In February of 2011, the Lord abruptly altered my life; and called me to serve as the 11th pastor of one of the oldest African-American congregations in Victoria, Texas. Victoria, right between Corpus Christi (the place of my birth) and Pearland (my home), is where the Lord would call me to serve the precious people of Mt. Salem Baptist Church. A small congregation in size, I didn’t realize my assignment would require commuting, at the time I accepted the call. Mt. Salem is an historic church; and has had a long history of fully supporting their pastors well. I do not recall a pastor there who was ever bivocational. However, my arrival followed a storm within our church. As with the rubbish of a New York following “9/11”, we were at ‘Ground Zero’. What the church was realistically able to give me in compensation would not meet the financial demands of my life, at the time. Fortunately, God was opening a clear and unexpected door with Chaplaincy and Spiritual Care in healthcare; and God (to my wife and I) affirmed that we were where He wanted us to be. I knew nothing, however, about commuting.
Commuting is traveling from one town or city to another; and there are many pastors who have done this. Growing up, my father pastored in Goliad, Texas for a couple of years while we lived in Corpus Christi. I knew of a few pastors and friends who did the same. But if you would have told me 10 or so years ago that I would be a commuting (or even a bivocational) pastor, I would have humbly told you, ‘I don’t think so, Lord willing!’
But here I am. I now have learned to love what I once loathed. Here are a few things I’ve learned over the course of my time as a commuting pastor, in hopes that someone may be helped through my reflections. I write this in the form of things you should not do if you are a commuting pastor.
1. Do not go a day without prayer & wise counsel.
Prayer is so important in the life of every pastor. The commuting pastor is, by far, no exception. For the commuting pastor, you have the opportunity to strengthen your devotional time with the Lord. My commute to my church from home is about an hour and a half. Doing this twice a week, on most occasions, is a minimum of 6 hours during the course of an average week. On Wednesdays, I am by myself. And during the course of my pastorate, my prayer life has gone to another level. It has also given me time to think through (uninterrupted) what I am going to teach or preach. Lately, I record myself in teaching and preaching on my smartphone. Before I delete or upload it to my database, I head my headphones and literally listen to myself preach or teach on the way home. This is torment; but it is helping me to sort through all of my speaking fallacies; and pray through how God wants to use me in the future. It has also given me the opportunity to call trusted friends and seek counsel while I am on the road. I encourage every commuting pastor to make this a time of refreshing; and to take advantage of the silence and the road.
2. Do not go a day without knowing you’ve been called there.
It is important for every preacher to know they’ve been called to preach. It is as equally important for every pastor to know that he has been called to the work. The commuting pastor is absolutely no exception. For one, there will always be people who will seek to suggest you are less than a pastor because you, in many instances, are forced to commute. At other times, some will suggest you are being selfish and not ‘stepping out on faith’ because you have chosen to remain bivocational for various reasons. Then, in many instances, even the members may feel neglected or forsaken. Perhaps, there will always be some ambitious pastor in town who befriends your members like a wolf in sheep’s clothing; and suggests to them you aren’t as faithful as you could be. This is why knowing you’ve been called to the congregation is so important and essential. It is something about a captain who establishes the direction of the watchtower on the sea. Any wind or wave may seem intimidating and distracting; but knowing the direction of the watchtower and the watchman gives a sense of resolve, peace and assurance. Never let others distract you from the work God has called you to and the family God has given you, being your wife and children.
3. Do not avoid time with your family.
I am convinced that God’s greatest gift to us, after Calvary, is our family. Why would God give us a wife and children; and then call us to a local ministry that negates our family? Please know, I am not suggesting that the early Christian martyrs, disciples and followers of Christ weren’t called to give their lives (literally) for the cause of following Christ. I am also not suggesting that we should deny speaking requests, limit our time in church ministry, etc. What I am suggesting is that they must work in harmony with one another. The pastor’s wife doesn’t have to be the co-pastor to partner with her husband in ministry. The pastor’s children do not have to be Stepford kids to have a great relationship with their father. When it comes to the commuting pastor, allow your wife and children see how they fit in the ministry. Thank them for traveling with you, when they do. Reward your kids, every now and then, for riding in the car with you to your assignment. Every now and then, break free from the sermon you have to deliver, and spend time on your ride asking them about their lives, their week, their day and hear what they have to say. In addition, find ways to go away with them. I am trying my best to spend a week away by myself with God, a week away with my wife and a week away with my children. This is difficult, with being a Pastor and a Chaplain. But…these are legitimate goals.
