It is ironic that my best insight in being an effective pastor came one week before my official retirement. It wasn’t new to me although the realization of its truth hit me with a powerful new awareness.
Before that day my best insight into ministry came from a colleague I worked with who said, “I am first a child of God, then a husband, then a parent and then a pastor. When I keep them in that order things seem to go pretty well, but when I change the order things don’t go well.” Me too.
That’s his insight though, not mine. My insight came in the chapel of the South Dakota State Penitentiary. It was a Sunday afternoon retirement reception for inmates a week before my official retirement date.
I asked permission to bring in ice cream or cake for the 100 men we expected to attend. This was denied as I expected it to be. We could only purchase cookies through the company that had the food service contract. I ordered chocolate chip cookies. This, too, was denied because they didn’t make them—as expected. The same contractor makes chocolate chip cookies at the prison two hours away but such is the nature of bureaucracy. Thankfully, we were allowed to bring in coffee and creamer so I purchased a three-pound bag of Dunkin’ Donut’s coffee from Costco and two containers of Coffee Mate (approximately 552 servings according to the label) for the 100 men we expected. I did this knowing prison coffee tastes like colored water and creamer is unavailable—and that I could not give a gift to the chapel orderlies for their help over the years. The orderlies prepared a big pot of strong coffee. That, and the creamer, were appreciated. even though we ran out of creamer, again, as expected. I didn’t ask the orderlies what they did with the left-over coffee, knowing they have a coffee pot in their chapel office.
The reception followed the same model as the memorial services we did for men who died in prison. We didn’t do funerals but men want to honor the memory of those who die in prison. My predecessor had the sad duty of leading a memorial service for a well-liked officer murdered in the prison, a service attended by inmates and officers alike.
Whether it’s a memorial or reception, the practice is the same. The presider speaks about God’s promises for the departed (or departing in my case), for those in attendance and shares some memories. Then the microphone is passed hand to hand to those who wish to speak. At my retirement reception I thanked them for graciously welcoming me as their pastor and told them how my faith had grown because of them. I shared what they already knew, that prison sharpens one’s vision, enabling a person to see clearly what is important and what is unimportant. About a month after becoming their pastor I was scooping snow and thinking of how much I hated scooping snow—until I realized I knew 1,000 men who would LOVE to be standing in the falling snow, feeling the crisp wind on their face. It was an insight I kept when our daughter’s friend borrowed her car and hit a pole ($10,000) or when our son came home from work six months later to find a tree had fallen on the same care ($11,000). “It’s only a car,” I thought, (full coverage, even with a high deductible, made this much easier.) Still today I hold up most of my problems to this question, “Is it worse than waking up in prison?”
Well, I’m close to hitting the word count set out for me with this blog post so I better come out with the reason you’ve stuck with me this far, my great insight into ministry. That Sunday afternoon, July 23, 2017 from 1:00-3:00, as men passed the microphone around the chapel to say something to me, the majority began their remarks the same way, “When you visited me in the SHU…”
The SHU is the Special Housing Unit. It’s the prison within the prison, where men spend 23 hours a day in their cell, and an hour in the 30X10 foot exercise cage/shower. Each week I would go cell to cell introducing myself, shouting through the crack in the door “How are things with you?” and then peering through the 8”X10” plastic window. I’d get a thumbs up or see someone either sleeping through or ignoring my call but most men would spring to their feet and come to the door where we would talk. I listened to their stories, their fears, their hopes, both of us knowing I had no power to change their situation. I could listen. I could pray. I could send down a Bible—which may or may not get to them.
At our January Moses conference I took few notes, two sides of a 3X5 index card. One note has a star beside it. The note, copied from our presenter’s power point says, “Listening is a profound way of doing.” It is the heart and soul of ministry, being present to one other. It is the best we have to offer.
Now preaching, serving, and listening abide, these three; and the greatest of these is listening.