I was walking down the street a week ago, when I passed a woman on the sidewalk. In retrospect, I’m impressed the ground did not crack beneath me; people a mile away who were having a perfectly pleasant day in that moment thought, “Woah! Why do I feel so totally bummed all of a sudden?” She didn’t make eye contact, and we had already passed before I remembered how I knew her, but the energy she radiated conveyed (a) anger with the universe for my existence in general and (b) low-grade fury that the fates had forced us to share this patch of concrete in particular.
I certainly had more than a few interactions with her over the years, although I wouldn’t say we were close. The reaction came because I wasn’t who I was supposed to be. She was the partner of a former congregant. And I hadn’t pastored right. And I suspect that injustice will never go away for her.
In my seven years as a local church pastor, she’s not the only person impacted adversely by the fact that I didn’t pastor right. There are other people still feeling hurt because when a regular person does you wrong, that’s not cool, but when a pastor does you wrong, that impacts your relationship to that church, to institutional religion, and sometimes to God Herself.
I want to be really clear on something right now—I don’t think they’re wrong for feeling that way. And I don’t think I actually pastored all that badly under the circumstances. But I do think that we’ve been backed into a corner as concerns the relationship of the church to its pastors, and the ways of getting out of that corner are neither simple nor universally agreed upon.
Those of you who have known me for a long time know that ministry has humbled me. A lot. I walked out of seminary with a really clear sense of what is broken in the church and how I planned to fix it. I still think I was largely right about what is broken. My approach to fixing it, though… that was not all net, if you can forgive a basketball metaphor.
See, I was really clear that hierarchy is harmful to the message of Christ. The pastor might need to lead, but needed to do so with humility and also with a constant readiness to get up off of that leadership to make room for others as SOON as s/he could step into a role of support. This meant when I went to a fourth of July barbecue at a congregant’s house, about two months into my pastorate, when another congregant smiled up at me and asked, “Does it make you feel good to see all your sheep here?” I responded, “Oh, Miss Lila, we’re all each other’s shepherds!” I think about that now and just think, “What. A. Dick.” Because now I know that I was perpetuating instability and maybe even creating a sense of rejection.
That wasn’t necessarily the biggest problem, though. A bigger problem that none of us were aware of was that I could define my role as pastor however I wanted to: I could preach about it, I could share it in one-to-one coffees, I could embody it in moments of crisis and celebration. But that wasn’t going to change the role that various congregants knew to be “what a pastor is” or “what a pastor does.”
That collision between my self-understanding and their understanding of me was …well, it was just that, a collision, and as happens in collisions, people got hurt.
This is where I think my story is not just about one congregation’s experience. It is actually a parable— maybe the parable of The False Binary of Pastoral Ministry: Pastor or Prophet. We usually mean something specific when we use those terms, even if those terms can potentially encompass more, so I’m going to lay out what I think are the working assumptions that underlie those two categories.
PASTOR: So I sometimes joke that people think pastor and they evoke Father Mulcahey from M*A*S*H, a kind, sweet man always concerned about your personal spiritual well-being, full of compassion and gentleness. Interesting tidbit—most pastors are pleaser personality types. They want to be liked. They hate conflict. Most importantly, they want people to be happy. And a lot of congregants want a pastor who prioritizes these things. Except when a handful of folks call the shots for the whole congregation and people feel driven out and unprotected, which happens in churches ALL THE TIME. Conflict-averse pastors allow bullying to happen, or at the very least disallow healthy dissent where people can feel safe while working through their problems.
I remember going to a church where the pastor said, “They say the job of the pastor is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But I’ve never known anyone who was comfortable.” I found myself thinking, “no, no, some of us are very comfortable and Jesus would want us to feel some serious discomfort about that.” But every head around me bobbed in agreement with him. That church is, 15 years later, in its last years, because it never got to a place where it was willing to be uncomfortable enough to welcome the afflicted. It was a progressive church that embraced gay and lesbian leadership, and the church also embraced non-disruptive clergy and pushed out people who wanted too much change. The congregation sought out leadership that buried dissent and shut down disagreement for the sake of “unity” and “happiness,” and I believe it has killed them.
PROPHET: I was not the only kid who came out of seminary with all the answers, and I have watched several of my colleagues embrace the role of Prophet in the midst of a woefully misguided congregation. They will let the congregation know what’s what and exhort the congregation to step into this other way of being, come hell or high water. I sometimes want to say to my colleagues, “If you’re not feeling pretty bereft about having to do this, you might not be doing it right.” That is to say, the Biblical prophets did not march in guns blazing. They were not Clint Eastwood. If they could have done anything else they would have—partly because bringing that kind of news did not win you much affection (and sometimes even jeopardized your life, e.g. Elijah) but also, I believe, because prophets were called to their task by God because they loved God’s people so much, and who likes to tell people they love good news? You do it not because you enjoy it but because it is the only hope for the community you love to survive and ultimately thrive. I think the models we have for prophetic ministry are a caricature of the biblical model, and we replicate the caricature to no one’s avail.
