Magazine article The Christian Century

A Pastor's Place

Magazine article The Christian Century

A Pastor's Place

Article excerpt

IF YOU'RE A PASTOR and cannot come to love the congregation you serve, cannot love the culture and community in which that congregation is set, you must leave. Ministers cannot effectively serve people they don't love. And if a pastor is at odds with the culture of the larger community, members of the congregation will soon recognize it and view their minister as he views himself--as an outsider.

I once attended a church conference on the high plains of north-central Kansas. The landscape was stark--rolling prairie, waving grasslands, flint hills, and few trees, often no trees. I commented on the strange loveliness of it to an older woman over coffee one morning. She said, "Not everyone thinks it beautiful. I was on the pastor nominating committee for our church a while back. We had a candidate we liked from New Jersey. I drove to the airport to pick him up. As we headed west into the high plains and the trees got fewer and the towns farther apart, he got the 'deer-in-the-headlights' look. He was talking less and less. We got to the church for the interview and right in the middle of it, out of nowhere, he stood up and said, 'God would never call me to a place with so few trees. I want to go home now.'" Better now than later.

Conversely, when members of a congregation recognize--as they invariably will--that their pastor loves them and loves their particular place, they will almost always come to welcome his or her leadership or "authority." William Sloane Coffin, after his rambunctious Yale days and during his provocative New York City days, said that he had always been amazed at how much he could "get away with" (he meant controversial sermons and programs) as long as his people knew he loved them and respected their opinions.

The legendary Tip O'Neill opined, "All politics is local." All ministry is local, too, perhaps even more so than politics. There is no such thing as "ministry in general"; it's always ministry in a specific place, among specific people, and in a specific culture. Every pastor is in loco pastoris.

In this way ministry is parallel to the specificity of the incarnation. By definition, the incarnation had to be in one person whose physical body was short or tall, dark or fair, handsome or not. Incarnation was in Jesus of Nazareth, not Jesus of Everywhere. Jesus was a Galilean Jew and not, say, an Alexandrian Jew. He lived his incarnate life in one time and no other.

God's choice of a unique person implies that God loves the specificities in which God embodies the Divine. It doesn't mean that God loves Jesus' body, his time, his culture, or his geography more than other human bodies, other times, or other cultures. Rather, it means that all are greatly loved, but loved in and for their uniqueness.

Ministry too is incarnationally specific. Ministry is rural, urban, or small-town. Congregations are rich or poor, growing or shrinking, happy or dour. Buildings are lovely or leaky, too big or too small. Cultural contexts are sophisticated or homey, rural, small-town, big city, Bach or country western. God loves each congregation and each context in and for its particularity. A pastor is called to see his or her place and people with God's "lover's eye," and to love them for their particularity.

Two vocational metaphors describe the relationship between pastor and congregation. Each has some value but can be problematic as well. First, it is commonplace to speak of pastors as "professionals." The word suggests education and specialization akin to that of, say, a physician or an attorney. "Professional" may also imply something about social position and be a measure of recognition that many clergy long for in our post-Constantinian disestablishment. To be a professional may also imply that one does one's work well--"professionally."

These nuances may be helpful, but another implication of "professional" is not. A professional is a provider of services who is generally called to keep a "professional distance. …

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