As of the end of August I have spent a full year as the interim pastor of my small church, a church that I have attended for nearly thirty years now. It is difficult for me to fully wrap my head around both of those numbers.
I have long considered myself a shy person. My least favorite classes in high school and college were speech classes. Of course, I never knew anyone who particularly enjoyed such classes, but for me they were excruciating. And yet, over the years, I’ve found myself ever more frequently in positions where I have to stand in front of groups of people and talk to them.
In times past, I sometimes creatively managed ways around public speaking. For instance, when I was in college I became president of the Student Missionary Fellowship (my undergraduate studies were conducted at a small Christian liberal arts college). Our purpose was to inform students about missions and missionaries; we encouraged them to learn about short term summer mission opportunities—where they could go and serve alongside full-time missionaries and aid them in their work. We also sponsored a week-long conference at the college when we would bring in missionaries on furlough to share with the college students about their work in strange and exotic locations where they preached the gospel to people who had never heard about Jesus before. Past presidents of the Student Missionary Fellowship would serve as the moderators during such gatherings, introducing speakers, explaining the seminars available, and that sort of thing. Since I did not wish to do public speaking—dreaded it in fact—I came up with the idea of delegating that responsibility to one of the other members of the Student Missionary Fellowship. I gave him the title of spokesman and turned him into the public face of the organization. I congratulated myself on my creativity and he turned out to be a gifted and popular speaker.
But as I have grown older my ability to stay hidden has drifted away from me, spilling between my fingers like sand. The summer after I graduated college, but before I began my years of graduate studies in Near Eastern languages at UCLA, the Sunday School teacher of the fourth grade boys at the church I then attended asked me to fill in for her while she went on a two-week vacation. I agreed to her request.
To no one’s surprise but my own, after the two weeks she decided she didn’t want to continue teaching the class and since I was doing “such a good job” I wound up as her permanent replacement. For the next two years, while I studied at UCLA, I taught those children. It was a valuable time in breaking down my reluctance to talk out loud to people in public settings. After all, these were just children and not especially scary.
But then the scary upped its game. One summer the church decided they needed someone to teach an adult Sunday School class and as they cast their eyes about the congregation, they fell on me and before I knew it, I found myself standing in front of a group of around twenty adults—some of whom had been my undergraduate professors!
And it wasn’t long after I began teaching that class that the college of my undergraduate years approached me and asked me to fill in for a departing professor in the Bible department—the Old Testament and Hebrew professor. Given my study focus at UCLA, that was right up my ally. And then my old history professor asked me to fill in for him at another college where he had for several years taught a summer school course in World History.
Over a three-year period of time I went from finding a way out of doing public speaking to doing it on an almost constant basis, six out of seven days a week, for hours at a time every day.
Thus, when my wife got her job as a public school teacher and my contract was not renewed at my undergraduate college, we moved from that area up to the High Desert of California and the Antelope Valley. Soon, in our new community, we found the church that we still attend and it wasn’t long before I was tasked with teaching adults in Sunday School and then organizing and founding a small seminary associated with our church—where I once again started teaching students on a regular basis.
I became a deacon in the church, and have taught an adult Sunday School class for most of the nearly thirty years we’ve attended. I’ve taught a variety of college level courses, and now and again I found myself tasked with preaching the Sunday morning services or evening Bible studies for the congregation when the pastor would be on vacation or ill. Every now and then I was asked to fill in at other churches in the area, or to teach seminars at denominational meetings.
So when our pastor of twenty-one years retired a year ago, it was not a great shock that I was asked to serve as the interim pastor. I had thought that it would not take us long to find a more permanent replacement and I could soon return to only teaching Sunday School. After a year of this, however, I’m beginning to wonder if a replacement is ever going to come. I really thought this was only going to be temporary.