Picking Up the Trash

Kris Coffin Stevenson | 25 May 2019 |

“I don’t know if you realize this,” she whispered in my ear, a gray-haired saint leaning over the pew, “but you’re chewing gum.”

As the newbie wife of a pastor, I had prioritized coming to each meeting of the evangelistic series despite my full-time job and long commute. But this sweet saint’s idealized view of her pastor’s wife didn’t include chewing gum in church on a Tuesday night. She was sure I would be grateful for her instruction.

Another lesson I got on how to be married to a pastor came from a seasoned pastor’s wife who talked to us fresh, impressionable pastors’ wives at a seminar. (I say “wives” because male pastoral spouses in those days were as rare as two-horned unicorns.) In her list of helpful things the wife of a pastor could do to enhance her husband’s ministry, one stood out in particular–combing the church pews after church for discarded bulletins and other trash. I was offended. My dreams about marrying a pastor hadn’t included waste management.

Fast-forward 30-something years, I’m still married to a pastor. We’ve had some soul-changing experiences and many wonderful, loving people have stood shoulder to shoulder with us in ministry. I’ve seen some unrealistic expectations change, gum chewing among them, and male pastoral spouses are off the endangered list, but in my opinion the stereotypes of pastors and families continue. There is still the fish bowl life, the two-for-one-price principle, the name—Pastor’s Wife, the double standards, and the rush to judgment (I once was accused of putting bacon in my lentils. Apparently, the diced tomatoes looked mighty suspicious.).

I’ve also seen that the system we use to train and employ pastors and their families produces managers rather than New Testament apostles. I’ve seen the emphasis placed on numbers, programs, and well-executed board meetings. I’ve seen pastors play the metrics game in order to get promoted. I’ve watched good pastoral families get taken out of service because of personal resentments and power mongering or seen pastors reassigned to a new church with no say and no notice. I’ve watched as most other branches of ministry in the church except pastors and teachers have voted themselves out of the denominational pay scale. I’ve watched administrative officials jet around the world for “important” meetings held in beautiful tourist destinations while I’ve seen some conferences unable to hold pastoral spouse meetings or even pastor retreats once a year because of lack of funds. In most conferences there’s no money to bring spouses of pastors together for training, fellowship, or support much less provide them with some pay for assisting in the ministry. In 30-something years of ministry, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times something was done for pastoral spouses, except for an occasional newsletter with recipes or a chirpy letter that starts “Dear Ewe.”

But what am I doing? No one wants to hear whining from a pastor’s wife. I’ve had some great ministry opportunities in the local church and made some amazing friends, but I’ve also experienced “friendly fire” and seen how the inequity of distribution of resources, the lack of training and support for pastoral families, and the emphasis on promoting pastors out of the front lines of ministry inevitably hurts the local church and the pastoral family.

So why have we stayed? Why should we stay? Is our allegiance to the Seventh-day Adventist church enough to encourage us to soldier on despite the low pay and the potential for abuse, despite the implementation of five compliance committees, and the lack of job security for women in ministry and those who support them?

After one particular career-bashing disappointment, my husband and I spent several years delving into the life of Jesus. I was curious about what Jesus’ frequent references to the “kingdom of heaven” actually meant. We dwelt in the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount and it changed us. It opened up a firehose, a waterfall, a tsunami of knowledge, insights, aha moments as we studied and learned and prayed about what it really means to be a servant leader and part of the Upside Down Kingdom. We began praying to be on God’s agenda every day, to reflect His character in every interaction as Jesus did, to allow the Holy Spirit to fill us so we could be the incarnation of God to those around us. We began to realize that we’re here to bring glory to God in everything we do, however big or small it may be or how weak or strong we are.[1] Those “detours” that the Spirit nudged us into brought us relationships with remarkable new people, opportunities to be an influence in places we never dreamed possible, and filled our joy cups to overflowing. After our sojourn in the Beatitudes and the simplicity of Matthew 25, we want to crack open the stained glass windows of corporate expectations and let this torrent of new understanding of the love of God spill out.

