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Why Can’t Pastors Agree on What a Pastor is?

What DOES a pastor do anyways?

Ask 10 pastors what a pastor is, and you will get ten different definitions. Read 10 different blog articles on what a pastors is and should be doing, and you will get ten different opinions. The job title and ecclesiological office of pastor is one that encompasses a variety of definitions, often confusing and contradictory ones.

This vagueness around the job description and theological concept of being a pastor is one of the most frustrating parts of my vocation. The debate lately seems to be between the pastor as CEO vs. pastor as Shepherd. Just check out the titles of some relatively recent blog posts:

Why you should be thankful if your pastor behaves like a CEO by Carey Nieuwhof
CEO-style pastorates all the rage but offer little to those seeking deeper faith by Jim Brumley
Quit Telling Pastors We Have to Stop Pastoring to Have a Successful Church: Great churches don’t need spiritual enablers or high-achieving CEOs. by Karl Vaters

The current debate raging online, and probably in churches and among colleagues, about what a pastor is and does is nothing new. It is simply a symptom of the church facing the changing world and some dim sense that part of facing that change means pastors and churches updating their understandings of each.

Even in my short millennial life-time, I have seen pastors of different generations try to live up to different and changing ideas of what it means to be a pastor.

A different time, a different pastor

In my first congregation, a small farming community where the church had been the central focus for nearly a century, pastors were understood to be something akin to the “community professional.” In the early part of the 20th century, pastors were often called upon not only to shepherd the flock, but also provided medical knowledge, taught school children, provided legal and mediation services among other things.

In my Grandfather’s generation in the 40s and 50s, pastors were public moral paragons. They were (supposed to be) living examples of moral living who were required to lead the faithful in their own moral living and a disciplined faith full of regular devotion and study. Pastors were expected to be public moral authorities whose credibility was rooted in their character and leadership position. They were called upon to serve on public boards, public offices and positions and were often in the public eye.

And then in the 60s and 70s, Clinical Pastoral Education and a trend towards psychology and therapy transformed again the role of the pastor. No longer was the pastor a voice for morality and divine authority, but now a counsellor, therapist even. Someone to hear your troubles (sometimes on God’s behalf) and direct you to the help you need. And pastors started using as much the language of psychology as theology.

And then 80s and 90s, when, despite the early signs of decline, the trend was for established and growing congregations to program their ministry. This meant large facilities and increased staff positions. Pastors became middle managers, overseeing growing churches that had become corporatized. Business language become the vernacular at board meetings and for church leadership.

And then in the 2000s, pastors were called upon to become entrepreneurial CEOs, revitalizing the unwieldy and declining organizations that had been started by the community professionals and moral paragons, grown by the pastoral care providers, and managed into decline by the middle managers. Pastors were and are expected to be the source of mission and vision renewal for churches longing for a return to the glory days. The glory days of course depend on which of the previous eras felt the most glorious for a given person. And the new glory days also include incorporating all the new technology of a changing digital and online world.

These are, of course, not the only dominant forms of pastor that have risen up recently. There are several of other images and ideas about what the primary role of a pastor is:

There is the social justice warrior, who leads their faith community in striking out to address all the evils of the world. This pastor strives to lead people in activism and to organize communities of resistance beyond congregations who will fight for justice among all the injustices that exist in the world.

And there is the cruise director / country club pro who is the omni-present social glue that holds the many activities and programs and fellowship events that a congregation plans. The pastor will likely make an appearance at everything: every meeting, every breakfast, every golf or curling fundraiser. The pastor is more mascot than spiritual leader.

And there is the coach and cheerleader. The person encouraging the laity in their calling by passing off the bulk of the responsibilities of the pastoral office. A pastor’s job is to put themselves out of a job is mantra of this style.

So which of these is the right style or idea of the core of pastoral ministry is? Should pastors need to choose?

Jack-of-all-trades pastoring?

Picking one version of pastoral ministry over another actually misses the point. Of course all of the responsibilities are, at times, part of what a pastor does. Sometimes you will be the community expert, other times you will inspire your people to faithfulness, sometimes you be called upon to provide counsel and care for people in need, other times you will be the one checking the boiler and booking rentals, sometimes you will be hiring and firing people. And of course in the midst of all these things there is preaching and leading worship / the liturgy, studying and teaching the bible, prayer and helping people grow in faith.

