Early in 2017, I was fortunate to share a long overdue cup of coffee with an old friend. She is a formally ordained minister, currently serving effectively in an institutional role rather than a congregational pastor role. Given our shared concerns about the future into which our country was heading, she posed the question, “What do you think should be the role of ministers in these difficult times? Many ministers are struggling with that question today.” I had no immediate answer, but promised I would give it some thought – not expecting that it would take a year to properly develop such thoughts!
I am not an ordained minister (although I do provide spiritual direction and counseling to individuals). Therefore I cannot reflect on her question from firsthand ministerial experience. Instead, my response must come from imagining the perspective of one who is a congregant looking for religious guidance in these difficult times. That necessarily divides the response into two settings.
Ministers not serving in a congregational role focus on the collective, and plead the case for general agreement on various religious positions. They argue the theology, adopt or change the canonical rules, advocate the policy positions, march in – if not lead – the demonstrations, and run the many support ministries and religious advocacy groups. In doing those activities, they demonstrate the qualities of respectful dialog and compassion for others of differing views. It is critical that they serve as role models for uncompromising ethical behavior, act consistently between their institutional agenda and their private lives, maintain civility in the interactions among all involved, while keeping a critical balance between their religious beliefs and their secular actions. They pastor by their actions.
Billy Graham, the “Pastor to the Presidents,” once confessed that letting his ego be stroked by succumbing to the aura of the presidency, getting overly involved in political activity, and thereby falling into the trap of thinking too much of himself, was one of his biggest mistakes as a minister. When the religious role morphs into a secular political one, the moral case for religious authority progressively collapses. Only a weak minister seeks to achieve through secular laws what s/he cannot achieve through moral persuasion. When that line is crossed, both the minister and the church ultimately lose.
Those ministers who serve a pastoral role with a congregation focus on helping the individual, without prejudice to where it may lead. Political and the social arguments are all around us, and these pastors can provide a safe and special place to help us find our way through the secular morass. Our governmental, social and spiritual issues are serious. They challenge each of us to determine how we are to act from an ethical, values, and character basis. These determinations need to be nurtured by our understanding of human history, by our personal experience, and by religious input. It is to contribute to this nurturing that a congregational pastor can be vitally important. But how should one minister in this situation? And what ministering does the congregant rightly expect?
The pastor’s role is not to be the script writer for a congregant’s life, answering directly the “what should I do” questions, telling him/her what to believe and what actions to take. There are already too many people telling each of us what to believe and do, adding to our individual confusion. For it is in the very struggle of trying to answer the political / social / religious questions that one’s spiritual growth occurs. Being simply told what to believe or do lets the congregant off the hook of responsibility for that learning process, thereby stunting his/her potential spiritual growth. Instead, it is about sitting with that person as s/he goes through the struggle for answers and decisions. Examining or interpreting the many options and conflicts in the scriptures. Working side-by-side through the differences of opinions and perspectives that exist. Reviewing the life examples of relevant and significant historical figures for clues to living one’s own life. From that, pastor and congregant then arrive together at some sort of conclusion. These functions emerge as the unique value and contribution of the pastoral minister. It is an unrelenting focus on the individual journey, wherever it may lead, whether done 1-on-1 or in a congregational setting.
What is important is that the congregational role and the institutional role remain quite distinct. Spouting institutional positions from the pulpit, and glossing over or not acknowledging the unspoken concerns of the congregant, is not helpful. It trivializes the congregant’s important struggle of trying to figure out “the right thing to do” amidst all the surrounding noise and confusion. Placing that congregant between the institutional position and their own deep sense of Self is neither religious leadership nor congregational compassion. Such strife inevitably leads to the situation of today where many individual churches and their members are in conflict among themselves as well as with their governing institutions. Being a minister is not an easy role to fulfill. Nor is navigating a personal path through these difficult times easy for the congregant.
© 2017 Randy Bell www.OurSpiritualWay.blogspot,com