Posts Tagged ‘Ministry Moments’
The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene H. Peterson, HarperOne, 2011, 320 pp.
This was a rich and rewarding read for me. Peterson, now famous as a writer, teacher and creator of the popular The Message translation of the Bible, was first a pastor. For most of his career, his calling was like mine–leading worship every week, preaching in season and out, handling the details of congregational life, attending to people’s needs for pastoral care, nourishing the church. Ours is a unique way of life, simultaneously a challenge and a privilege. Not everyone “gets it” about this life, including some who spend years in the profession. Peterson does, and this book captures his insights about the pastoral life.
Peterson’s perspective on ministry is that it is not primarily a series of tasks to be performed, but a way of life to be lived–a way of being in relationship with a particular community, local, personal and prayerful.
I saw myself assigned to give witness to the sheer livability of the Christian life, that everything in scripture and Jesus was here to be lived. In the mess of work and sin, of families and neighborhoods, my task was to pray and give direction and encourage that lived quality of the gospel–patiently, locally and personally. Patiently: I would stay with these people; there are no quick or easy ways to do this. Locally: I would embrace the conditions of this place… so that there would be nothing abstract or piously idealized about what I was doing. Personally: I would know them, know their names, know their homes, know their families, know their work—but I would not pry, I would not treat them as a cause or a project, I would treat them with dignity. (247)
Much of being a pastor is about being a local theologian and spiritual leader. Peterson describes the theological task (in preaching and in pastoral care: “A congregation as a gathering of people that requires a context as large as the Bible itself if we are to deal with the ambiguities in the actual circumstances in which people live them.” (59) We are charged with interpreting the Gospel and pointing out the presence of God in a particular time and place.
Peterson’s high ecclesiology matches my own. He sees the local congregation as the unlikely bearer of grace in the world, in spite of its humble composition. The life of the congregation and its members is a mess most of the time, but it is a beautiful, holy mess, if you can see it. In describing the various founding members of his congregation, he talks about the brokenness and ordinariness of their lives, and marvels that God is able to build a church upon such humble leaders. Using as an example the story of David at Ziklag, he describes the congregation as “people whose lives were characterized by debt, distress and discontent–a congregation of runaways and renegades.” (106) That’s the truth of every church I’ve ever considered home.
What makes the church so powerful is the relationships we create between those broken people. Peterson describes the pastor’s unique place. We do not see people as problems to be solved, but as children of God. We are not there to fix people or problems, but to walk with people together and name the Spirit’s presence in us all. (136-137) That sense of unique, local representation of God’s community is the authentic church. He describes it further:
Churches are not franchises to be reproduced as exactly as possible wherever and whenever… If we don’t acquire a narrative sense, a story sense, with the expectation that we are each one of us uniquely ourselves–participants in the unique place and time adn weather of where we live and worship–we will always be looking somewhere else or to a different century for a model by which we can be an authentic and biblical church. (119)
This memoir is not perfect. He has a very conservative understanding of the role of the pastor’s spouse, and he presumes a full-time parish setting as the norm for ministry. Peterson’s ministry and his church took shape in the 1960s and 1970s. While that was not quite the heyday of the 1950s, it was still a boon time, when every subdivision was growing its own congregation. His freedom and flexibility in ministry seems like a luxury that may belong to days gone by.
However, I was able to read past those outdated assumptions because I believe that his basic understanding of the role of the pastor as local theologian and observer should withstand the cultural changes in the church. Indeed, I believe that such a holy-yet-ordinary understanding of the clergy is the one thing that must persist, no matter the pay scale. He summarizes that role in the opening pages:
The pervasive element in our two-thousand-year pastoral tradition is not someone who “gets things done,” but rather the person placed in the community to pay attention and call attention to “what is going on right now” between men and women, with one another and with God. (5)
That is indeed the most important thing about this pastoral life, but it is so hard to articulate. I am grateful for Peterson’s ability to describe this pastoral life to me as I live it, and perhaps even to those outside it.
The pastoral vocation is a way of life. Ministry is more than a job, it is an identity. I have never felt a keen distance between my personal and pastoral identity. My pastoral self is a natural outgrowth of who I am, and it does not feel like a role I pick up and put down with artifice. I am a pastor wherever I go, and I don’t turn it off when I go home at night or leave on vacation.
