[A 1987 column by Bill Lewellis published in a local daily newspaper]
Some ten to fifteen years ago I heard a wonderful story about that awful distinction described by someone who said "ministers minister and congregations congregate." I'd like to supply appropriate attribution, but I can't remember where I heard the following parable about ministry.
Once, near a dangerous seacoast, stood a small life-saving station. Shipwrecks prompted six people to build it. It was a two-story, A-frame shelter with a bell that could be heard for miles.
On the ground floor were cots, blankets, dry clothing, first-aid equipment, a fireplace and a soup kettle. The second floor consisted of one small room with a window and telescope facing the sea. One member of the life-saving station was always on watch. They took turns. On especially stormy nights, all six stayed in the shelter.
Upon sighting a shipwreck, the watchman would sound the bell. All six would put out on their three small fishing boats. They always managed to save a few persons who would have drowned. They brought them back to the life-saving station, treated their injuries, gave them food and clothing and shelter until the rescued were ready to return to their own homes and families.
"Indeed, this is a good thing," many others began to say. Soon 12, then 20, then 50, then 100 people joined original six at the life-saving station. They built a larger shelter...with many rooms and a fine carpet. Many began to gather at the station even in good weather.
One night a sudden storm caused several shipwrecks. More than 80 people were rescued. They filled every room of the life-saving station. Some were nauseous; some were bleeding. All were cared for during the next few weeks. Some died. Most were nursed back to health.
At the next meeting of the membership of the life-saving station, everyone was delighted about what had been accomplished. But some members said, "This is a messy and risky business, and we are inexperienced. Perhaps we ought to hire a few professional life-savers." And so they did.
And the carpet committee said, "Out carpets have been stained, almost ruined. Perhaps we ought to construct an uncarpetted annex for the shipwrecked people." And so they did.
They built an annex. They hired a few full-time, experienced life-savers. And the membership no longer had to watch for shipwrecks, nor go to the rescue themselves, nor care for the rescued, nor even see the mess.
By this time, the life-saving station had 200 members. People went there often. Once in a while, someone might even catch sight of a rescue taking place and mention it to the others. And many would say, "Isn't this a good thing we are doing?"
At one of the meetings, a few members said, "We have slipped far from our purpose."
They were talked down, ridiculed and called life-saving fanatics. Finally, six of them felt they could no longer belong to the club that once was a life-saving station.
Five-hundred yards down the seacoast, these six put up a two-story, A-frame shelter to serve as a real life-saving station. They saved many lives. Their fame spread. Many others joined them.
A larger station had to be built. It became a convenient meeting place, except on those days when rescues took place. So, to avoid the inconvenience and the mess, a few full-time lifesavers were hired...and a lifesaving annex was built.
Thanks to better communications and navigational equipment, there are fewer shipwrecks along that seacoast today. And where once there was one small, lifesaving station where people went to help others, today there are five exclusive clubs along that seacoast where people go to help themselves.