The month of October was “Pastor Appreciation Month”. As the title suggests, it’s a month designated to thank and honor pastors and clergy who have had an impact on our lives. Some years, I’ve received touching notes and cards from parishioners. Other times, the church would put on a potluck supper in my honor. Then there were some years in which October came and went with very little. That never bothered me, really. I don’t anxiously sit around waiting to be accoladed and thanked.
This year, however, I received two notes of appreciation from some friends of mine. They are not my parishioners. In fact, they are no one’s parishioners. That’s because they are atheists. Here’s what they wrote:
I understand that October is Pastor/Clergy Appreciation Month. To be honest, I don’t particularly appreciate clergy in general, since I’m essentially opposed to organized religion. However, I want to make exceptions for clergy members who make an effort to help people here on Earth and not just in a supposed afterlife, and who try to lead by example rather than just mouthing the words. Shout-out to our friend Chris Owens–we may not always agree, but I appreciate his honest efforts to see the other side’s perspective.
I also got this one from another atheist friend:
Thank you for being my friend and my internet pastor. Knowing you and talking with you has meant a great deal to me – even when we disagree, I always feel I learn something from you, and for all those times we turn out to agree (which is delightfully more often than I feared) it gives me a wonderful sense of perspective about the Christian community today which I find is lacking among many atheists, and broadens my world view greatly.
You are, indeed, an individual very worthy to hold the title of “pastor” and you bear the mantle of responsibility, authority, and vulnerability well – better than many I know who hold that title.
Wow… I was deeply touched and humbled by these words. It’s one thing for a church member to say these things. But for people who are not members of my faith community- folks who do not believe in God and reject organized religion!- to affirm my ministry and me that way, it resulted in one of those rare moments of beautiful pause.
Now some Christians may scoff at any pastor who gets a warm response from atheists. Perhaps I’m compromising myself. After all, I should be preaching the truth boldly, without compromise or apology, especially to unbelievers. Of course, this thinking assumes that part of my job is to offend and alienate people who don’t agree with me. Whatever… There are enough Christian jerks out there who spout off their truths and slam people who don’t see God and the world like they do. I refuse to be one of them, even as I have my differences with people who think and see differently than me.
Maturing as a Christian has led me to the great value of connecting with people who aren’t like me. It’s a wonderful gift in my life, actually. I learn a lot. I see whole other perspectives which help me to understand how people think and why they think that way. After all, I can’t be a good pastor who effectively shepherds and teaches the good news of Jesus without that. More importantly, I’ve found the gift of loving and being loved by people who would most likely never be my church congregants. Those human to human contacts in which I see the face of God in people, especially those don’t acknowledge God’s existence, is a priceless treasure which draws me closer to Jesus and closer to them. That alone is a precious gift.
So to my friends, Ed and Sophie and the many others I have friendships with who are not Christians or even theists, thank you for being a hallowed treasure in my life. Thank you for the things you teach me, for challenging me, for helping me to think more critically, carefully, and with increased sensitivity and awareness. And thank you for loving and at times forgiving me. You’ve made me a better person, disciple of Jesus, and pastor. You are also much, much appreciated.