This sabbatical is as close as I’ve come to setting aside my pastoral identity since I entered seminary nearly 15 years ago. For one whole month now, I have not had any pastoral duties. No preaching, no pastoral calls, no church meetings, no professional conversations, no leadership of any kind. I pray daily, go to church on Sundays, read the Bible, read books about spiritual life, and live my faith simply as a person.
The greatest gift of sabbatical so far has been renewing my relationship to God, to the church and to myself as a person, not just as a pastor. Again—this is important and worth repeating—pastoral life does not separate me from myself, and certainly not from God and from the church. It enhances and deepens all those relationships. However, all of my interactions, whether with God, with the church and with myself, become attached to my work, into the tasks of proclaiming and producing and planning and perceiving and propagating. The work of personal spiritual seeking and growing is intertwined with the work of professional spiritual leadership and church-growing. A moment’s insight about the Ground of All Being makes me question whether I am supposed to pass on that image to someone else in a pastoral conversation. An experience of illumination makes me wonder if I am supposed to include it in this week’s sermon. Not during sabbatical. The Presence and its gifts, for now, belong just to me. I am free from discerning whether God is telling me something for me, for the church or both. Right now, I can relate to God just as me, not as a mediator or leader or visionary or teacher or preacher.
In the life of ministry, we must always be listening for God’s voice and praying to hear God’s direction not just for ourselves, but all those to whom and with whom we minister. When we hear a message, we immediately repeat it, to share the good news with others. God loves you! There is enough! You are welcome just as you are! You are forgiven! Love and serve with all your heart! Sabbatical has made me realize that I have been so busy hearing and repeating these messages as a pastor that I have sometimes forgotten to hear and hold them as a person. The good news is for me, too.
In this sabbatical space, I am reminded that God loves me not just as a pastor, but as a person. God loves me not because of the work I do, but simply because I exist. In separating from the pastoral part of my identity for a time, I simply receive the gifts of God and delight in them.
That is the true meaning of all Sabbath practice. God created the world in six days, and rested to enjoy creation on the seventh day. God commands us to abstain from work one day every week, to remind us that we are a part of that creation, which God has called “good” and in which God delights. We are loved not for what we do, but for who we are as children of God.
None of this is unique to pastoral life, however. All of us, as Christians, are called to the work of ministry, to share the good news and serve others and build God’s community. Pastors are not the only vehicles of God’s work. We are all conduits of God for those around us, which is why we are all commanded to work, but also to Sabbath. We all need to be reminded that the message of good news does not just come through us, but to us. God loves you! You are welcome just as you are! You are forgiven!
Bless Her Heart: Life as a Young Clergy Woman, by Ashley-Anne Masters and Stacy Smith, Chalice Press, 2011, 123 pp.
Ashley-Anne Masters and Stacy Smith have captured the private conversations and storytelling that happen whenever young clergy women find themselves together, which is too often a rare and isolated opportunity. I remember the first time I was in a group of other young clergy women, thanks to the birth of the UCC’s 2030 Clergy Network. We all had our fair share of stories, good and bad, charming and challenging, hilarious and horrifying: being refused as a pastor because of youth and gender, having your wardrobe up for scrutiny, hearing people talk about “the pastor” without realizing its you, struggling with what to wear, handling discrimination or sexual comments or inappropriate behavior, discovering how to be ourselves while also fulfilling this demanding role as pastor.
Masters and Smith tell stories from young clergy women (themselves and others) and capture the power of those storytelling conversations—the laughter, the horrified looks, the empathy and understanding. The storytelling itself has healing and encouraging power, but the authors take it even further. In each chapter, between the stories, they offer scriptural and theological reflection on the questions at hand. The classic conversation about what to wear for what occasion is deepened with a reminder of the finery of the woman from Proverbs 31, or Paul’s instruction to present our bodies as a living sacrifice. Stories about feeling at home (or not) in a new community take on new meaning when coupled with the story of the exiles whose captors demand they sing in a foreign land (Psalm 137), or Lydia, from the Book of Acts, who as a foreigner welcomes Paul to Macedonia.
