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Failure To Launch
The confession of an older and wiser pastor
By Norris Burkes
I was only six months into my first pastor’s job in Hopland, Calif., when I contemplated quitting.
As I considered my pastoral responsibilities, I had to admit I had an uncomplicated life. I was a full-time graduate student driving 90 miles every weekend to preach two sermons in a country church. Not a bad gig, as they say.
But on April 12, 1981, I began to feel a dissonance between my academic world and the rural working life of Hopland. I remember the date precisely because I’d anticipated the day’s events for months.
That was the Sunday Navy test pilot Bob Crippen flew the Space Shuttle Columbia into orbit from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Astronaut John Young, who’d walked on the moon in 1972, commanded the mission.
I stepped to the podium that day overflowing with optimism. Nothing would extinguish my unbridled enthusiasm except, as it turned out, Bob, my volunteer music director.
I asked if he’d seen the launch.
“Oh, that’s NASA nonsense produced in a Hollywood studio.”
Too stunned to reply, I turned to greet the arriving congregation. I tried to pump up their passion for America’s return to space, but no one seemed moved.
After church, I tried to reignite discussion at the potluck by telling my congregants how the shuttle was the first reusable spacecraft. The orbiter would launch like a rocket and land like a plane, but still no one had any energy for it.
As Becky and I drove home to our little student apartment, I turned our commute into a pity party.
I railed about the ignorance and high illiteracy rate of my church members. I couldn’t even get them to follow my Scripture readings, much less have them sing from a hymnal. We had only one member with a full-time job. Since most were unemployed, our offerings looked more like God’s tip jar than a collection plate.
I nitpicked more, telling Becky that these Hoplanders weren’t even good Baptists. As a Baylor graduate, I knew a good Baptist did not smoke, drink or chew—or date girls who do. These folks did all those things. The shame of it all!
I was racing a fast high horse called Pretty Petty Preacher.
Over the next several months, I began believing my slanderous slime. Finally, 13 months after I’d accepted the job, I gave my two-week notice.
Sometime before graduation, a therapist helped me come to grips with my failure to launch. My seminary life overlooking San Francisco’s exclusive North Bay was an alien universe next to the practical lives of Hopland folks.
While my congregants were trying to make ends meet, I was inflating my self-importance in philosophical student discussions of neo-Kierkegaardian existentialism. (I don’t know what this is.)
Hopland was being overrun by the inflationary 1980s, but I was busy debating urgent issues like transubstantiation and consubstantiation. I had little time to sit with parishioners who were losing their lumber-industry jobs.
The academia of theological graduate school placed me into a useless orbit, lost in space, circling the moon of elitism and irrelevance.
God has a funny way of discomfiting the proud. Two years after my resignation, it was deja vu all over again. I accepted a full-time pastorate in the unincorporated rural community of Brentwood, Calif.
I had a little trouble locating the church because traffic slowed as plowing tractors whipped up a localized dustbowl. Finally, I found 25 grandparents waiting on their newly minted seminary graduate and much-humbled pastor.
Eventually, new houses sprang up in Brentwood and the growing community added its first stoplight. Our membership rolls grew accordingly through baptisms and births. We helped with a 7-pound, 3-ounce addition of our own.
Fifteen years later, the Air Force sent me into an ecstatic orbit when they assigned me to be the launch chaplain for Cape Canaveral (1999-2002).
Sometimes God has a funny sense of humor.
Chaplain Norris Burkes will lead a free marriage retreat for military veterans July 20–22 at Sequoia National Park. For more information and to register, go to thenaturecorps.org/tour/sequoia. He can be reached at email@example.com or (843) 608-9715.