But none of these shifting ideas about what it means to be a pastor are core to pastoral ministry as it has been understood for most of the church’s history. Pastors or priests have always been tasked with preaching the word, administering the sacraments and tending to God’s people. And throughout the millennia, this has put various responsibilities on the shoulders of pastors, managing and tending to groups of people wherever they are is complicated.

Yet, whatever trend or style of ministry is current, and even whatever denomination or part of the world  a pastor serves in… the essential of what is a pastor is the same.

Pastors bring the Church to the church.

Whether it is the through high church smells and bells liturgy or someone standing alone on a staff with just a bible in their hands, whether it is providing expertise, modelling faithfulness, caring for those in distress, managing complicated communities, or revitalizing declining churches pastors are the connection through which a particular faith community (a church) encounters the faithful of all times and places (The Church).

The Office of Ministry is how The Church enters into the life a church or congregation. In all those things that the debates suggest that pastors should be spending their time on, the underlying purpose of doing any of those things is to help local and particular communities be connected to the body of Christ. To help local congregations participate in the mission of the whole Church, to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. And we don’t do this in vacuums, rather we serve this mission in consort with all the congregations and communities doing the same around us and around the world.

When pastors, or lay people, or the church as a whole debates what a pastor is or does, the reality is that in some sense there is still agreement. The different ideas or styles still fit within the scope of a pastor.  And yet, all the debates fail to return and remind us of the core.

Pastors bring the Church to the church.


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What President Trump could mean for Mainline Christianity

Since that fateful early morning announcement on 11/9 that Donald Trump had been elected president, I have felt like we have been living in the opening scenes of one of those movies. You know, the ones where oblivious and unassuming people are living in a world that is about to be completely changed for the worse, but no one believes it. You know, a disaster movie.

And in the days since the election, news continues flooding out with so many scandals relating to the Trump transition (he isn’t even in office yet) it is hard to know what to focus on, from Trump’s White Supremacist Chief Strategist, to an unhinged National Security Advisor, to global uncertainty, to Obama having to deal with a flood of concerned world leaders, to Trump’s ties to Russian interference in the election, to Trump’s insane list of conflicts of interests, to Trump’s inexcusable treatment of the press, to even suggestions of vote rigging (he did say it was rigged!). And let’s not forget his pre-election scandals like the misogynist Trump Tapes and Trump University law suits.

It is surreal to say the least.

With this hurricane of insanity around us, I keep coming back to the question of what this means for the church, specifically for mainline Christianity. For the portion of Evangelicals that elected trump, I actually think this was the final step in turning White Evangelicalism into a nationalist political movement. While many evangelicals may still be believers, Evangelicalism can no longer claim to follow the Triune God of the Bible.

American Evangelicalism is no longer Christian by any meaningful measure. 

But for mainline Churches, whose American members may or may not have voted for Trump, but whose leadership did not lineup behind him for a chance at power, Donald Trump may transform us in ways we would never have imagined.

If the Trump administration’s transition to power continues down this rocky and convention defying path, taking the next government deeper into racist behaviour and policy, isolationist attitudes, questionable ethics and attempted censorship complete with Orwellian double speak, we can only imagine what the world will look like after January 20th.

People are already afraid as the incidence of race related attacked and violence increases. Protests have been going on since the election and people are talking about how to survive the new regime. Many political and public leaders are advocating a wait and see approach, but many others simply don’t want to make the same mistake that the appeasement period before World War Two did and are already speaking out.

And so as Churches and communities of faith, where does this leave us?

To imagine how this new world might collide with the church consider this example I have been using for a while now:

Imagine going back to a church in 50s or 60s. If you told the average person in the pew that in 50 years many churches would be shells of their former selves with aging and declining membership, you would be laughed at. Churches were full of young families and programs. Families had 4.2 kids and church attendance was socially required.

But why were they full? Because people were better Christians back then?

Or was it that the world had just come through two world wars and the Great Depression? Was it that society had collectively stood at the brink and glimpsed our collective demise for 5 years straight before the first good news for the allies on D Day? 