This power of connecting biblical stories to contemporary stories of young clergy women was especially powerful in the chapter on pregnancy, when the authors reach back to biblical women as sisters on the journey, no matter what your journey looks like:
There are the “Sarahs” of the world, who may be too old to have a child; there are the “Hannahs” who wait many years to get pregnant; and there are the “Rebekahs,” who struggle with the relationships between their children. There are even the “Michals,” who, like David’s wife, are unable to sustain a pregnancy and end up parenting other people’s children. And yet as pastors, our pregnancies can be a step beyond. We can easily feel like “Tamars,” whose families are judged, or “Ruths,” who are foreign outsiders to the mainstream. Remembering we are daughters of these women can help us fulfill the roles of mother and pastor. In our life and ministry, we too are listed within the genealogy of Jesus and are called to be God’s messengers. (65)
This book is a real gift to young clergy women everywhere. It gives voice and validation to our stories, and offers the perspective and encouragement of sisterhood across thousands of years.
Nearly two years ago, one of the members of my church brought me an old book she found while cleaning out the church library in preparation for a major construction project. She gave it to me with a wry smile. “I thought you’d be amused by this,” she said, and handed me a copy of A Preacher’s Temptations, by James H. Blackmore, copyright 1966. At first I chuckled too, expecting an antiquated list from another era, like a ladies’ book of etiquette. Instead, I was surprised and convicted by the accuracy of the preacher’s temptations Blackmore described, and struck by the timelessness of his list.
Each chapter identifies a particular temptation, and Blackmore explains what he means and what that temptation looks like. Then, the chapter ends with a prayer for deliverance from that particular temptation. As much as I wanted to enjoy a good laugh at old-fashioned ideas of ministry, I couldn’t even muster much of a smirk once I started reading Blackmore’s list.
This is the Table of Contents, taken verbatim, plus my commentary:
- To identify God with our thoughts about Him. Aside from the irony of the gendered language in this context, this is certainly one of the biggest temptations of all religious leaders. The prayer at the end asks God to save us “from mistaking theology for religion.” (3)
- To paste labels on people. The labels may have changed, but their power to shut down relationship has not.
- To be jealous of the other fellow. Who, us clergy? Jealous of another’s success in ministry? Surely not! Except that all of us are, and rarely admit it.
- To love “the uppermost seats.” I had to read the chapter to figure this one out, but it’s about ambition—about always looking for a bigger church, more important title, or higher status. Yeah, that’s always a big challenge to clergy egos.
- To assume a superior air. Lord, spare us from arrogance!
- To run from truth. Nearly every week, it takes courage to preach the truth of the gospel. It is always tempting to avoid afflicting the comfortable, and we all succumb to an easy message from time to time.
- To bargain with God. This is a temptation for all disciples, but sometimes we clergy think God owes us a thing or two, for all our long hours and faithful service. Reality check: God doesn’t.
- To act presumptuously. Blackmore describes this as expecting God to work things out according to our wishes: “this temptation expresses itself in resentment; we are tempted to feel that somehow God has let us down.” (19)
- To be partial. We all know that there are some people we find it easier to love than others. Blackmore goes beyond that, warning that pastors must not spend all their time with “the sick, the troubled, the old and the lonely… To keep a balanced outlook the pastor needs to associate with the healthy, the happy, the young and the active as well.” (21) This includes children.
- To neglect our body. Apparently, even in 1966 clergy suffered from high blood pressure, obesity, overeating, lack of exercise, and lack of rest. While we talk about this more today, we still fall prey to the same problems.
- To run “in all directions at the same time.” Guilty as charged.
- To substitute talk for life. “O God, help us practice what we preach.” (28)
- To become impatient. With ourselves, with others, with God.
- To neglect our own family. Apparently, this is not new to women in ministry or to our generation.
- To mistake the parts for the whole. “We may know all the sources of the gospels, but if we do not see the Lord move within them, we do not know the Gospel.”(34)
- To think it all depends on us. This is a disaster to us, and to the church.
- To neglect spiritual exercises. Guilty again.
- To fumble the gospel. “The urgency of our task is that God has something to say to the people of our day, and we are called to say it.” (43) This is a weighty one.
- To fail to get the good news for ourselves. God’s grace is for us, too. Forgive us when we forget it.
