Tentmaking With Concrete (June 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Craig Cottongim

I don’t like to suffer. Yet today at age 44, with a Bachelor’s degree and two Masters degrees, I’m once again working construction. I’ve gone from a cozy office with comfy leather chairs and oak bookshelves to doing backbreaking work while fighting freezing rain, snow, and now a scalding hot summer. Daily, I’m completely exposed to the bitterest of elements while doing work that wears your body down. Construction is grueling work when you’re in your 20’s; it’s excruciatingly hard on your body working concrete on your 40’s. Most of us like to get a good education, find a good job, and then enjoy a nice standard of living. We all like to move forward, not backwards. Surprisingly, I’m happier than I’ve been in years, and by the way, I feel I’ve moved forward.

It would be counterproductive to attempt an exhaustive account of all I’ve learned, but I want to share some of what I’ve learned by becoming a tentmaker. After 17 years of “fulltime” preaching in established mainline churches, I’m now involved in an exciting new plant. But. The cost of planting a church has placed me back in the workplace as well. You might think I would have become bitter, even resentful from having to do manual labor after all these years. But still, like I said, I’m happier than I’ve been in years!

Working concrete again after nearly two decades of soft living wasn’t an easy transition. To say my body was out of shape would be to miss the point. Yes, I needed time to rebuild my stamina; it took about a month or a month and a half before my endurance returned. The more difficult part was my entire schedule and “my” life was radically disrupted. Now I get up at 5:30 a.m., as a full-time preacher I didn’t even have to set an alarm… So basically, my former sedentary lifestyle is now completely the opposite of what it used to be.

There’s an old rub that addresses the fact that Seminary doesn’t really prepare us for ministry. Truthfully, Church history, Systematic Theology, and classes in Original languages never prepared anyone very well, for example, on how to hold the hand of a dying person. Textbooks on Creeds or Doctrine hold no clues on how to avoid the collateral damage from stepping on landmines in the foyer. And, once the ivory-tower-bubble bursts itself against the harsh reality of the real world, many preachers are disillusioned for years.

As true as this is, that Seminary doesn’t prepare us well for ministry, Church-life is even worse for the development of most preachers. To be honest, the priorities that led us into Seminary are quickly replaced once we enter our church-Study. In hindsight, merely being ready for the Sunday morning sermon is a lot like an adolescent’s weight-training regimen — i.e., doing lots of bicep curls to exclusion of other muscle groups.

It was nothing for me previously to put 20 hours into one Sunday morning sermon. Why? We want to make a good impression on the flock, and any chance visitors that might show up. The fact is, there are great church growth and homiletics books that advocate this extensive preparation, and at the time it seemed to make sense. Now, I’d love to have those 20 hours of discretionary time to put to better use.

The fatcat lifestyle we ministers can fall into (at least I did) consists oftentimes of working 50 hours a week or more, with nearly all of these hours revolving around the church campus. Without even seeing an unchurched person, we can diligently labor in the vineyard to the point of exhaustion. We are by the design of what we do alienated from our people, and then we’re also secluded from the people we want to reach. How so?

Our agenda is mainly filled with meeting the needs of the congregation. Weekly office hours are filled with: Preparing a Sunday school class, a Sunday morning sermon, then a Sunday Small group lesson and possibly a Sunday evening sermon, and having a Wednesday night class. This all adds up to a lot of preparation. This is isn’t even considering the counseling we do, or the occasional funerals and weddings. Then there are the “customer-service” calls we field too. Did I mention the bulletin articles? I’m in favor of being well prepared to communicate, and to have something worthwhile to say as well. Still.

We are sorely tempted to remain content in our constant preparation mode. We are promoting an education system in our congregations that never has a graduation ceremony. It gets worse. We cater to our group to the point it feels like we’re farmers moving grain from our silo to their silo, but the nutritious bread of life rarely gets to the hungry. If we aren’t careful, we are merely preheating an oven that never really bakes the bread of life, but boy it’s ready to.

I have learned a lot about myself in the past year, for one, I’m not a good fit for the mainline, institutionalized structure of most of the churches I’ve labored in. The standard measurement of an effective ministry is not limited to this, but it’s no less than this either: Increase the attendance, keep the contributions flowing (I’d call this the church of “nickels & noses”) and programing that is mostly inward focused. The corollary includes an underlying unwritten rule, don’t tamper with or attempt to change the system either.

This is the life of most of the congregations I know of. To me, I can’t find Jesus or Paul signing off on this, the consummate “round peg in the square hole” persona of the Body. This “form over function” system emasculates most of us who fill the pulpit.

