For NAD Pastors
Stay in My Lane
There is no one in the world who can be a better me.
Editor’s Note: For nearly 30 years and in many scenarios, Charles Tapp has served as a pastor, professor, administrator, writer and radio/television host sharing God’s love and saving grace with the world. Tapp currently serves as Senior Pastor of Sligo Seventh-day Adventist church. On June 22, 2014, Pastor Joel Almeida, Youth Pastor at Community Praise Center, interviewed him. This following is an excerpt from that interview.
Joel: I’d like to ask some questions about some of the special services that we have in the church. Let me start with communion. What’s your experience over the years in communion?
Charles: I have always loved the communion service, and I guess that goes back to my college years at Oakwood with the senior pastor Eric Ward. I’ll never forget it…he made that service come alive. I loved the way everyone got involved, how orderly it was, and how spiritual he made it. And from the first time I started pastoring with a church of 62 members, I always focused on the things that he taught me.
Joel: I was raised in an Adventist home and had the mentality that you have to be perfect before you can participate in communion. And I believe that this is one of the factors that drive people away from communion. So how did you manage to change this?
Charles: I have a sermon that I preached years ago that’s titled “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” And it’s all about the communion service, the original one that Christ instituted with the disciples. And when you look at who’s at that table you’ve got someone who sold him for thirty pieces of silver, someone who denied him not once, not twice, but three times. You’ve got someone who constantly doubted that he was the Son of God. If they can be at that table, why can’t I be there?
It’s a table that Christ reserved for me--His broken body. And when you break that bread there’s a piece for everybody. So I belong at that table. Not because of who I am, but because of Whose I am.
Joel: So the table’s for sinners.
Charles: Yes, you better believe it. And like Paul said, “I am chief among sinners.”
Another one of the things I’ve instituted in every church that I’ve pastored is that when we get to the end of the service, we sing my favorite song from the church hymnal, “When We All Get to Heaven.” And whenever we sing that song, on the last verse we hold hands together across the aisle, you see tears streaming down people’s faces. And from having conversations with our members, they’ve told me that that’s the best part of the service for them. It makes them think about family members who have gone on before them. It makes them think about the hope that is in Jesus Christ. So at a time where people are running from the table, now people are running to the table.
Joel: Usually people just try to go to another church when they hear about communion service.
Charles: Yeah, and I think that may be because to youth it’s a longer service. But wherever I’ve pastored, it’s always about the same length as a regular service. We condense the message to only about ten minutes or so, because I’ve already preached about the importance of communion. And I make it as spiritual as possible, focusing on the emblems and what they represent, not just in the future, but for the present hope that I’m forgive, I am cleansed now, I am saved now, not tomorrow, because of the sacrifice that Jesus made.
Joel: I notice here at Sligo that you have everybody practicing ahead of time.
Charles: Oh yeah. We even have a map set up that we use, because we have so many deacons and elders and deaconesses as well as the pastoral staff, and it takes a lot. So we always try to rehearse at least a week or two before the actual service takes place. And I always tell the participants, it’s not about being perfect, because we all make mistakes in the service. And I tell them, whenever we make a mistake, just keep going. Don’t let anyone know you made a mistake, just keep rolling, and they won’t know the difference.
Joel: Okay, Elder Tapp, now I’d like to ask some questions about some sad moments. How do you prepare yourself before coming to a funeral? How do you prepare yourself? Do you have something on file, or do you just pull out the file and go?
Charles: That is a very good question. A lot of my preparation, believe it or not, does not start with the service itself. It starts with the family. And one of the things I learned early in my ministry was this ministry called The Ministry of Presence. One of the ways I prepare for the actual funeral is to go into the home and just spend time with that family--anywhere between one, sometimes four to five hours in the home--not giving a Bible study, not reading scripture, not even praying a lot of times. I’ve learned that people just want you to be present.
