I graduated from Candler School of Theology in May of 1982. A month later Bishop Joel McDavid appointed me to the Mount Carmel and Emory Chapel United Methodist Churches outside Newnan, Georgia.
On our first Sunday as pastor and parish, I preached what—in my own modest estimation at the time—might have been the finest sermon in the history of Christendom. In retrospect, it might have fallen a bit short of such a lofty appraisal.
I awoke on Monday morning feeling pretty good about myself. Then it hit me. The two congregations expected me to preach again the following Sunday; AND they probably anticipated something new! So I slowly learned how to preach on a weekly (weakly?) basis.
God bless those long-suffering congregations in Coweta County who faithfully supported a preacher learning his trade. They took pride in training young pastors, and they gracefully endured rambling sermons with twelve points that never really made a point. The members shook hands after the benediction and assured me they had never heard a sermon quite like THAT before.
I recently flipped through a file drawer that contained some of those first sermons. I blushed bright red while reading the manuscripts. In those early days, I spoke authoritatively about marriage while living as a single man. I instructed parents how to raise children without any of my own. I encouraged people to joyfully endure suffering without any life experience in the subject.
So I’m writing an open letter of apology to those first congregations I served from 1982-1987. God bless the good people at the Mount Carmel and Emory Chapel United Methodist Churches. Precious in the sight of the Lord are those congregations who train up young pastors in the way they should go.
I am who I am today because of who we were together yesterday. I will be forever grateful for your patience, tutelage, and love.
And about that first Sunday when I preached what might have been the finest sermon in the history of Christendom —I really am sorry!
Life is a learning experience. No one can experience or know everything. The great thing about the Bible is that it contains the wisdom of the ages and makes its wisdom available to those who may not have personal experience if they are wise enough to learn from it. No doubt you communicated that wisdom that is taught by the Bible as best as you then understood it. You showed up, took responsibility, and gave it your best shot. That is all anybody can do.
Thank you for doing the faithful work of leading those congregations so that we now have the blessing of the wisdom and training they gave you to boldly declare the Word of God today. We appreciate your hard work and the apology is not needed.
I think about that responsibility a lot, Bill, now that I have a son who is a pastor. It is basically writing a term paper every week. He is always reading and researching. He has come a long way from those days in high school when he needed constant reminders to finish a term paper!
I was not there for your first sermon. I was there for the one you preached last Sunday.
It was excellent!
I’m sure God is pleased.