Retired pastor Jack Harnish reflects on what it means to be a preacher in the pew during Pastor Appreciation Month.
Michigan Conference Communications
I’ve been retired for nine years. For nine years, I’ve spent more time in the pew than I have in the pulpit, though I am grateful for the times I’ve been invited to preach in someone else’s pulpit. It’s still a passion and a joy when the opportunity presents itself.
How does it feel to be a preacher in the pew during Pastor Appreciation Month?
My first reaction is the same reaction I have to Grandparents Day, National Daughters Day, Buy a Priest a Beer Day, and the host of other media-motivated and Facebook-created would-be holidays. It’s just another Hallmark sales gimmick to get me to buy greeting cards. Who needs it?
In the churches I served, we never celebrated it, and I never felt particularly forgotten or neglected. I was blessed to serve wonderful congregations where I felt genuinely appreciated daily. That doesn’t mean everyone always appreciated everything I said or did, but when a patient smiled with joy as I walked into her hospital room, when a child hugged me just because I got down and talked to him, when someone thoughtfully said, “That sermon really spoke to me,” I felt overwhelmed with the sheer joy of serving in Christ’s ministry. And I felt genuinely appreciated.
On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with setting aside time to name the gratitude, to speak the word of thanks, and to focus on our daily appreciation for the pastors who serve our churches. The church I attend includes seven (count them!) retired clergy. That could be quite daunting, but our pastor seems to value our presence and handle our “helpful suggestions” with grace. The congregation recently celebrated her tenth anniversary as their pastor with genuine and deep gratitude. It was a special time to honor the ministry we appreciate every day.
So how does a retired preacher feel about pastor appreciation?
My checklist of things I appreciate can be summarized in three phrases: preach the Word, love the people, and lead in ministry.
Preach the Word: In the Protestant tradition, no other attribute is more important than competence in the pulpit. Especially after COVID-19, when many folks simply stopped coming to worship, preachers must be at their best every Sunday if they expect people to come back. Preaching must be biblical, relevant to everyday life, and authentic. It must make the connection between biblical truth and our real world. It doesn’t matter what else happens during the week, Sunday comes every seven days, and just like an NFL quarterback, preachers have got to be on their game—every Sunday.
Love the People: No matter how powerful the pulpit, pastors earn their credibility by just showing up—showing up in the hospital room, the nursing home, the counseling session, and the funeral home. One of the essential questions asked of every Methodist ordinand since the time of John Wesley is, “Will you visit from house to house?” and 250 years later, it still matters. During the pandemic, text messages and Facetime calls were a helpful substitute, but in healthy times, there is no substitute for loving, compassionate person-to-person pastoral care. Everyone appreciates a pastor who just shows up.
Lead in Ministry: Every preacher I know complains about committee meetings! When I retired, I said that was one thing I wouldn’t miss. But solid administration is the skeleton that holds the body together. Without it, preaching and pastoral care might feel good, but the congregation will never thrive. United Methodist elders are ordained to “Order the life of the congregation.” That doesn’t mean “ordering people around”; it means organizing, putting in order the work of God’s people. It includes visioning, planning, and leading the congregation in fulfilling its mission. More congregants will praise their pastor for preaching and pastoral care, but without committed administrative leadership, the congregation will fumble and stagnate.
I’d rather you didn’t ask me how I would rate myself in those three categories over 43 years of ministry, but if you ask me what I appreciate about my pastor and every pastor’s work, I will begin here. Preach the Word. Love the people. Lead in ministry.
From a preacher who spends most of his time in the pew, thank you to the women and men who serve Christ and the body of Christ as pastors in congregations large and small. Thank you to the congregations which genuinely appreciate the work of their pastors. Thanks be to God for the joy of being the church together. Preach the Word, love the people, and lead in ministry for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.