There I am, preparing to speak. Someone introduces me, who does not know me personally. So he reads from my bio. Two things capture the congregation’s attention.
First, my name – H.B. Charles Jr. “Just in case you’re wondering,” he says, “H.B. does not stand for anything.” I am going to be asked about that later. Usually, I simply answer, “What can I say? My father did it to me. And I did it to my son.”
Then the second, bigger details comes up. “H.B. succeeded his father’s forty-year pastorate at the age of seventeen, a senior at Los Angeles High School.” This statement typically evokes some commentary from the person introducing me. “I don’t know what I was doing at seventeen, but it sure wasn’t pastoring a church!”
This, too, will raise questions later. One question. What was it like to be a pastor at seventeen? I am regularly asked this question. Yet I am never prepared to answer it. I am somewhat embarrassed by the question. I often say, almost apologetically, “Look, I don’t recommend a church call a seventeen-year-old pastor. This is my just my story.”
This is my story. I was a boy preacher. I began my first pastorate at a teenager. I served that beloved congregation for almost eighteen years, until the Lord sent me to the other side of the country, where I now serve. It is a provocative story that begs the question: So, what was it like to pastor a church at the age of seventeen?
I Did Not Pastor the Church.
I was elected by the congregation on a Monday night. I preached my first sermon as pastor that Sunday. My new title was on the cover of the weekly bulletin. I got to sit in the “big chair” in the pulpit. The congregation welcomed me warmly. But I was not the pastor. I had no decision- making authority. I sat on the steps in the back of the church office, during board meetings. A moderator led church business meetings. During my allotted time, I presented my plans to the congregation. But when it was called to a vote, someone would say, “Unreadiness.” When they finished, my plan would get voted down. I stopped making proposals.
I hated this period. But it was actually the providential hand of God protecting me and the congregation. It’s one thing to call a teenager as pastor; it’s another thing to give that teenager authority over the direction, ministries, and finances of the church. My leadership grew over time as I grew up personally, spiritually, and pastorally. This period taught me that leadership is influence – not a title, office, or position. Those old ladies could shoot down my ideas in meetings, because they had decades of accumulated credibility in that church. The new, young guy could not overrule that, just because the church now called him “Pastor,” instead of “Junior.” Leadership is influence. Influence requires trust. Trust takes time.
I Preached the Word.
After the church elected me as pastor, the board met with me to discuss my financial “package.” Of course, there was no negotiation. I just took what they offered. My father taught me not to put a price-tag on my ministry. Moreover, this was my first job. (I later discovered that you do not get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.) Yet they were generous. They expected their pastor to live by a certain standard, even if he was just a teenager. During the meeting, I played it cool. But I was thinking to myself, “I can’t believe their going to pay me to preach each week!” I would have paid them to let me preach each week!
Basically, all they let me do was preach. Coo. All I wanted to do was preach! I would soon learn there was more to ministry than preaching. But preaching is foundation of pastoral ministry. I preached both Sunday services, and many evening services. I gave the devotional at the prayer meeting. I led teacher’s meeting and taught Sunday school. I took every opportunity to teach and preach. In the process, I discovered the power is in the pulpit. The influence I gained over time happened in the pulpit, not the boardroom. As they began to trust my handling of scripture, they began to trust me with other matters. After debating a matter for more than an hour one meeting, someone asked what the Bible says about it. The moderator called me from the overflow section to address it. I opened my Bible and began to teach. I led every meeting after that. The power is in the pulpit!
My Members Prayed for Me.
During Wednesday night prayer meetings, one of the young preachers gave a devotional message. These weekly meetings taught me to associate prayer and the ministry of the word. I was deeply moved, as the deacons led the congregation in prayer for me each week. Likewise, an early morning prayer meeting took place at 6 AM every day, in which a small group of members prayed for me and the church. This is how a seventeen-year-old pastors a church. I was surrounded by people who refused to see me fail. And they prayed for me without ceasing.
During those early years, I often lost in business meetings. But I won in prayer meetings. By the time I was 21, church leaders tried to put me out. One day, a locksmith started changing the lock to my office, while I was inside doing a counseling session! New spread quickly. And the members gathered to pray. And they kept praying. It became an impromptu all-night prayer meeting. In the years to come, when we faced a challenge, the leaders would recommend we spend a night in prayer. God protected me, because the saints prayed. Unlikely people stood up for me, because the saints prayed. God blessed the work to progress through turmoil, because the saints prayed. How did I pastor a church at seventeen? It happens after prayer!
Older Pastors Mentored Me.
The older pastors of the city could not have been happy about this established congregation calling a “little boy.” But they never let me know it. They were always kind, supportive, and encouraging. It was as if I had a city of pastors looking out for me. Several men in particular, who were friends of my father, took a direct interest in my ministry. Without their love, counsel, and patience, I would not have survived those early years. I spent a brief time at a small Bible college. But my professors kept up with me continued to teach me, so that I did not fall into theological error.
During those early years, I preached revivals around the country with and for seasoned pastors. As a result, I had mentors in cities around the country who shaped my life and ministry. I recognized that pastors need a pastor. I prayed and the Lord gave a pastor who has helped me be a better man, Christian, husband, father, and pastor. I made a lot of stupid mistakes as a young preacher. But every time I wandered into the woods, the Lord would send a wise older man to show me the way, walk with me, and keep me out of trouble.
I Had Good Preacher Friends.
Along with sage counselors, I had friends who were true partners in the gospel. My father had an army of associate ministers, many of them young men. I was the youngest. But we were all close in age. We almost became friends by default, trying not to get fussed at by my father. After his death, our bond became stronger. In fact, we all sat in the back of the church together, the night I was called to pastor the church.
Some of the older men resented the boy being their pastor. But my friends both followed me and stood by me. We fasted and prayed together. We wrote and reviewed sermons together. We read books together. We planned and dreamed together. We fought together – both with one another and against one another. We called ourselves “The Four Horsemen” – from wrestling, not Revelation. These friends in the faith are all pastors today. If you ask them, they would tell you how their time with me marked their ministries. But the truth is they marked my life and work far more.
What was it like to pastor at seventeen? Ultimately, the short answer is God. For that matter, the long answer is God. God did it all! God saved me. God called me to preach. God gave me to my first church and my first church to me. And God provided everything and everyone I needed to stay the course through the dangers, toils, and snares of ministry. It was grace that brought me safe this far, and grace will lead me home!
To God be the glory!