Some twenty years ago, when I was between churches for a solid year, I briefly considered becoming a vocational itinerant preacher. In other words, a traveling evangelist.
The idea excited me for a whole day. Then I talked to one.
Jim Ponder of Orlando, Florida–now with the Lord–was a dear friend who was enjoying a lengthy and effective ministry of itinerant evangelism. If anyone could provide the counsel I needed, it would be Jim. I picked up the phone and reached him.
A half hour later, when the conversation ended, I knew the Lord was not calling me in that direction. In fact, anyone who goes into this work and stays with it for any time deserves our greatest respect and support.
Two cautions in particular from Brother Jim have lingered in my mind all these years.
1) Don’t go into evangelism if you cannot handle being away from your family and alone in a distant hotel room night after night after night.
2) Don’t expect to be able to live on the offerings you receive. You will need a strong board of supporters to supplement your income.
From 1990 until 2004, I pastored a Southern Baptist church in metro New Orleans, then served for 5 years as the director of missions–the SBC version of a district superintendent/bishop–for the 100-plus churches in the same area, before retiring on June 1, 2009.
That’s when I hit the road.
I made no pretense of being a vocational evangelist, but simply tried to accept every speaking/preaching invitation that came my way. Over the six-month period, I did five revivals, supplied the pulpits of various churches in near and distant cities for 15 Sundays, held 2 funerals and 1 wedding,led four deacon-training conferences all over the Southeast, and on 16 different occasions, spent hours (or even all day) drawing people at churches, schools, or festivals. I held one senior-adult retreat.
My wife hardly recognizes me, I’ve been gone so much.
Here’s what I’ve found that surprised me….
1) Keeping my suits pressed and the dress shirts clean for the next out-of-town trip is a problem, particularly when several meetings are back to back.
2) The motel thing has not been a problem, because I’ve not stayed in one all that much. I’ve been put up in homes of friends, in the back rooms of associational offices, in bed-and-breakfasts, in the back of a church, and a couple of times I’ve stayed with relatives in the area. And there have been a few motels. Our Lord told the disciples to stay where they were invited, I seem to remember.
3) I have made a ton of friends whom I can’t wait to see again.
4) The offerings from the various churches have been so spotty, so uneven, that I’m no longer surprised that people who do this for a living sometimes become money-focused out of sheer desperation. So far, I’ve noticed that it more or less balances out: a small offering from one place is followed by a generous one from the next.
5) As for the sermons, there is no more shooting from the hip or ad-libbing a message. Unless it’s nailed down that “this story goes with that sermon,” I’ll get confused and forget what I’ve told the congregation and end up repeating myself.
6) Evangelists must keep good records on what they preached in each church, what the offerings were, and what expenses they incurred. For a not-very-detailed person like myself, this is sheer torture.
One evangelist I know, a seminary classmate, once held seven weeklong revivals back to back. What made this even more nightmarish was that they all involved two services a day, with the morning service coming at 7 a.m. No one was surprised when he collapsed from sheer exhaustion at the conclusion of that schedule.
Rereading the list above–the places I’ve gone and the meetings I’ve held–I’m confident veterans of this kind of ministry are laughing and shaking their heads. Joe may be 69 years old, but he’s just a tenderfoot, a new kid on the block. Why, he wouldn’t last two years on the professional circuit.
I don’t doubt that a bit; I’m not cut out for much more of this schedule. That’s why when our local Baptist seminary called and asked if I’d like to stay home for the Spring semester of 2010 and teach a few classes to preacher-students, I jumped at it. Sleep in my own bed, eat my own groceries, that sounds good.
Old habits, however, are hard to break. When the phone rings and it’s a preacher on the other end, or when I check my e-mail, if it’s an invitation to preach in a church, my heart jumps a little. I do love this.
Now if I can figure some way to go all those places without leaving home, I’ll have it made.