About every two weeks or so I, and a couple other local ministers, host a small gathering of spiritual seekers at a local watering hole in the community where we serve. The group is eclectic is some ways, while predictable in others. The group is comprised of several different faith communities, mostly of the mainline Protestant variety. The age difference has range, but we are a lily white group (I’d love to see that change in the future). One contributor always brings something “she just threw together” for us to snack on while the owner of the establishment pours spirits from behind the bar. We have met now going on two years and have formed a trusting bond with one another.
You have to have trust when you talk about difficult things. Over the course of time, we have touched on mental health, assisted suicide, gun control, nationalism, mass shootings, race relations within our country/community, the entire mess that was the 2016 election, confederate statues, etc…These conversations have been hard for some, and I hope I and the other clergy present have done a fair enough job facilitating the conversations and provided a space where people can speak freely while knowing their thoughts will be heard and not attacked. Some weeks we do a better job than others.
Recently a conversation came about concerning the role of the faith leader in their community. It centered on proclamation, what Baptist might call preachin’. The topic that night spurred the question of faith leader’s responsibility to speak honestly and open with their people. To use Christian terminology, a pastor’s job on Sunday should be to speak prophetically to the congregation. Perhaps a better example might be that through proclamation a pastor should speak authoritatively on issues concerning injustice in order to move their congregation towards compassionate action. It was this thought that caused one of the newer attendees to ask those who were clergy, why doesn’t clergy address certain issues from the pulpit? An important question and one I have found myself asking for quite some time. This opened up some interesting dialogue from those there. One of the other clergy members present said something to the effect of when they preached or communicated with their congregation it an attempt to approach them in such a way that wouldn’t cause them to automatically shut down from what was being said. This was explained in some detail, but for the person who initially posed the question, that wasn’t a good enough answer. They explained that they themselves were the leader of a faith community and saw it as a requirement to tell their congregation the hard truths with as little sugar coating as possible. That, they said, was the responsibility of a faith leader and clergy owe this to their respected congregation.
Back and forth the conversation went until finally my minister friend admitted what all clergy know to be true. If I said everything I truly wanted, I’d probably be fired. That’s real. That’s a feeling present every Sunday morning. It’s an unspoken truth. What followed was the expected; being in ministry ain’t about the money.
Of course it isn’t. However, pastors have families that need to eat and utility bills needing to be paid just like everybody else (I could write another blog on the mindset of some to keep a pastor poor and humble, but that’s another blog for another time). This made sense for some, and I would argue most parishioners already know this dynamic. However, the new attendee didn’t see being fired as a reason to not say what was obviously true and right. Fair enough. When questioned how they were able to accomplish this in their own setting, a story unfolded where, at least to me, it made perfect sense. This person was part of a certain denomination that historically is very progressive on certain issues. This denomination has offered sanctuary to those who have been fed up with the legalism of more conservative faith communities. This person left a space where they felt they had no voice and found others who shared their same ethical understandings on issues. There is nothing wrong with this as people naturally want to be in community with those who have the same values as themselves. While this explanation was being given I thought of my own call into congregational ministry. “God, how great would it be to speak into people’s lives and have them affirm what I already know to be right and true?”
I than realized I don’t have that luxury.
To me, being a pastor is more than preachin’ on Sunday morning. It’s walking with people through the ups and downs of life. It’s being with them when they or their children get married, or when their family member passes suddenly. It’s sharing a pack of Nabs on the way back from a small country store because it’s where they’ve bought them since they were a kid and “you really have to see this place.” It’s popping into the hospital to see how someone’s relative you don’t even know is doing. It’s helping their aging parents move furniture into their new home. It’s writing a letter of recommendation for a student who got a speeding ticket. Its sipping moonshine with the person you had pegged as a teetotaler. All of this helps build relationships that overtime produces trust. And let me tell you, people are apt to hear you better when they trust you then when they don’t. As a pastor I shouldn’t be able to say whatever the hell I want just because I think its right. If I share a message where God seems to line up with everything I think is to be true, I’m pretty sure it’s not God who’s saying it. I’m not preaching the Gospel message, but the gospel according to me. Could I surround myself with people who amen’d everything I said? Probably. But, for me, it seems more fitting and even natural to step behind a pulpit a see faces that I know don’t agree with me or I with them. It makes me think about what I actually want to say. I have to be deliberate with my words in order to reach people who I know will struggle with what I have to say. I have to respect and trust them just like they do me. This is the kind of space that produces growth. Being around folks that look like you, talk like you, and think like you might feel good. Echo chambers tend to have that effect.
Pastors need to sit with all kinds of people. In the 11 chapter of Luke’s Gospel account, Jesus is invited to dinner by a Pharisee. For those that don’t know, Pharisees were the group of religious leaders who followed Jesus around and questioned everything he said, rebuking him at every chance they got along the way. Growing up, I understood the Pharisees to be the “bad guys” in the Jesus story. And yet here is Jesus, the same guy who during the Sermon on the Mount promised a kingdom made for the poor in spirit and for those who would be peacemakers, accepting an invitation to sit with those who his followers considered then, and today, to be the “bad guys.” I’m starting to think Jesus didn’t accept that invitation because he intended to upstage his host in their own home. I think he took it because he loved this Pharisee just as much as he loved his disciples…
In closing, I’ll say I’m guilty of this. I love seeing heads nodding more than I do them swaying side to side. My desire is to try and hold relationships that cross all sorts of boundaries. If you’re in a certain camp on an issue I challenge you to find someone who represents the opposite view. Sit with them and hear their perspective. Find what you do have in common. Meet their family. Share a meal with them. Afterwards, it’ll make it harder to lump them into the category of people who are just wrong on whatever said issue is.
I’m talking to you intellectual progressives.
And to you conservative patriots.
As you were,