For me personally, “church-work” was detrimental to my development. Yes, I deeply miss the flexibility I enjoyed. Kid’s field-trips, boom, no problem. Why not? I took them to school anyway, but, I might not see them in the evening because of one committee meeting or another. Doctor’s visits, pow, done! The car needs to go to the mechanic, zap, got it! I didn’t ever feel guilty running personal errands, after all I was “on call” 24/7. For me, the church office hours I put in became discretionary. I was there at the building every day, but I felt the freedom to come and go as needed, as I needed that is.

These are not the conditions that sharpen most people, if they’ll be honest. Actually, the work of running a local church dulls us. I can recognize how easy it is to fall into the seclusion of the typical church, with all of the artificial demands on our time, it’s a no wonder why most churches are plateaued or in decline.

Now, I have to scrape for every bit of free time to read, study, prepare, visit, counsel, study-with people, etc, etc. So I have to really be selective in how I spend my time. Planting a church feels a lot like building an airplane while it’s in mid-flight. Daily, as I drive, I listen to audio-books now; I have to utilize that time traveling to the job. I still read in the evenings, but frankly, I’m so exhausted I can’t read for too long.

I check emails and text messages on my phone in between pouring concrete and finishing it. If I can, I’ll read a blog or two waiting for the next truckload of cement. I don’t take much for granted anymore. I appreciate the hours of the day, the daily energy God blesses me with, and the support of loving friends.

In light of my restricted time limitations, I find it interesting that my wife and friends think my preaching is better now. Our Sunday night home Small group study which I facilitate is rewarding as well. I see people engaged and responsive to my preaching and teaching ministry in ways I haven’t in years. I’m in the community more as well. We serve in a troubled girls’ home on a weekly basis, and we serve monthly in a local food-bank, and working concrete exposes me to a wide variety of people I never would have met before. Thankfully, I’m now a monthly contributor to the religion column of our town’s paper too.

Before I’m possibly misunderstood, I love the Church, the church universal. I don’t really like the mold we usually use. The mainline church isn’t the problem, it’s a symptom. It is a symptom of our consumer-mentality, and unfortunately for those of us who dedicate our lives to ministry, we have these lofty aspirations of saving the world only to find ourselves a few years later trying to stay sane.

I love the Body that Jesus died for, and I love all churches, conservative and progressive, traditional and contemporary. I don’t like what our organizational structure has devolved into though. What this really all comes down to by and large is a matter of priorities.

Let me leave you with these insights I’ve gained along the way. I didn’t prioritize a regular sabbath, now, I truly know the need for one. Working concrete and ministering to our congregation has drained me more than once. I don’t feel the corrosive, damaging depth of burnout I’ve experienced in local church work before, but still, I need to respect the cycles of rest God directed.

And, on the other hand, in ministry we can “save the world” and easily lose our family along the way. That’s dumb. I mean, I’m dumb because I’ve failed here many times over. My family certainly deserves to have me at least once a week and how can I preach on family values when I don’t respect these principles myself? In general, ministry really doesn’t have a sense of closure, so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to drive yourself like a stake into the ground.

Sermon prep: I learned that for sermons to be insightful and impacting, they don’t have to be filled with clever illustrations that only Max Lucado could craft. And, sermon prep doesn’t require an office. Sermons, good ones, can percolate in your mind all day, even while you’re laboring under the sun.

Something else. For the first time I really — I mean really — appreciate the volunteers in our church. The big lesson I’ve learned is it’s our responsibility when we work in ministry to personally develop people, more than just preach to them, or at them. That development (call it what it is, discipleship) requires face-time, one on one time where we minister alongside our people.

Just last night, for example, after working concrete for 10 hours, then playing on the church-softball team, at around 9 p.m. I met with a family living in their car who needed our church’s help. I didn’t even attempt to help them alone. I had a very teachable moment in hand, I took it, and guided our treasurer into a better understanding of how to help people without enabling them.

I could tell you several stories where my appreciation for our volunteers has increased. Suffice it to say, setting up on Sunday mornings in a rented facility is a huge job. When one or two of your key people are sick or out of town, and you have to fill their shoes, you become exponentially more appreciative of the dedication.

Working a full-time job in construction has thrown me back in the world, and that’s a good thing. For one, it’s helped me to be more empathetic and in touch with the demands our people face. I’m much more realistic in my expectations on the membership’s time than I was before. Also, I see now how spoiled, lazy, and ungrateful I was. Maybe God put me into a tentmaker role to enlighten me on my plight.

I guess I was a little snobbish before too. If saw something written on being a tenkmaker, like in a journal or online, or if I saw an article written by one, I immediately discarded it … my loss. I see now I was wrong. I balked at tentmakers before, in my mind I discredited them. I used to think that tentmakers couldn’t be effective. It’s been a huge paradigm shift for me to recognize that being a tentmaker can be a legitimate, powerfully fruitful ministry. I never would’ve chosen this lifestyle, but now I can’t see myself “doing” ministry different.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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