Thursday, April 05, 2007

Pastors feel the pressure on Easter morning

The senior pastor of Shepherd of the Hills hasn't been seen in two weeks.

Cell-phone mailbox full, voice silent to the 10,000 who attend his Porter Ranch megachurch, the Rev. Dudley Rutherford had escaped Los Angeles for deep prayer in the desert.

On Sunday, though, he will return triumphantly to a packed Pauley Pavilion at UCLA, where he will preach of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection during his church's relocated Easter service.

"It's a scary thought," he said in a phone interview from Rancho Mirage. "You know what is at stake: There will be someone in that arena making a spiritual decision for which the consequences are eternity. You multiply that one person by 13,000 people, and it is overwhelming."

So goes the pressure of being a Christian pastor at Easter, one of two days each year when pews swell with people who haven't seen an altar in months.

While Christianity couldn't exist without Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Christ, the faith's foundation is found in Easter.

On the heels of Holy Week, a time that drags Christians through the agonizing last days of Jesus' life and his death, pastors lead the celebration of the resurrection, which reminds Christians of their hope of eternal life.

"It is a journey through despair, meaninglessness, hopelessness, evil and the principalities of this world to some sense that God is still alive in this world," said John S. McClure, a professor of homiletics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "It's a big challenge."

It's not unusual, McClure said, for pastors to take a brief retreat, to collect their thoughts away from the clutter of daily life and the demands of leading a church. Others opt to stay at home but purposely adjust their schedule.

"My preparation is first of all through prayer," said Bishop Gerald Wilkerson, head of the San Fernando Pastoral Region of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. "You've got to slow yourself down, let go of all these things and stop for a moment."

As a bishop, Wilkerson no longer endures the long hours he did as a parish priest - visiting the sick, speaking at Catholic school services, spending hours upon hours in the confessional box and celebrating special Masses for each day from Thursday through Sunday.

But he does still prepare a homily for Easter Mass, which he will celebrate at St. Finbar Catholic Church in Burbank.

Most pastors prepare weeks, if not months, in advance. With some churches putting on big Holy Week productions - Passion plays, services for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday - those ministers know that if they don't at least outline their sermon by Palm Sunday, they will be drowning in research and prayer the following Saturday night.

"There is a modicum of pressure, but it is not unbearable pressure. It is natural pressure," said Jim Tolle, senior pastor of The Church on the Way in Van Nuys, who preaches three Easter services on Saturday and eight on Sunday. "A woman giving birth has pressure. A man closing a big business deal has pressure. An athlete entering a championship game has pressure.

"But, truly, the Jesus Christ I serve carries the burden for us."

As of Thursday, Rutherford said he was 80-90 percent done. And that was after a period of study that would make a doctoral student blush.

Last week, he drove to Rancho Mirage, a resort community near Palm Springs, taking with him a basket of books, news articles, Scripture and anything else he found during the past year that involved the resurrection.

He rose early each morning, often before the sun, and pored through his notes, shaving the 2-foot-tall stack of books and papers into a 3-inch-thick sheaf of notes. Next, he honed in on the 20th chapter of the Gospel of John, identifying a few points from the text to highlight.

"Then, I take that three inches of material and I fill in all the blanks," he said.

"It is the most important topic of the year," he later added. "You've got one shot at some of these people. This is the only time they go to church all year. And I've got one shot at getting them to come back."