But I had mentioned I don’t think the problem is just the pastors—these responses to a broken system are responses to something that is, I believe, IRREDEEMABLY broken. The brokenness of the modern day church may be a whole other blog post, but for now what is broken is who the church wants a pastor to be versus what a church needs in a pastor (and what it is possible for a pastor to be).
So maybe my story is the parable of the Church Between Two Eras.
Churches of the 1950s, when Christianity was the dominant cultural religion in the United States, generally thrived best with a Dwight D. Eisenhower kind of pastor—strong, self-assured, with the answers to your questions and a personal investment in your family’s wellbeing. And since people in the pews remember how it felt to be in church in those days, of course that’s the paradigm of minister they’re seeking out, especially when the world keeps getting more volatile. (People also kept their problems more suppressed in those days, and the pastor didn’t have to navigate the depth and complexity of people’s lives in the same way. This was bad for society and made people sick and perpetuated all sorts of harm and oppression, but it made the pastor’s job easier then than today.)
There was also a very unhealthy “pastor as expert” paradigm—he was the one with the bible knowledge and the one who held the spiritual and moral high ground. He was a kind of Uebermensch. This was also incredibly unhealthy for the congregation, in that it ultimately led to the pastor taking others’ place as the studier of scripture and person whose prayers matter and person who takes care of the sick. That, I believe, robbed laypeople of the specific and various forms of priesthood God blesses all followers with. (Pastor Anthony Robinson famously said during an interview at a church, after they listed all the things they expected of him and nothing that they expected the congregation to take charge of, “I am happy to be a Christian WITH you. I will not be a Christian FOR you.”)
Enter pastors like me. We see how this previous paradigm with Pastor In Charge and congregation not claiming their priesthood, and we say, “that’s no good.” We might even refuse to pastor that way. But the muscle memory of a whole nation shaped by the mythos of the 1950s pastor does not break down just because we say it should.
Many of my colleagues and I are trying to live out a paradigm of ministry that we believe will help the church be its better self: we want a church that welcomes questions and ambiguity, since that is what most of the unchurched people around us function out of (and a lot of unchurched people never got into church because they knew it wouldn’t tolerate their wrestling). We want a church where people take care of each other, like a family, like the early church in the book of Acts. We want a church that extends grace to each other (and maybe even to us) and doesn’t need anyone to be perfect (including us). We want a church where everyone is passionate about caring for the community and lots of people participate in generating the vision. And dude, that is a serious buzzkill for a lot of people who already know what church should look like and what the pastor should look like.
One or two of the people hurt by my ministry were faithful churchgoers their whole lives, and my ministry did not look like what they had experienced. One or two of the people I’ve alienated over the years were not regular churchgoers themselves. But they knew what a pastor should be. And when I couldn’t be that, and when I couldn’t explain sufficiently what I believe the community of Christ is supposed to be INSTEAD, they felt betrayed. (By means of full disclaimer, I think it would be fair to say that there’s a reason so many people take an associate ministry for their first ministry—because the learning curve is steep. So it is likely I hurt people because I was experimenting on them as I figured out what it meant to be a pastor. That is to say, their complaints are not necessarily unwarranted just because I am currently proposing that ministry should look different than it does.)
The church is caught in this very messy place right now. The church of the 1950s doesn’t work. There are a handful of leaders who are saying “we’ll walk with you as we figure out together what that new thing should look like.” But when the pastors aren’t enough like the pastors of the 1950s, they are a disappointment to the congregation.
My personal learning in all of this was “just because I reject the pedestal doesn’t mean I won’t still get put up on it and then knocked off.” Or, “disappointing people is an inevitable part of leadership.” But I find myself wondering how to sustain those leaders who have stayed in the church because they love its people so much but who know that the model for pastor doesn’t work for them or their congregants. I watch creative clergy colleagues of mine (of every race) lose members who want worship they recognize with a pastor who acts like a pastor. Those clergy colleagues are trying to help the congregation move through our current paradigm shift with integrity, but I’m not sure we have something better for those who stay behind and tough out this strange journey with us.
You can tell from my writing that I work mostly with churches struggling for mere existence, so the situation I write of seems dire if you worship in a vital and alive congregation. There are healthy, thriving, vital models out there, I know. Some of them with powerful lay leadership. Some of them with powerful pastoral leadership. And I still think that with the upcoming generation innately distrusting institutional leadership, the latter model won’t work forever. However, the churches that only remember the days when that model did work do not trust that any other model could. And congregants and pastors alike get harmed in that tension between what won’t work forever and what doesn’t work now.
I’m all three people in my title—pastor, reluctant prophet and person who doesn’t want to be a trope. And today I stayed home to write a blog post instead of going to church. Because I’m trying to figure out what kind of church hasn’t already prescribed what a pastor is, so I can be a part of that community.
Because even a reluctant prophet would like to avoid more people resenting the fact that they have to share a sidewalk with her.