4. Do not go a day without determining who the little pastors, movers and shakers are.
For every new pastor, one way to get booted out is to actually think you are the pastor! Pastors who go to new churches are often told by the new congregation, ‘Pastor, you’re it. Come make us a better church. Come and make us a bigger church.’ This may be true of some. But for most, even if that is what they profess, that is not ‘really’ what they mean. Every new pastor does good to remember three things: 1) It takes time. 2) It takes time. 3) It takes time. Really….it does! In their mind, that was their church FIRST. And, from their perspective, it will be their church after you’re gone. So what should the new pastor do? Of course, the new pastor must remember that the Holy Spirit is the real Pastor. But in another sense, every church has someone who has gained the influence, respect and ear of the entire church. At times, this person may not even be ‘liked’ by everyone in the church; but they can often be the strongest influence in the church. Many times, this is more than one person. It can be your predecessor; your predecessor’s widow; your predecessor’s family or children; the deacons; the mother in the church, etc. Find out who they are! This is so important for the commuting pastor because you are not there, often, throughout the week. So find out who these people are; and draw close to them. Often these people are good people. Sometimes, they may not have direction but, if they grow to love and respect you, they will follow you. Hence, if they follow you, others will. Bounce things off of these people. Say to them, ‘You know…I was thinking about such and such, and about this and that. Honestly, what do you think about that; and how do you think our church would respond.’
5. Do not be foolish.
Wisdom is everything. And, for the commuting pastor, wisdom is everything even more! Even with the aforementioned regarding bouncing things off of influential people in the church, be careful. Be very careful. Were you that person’s choice? Did that person cause problems with the last pastor? Does this person want to see you fail? Therefore, everything must be saturated in prayer. Wisdom says it doesn’t hurt to ask for their advice, even if you don’t follow their advice. It doesn’t hurt anything (but maybe your pride) to ask.
6. Do not let discouragement defeat you.
For every pastor, he will often ask himself, “am I doing enough?” For every bivocational or commuting pastor, the same applies. I have asked myself, “how much more effective could I be if I lived in the neighborhood or down the street?” This is a question I ask myself on a regular basis. Pastors will often deal with discouragement. Discouragement doesn’t mean depression. It means discouraged. And discouragement is inevitable. However, it is defeatable (I made the word up). Trust in the promise of God’s Word; and keep them near your heart.
7. Do not regress.
I am naturally lazy. I struggle with it. Being bivocational brings its own series of challenges. Being bivocational and a commuter….that’s in an arena all its own. One must avoid the temptation to take shortcuts, preach sermons online, neglect study, etc. It is just a fact – you must work harder than ever before. Most who commute are traveling to rural areas or small congregations. There is the notion that these congregations don’t demand much, in terms of content in preaching. This is not always true, as with my congregation, but it is probably the overall consensus. There is the temptation to slight the people and just ‘give them a little something’. The challenge I have given myself is to give deliver the greatest quality message/sermon I can in a way that is simple, succinct and portable to the hearers. This is must more difficult for me. With my last congregation, I pastored physicians, dentists, lawyers and engineers. For a young seminarian who loves words, there was a comfort in sharing what I knew with this group. And while the congregation I serve now is very intelligent (as in intelligent as the previous group), their lives are simpler, much more practical and resides in the context of an entirely different arena. How can I communicate the profound realities of God’s Word in a simple way? And how can I grow to be a great preacher and expositor when I am traveling on the
road? I must refuse to go backwards.
Please note. While I am a commuting pastor, I make no claims to be the consummate pastoral expert on commuting or pastoring. These are merely my thoughts and experience in something I’ve been doing for almost four years now. If you are a pastor who commutes, I’m interested to hear of your experiences, thoughts, instructions and encouragement. What do you think?