In a lot of church circles folks distinguish between community activism and pastoral ministry. A lot of this conversation has to do with walls–how much of ministry is done inside vs. outside the walls of the church.
Thing is, social justice activism and much of congregational ministry occurs outside the walls of the church. If I visit someone at the hospital, it’s quite comparable to spending an evening at the quorum court meeting. If I take communion to someone at their house, it’s outside the walls of the church just like a protest down Main Street.
I think, as far as I can tell, what distinguishes these two activities in the minds of many churchgoers is the sense that one activity, activism, is focused away from or distinct from specific church members, whereas as a communion visit, or a pastoral care visit, is focused on church members.
But in my experience as pastor, I’ve rarely been to a Women’s March where I didn’t run into dozens of members, and when I attend a quorum court meeting to raise moral concerns, it is always on behalf of members affected by county policy and funding.
Perhaps the difference has to do with individual vs. community pastoral care. I wonder if what’s at issue is that the imagination of pastoral ministry in many minds is highly individualized, whereas activism is community-focused.
So let me offer a few arguments for why these aren’t really different kinds of ministry, but overlapping and complimentary.
First, let me give the example of prison reform. I visit members of my church currently held in detention and prison. I can visit them individually. But what if I believe the forms of incarceration enacted by our state and federal government are unjust? My only recourse in order to be pastoral is to participate in activist calls for prison reform.
Or take hunger. I can write a check to individual members, buy food for the food pantry, stock a Little Free Pantry. But if I notice widespread hunger in my. community impacting my own members, the most effective way to be a chaplain to them is also advocate for changes in legislation and funding that provide SNAP and other kinds of relief.
Or if I provide wide welcome for LGBTQ+ members of our congregation, guarding space for them to participate in leadership, making sure they can be married in our church, these are good, but if the state undermines our local ordinances protecting civil rights for LGBTQ+ people, then my additional pastoral responsibility is to figure out complex and political forms of organization that work on their behalf, and alongside their voices.
It’s not as if one is pastoral and the other is political. Instead, it’s all pastoral, and one is individually or familial focused, whereas the other is more corporate and communal.
As a pastor, I’ve never figured out how to communicate this as clearly as possible, but perhaps you can think of it this way: when I show up, I’m serving as chaplain. Could be in the congregation. Could be at the hospital. Could be at the jail, or at a protest, or a local quorum court meeting, or even at the capitol in Little Rock. But guaranteed, I show up at those places because MY PARISH is affected, and I’m their pastor.
It’s like shepherds. If they over-focus on individual sheep and leave the fence or the field in disrepair, they aren’t shepherding well.
In order to pastor in this 21st century, we have to figure out how to be chaplains in a complex age.