By Michael W. Campbell
I knew when I accepted my first pastoral assignment that pastoral ministry was going to be full of challenges. After spending a number of years preparing for the opportunity to serve, there was still going to be, without doubt, a steep learning curve.
When I was first asked what kind of pastor I would like to be, I responded with a certain amount of trepidation mixed with optimism that I was going to be the “perfect” pastor. While I knew that perfection was unlikely, I hoped that through my ministry I might somehow be able to point people to our perfect Savior.
Like all young pastors, it didn’t take long for my church members to discover I wasn’t perfect.
A Care-free Outing
My first summer in ministry I hired a Bible worker, Kevin,* a freshman theology major at one of our Adventist colleges. He had done a terrific job knocking on doors and giving Bible studies, and before he left I was determined that we do something nice for him. Since we live near the mountains I decided to take him four-wheeling through some alpine meadows. It was a testosterone-filled sport I thought a young college student would love.
In order to do this I had to borrow a Jeep. Several of my church members had offered to loan their four-wheel drive vehicles if I needed one. So I decided to take one of them up on their offer. When I called Tim, he responded enthusiastically, affirming my choice to take our Bible worker into the mountains.
Tim said that he would leave his Jeep parked south of town. Since we live out in the country, many people leave their vehicles parked by the two-lane highway. He said he would leave the keys in the car. It was a black, soft-topped vehicle. “You won’t be able to miss it,” he said.
So the next morning I went with Kevin to find Tim’s vehicle. It wasn’t hard. Just south of town was a black Jeep with the keys in the car, just as Tim had described.
We loaded up our gear, including my dog, for a fun-filled day that included driving next to cliffs, going up into the world-famous Yankee Boy Basin, and an attempt to reach the summit of Mt. Sneffels. Unfortunately, a storm started to roll in, so we didn’t quite make it all the way to the top.
Since my wife was out of town, and not wanting to eat by ourselves, I had sent out an e-mail that morning inviting church members over to the pastor’s house for haystacks. My only requirement was that they bring a topping for the entrée. I anticipated a large group, and after having had a great deal of fun, we headed back to town.
After we dropped off the Jeep, I called Tim to thank him for the use of his vehicle.
“Pastor,” he said, “I don’t know whose Jeep you had, but I can tell you it wasn’t mine!”
My stomach twisted in knots. I didn’t know what to say. I asked him, now in a state of shock, “What should I do?”
“Pastor, if I were you,” he said, “I’d get out of there as quickly as I could.”
Knowing that we had church members coming to our home, I hastily followed his advice.
I didn’t think much more about the incident for several weeks. Since we live in a small town, the local newspaper publishes a list of crimes. One of my church members had heard about their young pastor absconding with someone else’s Jeep. And when he saw that on that same day a stolen Jeep was listed in the newspaper he wrote me a pathos-filled e-mail. The gist was simple: “Pastor, you need to repent and turn yourself in to the police.”
Now I was in a quandary. I had left the vehicle just the way I had found it. (I had even filled it with gas on the way out since the tank was on empty when we found it, and I filled it again before I left it.) With my vehicle parked next to the spot where I found it, I figured it would’ve been easy for someone to track me down.
But now one of my church members was urging me to turn myself in. So I asked Albert, my head elder and a retired pastor and church administrator, for some advice. Of course, he’d already heard the story; and when I explained my predicament his advice was simple: “What does your conscience tell you to do?”
I replied, “Well, I don’t see any point in turning myself in now.”
“Good,” he said.
The Long Arm of the Law
But a couple days later I received a phone call from the Sheriff’s Department. Since the call came to my cell phone (an unlisted number), I kind of figured one of my church members had turned me in.
“Pastor Campbell,” the officer said, “can you please come down to the station to explain to us some details about a Jeep?”
“Certainly,” I replied. “I’ll be right down.”
The officer greeted me at the door with a grin on his face. “Pastor Campbell, I just have to hear this story from you,” he said as he accompanied me to his office. As we sat together he began rolling with laughter as I shared with him what had happened.
As it turned out, according to him, I had borrowed the Jeep from Ben, a man who had a history of public intoxication. Apparently this wasn’t the first time Ben had “misplaced” his vehicle. The case had been closed, except for the mystery of how the vehicle had turned up with a full tank of gas.
Now, thanks to the thoughtfulness of one of my church members (who needs to wait for the time of trouble?) the Sheriff’s Department had figured out the “rest of the story.” The sheriff went on to tell me that Ben, the person who owned the Jeep, wanted to tell me “thank you” for the tank of gas!
It Could’ve Been Worse
From this experience I learned more than just to check the license plate of the vehicle you’re going to borrow. I also made friends with some of the community’s law enforcement officers, who, to this day, still kid me about checking first with the local pastors the next time a vehicle goes missing.
What Do You Think?
1. When have you been involved in a case of mistaken identity? Are you able to laugh about it, or isit one of your repressed memories?
2. Is there such a thing in the Christian life as "no harm, no foul"? Why, or why not?
3. Are there things that should be left confessed? If so, give a couple of examples.
4. What part does grace play in our willingness to confess our shortcomings to one another?
Far more important is that I learned ministry isn’t about perfection; it’s about authenticity. I made an honest mistake. Now that enough time has passed I can even laugh about the whole episode. I think most church members, including the sheriff, know this.
Recently I shared this story with a group of pastors for worship during camp meeting. I emphasized the importance of mentoring and learning from more-experienced ministers as one of the most effective tools that kept me from throwing in the towel when it comes to pastoral ministry.
Afterward another veteran pastor came up to me. “Michael,” he said, “don’t feel bad about this whole incident; it could’ve been worse.”
He went on to tell me how his conference president had asked him to fly the conference evangelist out to an island for an evening meeting in the conference plane. When he asked the president for the key, the president said the conference plane didn’t have a key.
“So,” he concluded, “it could’ve been worse; you could’ve taken the wrong plane.”
*Names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Michael W. Campbell is lead pastor of the Wichita South Seventh-day Adventist Church in Kansas. This article was published November 25, 2010.