Church was a place where hope was found, where grief, anxiety, struggle, pain and fear could be handed over to something bigger than ourselves. Churches proclaimed that there was something more powerful than huge armies marching over nation after nation, than governments who were sending millions of husbands and sons to war, than the threat of oppression and even extinction. 

Churches didn’t have to do anything special other than be communities that proclaimed the Good News as they had been for nearly 2000 years. They were naturally what so many people needed in that world.

Now imagine telling anyone who has regularly been in a pew for the past 15 years that it is possible that our currently declining and aging church may be full and bustling again in a few decades. They will laugh at you.

Well, maybe they would have laughed before November 8th.

But now all the things we thought were important in reversing decline like flashy worship, entertaining sermons, lattes for sale in the lobby, Nickelodeon night for the youth and all the other things we think will “attract” people mean nothing now. 

Churches, especially mainline ones, will need to focus again on the core things that we have always been: 

We will need to be communities of refuge because people will have fewer and fewer safe spaces.

We will need to be communities of resistance in a world that is demanding division, conflict and violence.

We will need to be communities of hope because we cannot just go back to sleep and pretend the government will have our backs while we spend our time mindlessly consuming stuff and entertainment.

We will need to be proclaimers of the gospel.

Of course, God has always called us to be all these things. But lately we have been delinquent in that call because we couldn’t see all that which we needed saving from. The world told us that our only problem was not having enough.

But now the threats and dangers, both external and internal will be obvious. We will now see what it is that we need saving from more clarity.

And we will see how God is using us to proclaim that salvation with more clarity.

And this new world will make what the church has always done subversive to the established order. Just by being the church we will declare that bigotry, hatred and self interest are not virtuous.

Just by doing what we have always done we will be seen as contrarians who believe that forgiveness of sins, life and salvation are given to us freely by God. Things that didn’t seem to mean much when the world’s biggest problem was not having enough stuff. But now are things that will mean everything to people suffering under a kleptocratic regime.

Just by being people of Word and Sacrament, we will birth a reality completely different than the one dictated by power.

A reality grounded in Christ and rooted in defiant hope. 

For a while now, many churches, church leaders and Christians have been wringing our hands over decline, wondering what it might take to get people back. And we foolishly thought it would be trendy programs and music selection.

Now, we are discovering what may actually drive a resurgence in mainline Christianity and what will be truly important for the church to be about.

Are we ready for the kind of world that will finally give us what we have been longing for?

I am choosing religion for my children – they don’t get a say yet

Whether or not to raise your children with religion is a pretty controversial topic. Just google “choosing religion for your children” and you will find a host of articles explaining why choosing religion for children is a bad idea.

In spite of the prevailing opinion out there, I am going to make a bold claim:

The idea that you can defer choosing a religion for your children until they are old enough to choose for themselves is wrong.

As parents we are choosing for our children either way, whether we choose religion or not, we are making the choice for them. We are not putting off that choice, we are choosing something or we are choosing nothing for them. It is like saying I am not going to choose literacy for my children, they can decide to be readers on their own when they are older, if they want to. You aren’t delaying the choice, you are depriving them of a real opportunity to read.

And while, I get that every family and every child is unique, and that applying a universal rule is impossible… I am convinced that choosing religion for your children can be and is a very good thing.

Strangers in a Foreign Land

I do a lot of baptisms for families with babies or young children. And most of the baptisms I do are for families who have only the most nominal or tenuous connection to the church. Grandma has said that the new baby in the family needs to be baptized to protect him or her from hell.

And what usually results is that some sheepish and tentative new mother or father phones or emails the church, wondering about baptism for their new beloved child.

“I was baptized and confirmed at this church,” they say. “We are thinking of coming back.”

(I don’t know about you, but the idea of introducing a significant lifestyle change, like regular church attendance, shortly after having a baby is crazy-talk in my books).

So I set up a meeting to talk about what baptism means and we plan to have the baptism on a Sunday morning. I try to go into good depth about the meanings and symbols of baptism; and about what the church believes that it means and what we believe that God is doing in baptism. But no amount of casual, yet informative, conversation can prepare a family for standing in front of a congregation of regular church attenders with this weird guy in a dress praying prayers, asking questions and pouring water on the baby’s head.

