I heard variations of that phrase from the beginnings of my ministry. A less nasty version of it might be, “Hey, pastor, you just work one day a week.”
Now in retirement, I can smile and maybe even roll my eyes.
An hour! One day? Folks worship on Sunday (likely their day off) and there’s the preacher! An hour or two later, the families and individuals hurry home, more than a few probably thinking the preacher’s “job” must be done. Right?
When younger, just a babe in ministry, that phrase could really rattle my ordained cage. I remember leaning over in the middle of a walnut orchard, collecting zillions of abandoned walnuts for a youth group fund raiser, and hearing a parent from that youth group “adventure” gleefully chortle: “Hey Larry, what a cushy job you have, you only work an hour a week!”
Outwardly I forced a smile, grumbled something, and kept shoving nuts into a bottomless, stinky burlap bag. Inside, I fumed. My muscles ached. My fingers were stained from walnut hulls. There I was, surrounded by trees on a stranger’s property, hours from home, with a gaggle of youth and their parents, picking an eternity of walnuts.
One of the annual activities for that youth group—and the youth were one of my responsibilities—was a fund raiser inspired by the seniorpastor’s friendship with a farmer who owned a sprawling grove of walnut trees. After farm workers and machines had gathered most of the nuts, the youth group was invited to come and get the leftovers. Oh, joy.
Then we sold the walnuts to church members after shelling and bagging them.
Shelling them. Lots of effort, too.
Bagging them. On the tasks continued.
If I only worked for sixty minutes on a Sunday, what was I doing dragging a bag around from dawn to dusk on a Saturday? If I only worked on Sunday, what was I doing miles from home? How could he joke about that with me?
Later in my career, slightly more mature, I reveled in my lack of work. I learned that many observed me accomplishing something on a typical Sunday that astounded them: I preached. I stood near a pulpit, sharing words and comfortably making eye contact with my listeners. Public speaking, in any form, usually ranks near the top of phobias. Many would rather be trapped in a claustrophobic space. Other might prefer to be encircled by spiders and snakes rather than talk in a sanctuary filled with a bunch of people.
I was vividly aware that if compared to others, I did very non-productive activities. I listened to people, I prayed, I encouraged, I visited, I wrote about stuff in church newsletters or web pages that few read, and had a lengthy list of other work-related events which never added one penny to the gross national product.
Teachers may come home and say, “My kids learned about fractions today!”
Carpenters, sawdust clinging to their sweaty arms, mutter, “Finished the framing today.”
Stockbrokers slip out of their fancy clothes while announcing, “Sold a gazillion shares today.”
I picked walnuts today. For free. Or, when visiting a person in the hospital . . . I, uh, listened to them.
Yes, there were the dreary days when I mostly pushed the same unfilled (and unfulfilling) papers around my desk. At one church I recall gazing through my office window with a surge of jealousy. Members of that congregation’s volunteer Tuesday Crew—retired guys that tackled odd jobs around the church—were fixing a broken bench. What a wonderful job, with a specific goal: this bench has to be torn down and replaced. And then came its obvious moment of completion: the newly built bench was painted.
Yup, I envied their well-defined task.
And yet what a privilege it was to have engaged in a career of “useless” ministry.
There were the seasons when I scheduled preparation time for sermons that would be preached six months or more later. I’ll discover what Biblical scholars thought about certain scriptural accounts. I might attempt word searches on the original Greek or Hebrew meanings. Or maybe, for a stretch of silence and prayer, I would ponder Jesus’ stunning “the meek shall inherit the earth” or Jeremiah’s confession in the opening verses of his namesake book, “Ah, Lord God. Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.
Work was wondering.
Work was the mind and spirit wandering.
How would I interpret the words to be preached? What would I imagine? What would I dream to encourage others to dream? Would God, in ways mysterious and blessed, nudge me toward a new truth or a forgotten hope? During many hot summers, did my discreet study, alone and in solitude, come to fruition in the chilly, raucous season of Advent?
In that private time, no nail had been pounded. Benches would be broken and repaired by others. Children would soon discover fractions. The stocks would rise and fall.
Years into my ministry, the questions shadowed me. Would the unseen work done on a “today” help another, when they later heard what I dared to preach? Would my summer efforts deepen their relationship with the Holy in the cold of winter? I prayed so. But I also knew it wouldn’t be marked on any time card.
Would that next visit, sitting beside a person’s hospital bed, listening to their hurt, and praying with them, make a difference? I prayed so. But it never made a big splash on my resume.
Yup, on most days I didn’t do much.
Ministry is a nutty job.