I remember a funeral I did a couple of years ago where the husband died. He had been ill for a while, but he died unexpectedly. So I got up early in the morning and drove to the person’s home. The body was still in the bed. I waited with the family, ate with the family, waited for the funeral home attendants to come take the body out. And I just stayed there maybe an hour more with the family, and didn’t realize the impact that had on them until the day of the funeral. That day every one of them came to me and said, “Pastor, we appreciated your message because we appreciated what you did before the message.”
And I don’t have a ‘sermon’ that I just go pull out of my files. One of the reasons of being in that home is to get the feel of who that person was, the loss that is being felt at that particular time. And I will tailor-make that particular eulogy. And most times I write it the morning of, so that it’s very fresh in my mind. I’ll just sit there for a while and just begin to think about, not death, not even the hope of the resurrection at that point but what’s uppermost in my mind is the family, and what this individual meant to that family, and the loss. And then I can begin to share the hope. But you can’t share the hope until you understand the loss.
Joel: What if the person who just passed away was not somebody who was coming to church? How do you manage to comfort the family in that situation?
Charles: You learn to find ways. Because even though it may be a touchy situation, there’s always room for hope. Even if it’s a situation where there’s been some kind of problem in the home, maybe it’s a husband/wife situation, maybe one of the spouses died, or maybe their relationship wasn’t that good. Maybe it was father who left the family--whatever the situation is--there’s always room to find hope. You don’t always have to focus on the person. You can just focus on the concept of hope and how we have this hope regardless of what is happening now. Jesus Christ died for us, and we have an opportunity to receive that hope.
And whenever I do a funeral, I always give individuals who are present an opportunity to accept that hope--you never know who’s sitting in the congregation. It’s not just the family, and even if it’s the family, they may not all be Christian. So in a roundabout way, it’s not an evangelistic sermon, but you just give them an opportunity to receive the hope that is in Jesus Christ, letting them know that death in this world is not the end, but because of Christ there’s something far better.
I did a funeral about four years ago for a young man who was murdered. He was very well liked in our church, he was the basketball coach. He was pulled out of his car one night and murdered--one of the largest funerals we’ve had here at Sligo church. But most of his friends were non-Christians. And they came from all parts of our society. I just shared with them at that funeral that this hurts. This hurts me. This hurts this family. But there’s someone else who is hurting as well, and that is the one who died for him.
So you always have to use an opportunity to help people to understand that this life is not the end. That there’s something beyond this life, and there’s someone that is ready to extend that hope to them. And once you begin to do that, it begins to open their eyes to other things. And you’ll have individuals who will start coming to your church, or just call you when something goes wrong in their family. I’ve received phone calls from non-members to do funerals for them, because they were in my church at a funeral that I conducted.
Joel: What I’m gaining from you is that your main focus in ministry is connecting to people.
Charles: And that’s where I think a lot of us as pastors fall short. We’ll do the pre, we’ll connect during. But one of the greatest times our people need us is after the funeral, when their friends have stopped calling, when all the families have returned back to their various places. They begin to feel that loss, you know, greater than any other time in their lives. So you’ve got to pick up the phone and give them a call. You have to send them a note, you know, send them an e-mail, just send them a text: hey, I’m thinking about you. Because you can do all the mechanical stuff before and during, but if you’re not there for them afterwards, then what you did before doesn’t have as much impact.
Joel: Let’s talk for a moment about the graveside service.
Charles: The graveside, again, it’s more presence for me. The time period is maybe five, ten minutes tops at the graveside, you know, singing a hymn, reading a scripture, doing the committal, having the prayer. But again, it’s that presence. So when people begin to leave and the family is still there, even when the body is being lowered, I’m there. And many times the family wants to stay there. And I don’t stand behind the casket or to the side of the casket. I stand right beside the family. Sometimes I’ll even put my arm around them, and just stand there with them, even sometimes in the rain—ministry of presence.
So in those moments when they call you and say, “Pastor, I need you to come and do my funeral,” they’re calling not just because you’re their pastor. They’re calling because they know you care.
