Earlier this week the North Alabama Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church met here in Huntsville. I attended every year from 1983 to 2011, the year I retired. Since then, I have only sporadically attended and only for a brief time. One meeting I try not to miss is the Memorial Service, where the pastors and spouses who have died in the past year are honored. In the early days, most of the names meant nothing to me. They were only names on paper. They were not real persons to me.
But over the years, the names became more and more familiar. These were people I had known and worked with and prayed with. These were people I had sat around tables with and eaten and laughed and sometimes cried with. The service became more meaningful to me. I watched sadly as many of the conference attendees used the time to get a head start in the lunch line.
Recent changes have made the service more meaningful and the attendance has improved. This is good. Here are people who have given their lives in service to Christ and the church. As the Rev. Sherry Harris, this year’s preacher, noted, they sometimes sacrificed family time, or vacation time, or personal time to meet the needs of their flock. They willingly upheld the responsibility they had undertaken. For their sacrifice, is it too much to ask us to take an hour to remember them?
I hope not. I hope that services that honor pastors and pastoral families who have served the Lord in relative obscurity become important to us. Political and business leaders have overflow crowds in their honor. But should not the person who gives years of dedicated service to small or medium-sized congregations be equally remembered?
Over the years of my ministry, I have officiated at more funerals than I can remember. What I do remember is that when a young person dies, great crowds attend. It is so unusual. When a middle age person dies, it is also rather well attended. But when an older person passes, it is sometimes hard to find people who are not relatives in the service.
From time to time, there is a wonderful exception to this rule. I remember one in which a 90+-year-old man was being remembered and the church could not hold the crowd. They were not his contemporaries, as few of them were still alive. They were friends he had made over the years from the community and younger people he had worked with in other situations. It was a sad, but yet joyous event.
Heroes are not always recognized in their lifetime. Sometimes they are recognized by the number of people whose lives they have touched. Sometimes the significance of a pastor’s ministry is not measured by their salary or their numbers of congregants, or the prestige of their church. Sometimes the significance of a pastor lies in the people whose lives were touched by their ministry.
I still treasure the words of a ninth grader as I left a church after being its youth pastor for a year. “If you had not come here when you did, I don’t think I would still be part of this church.” I think that is what Jesus meant when he said, “Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done unto me.”