Tuesday, October 10, 2006

What's a Pastor Like?

I'm sure if I simply asked that question, I'd get quite a few responses. I imagine that the responses would vary greatly depending on who left them and their place and position in life. I'm sure that generational differences would manifest themselves, as would experiential differences. I have a pretty good idea that the answers coming from clergy would be different from those coming from laity.

So, what is a pastor like?

I'm trying to remember my earliest memories of our preachers (we didn't use the word "pastor" in our church, which might make a difference in expectation - I'm not sure). I remember my main expectation being for Sunday morning "performance" in the pulpit. Of course, most of the time I wasn't paying much attention (instead, I was focusing on such things as escape plans were terrorists to besiege the church, counting bricks or ceiling tiles, drawing on the back of attendance cards, pranks, and personal safety wrt hymnal warefare), but by the time I was in high school, I actually paid attention. I usually paid attention when I sat near the front. But I digress. Another expectation was hospital visitation. If someone was in the hospital, they needed a pastoral visit.

As a seminary student, I received a new set of expectations. Actually two. One was the set I was taught. The other was the set that I learned from my fellow students (and some professors). I was taught to be a servant. The key Bible passage for this expecation seems to be Philippians 2:5-11, where we're told that our attitude should be the same as Jesus Christ's.
Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form. And in human form he obediently humbled himself even further by dying a criminal's death on a cross. Because of this, God raised him up to the heights of heaven and gave him a name that is above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

My seminary went so far as to entitle its core courses "The Servant as..." in an effort to remind us our focus in ministry and the servant role of the pastor. There were already quite a few bitter, cynical pastors attending seminary (along with the know-it-alls), and from them I learned that burn out is always but one moment away.

I learned a pastor's heart from some of my professors. Chris Kiesling, for example, was available to his students in a very vulnerable way - the journal I kept for his class was a two-way communication; his responses to my journal entries were as open and honest as my entries themselves. Joel Green was one of the most brilliant professors I ever met (and possibly the only person I ever met who can read (for comprehensio) as fast as my brother), and he was accessible, as well, and genuinely seemed to want his students to succeed. Ben Witherington is not only brilliant, but he has a great sense of humor and is multi-talented (and I don't mean a jack of all trades, mastor of none type. I mean, he's extremely talented in everything he does). He even lampooned himself in a video my classmates and I made for an Intermediate Greek course. Or Jerry Walls, who would actually come and play volleyball with the students and spent much of his free time hanging out with us, listening to us, debating us, and being our friend.

From them I learned that a pastor should: be available, open and honest, should care for the real well-being and success of the people under his/her care, should cultivate and use humor and talents, and should be him/herself and not elevate the position above others.

Unfortunately other professors (who I won't name here) didn't model the same kind of pastor's heart. They demonstrated that they were "holier than thou" (like the professor who openly mocked the one Calvinist student in our Basic Theology class simply because of the student's theology -- the same professor who announced that he was entirely sanctified, yet his treatment of others didn't show it). They demonstrated that they didn't have time for others (like the professor who was assigned as my advisor, but didn't show up to the advising sessions and stayed on the phone while I was supposed to have a 1-on-1 advision session with him), and they demonstrated that their agenda was more important than caring for a student (like the professor who "allowed" me to skip his class for Jeremy Parker's funeral, but when I got back, he gave me a list of extra requirements (including a 4-page paper) that needed to be in by the end of the week, or the same Basic Theology professor who told a friend that she needed to hold her seminary studies as a higher commitment than care for her dying father).

Now that I am a United Methodist Pastor, the Book of Discipline has a lot to say about what I'm supposed to be like. Our responsibilities, as outlined by ¶340, are the "four-fold ministry of Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service." This means we are supposed to:

  • Preach, lead worship, read & teach scripture, engage people in study and witness.
  • Counseling persons with personal, ethical, or spiritual struggles.
  • Bury and marry.
  • Visit in the homes of the community, especially the sick, aged, imprisoned, and those in need.
  • Maintain confidences (with the necessary exceptions)
  • Administer (and teach about) the sacraments of baptism and Communion (including preparation of parents and/or sponsors for infant baptism and to encourage those baptized in infancy or early childhood to profess their faith and become professing members of the church).
  • To encourage the private and congregational use of the other means of grace.
  • To be the administrative officer of the church.
  • To equip, support, and guide lay people for ministry.
  • To oversee the church's educational programs (encouraging use of UM media and literature - yes, it really says that).
  • Setting goals, planning, and evalutating.
  • Search out men and women for ministry.
  • Administer the provisions of the Discipline.
  • Give account of pastoral ministry to Charge Conference and Annual Conference.
  • To be in charge of congregational financial stewardship (and to "provide leadership for the funding ministry of the congregation" - seriously, I can't make this stuff up).
  • To make sure the congregation pays its full Apportionment.
  • To care for all church records.
  • To participate in denominational and conference training opportunities.
  • To seek out cooperative ministries with other UM pastors and churches.
  • To assume supervisory responsibilites within the congregation.
  • To lead toward racial and ethnic inclusiveness.
  • To embody the teachings of Jesus in servant leadership.
  • To build the church as a caring and giving community.
  • To participate in community, ecumenical and inter-religious concerns.

With all of those requirements, it's hard to see where there's room for such trivialities as family, self-care (including healthy eating and exercise), spiritual disciplines (that list doesn't leave a lot of time and space for solitude, fasting, personal Bible study, or contemplative and listening prayer, does it?), and so forth.

But what are Joe-in-the-pew's expectations of a pastor?

Preach the Word. If a sermon is good, so is the pastor. If the sermons are boring and dull, well, that's about it. "Our pastor is pretty boring," they'll say, even though in reality he or she might be a really interesting person. Note that I didn't just say "preach" but I included "the Word" as the expectation. A clever or funny or compelling activist sermon doesn't mean anything if it's not from the Word of God. Our personal preferences should be clearly labeled as such. In churches where the Word isn't being preached, Christians are leaving in droves (to say nothing of the non-Christians who aren't impressed).

Visit the sick, elderly, and hospitalized. There's a lot to be said for this. I saw a mediocre (at best) preacher endear himself to many in a congregation because of his "pastoral care." Certainly the congregation sees God's love through the pastor's care. At the same time, unless the pastor is leading in other ways, this can end up being self-serving. If this is just an attempt to cover other short-comings (like ill-preparedness in the pulpit) then it's not doing anyone any good. And too often the pastor is called to task for not visiting when, in fact, nobody informed him/her of the need.

What else is expected of a pastor? There are probably as many expectations as there are people with expectations, good, bad, or indifferent.


Anonymous said...

Where did you go to Seminary? Would you recommend it to others?

Mary Beth said...

This is a really interesting post, particularly since I'm reading it from the perspective of a pastor on leave. I found that my congregation expected me to encourage them and to care about them, to be interested in their lives, and to empower them in their ministries.

I don't know if it's been your experience or not, but it seems that in a smaller congregation with a sole pastor, the answer to the question, "What is expected of a pastor" is "Everything."