amazon, etc.