By Barry Howard
With the celebration of yet another birthday this week, I have officially started on my third year past the half century mark. I suppose I am complimented by the term “middle aged” because I have reached that central season of life with exceptionally good health, with my sanity intact, and I still enjoy attempting to fulfill my calling.
However, it does occur to me that the way I see life and faith and church through the lenses of a middle-aged pastor is rather unique. I am neither a militant traditionalist or a rabid post-denominationalist. I was mentored by some of the great pastors of the 1950’s and 1960’s. And I appreciate many of the innovative and creative non-traditional approaches to pastoral ministry that I see working in suburbia and around the globe.
In the rural context of my home church, I “felt the call” to ministry at age sixteen and preached my first sermon two weeks later. I started serving part-time on a church staff at age 18 and was serving full-time by age 19. This year I begin my 34th year in pastoral ministry.
If nothing else, thirty four years of service on the staff of Baptist churches means that I have a little durability. Although there have been hurdles and a few monumental challenges along the way, overall I have been blessed with the opportunity to serve alongside some great, yet imperfect churches.
Supposedly everyone entering middle age goes through a stage of re-thinking life. For some, it is a painful agonizing struggle, often second guessing important decisions made along the way. For some, it is a time of re-direction, often resulting in a change in vocations, hairstyles, automobiles, and occasionally, even spouses. For me, however, middle age, so far, has been a time of reflecting, thinking about how I’ve changed and how much more room I have to grow.
If confession is good for the soul, maybe I will be more healthy if I confess where I am and what I believe about church and ministry at this point in my life as a middle-aged pastor:
- Other churches and other ministers are my colleagues, not my competitors.
- Being the church is more important than going to church, but I cannot fathom how we can do one without the other.
- For me, the authenticity of a pastor is more important than the authority of the pastor.
- Ministry energizes me. Trying to keep others focused on ministry exhausts me.
- What we do inside the doors of the church should make a drastic difference in who we are outside the doors of the church.
- I continue to discover the family of God to be much more inclusive and much less exclusive than I previously imagined.
- An open Bible and an open mind always trump a closed Bible and closed mind.
- As a pastor and a Christian, I am to be priest and prophet, not judge and jury. (I am free to love, share, and exercise grace toward all kinds of people without having to first judge their worthiness. I am relieved to know that whatever final judgment looks like, I will not be the one holding the gavel.)
- Church should be a clearinghouse where talents and gifts are blessed and sent, never a warehouse where talents and gifts are counted and stored.
- In the Christian life, I believe the local church is where the action is. The church is where faith is nurtured, where community is cultivated, and where missional service is launched.
Actually my pastoral confession of faith is much more lengthy. At this point in my life, I have more questions than answers. I get frustrated far too easily with petty complaint and criticism. Yet I realize that I have far more to learn than I already know, and far more to do than I’ve already done.
Even during my middle age years, I love serving as pastor. I have the privilege of walking alongside folks from the moment of birth to the moment of death and all seasons in between.
Paul summed it up this way: “I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13-14 NIV
Although I have not arrived, I am intent on enjoying the journey of growing forward.
(Barry Howard serves as senior minister at the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida.)