A few years ago, I was having breakfast with a friend at a restaurant off the interstate about halfway between our two towns. I had heard just a few weeks prior to our meeting that he was moving to serve another church in a different state, so we met to catch up before he left.
I remember asking him why he felt called to leave the church he was serving--a church I knew well having served there in college with my friend. Aside from the sort of differences that are inevitable in Baptist congregations (and I suspect others), I’ll never forget one of the real reasons he told me he was leaving. He said something to like “Chris, they want a pastor who just preaches every Sunday, teaches lessons on the Bible during the week, visits them in the hospital when they’re sick, buries their parents, and marries their children.” Now, I remember thinking to myself (having only been out of seminary and in full-time ministry a few years), “Isn’t that enough?!”
I was having a hard enough time trying to write one sermon, one Bible Study, one devotion, and one Sunday school lesson every week on top of trying to make hospital visits to those who had a flare up with their diverticulitis. I was struggling to find time between meeting with the finance committee about whether or not to transfer funds into a CD or an investment account and planning a funeral for a member of the community I had never met. Preaching their sermons, visiting them in the hospital, planning their funerals, and doing their weddings seemed like enough! To me, it seemed like those were the thing I was supposed to do. They were enough to keep me busy for sure.
As I’ve been a pastor now for nearly ten years, I’ve learned the truth behind my friend’s words: pastoral ministry can’t be just about doing “pastoral” things. In other words, being a pastor has to be about more than checking the boxes on a job description. Is it important to preach sermons? Of course! Is it important to visit parishioners when they are ill or in times of tragedy? Of course! Is important to be present for families in their time of grief, to give guidance and blessing to a young couple? Sure! But when the sermons have been preached, the hospital calls answered, and the funerals and weddings are over, and the congregation hasn’t changed its community and the world for the better, has the pastor really done his or her job? When every member of the church is cared for, yet people outside the church are overlooked, ignored, or oppressed, has the pastor really done the work of ministry? When the members inside the church are happy, when the coffers are full, when the pastor gets high marks for preaching, pastoral care, and teaching the Bible, but children outside the church are hungry, women are abused, people are harassed or assaulted simply because of their identity, and the environment continues to deteriorate, has the work of God’s kingdom really be done at all?
It seems to me, many congregations see their pastors as those who are “holy hired-hands,” those whose job it is to do the work of congregational care and institutional preservation. Now, I don’t think those congregations intentionally ignore the problems of the world, nor do I think they are actively seeking to avoid the tough work to which Christ calls us—at least I don’t think most of them are. I do, however, think that there is a misunderstanding of what is “required” of a pastor in many congregations, call it a case of vocational amnesia.
When I first felt called to “full-time, vocational ministry,” I didn’t feel called to hold meetings, parse Greek nouns, explain doctrines of atonement, or preach sermons with three alliterative points. No, I first felt called to ministry after spending a week hanging out with some kids at a park in southwest Alabama, specifically one kid with whom no other kids were playing. I felt a very real call that day, and ever since I’ve felt that calling grow into a vocation to serve those whom Christ calls “the least of these”: the left-out and the left-over, the useless and the used-up, the ignored, the overlooked, the marginalized, the let-down, the poor…all of those kids whom the others don’t want to play with. I felt then (and all the more now) that the best path to living out that calling is through the ministry of Christ’s Church, through the vocation of pastor.
Unfortunately, being a pastor too often means being bogged down in the preserving of an institution, in the upholding of community norms and expectations, even at the expense of real, worthwhile change. Being a pastor has come to mean being the C.E.O. of the company, the president of the organization, the chair of the board, the single soul responsible for keeping the whole thing alive and growing.
What would happen if congregations actually expected their pastors to lead them in wrestling with hard questions? What would happen if congregations required fewer office hours and more time spent among those in the community? What would happen if pastors preached fewer sermons and lived more sermons? What would happen if pastors were required to attend fewer finance meetings in favor of spending time meeting with marginalized members of the community in order to really hear their stories? What would happen if congregations didn’t view their pastors as “holy hired-hands” whose job it was to make sure there’s a service on holidays, but instead saw their pastors as those who were leading them farther along on the great, eternal journey of faith in Christ?
Would the church building fall in? Would the institution collapse? Would there be anyone in the pews on Sunday morning to put money in the offering plate, so there can be committees to call meetings to discuss what to do with that money that was put in that plate during that service that was planned by a committee? Would there even be any committees (heaven forbid!)? Maybe…maybe the building would fall in. Maybe the institution would crumble. Maybe all the people hiding in the highways and hedges would take the good seats at the table. Maybe the church folks will join the megachurch across town or the coffee shop church on Main Street.
Maybe, but I can’t help but think that if congregations continue to expect their pastors to be “keepers of the peace” and “preservers of the institution” the prophetic voice of Christ’s Church will be choked as it atrophies into little more than a collective of like-minded folks seeking to protect themselves from a world they don’t want to understand. If, however, congregations free their pastors to lead them in asking serious questions (without expecting a final, fitting answer), if congregations allow their pastors to speak the challenging word of God to the people of God, if congregations cease to treat their pastors as contracted clerics or personal chaplains whose sole responsibility is to confirm what they already believe, if congregations begin to see their pastors, priests, and ministers as those called by God to lead them in the work of bringing God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven,” then it just might happen! The world might look less like a church building, but thankfully it might look more like God’s kingdom.
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