Joel: We’re going to move to another service in the church, the baptism. How do baptisms work at Sligo?
Charles: We know that there is no magical power in that water. But we have to get our members to understand the power and the symbolism behind the baptism. We’re going down into a grave and we’re coming up into the newness of life. And that should be one of the most celebrated times in our churches. It shouldn’t be something we just rush through, you know, but we should take our time. And not just with the service itself, but what we do before the service, and helping the congregation to understand just how important this is in the life of the church.
Just recently we decided to do some pre-work before the actual baptism takes place. We bring that candidate to the church, introduce them, have a little bio in the bulletin, give them their certificate, give them a gift along with the Bible, and just tell their story of how they came to Jesus Christ. When we get to the actual baptismal pool, we invite their friends to stand and invite their family to come down front for the baptism. So they feel as though they’re part of the family. And sometimes after the church service we’ll have them stand at the door with the pastor. So as the members exit the sanctuary, they can take time and really get close to them and greet them.
Joel: How do you get them to the pool in the first place?
Charles: As you are preaching you have to begin to open avenues for them to accept Christ. I heard someone say a long time ago that the Sabbath morning church service should be an evangelistic time. You must preach with an end in mind, that you want to give someone an opportunity to accept Christ, so that one day they can go to the pool and be baptized.
When I was baptized into the Adventist church the preacher did not make an invitation for anyone to accept Christ. He preached a fantastic sermon, he gave his benediction, and he sat down. I was a sixteen year old guest at his church. I’d only been there for a couple of weeks. I’d been praying, asking God to direct me where to go in my walk with God. So I went to his study, and I knocked on the door. He invited me to come in. I said, “You don’t know me, but I came here today to accept Christ and join the church, and you didn’t extend an invitation.” He was so apologetic, he said, “Son, I’ll tell you what. If you come back next week, I’m going to preach a sermon and I’m going to give you an invitation to accept Christ.” So I came back the next Sabbath. I can’t tell you what his sermon was about, because my focus was not on the pulpit, it was on the pool. And as soon as he said, “Is there anyone today...,” I just hopped up out of my seat, ran down to the front, and accepted Jesus Christ.
So it’s important for us as pastors to always see opportunities to extend an invitation to someone to accept Christ, so that you can have an opportunity to baptize them in the pool.
Joel: What happens after someone makes a decision to be baptized?
Charles: Once you reach the point with them where you feel that they are ready to make that decision you prepare them. It doesn’t mean that they’re perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but in their minds they’re ready to say ‘I want to move from being a fan to becoming a follower of Christ.’ Then we’ll have a baptismal or discipleship class here at the church.
And if they’re a young child, you have to prepare the parents as well. And I would encourage even our parents too, when their children reach the point when they’re ready to be baptized, don’t, uh, push them away. Don’t discourage them.
Joel: So I have one last question. What words of advice do you have to those of us who are just starting out in ministry?
Charles: That is a very good question. Probably number one, just be patient. Be patient with yourself, be patient with God working with you. A lot of times when we’re young in the ministry, we want to conquer the world. We want to do everything at a high level. But your church is not the only one growing; you’re growing in your relationship to what it means to be a pastor, to be a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I asked Elder T Marshal Kelly one time “Elder, what is your key to success?” I’ll never forget what he said. He said, “Elder,” he had a real deep voice, he said, “Elder, I’ve learned to stay in my lane.” And I never forgot that. What he meant by that was, God has gifted each one of us for a particular ministry. Be content with what God has called you to do and build on that. Don’t worry about what somebody else is doing on a larger scale. Just be faithful to the calling that God has placed on your life. And when that began to resonate in my heart, that I’m not going to be this great preacher like some of my colleagues are, and I began to be content with who I was as a pastor it helped me to be patient with myself and be accepting of who I am. Because there is no one in the world who can be a better me.
Joel: Amen. Thank you so much, Elder Tapp, for the privilege I had to be here talking to you.
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