When I study Jesus’ ministry agenda, it looks very different from the focus in our pastoral world on programs, attendance, committees, and building projects. Jesus constantly breached religious barriers and metrics. He did nothing except what His Father told him to do.[2] He spent time touching lepers, eating with tax collectors. He drank water handed to Him by a Samaritan woman, healed the child of a hated Roman centurion. Jesus’ kingdom is rooted in the tree of life and love, upside down and backwards to the kingdom of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It’s a different economy, a different operating system, a different citizenship, another dimension. It boils down to the fact that there are only two modes of operating; selfish or selfless. God’s kingdom is selfless. It is based on loving, serving, caring. It makes its Manifesto Matthew 25, where a cup of cold water and a friendly visit to the least of these separates those who are in one dimension from another. This is the rule on which hangs all the law and the prophets–do to others as you would like things done to you.[3]

Read Matthew 5-7.

Read it again.

This is the God we want to share. He loves orphans and widows and centurions and gentile women and demon-possessed men and prostitutes and rich men and little children. He loved religious administrators too, but most of them didn’t love Him. Jesus said we could find Him in the midst of the least of these. “And the King will tell them, ‘I assure you, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.”[4] Jesus picked up the trash—the people that everyone else had thrown out.

And you… So why should you stay? Are you tired of the rote service, the haggling over music? Are you suspicious of where the tithe goes, weary of pleas for more offerings? Do you wish everyone would “just get along”? Do you wonder where the church is going when you read long convoluted arguments about policy, hear threats and counter threats from administrators? Do you think it’s not worth the hassle to go to church; you can be “spiritual” on your own?

Jesus came in a human body so that God could be relatable to humans. When He left He promised to live in us through the power of the Holy Spirit so that our lives would exhibit love, selflessness, caring, sharing, peace, joy, forgiveness, gentleness, self-control, patience. So now, instead of just one human Jesus on earth to do ministry, God has commissioned hundreds, thousands, millions of Christ followers to live out the incarnation every day. Until the battle between the two dimensions is finished here on earth, God chooses to be represented by this “royal priesthood of believers” who are living their eternal lives now.

John 13-17 chronicles Jesus’ final words and prayer at the last supper. Three times he makes a command to the disciples and to those disciples that will come after them; Love One Another.[5] Yes, it is a command! “Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” It doesn’t get any clearer than that. He wants the church—His body–to get along over a simple meal eaten in fellowship. He wants us to reach out a hand to someone who’s different and pull them into the group, seat them at the table next to us, fill up their goblet and clue them into the jokes.

When we treat each other with disrespect, when we maneuver to grab power, when we act like we’re part of God’s Club and deliberately or carelessly exclude those who are different, form cliques of like-minded individuals, divide our church and our world into “us and them,” misuse resources for our own gain, mistreat those people or living things within our care, build our own kingdom, create a hierarchy of who is most important, this is the operating system of the kingdom of the world—the kingdom of selfishness. Instead, we are followers of Christ and members of His body when we invite His Spirit to purge that way of operating from our fellowship and live generous lives bankrolled by heaven.

We live out the character of Jesus each day, person by person, moment by moment in every interaction.[6] It might be with your boss or the UPS driver who brings in the packages. It might be with the barista at Starbucks or the telemarketer on the phone. It might be with the shuffling homeless guy or the acquaintance who calls and talks forever. Did they see God when they talked to you? It doesn’t take ordination, commissioning, or a certificate of marriage to do these things. Be the incarnation today. Be part of the Body. Love one another. Stay.

So if I have to throw out my gum to make an octogenarian feel more comfortable (that Aspartame was killing me anyway), pick up discarded bulletins after church to lighten the load on a deacon whose wife is in the hospital, clear the dishes off my table and a few other tables in the deli because the server is overworked, make some sandwiches to hand out at the homeless shelter, pick up the neighbor’s trash can and its contents when the wind blows it over, it’s an opportunity to let the character of the God of the Universe shine out from me. To assist Jesus in picking up the “trash.”

That’s why I stay.

  1. I Cor 10:31; I Peter 4:10-12
  2. John 5:19, 30; 8:28
  3. Matthew 7:12
  4. Matthew 25:40
  5. John 13: 34,35; 15:12, 17.
  6. Ellen White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1898), pp. 637-641. Ellen White, A Call to Stand Apart (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2002), pp. 60-62.

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Kris Coffin Stevenson is an author, teacher, editor, and scopist. She loves living her eternal life starting now. She and her husband reside in Santa Clarita, California.