Friday, February 24, 2006

The Superintendent Surprises ...

I remember a Sunday morning a few years ago, when I was a pastor in Grand Prairie, Texas. I was sitting in my office before the morning services, going over my sermon one last time, when the phone rang.

It was Mike Nichols, my district superintendent. Getting a call from one’s DS is always bound to raise one’s blood pressure, because it sometimes meant that an appointment change was looming. But Rev. Nichols instead asked the innocent question, “What time does your service start, Wes?”

When I told him, he said, “OK, well, I’ll be joining you for worship this morning. See you in a few minutes!”

Talk about raising my blood pressure … I spent the rest of the morning nervously worrying about every little detail of the service. Until I finally realized that it was just too late to worry about such things. Rev. Nichols attended the service, had nice things to say about it, and then went on his way.

Looking back on that morning, I realize that Rev. Nichols did a very wise thing. He managed to get a good look at what a typical worship service in my church in Grand Prairie actually looked like. I didn’t have time to pull out all the stops and give him a big show. Instead, he got a taste of what we did, week in and week out.

At the time, I filed it away in the back of my head as a valuable practice. Now that I am a superintendent myself, I have rediscovered the value of the “surprise church visit.” And last week, I gave it a try. Last Wednesday, I decided to make a short whirlwind tour of the churches in the Southwest Province. So I woke up the next morning, packed my bags, and took off by myself, without warning any of the pastors beforehand!

I wanted to see for myself what life is like in the village churches, without giving them adequate warning that the “missionary” was coming. The times before when I have visited, they have rolled out the Cameroonian red carpet for me in an attempt to put a good face on things. Everyone in the village attends the services, and I could be tempted to think that all West Africans were United Methodists!

But not this time … I visited Kumba, Mamfe, N’Chang, and each of the three small villages that are tucked away down a long dirt road at the Tinto junction. Each time I pulled up in front of someone’s house or church, I got the same gasp of surprise I remember having when Rev. Nichols called me early one Sunday morning.

The good news is that I found things in relatively good order. Three of the churches have found new places to worship, and in each case, the new building was a significant improvement over the previous location.

I found Pastor Egbe leading a spirited Sunday School class, and Pastor Arrey cleaning up after a service.

I got a tour of the N’Chang UMC piggery, where Pastor Arrey oversees a sow and two piglets.

I ran across Pastor Nkwo wrapped only in a towel during the midst of an afternoon downpour, trying frantically to cover some cocoa plants which he’d left to dry in the sun.

I found Pastor Acharock sitting in Chief Tarkang’s living room, just after the Chief had returned from his farm.

These were the scenes I was looking for … true moments of real life in village churches. Pastors going about their business, Methodists practicing very practical holiness, people experiencing the simple grace of God.

And it was fun -- everyone was thrilled to see me, and they rolled out the red carpet of hospitality anyway!

I can only hope Rev. Nichols found the same thing when he visited a small church in Grand Prairie a few years ago …