Pastoral Popularity

by Arthur W. Anderson

Early in my ministry, I attended Covenant ministerial meetings at Park Avenue Covenant church in Minneapolis. I liked them because they gave novices like me the chance to be around the bellwethers of the Covenant as well as to compare notes with my peers.

It is always a mystery to me why we remember certain episodes and forget most of the others. At one of the first meetings we had the privilege of the presence of two of our more legendary men. J. J. Daniels, long retired, sitting in an overstuffed chair, spoke up, saying with considerable glee: "Gentleman, I am the oldest pastor here." To which, K. E. Peterson, himself touching the ninety mark, cleared his throat as he was wont to do, and said: "But when you are dead and gone, I will be the oldest one here!" We belly laughed at this retort! In another circle, perhaps, this could be taken as a put down. But these were two earthy saints with a robust friendship who were having fun with each other. I’d call off the business for the day to celebrate that! Such repartee, it seems to me, is very rare at ministers’ meetings now. If this was the case for noted Biblical Scholar, William Barclay, no wonder he confessed to hating ministerial meetings!

On another Monday gathering at the same church, we were sitting as dutiful servants of the faith when our pious equilibrium was upset again. One of the brethren, some ten years or so my senior, stood up to share his disappointment with church bake sales, rummage sales, bazaars, and the like as ways of raising money for new carpet or the church budget. He felt strongly that the stewardship of the church would be better served by direct giving, especially tithing. He had a point, I had wondered about that myself. Just then the outstanding, legendary preacher, the Rev. Gustaf F. Johnson, stood up, paused and shouted in stentorian tones: "Leave the women alone!" All of a sudden all our clerical shackles fell to the ground, and we whooped it up with laughter, implicitly thanking God for fresh air! That alone made me an admirer of this manly Texan.

Every now and then I remind myself of these two episodes, and realize what I now miss. A nostalgic wish? No, I don’t think so. We are so busy being churchmen or churchwomen that we don’t have the kairos time to be human. We are apparently more serious now. We have set goals that must be accomplished. We have engaged ourselves with developing programs designed to reach more people spiritually. We have a self-image to protect. We distrust the reality of who we are and where we live.

The late Carl Charn dared to be an individual. In a conference sermon he parodied the anxious search by churches for pastors who, in his words, were "good looking and popular." And in a flight of his inimitable oratory, he asked: "And what do I think of popularity? Puke on popularity!"

This rugged speech belongs in our Covenant. Laughing robustly, taking God seriously but not ourselves, being human with each other while trusting in grace, pulling one another into fellowship no matter where we are on the totem pole, and being free to engage each other in sprightly polemic where we may be poles apart is the Covenant. Because we trust each other in a healthy unity, it is the company of the blessed.