New Tricks

My first salaried job was sweeping my father’s feed warehouse. I could make 50 cents for each time I swept the entire warehouse. Later, in high school, I got the job of cleaning a pharmacy in the downtown of our city. I went in on Sunday afternoons, stripped the wax from the floors, put on a fresh coat of wax, cleaned the bathrooms and dusted the displays.

We decided to get married between our Junior and Senior years of college. There was some talk, mostly with parents, about waiting until we graduated from college, but we really did not want to wait any longer and we were already thinking about moving out of state for graduate school, which would be another big adjustment and it didn’t seem quite right to do everything at once. Mostly, I was impatient and didn’t want to wait. Getting married in the midst of our college careers anticipating a minimum of three additional years of graduate school after we graduated from college meant that we needed to scramble in terms of jobs and housing and basic living expenses. When I found out that we could exchange janitorial services for a building that was located on campus in exchange for the efficiency apartment located in that building, I applied right away. The building housed the Montana Association of Churches and Conference Offices for the United Church of Christ, United Methodist and Presbyterian Churches. In the basement was a meeting room where a new congregation was meeting on Sundays. Upstairs were former dorm rooms that were used by the various church groups in the building to house visiting guests and those who had traveled from out of town for meetings. Janitorial services included vacuuming carpets, emptying trash, cleaning bathrooms on three levels, including showers, and doing light maintenance such as bleeding air from the radiators, changing light bulbs, and making a few other light repairs.

During the year, I was also serving as a licensed supply minister for a small congregation, leading worship on Sundays and providing a bit of pastoral care including funerals as needed.

After we moved to Chicago for seminary, I was able to secure a church janitorial job in part because I had the experience serving as a janitor from before. This church has a noontime lunch program for university students and professors, so there were floors to scrub 5 days a week, a sanctuary to dry mop each week and more bathrooms to clean. I did a lot more maintenance work for that church, repairing chairs, installing a new sound system, replacing locks and more.

My career began with the work of a janitor. I was fairly competent at the job.

I was thinking about that this week as I was taking out a couple of bags of trash to the dumpster. Two things have come together to give me a few light janitorial duties these days. The first is that the physical distancing we are doing to help slow the spread of coronavirus means that our church is being used a lot less than it was before and we have less income. Added to that is the fact that our janitor moved on from the job in the middle of March. This was a planned event and did not come as a surprise to the church, but with our closing down the church to public events at the same time it makes sense to not hire a janitor at the moment. So I’ve been emptying the garbage cans and cleaning bathrooms. I’m qualified for the job and know how to do it.

It seems as if my career has sort of come full circle. I began as a janitor and now I will end my time working at this church with a few janitorial duties. In a way it is appropriate to have it that way.

In a way it reminds me of a wonderful educator I knew a few decades ago. Mrs. C. was the principal of the elementary school that our children attended. She was an amazing principal. She didn’t spend much time in her office, but she knew how to do every job in the church. If the playground supervisor was out sick, you’d find Mrs. C. out there doing playground duty. If someone was absent from the school lunch staff, she’d be serving lunch to kids as they came through the line. If a crossing guard was needed, she’d don the vest and pick up the stop sign. When she saw a mess, she’d clean it up before it got bigger. If a light bulb burned out, she’d change it. She could step into a classroom and take over for a teacher who needed a break and she did it often. The morale of the staff of that school was incredibly high and part of that high morale was knowing the their leader understood the jobs they did and how to do them. She took every job in the school seriously. I have such admiration for her that I try to do my work in the church on the same model. I’m up for whatever needs to be done.

I don’t think that I expected that there would be a call for so much innovation and new learning in the final months of my call to this congregation, but I’m not sure that it is a bad thing for me. I have especially enjoyed taking my daily prayers to the live cast format. I started out by exploring different backgrounds simply because I don’t have much experience with video and I thought that it would be boring to see the same thing every day. I could at least change the background daily. Then I realized that the places of the church inform my prayers. It has been a genuine joy.

Perhaps it is true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but I am not exactly a dog. Maybe you can teach an old preacher new ways to preach the gospel.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!