How “putting cans in boxes” relates to ministry

I visited one of my alma maters yesterday. Going to seminary and becoming a pastor wasn't such a radical change.
I visited one of my alma maters yesterday. Going to seminary and becoming a pastor wasn’t such a radical change.

I shared a version of this reflection at a United Methodist Men’s dinner on Tuesday night:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 1 Corinthians 12:12 (NRSV).

Like most United Methodist pastors these days, I chose pastoral ministry (or it chose me) as a second career. I was happily working as an electrical engineer before I uprooted my family, sold our house, went to seminary, and became a pastor. When I tell parishioners this, they usually express surprise at how different being a pastor is from being an engineer. “That’s quite a drastic change!”

I get what they mean, but it doesn’t feel all that different to me.

I think I know why: Throughout those years of studying at Georgia Tech and working as an engineer, God was preparing me for the next stage of my life and ministry, so that by the time I got there, well… I won’t say I was ready for it… Far from it! But I at least had enough courage to take that next step when it was time.

God’s grace often works like that, doesn’t it?

Think about some of the necessary skills or attributes required to be an effective engineer: Working under deadline pressure, thinking clearly and logically, being patient, communicating effectively and concisely, managing people, keeping the “paying customers” happy. Managing stress. Keeping calm in the midst of a crisis. Keeping a sense of humor. Not taking yourself too seriously. Keeping things in perspective.

And most importantly—as an engineer who was also a Christian—putting what little faith I had into action—however imperfectly, however reluctantly.

God knows I didn’t do all these things well (I still don’t). But it’s easy to see that each of these skills or attributes is also useful or necessary for effective pastoral ministry! So I was working on being a pastor long before I answered the call into pastoral ministry.

By the way, I worked for a paper company that made, among other things, soft-drink cartons—like any 12-pack carton you’d find at the grocery store. Specifically, I helped to engineer the large machines that unfolded the cartons, shoved cans in them, and glued them shut—at a rate of about 150 cartons per minute.

Once, a group of us engineers and technicians were working round-the-clock to solve a confounding problem with a high-profile client’s machine. Many of us were feeling stressed out, short-tempered, and irritable. But not Kenny, the field services manager. Although Kenny bore the brunt of the client’s wrath, he put things in perspective nicely: “Guys, all we’re doing here is putting cans in boxes. This ain’t brain surgery! It’s not life-and-death! Relax! We’re just putting cans in boxes.”

We’re just putting cans in boxes. I love that! I would walk by Kenny’s office sometimes, duck my head in, and say, “We’re just putting cans in boxes!” And he’d walk by my cubicle and say, “We’re just putting cans in boxes!”

I believe this applies to ministry, too. At any given time, all any of us are mostly doing is putting “cans in boxes.”

Don’t get me wrong: I realize that the work that we do as a church is the most important work that human beings can do. It’s about spiritual life and death. It’s about eternity. But we’re not responsible for saving people’s souls. None of us has the power to do that. Instead, we each do our part—we “put those cans in boxes”—and let the Holy Spirit take it from there. The Lord does the heavy lifting.

The point is, none of us carries the weight of the world on our shoulders. God can do that just fine without us. So we let him.

You’re only responsible for using the gifts God has given you. I’m only responsible for using the gifts God has given me. Each of us is well-equipped to do this. If we do it well, and faithfully—together as a church—we’ll be successful.

Let this be part of your prayer today and every day:

Lord, make me a faithful steward of the gifts you’ve given me for ministry. Make our church, Hamton UMC, faithful in its stewardship as well. Amen.

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