What is a Pastor to Be?

When I was in seminary between 1977 and 1982 the model of pastoral ministry could be summed up in one word: facilitator. Through Rogerian counseling we facilitated people who were capable of discovering their problems and the solutions. Facilitating endless council and committee meetings allowed us to allow lay people to lead the congregation in its program of ministry. And facilitating Bible study aided lay people in their own search for the personal meaning of the text. With regard to this last act of facilitation our guidance was also necessary lest the laity lapse into naive literalism and eventually fundamentalism.

So we were facilitators of a lay led church. Has it worked out?

Not so well. This facilitation model was implicitly based on the idea that in the context of a Christian society American churches had institutional goals shared by their members, shared assumptions about human roles and relationships, and a common desire to find meaning through Christian faith. Only occasionally would a “prophetic” witness be necessary to shake people from complacency about issues of justice.

None of these assumptions is true today, and many were questionable decades ago. The United Methodist church and most other mainline denominations are riven with dissension over the appropriate role of the church in social issues such as the rights of homosexuals and abortion. At a local level churches have never fully emerged from the worship wars, and tensions over the direction and methods of congregational outreach remain high.

The rise of families with two working parents, increased mobility of families, increasing demands on the time of children and parents, and a host of other factors have significantly diminished the pool of available lay leaders. As importantly they have called into question the idea of a “lay led” church as roles filled by volunteers are increasingly the over by professional church workers. And finally a rising post-boomer unchurched generation brings neither the commitment to nor knowledge of church structures necessary for lay people to exercise leadership of a congregation in traditional ways.

And what of the search for meaning? The assumption that a transcendent God, a revealed scripture, or a holy community is necessary for a meaningful life is rapidly disappearing from American culture. We cannot assume that people will turn to religion in times of crisis, either existential or emotional. In short, the church must justify its existence in our society, not merely wait until people “come home.” Nor can we justify ourselves in terms of fellowship offered, service to the community, or our excellent provision for the psychological and social needs of different age groups. Other groups do all these things as well as Christians, and without the enormous overhead of time and cost used on so-called worship.

So in sum? Pastors cannot simply facilitate the unfolding Christian identity of a Christian community. The former is no longer understood as necessary to human flourishing, and the latter no longer has a firm sense of its distinctive purpose and direction.

May I suggest that Christian pastors need to engage an old threefold description of ministry in the name of Christ: as prophet, priest, and ruler. Pastors cannot, at this post-Christian and thus pre-Christian stage in American social evolution facilitate a community capable of carrying out these roles as a community. Instead the pastor will need to lead.

The pastor will need to guide the community into engaging God through worship and praises, knowing that the community has only the vaguest intimations of who God is and no tradition of worship and praise to inform them. (Unlike the churches of the New Testament contemporary young Americans cannot fall back on either Jewish or Greek religious traditions. They have only the vague self-worship of popular American culture. This is the reason they are attracted to “contemporary worship,” that draws on the better known concert/musical theater experience.)

The pastor will teach the community of God’s self-revelation and the gift and demand of God’s love. Again, the community has little or no knowledge of Christian tradition and scripture, or is mired in misunderstanding. They will need at least a basic framework of the distinctively Christian experience of Jesus as Christ to guide their interpretation of not only scripture, but their own religious experience.

And perhaps most importantly the pastor will need to perform the tasks that belong to governing the community in its financial and social relations with the world. This last role is most important because many who feel called to ministry find it onerous, and find that a conventional theological education may provide little preparation for it. But as the early church in its New Testament witness makes clear, management is ministry, and there may be no ministry without it.

Those called to ministry can no longer be content to facilitate in this or any of the classical tasks of ministry. They must lead, or their congregations will continue to go nowhere.

  • Dennis

    As a ‘highly trained’ Rogerian from the early 70′s, I have evolved through many sea changes in how to lead God’s people in congregations. I applaud this back to the basics approach suggested by the author. In the end, it’s not about a congregation’s success in any way except overall faithfulness to God’s mission as carried out through church. Our denominational leaders (I was one until recently) are judged at the end of the day by corporate success, not being given to losing life (churches, benefits, etc.) in order to save it (God’s mission). We could hardly have mucked things up more if we tried. God’s patience must be nearing an end.

  • Robin Swieringa

    Thank you for your insight and candor! This is encouraging to me!

  • Arthur Shippee

    Sounds like some familiar ideas …

  • John R. Kerr

    When I attended seminary in the 80′s I experienced academicians who knew a lot about the Bible, but could not tell you what it meant or even why it was important (beyond their own narrow academic interests). They weren’t even certain what our role as pastor was (beyond the whole community-organizer model). So, you send uncertain and bewildered graduates out into a muddled church, and what do you get? You get a church that has no idea what they are to be other than a community center that no one visits. Evangelism? What’s that?
    The good news is that we could go back to the Bible and rediscover it as the witess-without parallel that it is. When all else fails, read the directions! Oh, and that “naive literalism” that might lead to fundamentalism? Might want to think about that–people are not as naive as you might think!

  • http://jamesstreet.com Don Berry-Grahan

    Where does it say to go and lead the church? We are forever chasing our tails. Lay lead, pastor lead, Holy Spirit lead been there done that got the T-shirt and don’t want to do it again. I am as a pastor and a follower of Jesus called to follow Jesus. Which in some places and times (time is critical) to be any of the above. The key to following Jesus as a Pastor is to realize that we follow not tell him where we want to go and are willing to change what we are doing according to his leading..
    After 30 years in ministry I really am tired of hearing the same recycled ideas. I hunger and thirst for Jesus to show up on Sunday so we can all fall on our faces in awe and worship. Getting old really does mean that I no longer know all the answers only what does not work.

    • roberthunt

      I wish it were as simple as following Jesus, but of course as pastors our calling is apostolic and that means taking responsibility according to our gifts to lead, just as it requires a prophetic and priestly witness as well – at all times and in all places. Of course all the various schemes and frameworks failed: there is no 12 step plan to pastoral success, but that doesn’t absolve pastors from thoughtfully asking how to best do what Jesus has called them to do. I recommend a book by David Hansen, “The Art of Pastoring: Ministry without all the Answers.” BTW, I don’t think we should just wait for Jesus to show up. Unless we are Quakers. We’ve been given work to do and the power to do it. The next time we should look for Jesus is when (we hope) he says, “well done, good and faithful servant.”


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