Recently, Andy Obermueller, a fine writer who usually writes about investing for StreetAuthority.com and spouse of ELCA pastor Jennifer Obermueller, sent me this essay. As a spouse and mom of pastors myself, it made me chuckle! But, it’s also filled with wisdom, so I asked Andy’s permission to share it here. He graciously agreed. Enjoy! (and if you are a spouse of a pastor or a church administrator or a church council president, you might want to share it with some of the caring, well meaning people in your congregation!)
“The Right Gift for Your Pastor
Enough with the Bibles already.
No, not “the” Bible.
I’m entirely in favor of “the” Bible. I’ve even read it. A cursory exploration of the bookshelves in our home, in fact, will reveal no fewer than 12 linear feet containing various incarnations of the Holy Writ. Commentary, reference, history and Bible-related books occupy about twice as much space. Then there’s the (very) complete works of Martin Luther, all sixty-some-odd blessed volumes. And that’s just what’s at home.
What I’m talking about is Bibles, plural, specifically gift Bibles. For some reason, people have this curious notion that a Bible is a lovely and appropriate present for a pastor. The logic here eludes me. I’ve tried to imagine how it happens:
Congregant A: We ought to do something really nice for pastor for Christmas this year.
Congregant B: Oh, ja! That’s a real good idea. But whattdya think we ought to get her? That’s a toughie.
Congregant A: Oh, I know! How about a Bible?
Congregant B: That’d be perfect! She reads from the Bible every Sunday. She could probably use another one. And we could get some tax forms for Larry! He’s an accountant, you know. He could use them!
Congregant A: Sue’s a gardener. We could get her some nice fertilizer!
Congregant C (walking by, to herself): That seems to be what you’re getting everyone this year.
Congregant B: And Frank! He’s an undertaker, you know. We could …
You get the idea.
That’s not to say a gift Bible is never appropriate. A Bible is a kind and thoughtful thing for, say, someone who has never read it. But your pastor has spent years and maybe decades poring over every syllable, in dozens of English translations as well as Ancient Greek and Hebrew. She’s taken dozens of classes, participated in graduate-level seminars and maybe even studied with some of the world’s leading theologians. A Bible to a pastor is like giving a gallon of seawater to a retired ship captain. Sure, he’s fond of the stuff. Maybe even loves it. But the guy has seen enough of it. He doesn’t want any more. He wants a trip someplace far from the ocean. He wants a book about deserts. He doesn’t want anything wet. The man wants towels. And so it goes with your pastor.
No matter how deep her faith or her love for Christ, the Bible is a work-related gift. Work-related gifts are only thoughtful when they’re for new graduates. For others, though, a work-related gift carries dangerous subtext. And believe you me, after dealing with perpetually nitpicking, backstabbing and manipulative parishioners for years, your pastor has been conditioned to consider the subtext and indeed sub-subtext of everything. A gift Bible or some sort of theological text is ultimately going to be received and perceived as either 1) a criticism, and/or 2) I don’t think enough about you or of you to do anything than act on an afterthought and grab the first thing within arm’s reach at the Christian Book Store.
Now, if you’re already at the Christian Book Store, don’t panic. Go out the door and look down for a neon sign. That’s where they sell beer. Walk past the brew to the bourbon, because if you were honestly thinking a Bible would be a good gift for your pastor, she couldn’t probably use a stiff drink. I recommend a case.
Note: The above does not only apply to Bibles. It also applies to religious music CDs, decorative crosses, the Max Lucado oeuvre, Jesus art (unless it’s on velvet) and little plaques emblazoned with feel-good scripture. Your pastor does not want any of this.
Mark my words, though she will receive plenty of it. She won’t throw it away, though. She’ll hang it in her office, or she’ll put a piece of masking tape on the back with your name. She’ll keep it in the hallway closet at the ready in case you visit. Every pastor’s house has a Prominent Nail in a Conspicuous Place to Hang Unwanted Schlock. Normally, it holds a picture of her family. When you ring the bell, it gets swapped out for your gift. Why? Because no matter how your gift made her feel, she’d never risk hurting your feelings.
Having duly shot down the most common pastor gifts, it’s worth considering what your pastor actually does want for Christmas. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to, say, love your neighbor, quit carping about the music on Sunday morning or invite someone to church. These are practical suggestions any congregant can do without letting faith interfere with one’s actual daily activities.
Booze. I wasn’t kidding earlier. Not even a little. It’s a nice gift, and you can bet your Dave Ramsey course that it will be used.
Cash. Your pastor has as much education as a physician or a lawyer and earns a tenth as much, and likely considerably less. A little folding money for a meal or to help out with a vacation is a nice gesture. It’s true you can’t buy salvation. Earned grace is not grace. But if showering the pastor with C-notes makes you feel better, don’t fight it. Let the Spirit move you!
A massage. Please employ the services of a licensed professional. Otherwise, it’s weird.
Food. When you come home after a day of committee meetings, hospital visits, funerals, counseling sessions or – God help us – dealing with brides, the last thing you want to do is cook. You want to sit in a chair in a dimly lit room and eat a bag of peanut M&Ms one at a time until you feel like maybe it’s not the end of civilization if the altar linens aren’t folded correctly. I’ve seen it a hundred times.
Movie tickets. Two hours of keeping reality at bay is a nice escape.
Something handmade. The subtext of a quilt, a scarf or a birdhouse is, “I thought about you while I was making this. I used my time to do something for you.” Every pastor loves kid art, especially if it’s framed. If you want to make a needlepoint stole for a certain point in the church calendar, it will be seen as a thoughtful gift and be treasured (and worn). This is the exception to the work-related rule.
Remember when you were a kid and saw your teacher at the grocery store or the post office, and you were vaguely surprised because you just assumed he lived at school? That might have been the first time you thought of him as a person and not as his job. Pastors are the same. They are people. They like to be thought of that way.
Let this holiday season be an opportunity to show your pastor what you really think of her – THAT you think of her, and appreciate all she does. It’s a lot. It’s a hard job. She does it because she loves it; because she loves God, and because she loves you. Reciprocate, huh?
My wife, incidentally, is not my pastor. It’s not like I can go to her and say, “Man alive, is Jennifer ever driving me up a tree.” So I consider Pastor Scot, who leads my boyhood church in Kansas, to be “my” pastor. I know that old church well. I’m related to everyone there. I grew up with the people and their foibles and idiosyncracies. I know what Scot goes through. What do I give him?
In point of fact, I should disclose that Scot’s a sportsman. But, again, a good gift is all about subtext. So I send him ammunition.”
Author Andy Obermueller’s wife, Jennifer, is the associate pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Killeen, Texas. He requests that you pray for her.
Thanks, Andy! Both for your humor and your good advice! I’m sure many pastors and their spouses will get a chuckle from this!
Blessings to all pastors, other church workers and their spouses, especially during this very busy season of Advent!
Beth A. Lewis, President & CEO