Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

December 12, 2010


Learning on the job as a greenhorn preacher


Pity the small country Methodist churches. They are the training ground for new preachers. I know that from personal experience.  A greenhorn if there ever was one, at age 21 I became the pastor of four small churches near Milstead, Alabama.

I had no training for the job. The Methodist hierarchy, after asking me to read and report on four books, issued me a license to preach. While still a student at Auburn University I got a phone call from Dr. W. F. Calhoun, then superintendent of the Montgomery District. He offered to appoint me to serve the LaPlace Circuit at a salary of $1900 a year. They provided a parsonage in which we could live and continue my studies at Auburn.  On very short notice I accepted the job.

The position was open in midyear because the pastor of the four churches had abruptly quit the ministry. Six weeks was enough for him. He left in the middle of a hot August night without even saying goodbye. No one ever understood why. And nobody seemed sorry that he had hit the road.

        The good people of those churches were not surprised that I was a babe in the woods. All their pastors had been student pastors for many years. They were patient and expected me to learn on the job.

        Learn I did. One of my churches was the old LaPlace Church, one of the earliest Methodist churches organized in Alabama. The church was just off Highway 80 in Shorter, now the home of the famous VictoryLand Greyhound Park and gambling center. On a good Sunday 30 to 40 people showed up for worship at the LaPlace Church.

        One of the faithful worshipers was Wright Noble. He appeared to be a pillar of the church so I decided one Sunday morning to call on him to pray. At the time, I was not comfortable praying or preaching. I figured I could use some help.

        I learned that day never to call on someone to pray in church without asking permission beforehand. From the pulpit, I asked politely, “Mr. Noble, will you lead us in prayer?”

        Without a moment’s hesitation, he stood up and replied in a strong, firm voice, “I beg to be excused; that’s what we pay the preacher for!”

        Embarrassed and caught off guard, I stumbled through a prayer while most of my parishioners were quietly chuckling. I had no doubt that Mr. Noble was a Christian. I am sure he was a praying man. However, I never heard him pray.

        My training for pastoral work had begun. Mr. Noble and others like him made sure that I understood why they paid my salary. There were certain things I was expected to do, none of which was ever explained to me in a “job description.” They were quite willing for me to learn my duties, one at a time, in one embarrassing moment after another.

        People pay the preacher for many reasons. Some pay him to mind his own business, and that does not include “running the church.” I had it explained to me more than once like this: “You stick to preaching the gospel and we will run the church.”

        In one of the churches I asked the church treasurer for a report on the offerings. He said, “We are fine, preacher, just fine.” I asked, “Do you make a monthly report to the Board?” He replied, “No, I just let everybody know if we get behind. Right now, everything is fine.” I think he kept the church’s money in a cigar box, but I never found out. He taught me that it was none of my business how much money the church had in the bank.

I remembered that incident in the distant past when a pastor told me a similar story. He is being reassigned partly because of a bitter struggle with his church treasurer. In this case, the treasurer has refused to let anyone see the books. The preacher’s demand to see the books cost him his job.

        Most preachers feel like I do about being paid. I was always amazed that I could be paid to have so much fun. Our work is not drudgery, and we are not in the ministry for the money. Many of us feel that we are paid far more than we deserve. And some of our parishioners are sure of it!

        A retired preacher friend of mine was asked by a senior pastor to come on his staff as the minister of visitation, mainly to care for the sick and shut-in persons.

        He replied, “You don’t have enough money to hire me to visit the hospitals. When I was a pastor, the church paid me my full salary to visit the sick; I preached for free!”

        A preacher gets paid to do many things. People have a thousand expectations of their preacher. Some people feel like they are not getting their money’s worth; others wish they could pay the pastor more.

        It is good when the preacher and the people can work together as a team, shepherding people with love. Key leaders who don’t trust their pastor should find one they can trust by joining another church. Teamwork is essential.

        The pastor, after all, is not a hired hand and he must never allow himself to become the private chaplain of the prominent “power brokers” – no matter how much he is paid. +