If it’s true that one never forgets their first love, then perhaps it’s also true that a pastor never forgets his or her first church.
In 1980, I was a 23-year-old divinity student living on the campus of Golden Gate Seminary. Sheltered from San Francisco sin, the school was nestled into the famed Sausalito peninsula.
Early in my first year of the three-year program, I became convinced that I knew enough to become a full-fledged pastor.
So, I made some networking calls to several area missionaries, the closest thing Southern Baptists have to a bishop. My last call that January day was to Jimmy Warren, father of the not-yet-famous Rick Warren. Rick currently pastors the largest church in America, Saddleback Community Church.
The elder Warren answered with the Southern drawl that sometimes merges two names, “Jimmy-Warren.”
I prompted the aging missionary to recall that he and my father were seminary classmates in the '60s while his daughter, Chandelle, and I were kindergarten peers.
Jimmy pronounced my call “fortuitous” and asked if I could help a local church by filling the pulpit of their pastor who had just retired.
As quickly as I said yes, he cautioned me that I was only pinch-hitting until the church found a real pastor.
Like many of his peers, Jimmy didn’t consider ministerial students real pastors. He worried we were opportunists who might use rural churches as stepping-stones to Rick Warren fame.
Nonetheless, the arrangement often provided the student with valuable on-the-job training while the church received cheap labor.
Assenting to his caveat, I obtained directions to Hopland, Calif., a town 90 miles north of my seminary.
“By the way,” Warren said, “the town takes its name from the beer hops it once grew, so it’s pronounced ‘Hop-land,’ not 'Hope-land.'”
As a Baptist born-and-bred, I didn’t know what beer hops even looked like. I’d downed only one beer in college, but I don’t count that one because it didn’t stay down.
Two weeks later, on a foggy Sunday morning, I drove into Hopland with my newlywed wife, Becky.
Like the community, the hops had shriveled long ago. All that remained was an aging company town populated by out-of-work lumberjacks on government assistance.
We made a quick turn off the highway, almost missing the church, and our tires spit gravel as we skidded into the parking lot.
We turned off the engine and stared at the narrow building. It was circa 1940s, topped with a tin roof that drained rust down the church’s peeling clapboard sides.
A sign proudly predicted, “New Baptist church coming in 1980.”
“Sounds like Hop-land is Hope-ful,” Becky said. “They seem a bit late and many dollars short of that goal.”
“Well, it’s the only church in a town of 800, so maybe I can help it grow,” I countered.
“Hey, my preaching professor says I sound like Billy Graham.”
“First of all, I don’t think he meant that as a compliment. But mostly I think you and Hopland suffer from illusions of grandeur.”
Even from our beginnings, Becky saw it necessary to deflate my ballooning head.
Nevertheless, we went inside, made our introductions, and took a seat as the service began. I preached my sermon and afterward assumed a pastoral position at the exit, shaking hands like a flight attendant thanking everyone for flying today.
Soon, a deacon approached me and began pumping my arm. “I think we got us a Billy Graham,” he said, “You’re hired. You’re our new pastor!”
“New pastor?” I asked. “I thought I was just filling in.”
At that moment, my head reinflated. Despite my conviction that I was light years away from the academia of graduate school, I sensed the place could teach me things I wouldn’t learn in class.
I took the job.
In the upcoming weeks, I’ll be sharing some of what I learned.
Reach Norris Burkes through at firstname.lastname@example.org, 843-608-9715 or @chaplain.
Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.