I have been reading Will Willimon lately, not his books, but his blog. I am the product of the tech generation I guess. This recent post struck me.
It is definitely worth a read, but here is a quote:
Four decades later as bishop I saw too many of my fellow clergy allow congregational-caregiving and maintenance to trump other more important acts of ministry like truth-telling and mission leadership. Lacking the theological resources to resist the relentless cloying of self-centered congregations, these tired pastors breathlessly dashed about offering their parishioners undisciplined compassion rather than sharp biblical truth.
North American parishes are in a bad neighborhood for care-giving. Most of our people (at least those we are willing to include in mainline churches) solve biblically legitimate need (food, clothing, housing) with their check books. Now, in the little free time they have for religion, they seek a purpose-driven life, deeper spirituality, reason to get out of bed in the morning, or inner well-being – matters of unconcern to Jesus. In this narcissistic environment, the gospel is presented as a technique, a vaguely spiritual response to free-floating, ill-defined omnivorous human desire.
Willimon is writing in an American context and my sense is that we are farther a long this process up here in Canada. We were living this 20 years ago and now the need for change and the need for purpose is much clearer to most bishops, pastors and congregations… I think… I really hope it is.
4 years ago this week, I walked across the convocation stage at seminary and completed my degree. So now I am at the point of roughly equal seminary experience to parish experience. In four years, I have served 3 congregations. One smaller rural family church, one large multi staff corporate church and now a medium pastoral/program size parish. All three have had different strengths, different challenges, different experiences. But I keep coming across evidence of this “caring for me and my family” system. I read it in policies and minutes, I hear stories from parishioners and see it in the attitudes of and systems put in place by predecessors. Our church has been running on the Pastor-as-caregiver model for a while now. Heaven forbid the pastor may want to help congregations grow as disciples, that would be infringing on their individualism. I cannot say whether this situation came about at the demand of parishioners or it was a way of being church imposed by leadership, clergy in particular. But it is not working anymore.
And in 4 years of running into the evidence, it is becoming frustrating. What are we, if we are not a community that is proclaiming gospel in word and action (specifically word and sacrament)? What are we if we are not boldly announcing God’s work in the world and among us? What are if we are not at one time admitting our place in the in-ward turned selfishness of the human condition while declaring that God is redeeming and transforming all of that into a new creation? A big group therapy club and community service club.
Well… that is not what I signed up for. I am a Lutheran Pastor and I don’t care. That is to say, I am not here to care my people into heaven, and I am certainly not here to reduce to the Gospel to therapy or moralisms. On the days when I get it right, I hope that I am telling people about Jesus, and witnessing to the people and things that God cares about.
And by the grace of God, for 4 years, the people I have served have been patient enough to come along with me. Most of the time.