In the year 2000, I filled in as interim pastor for a couple of months in a small New Mexico town while the leadership searched for a new pastor. Then in December, the elders surprised me by asking me to be their pastor. I said “No.”
The church had a history of ups-and-downs with a poor reputation, and it couldn’t afford to give me a salary. It was 200 miles from where I lived, and I was already working 60-hour-per week; so you might understand why I didn’t want to accept the call. Part time at that distance was okay, but I didn’t want to commit to full-time.
The elders and I discussed the logistics, and they eventually offered a parsonage we could use; agreeing that I would keep the current employment.
But a 400-mile round-trip every weekend? Huh-uh!
They asked me to pray about it. Now I was trapped. Christians, especially pastors, can’t refuse to pray – that’s against the rules.
I found out that God must have a sense of humor, because after praying about it, it seemed like the Lord was prompting me to accept. So on January 7, 2001, I hesitantly accepted the call.
Now my attitude was different. Why? Instead of merely filling the position while they were supposed to be looking elsewhere for a pastor, my new objective was to find out why the church was having ongoing problems. Maybe I should have already known, but I had decided to let the next pastor figure it out. Now I was that next pastor.
However, as I did my pastoral homework, it didn’t take long to discover the problems. To put it mildly: a lack of Christian love ruled the roost. The owner of the local grocery store told me the church was known as “the Fighting Church.” That didn’t make me feel any better.
Part of the problem was, as is common in many local churches, poor communications and unwillingness to compromise on small issues in order to make headway on larger concerns. How was I going to turn it around?
Did I mention that God has a sense of humor? Keep reading.
After the service one Sunday morning, two of the elders and I were discussing an idea that I thought would help the church. They didn’t agree, so I invited them outside the church building to look at the situation. I hoped that by looking at the problem, it might help them understand my point of view.
Reminding me that they disagreed, they politely listened anyway.
The church building was in the countryside, and a ranch was across the fence. Choosing my words carefully, I laid out my thoughts, and I was convinced I had won them over. But at the very moment I said my last word, the donkey in the adjacent field spoke!
I haven’t heard a donkey bray that loudly before in my life! Of course, the elders and I began to laugh at the timing of the interruption. But to make matters worse, my lead elder said as loudly as the donkey, “My Sympathies, Exactly!”
The three of us broke out in an uproarious laughter. We had been friends for over a year and disagreements never hurt us. But that event brought us even closer together.
When I muttered, “Dumb donkey!” the other elder said, “He’s not dumb. He spoke his mind quite clearly.” More laughter ensued, and we went back into the building to get some coffee—mine with cream and sugar.
Then Romans 12:3b came to mind. “Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us” (NLT).
Over coffee, I asked them to state their opinion—again—and I would listen carefully. In the next half-hour, I realized they were right, and we worked out an alternate plan.
That incident did more than settle a disagreement. As word got around to the church members that they now had a pastor who was willing to listen, they began to trust me.
Still working on the other problems, I preached on forgiveness four times a year for three years—that’s what it took to settle the other personnel issues. And when I eventually resigned as pastor, that same groceryman told me, “Your church has a new name in town: the Loving Church.”
I thanked God for prompting the donkey to speak.