They call me “El Pastor.”
Okay, yes, that’s a play on “al pastor” which is a central Mexican method of barbecuing pork, but I still find the nickname charming. The moniker was given to me my first week of waiting tables at a high-end restaurant in the town I’d just moved to. Before this job I’d been in vocational ministry for over a decade, but when my family and I moved out of LA to raise our two young kids in a more family-friendly (and cheaper) location, I realized my initial plan of freelance writing (re: this article) wasn’t going to pay the bills.
So now I’m a 36-year-old once-and-future pastor with two young kids waiting tables with coworkers who, in some cases, are half my age. I work with degenerate alcoholics (their label, not mine) who curse and talk about their sexual exploits and generally aren’t sure what to do with knowing “El Pastor” is always around. One time a couple waiters offered me ecstasy while on shift, only for one to say “nah, he’s not into that. He’s a pastor.”
I love it all so much.
To be clear I don’t love what my new friends are doing. I don’t love the sexist work culture, the addictive behaviors, or the general debauchery. But if I’m “El Pastor,” then these people are my flock and I care about them deeply.
Working at my restaurant has been an eye-opening experience in so many ways. It’s made me realize how as a vocational pastor I truly was in a Christian bubble. I tried to develop friendships with non-Christians. I wanted to be “in the world.” But the reality is I was working 40+ hours a week with Christians, meeting with Christians, and talking to Christians, with the occasional non-believing relationship sprinkled in. Now that time ratio is reversed, and I’m the one showing up on Sundays thinking “oh man, I’m so glad I get to be around a bunch of Christians for an hour.”
My time waiting tables is transforming how I see pastoral ministry, and since I’ll probably be an official “man of the cloth” again, I’ve been thinking about what I’m learning in this season of life, and how it’ll shape how I do ministry in the future. I already feel like if God calls me back into full-time ministry, being a waiter will have made me better at it. So, here are three things I’ve learned about pastoring while not being a pastor.
PRACTICAL ACTION STEPS MATTER IN PREACHING
Whether your preaching style is topical or exegetical, practical action steps really are important. Many pastors intuitively get this, but as a pastor I tended to point creative energy into making the narrative of the Bible come alive and then mailing in the “now what” section of the talk.
But in my life now I need the pastor to make his preaching practical. Recently a pastor at my church did a great job of unpacking how to deal with anger, and specifically letting go of the right to be treated fairly. At the time I dutifully nodded my head while thinking “this doesn’t really apply to me.” Or at least it didn’t until my manager started yelling at me a few days in a row about things that weren’t fair, and immediately those practical action steps came to mind. Because the pastor made the philosophical practical, I was more equipped to invite God’s presence into that moment, surrender my “right to be right,” and model (grudgingly, imperfectly) God’s kingdom way of living at that restaurant.
THE GOSPEL REALLY IS IN CONFLICT WITH CULTURE
I’m not breaking new ground here, but there is a huge gap between a “Christian worldview” and the world’s. There are the obvious ways—sexuality, substance abuse, materialism—but those actions are less important than the insidious lies many people believe that keep that at arms length from Jesus.
The one bothering me most right now is how many of my coworkers are quick to assure me when they talk about how they used to be religious but aren’t any more that they’re still “a good person.” My response is usually to just smile and say “oh that’s good, because I’m a trainwreck. Glad one of us has their act together!” I say it jokingly, but with enough of an edge they know I genuinely believe it. One coworker asked why I’d say that and I explained to him that I am painfully aware of my own tendency toward anger, pride, and self-destruction. He quickly assured me everyone is like that and “don’t worry, you’re a good guy.”
He needed me to believe that, because he needs to believe it too.
Jesus’ message, of course, stands in stark contradiction to this. Jesus insists the poor in spirit are the closest to God’s kingdom and the meek inherit the earth. We come to God by acknowledging we can’t come to Him—not really—and need help. It’s weird for me to say because I’m a “grace first” guy who boomeranged away from a legalistic, Bible belt “hellfire and brimstone” upbringing, but we as pastors need to recapture compelling ways to help people realize their depravity.
HOW MUCH GOD LOVES HUMANITY
I love my coworkers so much. They are funny, and honest, and constantly teaching me things. Two different times one of my hard-partying “pagan” friends has sprinted laps around “El Pastor” in how he’s humbly pursued reconciliation in our friendship.
In tension with what I just said about depravity, I’m also remembering how beautiful people are. I see the imago Dei stamped on each member of my work-family. And I see the brokenness and pain right underneath the surface, wounds from a spiritual enemy who has come to steal, kill, and destroy them.
I think of Steve* who told me because of the stress and substance abuse in his life, he probably won’t live past 45.
Of Kyle, who brags about his sexual exploits but confides in me how worried he is about his 5-year-old daughter who is spending a month with her drug-addicted mom.
Of Diana who as a little girl was so wounded by someone, she has shut down her heart so it’ll never be hurt again.
I think of Natalie, Emily, Tim, and Rob. And as I am writing this I’m moved to tears because I can see so clearly the beautiful sons and daughters of God they’re meant to be, and how, if I care about them this much, how much more must God’s heart break for them?
My hope is if someday I’m working at a church again, I won’t forget about my friends. That I’ll find ways to let my heart be broken on behalf of those far from God.
I hope that even if I become a pastor again, I’ll never stop being “El Pastor.”
*all names changed