I almost always feel bad for families that come for baptism, and the obvious awkward self-conciousness that they are experiencing while standing in front of a group of mostly strangers.

It takes years to live into and feel comfortable with the liturgy and ritual of the church. So for those for whom church is not really a part of their daily lives, parachuting in for a baptism can be a strange and alien experience. I imagine it to be something like if I were to be parachuted in as a contestant in a Miss Universe pageant. I only know the vaguest things about the pageant world from the movie Miss Congeniality… it is an understatement to say it would be super awkward!

I don’t question the motivations of those who come for baptism and I will baptize anyone who asks, but I do wonder why people subject themselves to a ritual and experience they have no connection to and little desire to pursue in any meaningful way.

Choosing Religion vs. Choosing Faith

My parents chose religion for me. Sunday morning worship was a weekly event, in addition to playing music, youth group, confirmation, bible studies, fellowship events throughout the week. Church was a big part of the life of our family, and it was clear that as children we didn’t have a choice about participating.

Sure there were some annoying parts, like missing all the medal games of weekend sports tournaments because they would be scheduled during Sunday morning worship. Or knowing that Saturday night was essentially like a school night because I had somewhere to be in the morning.

But looking back, there was nothing else in my world that gave me the experiences that church did. There was no other intergenerational community full of adults (not related to me) who knew my name, asked about my life, and just cared about me. There was no other place where the deep questions of meaning – life and death – could be talked about without hushed, anxious voices. There was no other place where I was exposed to the rituals, symbols, metaphors, music and history that comprise so much of our western world.

As I grew up going to church, what became clear to me is the more religion I was exposed to, the less my parents were making the choice for me. Faith was my choice and my experience at church allowed me to be informed about what I was getting into.

  • A caveat: I am aware that not every church or faith community is a safe and healthy place. In fact many are centred around fear, judgement and shame. Many do not encourage questions and conversation, nor are places that allow members to search for deeper meaning. Sometimes churches can be places of abuse. These churches are not religious experiences that I would advocate for, and I am sorry for those for whom this is their experience of religion.

Liturgy and ritual in our DNA

Recently, our 3-month-old daughter was baptized. Standing on the other side of the font, so to speak, as a parent rather than the pastor, I was struck by the experience. I have presided at more baptisms than I can remember, but only been a parent for two.

fullsizeoutput_434eWhile the Bishop (presiding at the baptism), godparents, my wife and I stood around the font, our two-year-old son stepped up and placed his water cup and container of goldfish on the font. He must have thought it was a natural spot to stash his stuff. And then he proceeded to do laps around the font as the Bishop led us through the liturgy for baptism. None of us were worried or anxious, all 5 of the adults standing there were seminary trained (who else do pastors ask to be godparents but friends from seminary!). We even laughed when our son started dipping his hands in the font in order to bring some water to his own head (re-baptizing himself?).

I was struck at how comfortable my son was in the moment. He wasn’t in a strange place. The font and altar rail and nearby pews were not foreign pieces of furniture. Being in worship with us and in front of the congregation was not unusual.

My son was at home.

I wasn’t just struck by his comfort, I was moved by it. I could see that even at the age of 2, he was beginning to be shaped and formed by the experience of worship, by the experience of religion and community. Liturgy and ritual is being imprinted on his DNA, his daily life is connected to the practice of re-telling the story of Jesus.

When it comes time for him to chose faith for himself, I know that he will know intimately what he is choosing. He will know what practicing religion feels like, he will know what it means to be a loved member of a community. He will have a sense of what it might feel like and be like to practice other religions.

My wife and I are choosing religion for our children, because we are choosing to give them an experience that will allow them to choose faith later on in life. We are choosing religion, because there are few, if any, other places in our lives where we can be a part of diverse, intergenerational communities that help us make sense of and bring meaning to our lives. And choosing “not to choose religion” for our children, would actually be almost certainly be choosing “nothing” for them.


Are you choosing religion for your kids? If so, why? If not, why not?Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik