This is a continuation of my previous post, which in itself was a follow-up to a post I had published back in 2008. Part 1 can be found here: https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2008/06/05/a-spiritual-journey-1/
Part 2 can be found by going to my last post, or by following this link: https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2013/11/26/a-spiritual-journey-part-2/
After the events of the Pastor’s Prayer Summit in March 1998, which are told in Part 1 of this series (follow the first link above to read that story), I stayed at the Presbyterian church I was pastoring two more years. But as time passed I began to suspect the writing was on the wall. I was different now, and over time I began to feel like I didn’t really fit there anymore. I was changing but my congregation wasn’t.
The changes that took place in me over those two years were not anything new or different or strange. Rather, I was simply finding the courage to be who I was instead of succumbing to the pressure to be what I sensed others wanted me to be.
At that time most pastors in my denomination wore a black robe as they conducted the Sunday service. Prior to the ’98 pastors prayer summit, I was no different. I wore a black robe every Sunday as I led the service.
I’m not really a formal person by nature, though–a fact which was always dismaying to my mother, who was pretty formal. When I first started in ministry I didn’t mind wearing the robe because I felt it offset my youthfulness somewhat (I was only 27 and pretty young-looking). I felt it gave a sense of authority I didn’t have otherwise–which seemed important since most of the people I was working with were older than me.
However, by this point in my ministry, I was ready to shed some of that formality. So in the weeks after the Prayer Summit I began to experiment with not wearing the robe on Sundays. Instead I wore a suit and tie–still formal, for sure, but a step down from the robe.
When summer came I tried leaving off the coat and tie altogether and just wearing an open collar button-down shirt and dress slacks. I was able to get away with that as long as it was summertime, but when the fall came, the church organist (who was one of the matriarchs of the church) came to me and said, “It was okay for you to not wear your coat and tie as long as it was summer. But now that it’s fall, you need to put them on again. You can’t be that informal all the time.” (She implied, too, that kids want to be informal, but grownups dress up. Yikes!)
Some people might say I should’ve ignored her and done what I wanted to do, since she really didn’t have any formal authority to tell me that. But that isn’t my personality, and certainly wasn’t then. I am a people-pleaser by nature and hate any sort of conflict (though in my old age I’m getting better about speaking my mind and standing my ground). Besides, she was a member of the church and a key player, one of the leaders. Among other things, she was chair of the worship committee. I knew if I defied the organist there was likely to be trouble. At best she might make an issue of it before the worship committee and the elders, and at worst I might lose my organist over it. Being in such a small town, I wasn’t sure how many other good organists would be around to take her place, and so I was afraid of losing her (she was good at what she did, and a volunteer). I was not yet at the level of maturity in which I was willing to take a risk of that magnitude. In that time and place, a Presbyterian church without an organist would scarcely have been Presbyterian!
So I did what she said. I was 33 or 34 and she was well into her 50s. Besides, I knew she probably spoke for many in the church, maybe the majority. So I resumed preaching in my coat and tie. But I never went back to wearing the black robe, except for weddings and maybe funerals.
Preaching in a suit, though, instead of the robe left me open to the charge of being “too Baptist”–a cardinal sin in a southern liberal church. Baptists are the most populous church in the south, so some southerners intentionally choose a “mainline” or more liberal church in order to avoid joining a Baptist one. So being “too Baptist” was not viewed as a good thing. Nevertheless I stuck to my guns and wore a suit rather than a robe each Sunday. (As I write this I am shaking my head over what people can get riled up over.)
At any rate, though, the organist’s displeasure over my open-collared shirt was my first sign that the church might not be as open as I hoped to the ways I was changing.
After the prayer summit my preaching began to change, too. Prior to my born again experience I tended to focus on morality and, honestly, I often preached on the ways I felt people weren’t living up to the Bible. I guess you could say my pre-prayer-summit preaching was probably negative, moralistic, and somewhat legalistic.
Post-prayer-summit I began to preach more on salvation and also on the love of God. There was still some moralism–I didn’t change totally–but the focus came to be more on Jesus and who He is, His love, and what He’s done for us.
Also my method of preaching changed. In seminary I had been trained to preach from a written manuscript, and often (though not always) this is what I did in the years prior to my born again experience. After that, though, I began trying to preach more extemporaneously. Instead of writing a manuscript, I would just jot down a few notes and pray that God would give me the words to say.
Looking back I’m not sure my preaching really improved that much. I imagine it seemed more personal and conversational, but I also think the content and organization suffered a bit. (Actually, in the years since then when I’ve preached I’ve gone back to the method I used before seminary, which is to make detailed notes but still speak off the cuff as much as I can, using the notes to jog my memory when necessary. I find this approach works best for me, since I’m not a talker by nature; but it still allows me to be more conversational.)
Meanwhile, I remained active with the interdenominational pastors prayer group I’d gotten to know at the Prayer Summit. I was going to two different prayer meetings a week, as well as occasional retreats of a day or more in duration. I also attended conferences with them on occasion.
All these meetings were very expressive in their feel, and quite different from the more staid service I presided over every Sunday. I had a growing desire for our church to experience the joy, freedom, spontaneity, and openness I saw at the interdenominational prayer meetings.
Whenever I had a Sunday off (which was only a few times a year) I began to make a point of visiting some of the churches pastored by my friends in the interdenominational prayer groups. I wanted to see what their churches were like. Of course, a lot of them were doing contemporary worship, and I got to experience some of this firsthand. This was nothing new to me, as I’d attended Sunday night church at Calvary Assembly of God in Decatur, Alabama for several years, as well as special services at other churches. Not only that, but I had led the singing for youth groups and events for many years. So I was pretty familiar with contemporary worship.
Within the next year I decided to try some contemporary worship at my church. This was completely new for most of them. Normally on Sunday mornings we did what is sometimes jokingly referred to as the “hymn sandwich”–a hymn at the beginning of the service, a hymn in the middle, and one at the end. The hymns and all the music were accompanied on a very nice console organ. Only rarely was the piano ever used, mainly to accompany the choir.
On the other hand, as you probably already know, in contemporary worship it’s not uncommon for worship teams to play 4 or 5 songs straight through before anything else happens in the service. The worship bands play rock instruments (bass, electric guitars, drums) and usually dress informally. To say the least, all that was going to be a stretch for that little Presbyterian church!
Not being one to stir up conflict, I decided to start small. As I began to talk about my ideas with the worship committee, what we finally agreed on was that we would not change the worship service itself, but instead just for the summer months we would add the contemporary worship on as an optional time 15 minutes before the regular service began. The idea was that those who wanted contemporary worship could come early, and those who didn’t want it wouldn’t have to deal with it during the actual service.
I was satisfied with this as a beginning. My expectation was that those who arrived for church early (which was a sizable portion of the congregation) would be exposed to the contemporary music anyway and might gain a favorable impression of it.
Once this was approved I went to work recruiting the few musicians in the congregation who might be interested in something like this. It wound up just being me on acoustic guitar and a fellow on the piano (I can’t remember now if there was anyone else).
So this is what we did for the summer months that year (I think it was in 1999 but can’t say now for sure). For each service I would choose about 4 songs and have the words printed on an insert for the bulletin. I chose songs that were popular at the time: “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High,” “Open the Eyes of My Heart,” “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” and the like.
Attendance was decent – maybe a fourth of the congregation came at 10:45 for the contemporary worship. We had a core of people who preferred that style of music, so they were very happy with it. Quite a few others arrived 5 or 10 minutes early for the main service and were able to hear the new music as well.
There were no complaints about the contemporary portion, but it was just to be a summer thing, so when August ended, the contemporary music ended as well. Overall it was deemed a “success,” and so I began to think about how we might incorporate contemporary worship into the regular schedule of our congregation.
The worship committee considered a couple of options: an earlier service on Sunday morning and a Sunday evening service. For reasons I can’t remember now we eventually began to make plans for an evening service. I think the leaders weren’t crazy about the idea of starting a new early service; our church wasn’t very big to begin with, and I think they were fearful of splitting our already small congregation into two even smaller services. I guess the thinking was that a Sunday evening service wouldn’t detract from the morning service, and those who wanted to attend both could if they so desired.
By the time we’d begun talking seriously about starting a contemporary service it was late in the fall of 1999. In spite of the seeming success, for some reason I was uneasy about moving forward with the new service. I dragged my feet.
Looking back now I think the reason was that it seemed artificial to me. No one in the church had any thought of doing a contemporary service until I mentioned it. And even now, I was the only one in the church really pushing for it. The family of the one man in the church who really loved contemporary worship had, ironically, begun attending another church. In fact, by this time (again ironically) several people in the church who would’ve been the most likely supporters of a contemporary service had begun visiting other churches (more on this below). So I felt like I was trying to force something that really no one else in the church cared about besides me, and my most likely allies in doing it appeared to be leaving.
When I first came there as pastor there were basically two groups in the church: An old core of charter members, mostly elderly, and a group of younger couples brought in by the previous pastor. As you can imagine, generally I felt like I had a lot more in common with the younger group than the older one. The younger folks seemed more vibrant spiritually, more biblically focused, and more open to new ways of doing things.
During my years in Lenoir City I always felt the church’s promise lay with these younger families. Yet now, just as I was beginning to catch a vision for a new direction, some of those very families were beginning to leave. I never found out why. It was always a mystery because these were the people I considered my greatest supporters. It began to seem like the vision I’d had for the church was not necessarily God’s vision.
During this time (in the late fall of 1999) there was also some contention with the church organist over the new, slightly more casual and contemporary direction I was leading the congregation. I can’t remember all the specifics now, but one Sunday morning after church she basically told me that if I continued in the direction I was going she might leave the church.
By this time I really wasn’t ready to take her on and risk losing her. She had lots of close friends in the church, most of whom were in leadership. Moreover, those who might have supported me against her had begun leaving the church. My fear was that if she got angry and left, not only would we be without an organist, but her friends, even if they agreed with what I was doing, would not support me if I went against her.
So I feared that a major conflict with the organist would rupture the very core of the church membership, as well as leaving us without an organist. I figured if that happened a lot of people would leave, or else they would try to get rid of me. At best we’d be left with me having to lead the music on my guitar, as well as preach, with only a handful of people in attendance. In short, I felt there might not be much church left to pastor if all that happened. I didn’t feel that insisting on doing things my way was worth that level of disruption.
This left me, though, at loose ends. I began to wonder about my future at the church.
Add to this the fact that as long as I had been a pastor, I had struggled with being a pastor. There were lots of reasons. Often I felt ill-equipped for the job. I felt my introverted personality did not fit with the very extroverted nature of being a pastor. Besides all that, pastoring was very lonely for a single person. I’m not saying it would be less lonely if you were married–obviously I wouldn’t know. But it felt odd being single and being a pastor, and the older I got, the more I wondered if being a pastor wasn’t actually keeping me from being able to marry, due to the time commitments and the fact that few women today are eager to marry the pastor of an old-fashioned, traditional church.
Or so was my thinking at the time. Add to that the fact that I had a lot of issues with my denomination, and it’s not hard to see there were many reasons I was struggling with being a pastor.
On top of everything else, I had become increasingly involved in the interdenominational prayer movement that was exploding at that time in Knoxville. My regular involvement with the larger church was exposing me to many practices and experiences I felt went far beyond what my congregation was used to. It was changing me and my perspective. I was learning and growing.
I tried to share this growth with my church through sermons and one-on-one conversations. But I found it hard to convey it all by myself. I felt I was fighting an uphill battle. I was ready to move forward with what seemed like bigger and better things in God, but my congregation wasn’t going with me. They were content where they were.
If I was a more outgoing person I might have invited some of them to come with me to the prayer meetings. Looking back now I wish I had done that. I guess I feared they’d have no interest in it, or might think it was strange.
At any rate, I felt increasingly out of sync with my church, and didn’t really know what to do about it. Very soon everything would come to a head, though.
I’ll leave that story for the next installment of A Spiritual Journey. Stay tuned.
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