- To speak in an unknown tongue. Our sermons and God’s message are meaningless if they cannot be understood.
- To keep up with the Joneses. Deliver me from envy, O Giver of All.
- To act as if we own the church. Lord, forgive me when I talk about “my” church instead of yours.
- To forget our calling. “Our calling is not something we can turn on and off; our calling and ordination make us ministers of the Lord Jesus Christ—not just for certain hours or places, but for ever and for all places.” (54-55) This is a tough one, but it’s true. We cannot be one person at church and another person outside it—we are always living in faith.
- To be nettled by taunts. “Nettled” is just the right word, isn’t it? Critics’ words prick at us and stick under our skin, leaving us irritated and unsettled.
- To give forth uncertain sounds. While I might have phrased it differently (this sounds vaguely like bodily noises), the temptation to equivocate in our messages is real.
- To undertake too much. Oh dear.
- To neglect the work of an evangelist. Ever get too busy managing the church to pay attention to those outside it? Yeah, me too.
- To go too far ahead of our people. A pastor is a shepherd—we are supposed to be leading the sheep, not leaving them behind.
- To be lazy. I’m glad Facebook doesn’t report how much time I spend there.
- To be too severe. The reverse of #6 is equally tempting.
- To be proud. No explanation necessary.
- To cease to pray for the people. Humbling, and accurate.
- To despise ourselves. It’s not about self-esteem, it’s about knowing that God works through us as we are, not as we think we ought to be.
- To ride on the authority of others. It’s about plagiarism, y’all.
- To hold our peace. Some of us struggle to hold our tongue, others to speak up for the right if it might cause conflict.
- To assume we are exempted from evil. Unfortunately, our ordination doesn’t free us from “petty meannesses and small jealousies” (91) or from the big ones.
- “To whine.” Apparently, Blackmore has attended some of the same clergy gatherings I have.
- To “grow weary in well-doing.” Guilty again.
- To feel that we are no longer needed. Like #6 and #31, the temptation exists at both extremes: to think it all depends on us (#16) and to think that what we do doesn’t matter at all.
- To despair. Pastors too face times of darkness and distance from God
James H. Blackmore, thank you for this open, honest work that stands the test of time and crosses generations of pastoral experience.
The woman who gave me the book told me to pass it on to the Goodwill pile, but I’m holding on to it. Much in ministry has changed in the last 50 years, but these temptations remain. Deliver me, O Lord, from temptation.
Today is Good Friday. It is also the 10th anniversary of my ordination into Christian ministry. Every year during Holy Week, I give thanks with all my heart to be a part of this pastoral life.
It was March of 1989, and I was 15 years old when I first got caught up in Holy Week. I don’t remember how it started, but I was swept away by the emotional roller coaster between Palm Sunday and Easter. I felt like I was right there on the streets of Jerusalem, bearing witness to Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. I wrote about it at length in my journal, which I dug out tonight from inside the trunk, under the pile of laundry. On Good Friday that year, I wrote with great youthful earnestness:
I was with Christ in Spirit throughout today. I learned that I have the wonderful ability to withdraw from this world and put myself in another. … Thank you, Jesus. I am just beginning to understand Your love for me.
Every year since that discovery, I have tried to recreate it—to step outside of the ordinary during Holy Week and get swept up in the ancient story. I don’t think of it as “another world” anymore, nor do I invest much energy in imagining myself in the streets of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. However, I still love to get absorbed in it, to experience its meaning anew, and to forget all other concerns. Some years there are more distractions than others, but the act of walking through the stories and services every year never fails to transport me to a holy place, with deep conversations with God and exhausting emotions.
Because of my life in ministry, I not only can throw all my energy and focus into meditating and understanding and retelling the story of Jesus’ betrayal, death and resurrection, I must. During Holy Week, with all the writing and preparation, I spend all day every day praying and thinking and writing about the story of Jesus. I abandon all other church work, give up on housecleaning, let J take the role of lead parent, and just live into the story. There is no negotiation about whether or not to attend services on Thursday or Friday or both, because I have to be there for all of it. There is no conflict over soccer games or meetings with the boss or anything else—everyone knows that, during Holy Week, the pastor has no more important task than preparing for services through prayer, meditation and writing. If I am wrought with emotions and wracked by the Holy Spirit throughout, so much the better for my preaching. What a privilege.
