THE LAST question the pastor asked was "Peter, do you love people?" He was interviewing me for my first parish assignment and was about 30 years older than I was. The question unsettled me. It seemed disingenuous. It felt like a patronizing trap. I think my reply to him was some variation of "You bet!" Whatever my response, it almost certainly displayed more eagerness than depth, more cheer than nuance. What I do remember is that I was annoyed by the inference that it was possible to be preparing for ordination in the church and yet be unloving of people.
This pastor judged me suitable for placement in a congregation. Perhaps I said ""You bet!" with special gravity. Or maybe something else in the interview indicated potential. Whatever the case, the do-you-love-people question has never left my mind. It has been rolling around in my head now for a quarter century--and it's the best thing that pastor could have asked me.
After peeling back the layers of that question, I have concluded that the only relationship worth having with a congregation is one that requires extensive use of the word love to describe its fullness. Yes, a love of people seems like the most obvious component in a parish pastor's life. But it's not. "Love in theory" is prevalent. We're all experts at talking or theorizing about love, beginning with our own families. But in relationships with those we care most about, we remain clumsy in the exercise of love. We fail often, mistaking good intentions for embracing the mystery of that other one's heart.
As a pastor, I never want to confuse the love of being around people with the actual love of people. There is a big difference between experiencing people and taking the time and energy to know the depth, intricacy and holiness of their lives.
Theological education cannot assume responsibility for teaching this love or the desire required for its expression. No curriculum can teach one how to love unlovable people who, by the way, are a part of every congregation. Seminarians are taught how to exegete scripture, not people. When students finally get around to studying matters of practical theology, often late in their degree program, they are itching to discover the skills, tasks and functions that go with being a pastor. Having mastered biblical hermeneutics, they want to know how to hold a chalice and craft a budget.
What often surfaces in the all-important interview for a first parish assignment is an enthusiasm for utilizing everything one has learned in training. A candidate who says, "! am looking for the best place to put my gifts to work, and I am really eager to share what I feel to be my calling', will till a very different field from the candidate who says, "I can't wait to fall in love with this congregation and learn all kinds of things from the people in it."
Loving people in a congregation-that would be all of them--requires something special of a pastor. The requirement is not love in the abstract. The commitment is something more particular than, say, a Chicago Bears fan loving all other Bears fans. So what is behind this pastoral desire to treasure other people and take their daily lives to heart? Here are my observations from years of ministry lived in the shadow of the question that was drilled into my heart: "Peter, do you love people?"
First, a pastor must decide that the people of his or her congregation truly matter--that they are worth the personal energy expended on their behalf. This is more than putting up with people who consider the church their second home. It asks for the gift of compassion and a keenly observant eye for noticing. Parishioners have no way of convincing their pastor to care about them. Just as a sailor reads the wind or a surfer reads the surf, a pastor must read the contours of individual lives within a congregation.
I might ask myself, for example, "Am I interested in the complications that go with the daily routines of these people under my care? …