May  2018 15
A Pastor’s First Commandment

I sat in the passenger seat as my pastor drove us to a United Methodist Youth Fellowship retreat. It was my junior or senior year in high school, and my pastor knew I sensed a call to ministry. He said he’d been waiting for me to ask him about what it is like to be a minister. So, I did. His reply: “First, you’ve got to love people.” 

To this day, I remember feeling discomforted with that answer. 

I was and am an idea person. I love ideas. I love formulating ideas, hearing and reading others’ ideas, debating ideas, crafting ideas.

I would have been thrilled if he had said, “You’ve got to love ideas. Or you’ve got to love theology. Or you’ve got to love exegesis and working out a pastoral hermeneutic.” Anything in that category would have delighted me. But, “the first thing is, you’ve got to love people,” not so much. 

Why my discomfort?

The first commandment is to love God. That is true. But we human beings are subject to each other every bleeding day in inescapable ways. I’d guess that more people drive clergy out of ministry than Goddrives us out.

“First, you’ve got to love people,” might not be the theologically correct “first.” But think of it this way: we all know leaders who claim to love God but don’t love people. And I know of some pastors who love people but don’t love God.

If you were on the receiving side of ministry, would you rather be served by a pastor who loves God but not people or who loves people and may not love or believe in God? Forced choice. Of course, most people who say “both!” But if you had to choose…

I’ve spent a lifetime in ministry with the “first, love people” pastoral commandment in mind. My practice has been, as you might imagine, shaky.

It is a challenging commandment for what may be obvious reason. 

  • Some people are so hard to love. 
  • Or, everyone is difficult to love sometimes. 
  • Or, loving people requires the acceptance of so much pain. 
  • Or maybe the challenge is so great because love is not always a reciprocal experience. 
  • Or maybe I am simply limited in whom I can love.

All of the above.

My pastor followed Jesus in not saying or implying, “You are only required to love people who love you.” In Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ teaching, hear the love commands which are not based on reciprocity. 

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (see Matthew 5:43-48)

Respond out of love. Do not react by giving back what you have been given. Isaac Newton’s 3rd law of motion is “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Jesus’ law of love is don’t react, don’t give back what you received. Give back love.”

I recall the erstwhile youth group friend who, in a youth Sunday sermon after hearing me wax on about everything I was learning about the Bible in college, preached his sermon against me, and I was sitting in the congregation to hear it!

First, you have to love people.

When I was a youth pastor, the mother of high schooler was waiting for a Bible study to start. Talking to the person next to her, she loudly criticized a recent youth program as if I was not sitting 10 feet away.

First, you have to love people.

A pillar-of-the-church-type cornered me, stuck his finger in my chest, and let me know I would baptize his grandson regardless of whether or not the child’s parents agreed to be involved with church.

First, you have to love people.

Three times at Phillips, I was, in the opinion of some others, the wrong person to be selected for a position: first as dean, second as vice president of development, third as president. I know this is the case because those who disagreed with the president’s or the board’s choice let me know (well, at least some of them did)!

First, you have to love people.

My pastor did not say, extend love those who like or love your posts on Facebook. For don’t the gentiles the same?

He did not say to extend love to those who agree with my strategic directions and personnel decisions. For don’t the gentiles the same?

He did not say to love those who see religion, race relations, sexuality and gender, guns, politics, and Donald Trump as I do. For don’t the gentiles the same?

He did not say to love those who protest what I protest, who define justice and righteousness as I define justice and righteousness. For don’t the gentiles the same?

Loving as Jesus taught us to love, as my pastor believed a pastor should love the ones we serve, is not comfortable. It is not safe, it is not easy, it may not be fully possible. And, when someone is clearly not acting in a loving way to me, love is not my auto-response. 

My pastor was not a good preacher. He was not a good worship leader. He would not have done at all well in today’s highly competitive church world. I don’t remember a single word from a single sermon, other than his quirky, affected way of saying “experience” as if he were a British divine. 

But, he was a lover of people. Nearly 50 years after hearing him say, “First, you’ve got to love people,” I’ve not forgotten, or shaken, or done anything but grow in humility at the power and truth of this teaching.


Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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