So today, Good Friday, I celebrate 10 years of ordained ministry. Ten years of throwing myself into Holy Week with all my heart and soul, and having no one think it strange. Did I know in my 15-year-old self where that blessed Holy Week would lead? Could I have imagined the opportunity not only to let myself get lost in Jesus’ story every year, but to devote my life’s work to getting other people caught up in the story as well? There is no better time to celebrate my call, to give thanks to God for this pastoral life, than during Holy Week. Thanks be to God. Soli Deo Gloria.
Postscript: There is another connection between the spring of 1989 and my ordination date that cannot go unmentioned. Just a few pages after my passionate account of Holy Week in my journal, the April 22 entry shares the news of a car accident that took the life of one of my dear friends, and injured several others. It was another pivotal moment in my faith journey. When I scheduled my ordination years ago, I recognized the confluence, but still cannot impart a meaning to it. Still, this year, all three converge–that transformative Holy Week in 1989; my friend’s death on April 22, 1989 (both 22 years ago); the 10th anniversary of my ordination on April 22, 2001; and Good Friday. The day feels deep, rich and complex. God sees the web of connections, and perhaps even their meaning. I, as yet, do not.
Our family drove to Florida a few months ago. If you’ve ever made that journey, you know that the highways in Georgia and Florida are lined with billboards advertising pecans. Both J and I have mild allergies to nuts, but B loves them and seems unaffected. So, to pass the time, we were pointing out the billboards and asking him, “Hey, B, they have pecans! Wanna get some pecans?” His consistent reply was “Eww, yuck! No.” We assured him they were good and he would like them, but he refused. It became a repeating pattern: “Look, B, more pecans ahead! Good stuff! Don’t you want some pecans?” followed by “eww, yuck! No.”
We finally relented in pointing out the billboards, and another hour or so passed in the car. B spontaneously said, “I can’t believe you guys wanted me to eat that pee in cans. Yuck. Pee in cans. I wouldn’t like that at all.”
As hilarious as that moment was, and as revealing as it is about how I say “pecan,” it got me thinking about vocabulary. Since the advent of Willow Creek and other “seeker churches,” there has been an ongoing conversation about how the church’s extensive insider vocabulary can be intimidating, confusing or exclusionary for newcomers. Words like narthex, doxology, anthem and chancel have been replaced in some churches with less fancy (and more secular) terms like foyer, praise song, choir song, and stage. Other churches continue to use the traditional words, but make the effort to explain their meaning on a regular basis.
We may be doing a better job of explaining those words, or putting things in terms people can understand, but what about the more important words of our faith? Are we taking the time and energy to explain what we mean when we talk about forgiveness, resurrection, disciple, Passion, trinity, sin, prophet, Kingdom of God, grace, or the Body of Christ? In my experience, many of the people in our congregations, whether newcomers or lifelong members, have only a passing familiarity with these words. For example, I recently used the word Messiah in teaching a class. While most of the class knew that referred to Jesus, that was the end of their understanding. They understood it as another name for Jesus, not a theological proclamation that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a savior for the world.
It’s easy to teach people to understand that the narthex is the foyer, but how can we teach them that disciple does not just to refer to the original twelve men, but to all who seek to follow Christ—and what that act of following means for our lives? Are we explaining that forgiveness, both human and godly, is more than saying “it’s fine, no big deal”? Do our references to the Kingdom of God include a clarification about where that kingdom resides, and our access to it? When we talk about grace, are we sure that people are hearing about the power of God’s love and forgiveness, or are they just thinking about a formulaic table prayer?
I wonder whether our preaching, teaching and evangelism sometimes resemble our car game: “Look, Jesus died on the cross! Forgiveness from sin! Grace! Want some? They’re good–you’ll like them!” It’s no wonder we hear, “eww, no, thank you,” because people don’t even understand what it is we are offering. Let’s be honest with ourselves. To those who do not know the vocabulary of our Christian faith, talk about sin and death on a cross, even with the promise of forgiveness and grace, is about as appealing as pee in a can. If we want to get past the “eww, yuck,” we need to find a way to explain what we’re talking about.