Question #18

I’d hoisted my 30-pound bag of overpriced kibble onto the counter as the pet store’s owner—let’s call him Tom—stopped clicking the cash register’s keys and gazed at me.

He asked, “You’re the minister, right?”

The 2nd Sunday of Easter – for May 1, 2011

“Do not doubt, but believe…” (from John 20:27)

I’m a regular at Tom’s store. With three cats and an aging dog, my wife and I try to be responsible pet owners. I’m also a minister and rarely hesitate to share that information with folks. Selflessly, telling another you’re an ordained United Methodist pastor is one way to open doors to conversations about faith. Selfishly, I recall a Disneyland vacation (early 1960s) and being fascinated by a sign on the entrance kiosk. It listed ticket prices. Adults cost the most. Children were cheaper. Clergy received a 50-cents-off discount! I don’t think Mickey Mouse and his bottom-line buddies offer that deal any more, but it made an impression on me. Who knows what experiences will contribute to your future calling?

“Yes,” I replied to Tom, “I am a minister.”

His fingers hovered above the keyboard. He still hadn’t added the low-fat salmon & chicken feline food we always buy. Madison, in age our middle kitty and in size a cat with an ever-expanding middle, requires this special (overpriced) grub. So says our vet.

“What do you think are some of the obstacles to becoming a minister?” Tom asked.

If I’d been a stockbroker, maybe he would’ve asked when Bank of America might finally climb over $20/share again. Or if a doctor, he’d jab at an elbow or earlobe and ask why it throbbed in the heat.

I reminded Tom I was on leave-of-absence because of wanting to spend more time with my wife (a Top 10 obstacle: ministry’s impact on a family). I quickly added a second Top 10 no-brainer: life in a fish bowl. In most parishes, “everybody” knows what you’re doing.

Tom interrupted. He had an agenda. He wanted to talk about how much ministers were paid. Tom shared about feeling a call to preach, but he’d gone into his family business. When that business took a nasty financial nose-dive, he careened into debt. Now he and his wife were balancing several jobs, the pet store being one of them, battling their way back to financial solvency.

“Ministers don’t earn very much, do they?” Bob asked.

What would you say to someone about obstacles?
Would the “low” annual income be on your list?

In my United Methodist tradition, we ask a series of questions before ordination. These are “historic” queries, developed by John Wesley over two hundred years ago. There are about twenty of them . . .

#18 is: Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?

And your answer is? Graduates from seminary leave with diplomas and five-figure debts: maybe $20,000, maybe $70,000. More? Ministers serve churches where a salary is dangerously near whatever the federal government currently designates as the poverty level.

I think of other ordination obstacles. Or, regardless of a fancy title before your name, simply living out a daily faith. In John’s Gospel, “doubting” Thomas highlights two demanding, similar obstacles.

Along with Jesus’ other disciples, Thomas witnessed the Nazarene’s words and actions. After the first generation of believers, no one had a boots-(or sandals)-on-the-ground encounter with Jesus. Believing without knowing, for some, can be a troubling obstacle. Secondly, Thomas’ nickname represents a huge obstacle for others: DOUBTING. Fear of being wrong keeps our mouths shut. Fear of being foolish means we may speak, but stick with safe platitudes (God closes a door and opens a window) or feeble clichés (time heals all wounds) that we don’t even agree with.

What are your obstacles to ministry? What are the deepest, truest, and most troubling obstacles? I wonder about Tom. I suspect there may be more than any answer he might give to #18.

In English, debt and doubt are similar. Exchange “e” for “ou.” Or vice-versa. Maybe money and skepticism are closely related. And yet too little money and too much doubt aren’t in my Top 10 obstacles. Being on a leave-of-absence reveals one of my “deepest, truest, and most troubling” reasons: I’ve never figured out how to balance time between church and family. It has always been a struggle.

I told Tom the truth as he helped me load kibble into the car. I hope he’s doing ministry right now: in how he treats employees and serves customers, with time he spends with family, and in the ways he loves himself as he relates to God and neighbor.

All of us, I believe, are indebted to God’s stunning love. And, without a doubt, we have daily opportunities to “repay” that debt.

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