Saying No to That Fourth Dessert
by the Rev. Steven L. McKinley (May / June 2004 — Volume 20, Number 3)
I drove past a restaurant a while back and saw a fascinating sign: “Buffet Luncheon: All You Can Eat — $5.95. Limit: one to a customer.”
I have wondered about that sign. If I can get all I can eat for $5.95,why would I want to buy more than one? So that I could get twice as much as I can eat?
Anyone who knows me will recognize that I am a person who presents a major danger to a restaurant that offers all you can eat. I can put it away with the best of them. Given an offer like that, I do. I put it away and put it away and wind up staggering out of the restaurant and feasting a few hours later on antacid tablets. With the opportunity to eat all I can eat, I eat more than I can eat or should eat. I am old enough to know better, but much of the time I fall back into the old bad habits again. Given the oft-lamented epidemic of obesity in our fair land, I know I am not the only one doing this.
Life as a Restaurant
I am old enough to know better on this count, too, but sometimes my whole life seems like an all-you-can-eat restaurant, and I seem to myself (and no doubt to others as well) like one who is determined to eat twice as much as he can. There are just so many things a person can do in the pastoring trade. Forever the sucker, I find myself trying to do too many of them.
I am not good, you see, at turning people down. I don’t like hurting feelings any more than any other pastor does, and if so-and-so thinks I would be the right person to do this or that I feel at least a little bit honored (even if it is something I have no particular desire to do). Besides, there are so many things out there that I see that need doing, things I would really like to do. It’s like choosing between the cherry pie and the apple pie and the pecan pie and the chocolate cake and the strawberry shortcake in the dessert line. I’ll say yes to all of them.
Very often when I agree to do something, it gives me a long lead time, and it doesn’t seem so bad right then. Saying yes to a November event in May is easy enough; but when November comes around, and I have said yes to too many things, that one little thing seems huge.
Then I start getting grouchy. I rush through the things I have committed myself to doing and often do a halfhearted job. I am not well prepared, and it shows. At least it does to me. People feel the hurry in me. There’s this particular spot in my back that starts aching. Out in public I still extend myself to be Pastor Nice Guy, the cheerful, upbeat leader of women and men I am supposed to be, or so I think. But when I get home at the end of the day, I flop into my easy chair and cover up with a blanket and vegetate. I am short with my daughter and surly with my wife, and even the two fun-loving dogs that share their home with us steer clear of the old man. I do not like it, but I recognize that this is the truth.
This is not simply a problem of time management. I am a fairly disciplined person when it comes to the managing of my time. I am sure that many of you devote more hours to pastoring in the course of a week than I do. I am faithful (with the support of my pastoral colleagues) in taking my day off and my vacation time and rigorous about not over-scheduling the week. Some weeks, of course, are atrocious, but most are not. It is more a problem of, to use a trendy word of 2004,“band width.” To use a metaphor with more age on it, I am trying to juggle too many balls. I am a 1973 Plymouth trying to act like a Corvette.
Capital N, Capital O
At coffee hour last Sunday I was talking with a family about the things I have on my plate at the moment, and a young mother from the congregation put her hands on my shoulders and said, “There is a word you need to learn: NO!” She is, of course, right. She is not the first person who has ever said this to me. I am working on it.
I have recognized this tendency in myself before. But now and then a person needs reminding. Now and then I need to take a rigorous look at what I am doing and what I am being asked to do and decide which of the items on my To-Do Menu, the great buffet table set before me, best serve the interests of my vocation, my professional responsibilities, and my life. Having done that, I need to practice taking only one dessert, not four or five. Based on my own passions, my own gifts, and my own situation, I need to identify my priorities and stick to them. And I need to start throwing that No word around like a drunken sailor. (I am growing paranoid about offending people, so if you happen to be a drunken sailor, please do not take this personally.)
Never Too Old
An excellent pastor-to-be and current seminary student asked me recently, “When will I have all this ministry business figured out?” My answer: “Never.” I am closer to the end of my professional ministry than I am to the beginning, and there are some folks out there who think I know a lot about ministry. You can fool all of the people some of the time, etc. I want to publicly confess that I do not have ministry all figured out yet.
Why bother to write all this down and expose myself to the public in this way? Four reasons:
We “mature” folk have a reputation for being unable or unwilling to change or learn. I want you to know that I am still changing and still learning, which is a big part of the reason I am enjoying life. I figure that when you stop changing you die.
There is a remote possibility that I am not the only pastor in the church who has this kind of problem. In the unlikely event that you might also be one with a tendency to overeat at the ministry buffet table, I want to give you a little encouragement by letting you know that there is at least one other pastor in the church who has the same problem. I am convinced that one of the most self-defeating behaviors of pastors is their tendency to think that the problems and difficulties they are experiencing are theirs and theirs alone, and that they are strange, different, unique, and wrestling with things nobody else wrestles with. That is not usually the case.
As a younger man sitting in literature classes, I was fascinated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
It is an Ancient Mariner.
And he stoppeth one of three.
The Ancient Mariner shares what he has learned with the younger man, most specifically some unpleasantness involving an albatross. “Don’t make the mistakes I have made” is the crux of his message.
And it is the crux of my message.
So, from one ancient mariner on the seas of ministry to you, these wonderful words from Coleridge at the end of the “Ancient Mariner.” (They might not have anything directly to do with anything, but I love them still!)
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us
He made and loveth all.
“The dear God who loveth us”…even those of us who overeat from the pastoral buffet.
Steven L. McKinley is senior pastor at House of Prayer Lutheran Church, Richfield, MN.