For The Someday Book

As One With Authority

Posted on: November 2, 2011

Yesterday, I met with a friend-of-a-friend seeking spiritual care, discerning a way out of a dark night of the soul. My friend thought I might be able to help her with a spiritual roadblock, and I was happy to offer my time, to hear her struggle, to offer perspective and prayer and theological conversation. We talked for a couple of hours, and then prayed together. However, throughout the meeting I felt a sense of awkwardness about my role that I have not felt in a long time. As I contemplated this later, I think it has something to do with the source of pastoral authority that was lacking in my relationship with her.

As a pastor, my authority comes from the context of the church. My ability to offer spiritual care and insight comes from a complex, multi-layered relationship. My connection with those in my church community (regardless of membership or active status) involves preaching, teaching, prayer, fellowship, leadership, presence in a crisis, working side by side in service, and more. All of these aspects of ministry take place in a shared community grounded in history, story and the lived reality of regular interaction. Our relationship includes not just times of profound spiritual conversation, but washing dishes together after a shared meal and working out the details of chaperoning a Sunday School class and playing kickball at the annual picnic. We are co-workers in the common mission of God for our church.

This is very different from the helping professions. Therapists get their authority from their listening skills, their ability to ask discerning questions and their expertise in family dynamics and emotional healing. Doctors get their authority from their superior knowledge of the body and its myriad possibilities for brokenness and healing. Massage therapists and alternative healers get their authority from their knowledge and physical skills at working through mind and body toward wholeness. There is always work to establish genuine trust between the healer and the patient or client, but the relationship remains transactional—one person has knowledge or treatment to offer the other, and that person is always the expert.

Pastoral authority does not come from knowledge or expertise, and I do not simply have spiritual insight to transact. I am not a guru who has reached greater spiritual depths or discovered deep wisdom to pass along. I know the Bible better than most, but there have been people in every church I’ve served who know more about it than I do. I try to live a faithful Christian life, to walk with God and listen to the Spirit, but I am no more spiritual than anyone else. There are a great many people in my church whose faith is stronger and deeper and wiser than mine.

When someone comes to me facing a dark night of the soul, my authority comes from repeating the same good news of God’s love that we share every week in worship. My wisdom is shared wisdom, of the community, of the ages, told and retold until it soaks deep. My care for them is an extension of the community’s care for one another. My words about God’s grace echo the ways we try to practice grace and forgiveness with one another in our life together. The prayers we speak are part of a longer, deeper, wider conversation with God that we carry on week in and week out.

My authority comes from the community itself, and from our ongoing relationship. That is not to say that there is no expertise in ministry, or that God has not placed in me the unique gifts, or that knowledge and wisdom have no bearing. Those things matter a great deal in the community’s willingness to grant authority to a pastor, but the source of the authority is not those things. The source of pastoral authority is always the community itself.  The community trusts me to tell their story, to speak the truth in love, to pray as though it matters, to challenge and provoke in the name of faithfulness, to enter a crisis to bear witness to God’s presence there, to hold the light of hope when all seems dark. I claim that authority from them, with them, in every act of ministry. I claim it not for myself, but for us—for the Gospel.

To speak “as one with authority” (Matthew 7:29) in ministry requires the presence and participation of the community of God. With it, I am a pastor, with an abundance of authority and wisdom to share in relationship. Without it, I am just the friend-of-a-friend.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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