“Leadery Leaders” – Wherefore art thou pastor revisted

This past fall, I published this article on the blog as a “page” before I understood what those were for! So now I am moving it to a post.  The article is itself a revision of an earlier blog post – revised for The Morning Breaks, The Shadows Flee, edited by Russell Johnson and Kara Slade – a playful festschrift for Amy Laura Hall, presented to her on October 7, 2011.  The title “Leadery leaders” is an expression frequently used by Dr. Hall in her Ethics class.

The Pastor Dilemma:  How are United Methodist pastors to lead without becoming “leadery leaders”?

 What is a pastor?  What is a pastor for?  Who should or should not be a pastor? What should a pastor do?  When I was a seminary student, these questions were asked by the students, but almost never examined in the classroom.  For the most part, it was assumed that the answers to these questions were known – that, beyond being able to recite the definitions of the Discipline when before the board of ordained ministry, no further existential explorations along the lines of “Wherefore art thou pastor?” were required.

I imagine that things are not all that different now.  Which may in part explain one critical difference between the students now at Duke Divinity and those who were students with me ten years ago:  after generations of no explicit answers, today’s students are less and less feeling called to a position they cannot describe, explain, or (in some cases) even justify.

But I am not ready to do away with the position of pastor just yet.  What I would like to do is re-imagine it.  As one who feels called to the Order of Elder – an order in the UMC that is different from Deacon not only in the relation to the sacraments, but in being responsible for “Order”ing the church, it is about time we thought about re-ordering the Order.

As Bob Dylan sang, “It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.”  And true to the Fall-driven disorder of the world, a lack of theologically sound direction in what pastors are to be has led the pastors to find their direction elsewhere – they gotta follow somebody.  And who pastors are following are the authors of various books that purport to solve whatever leadership problem they are having – books of dubious theology, rooted in the dominant language and narratives of our national faith in such contradictory (and elusive) ideals as freedom, power, rights, and the market.  Marketing is particularly enjoying ascendancy now, as anxieties about dwindling membership have burst into full bloom.  (Let us not say “taken root,” as these fears took root some decades ago.  It is only now that they are leading to full scale dashboarding and boards of inquisition in the various conferences.)

My father used to often describe his role as “the CEO” of the congregation.  He’s not the only one.  Whether they speak these words aloud, or even recognize that they see themselves this way, many pastors behave as the chief executive or their corporation.  They take their ideas about leadership from the post-Reagan business world – which means that their purpose (and aren’t we enculturated to desire a “Purpose Driven Life?” Even those of us who sneered at the book and its readers?) is to come up with new and exciting ways to re-invigorate the brand, and so bring in new customers.  To be a CEO is to lead the company (the pyramidical, top-down, power driven company) into a future of decreased costs and increased revenues.  But this future had best be a near-future, because the analysts will be closely examining your quarterly results – that is, Charge Conference reports.

But perhaps with a new model, consciously explored and adopted, pastors would find themselves with a more God-centered life – which is to say, a less market driven life.  The model I propose is the model of the anchorite, a religious order that is most familiar to seminary students through the life of Julian of Norwich, who was herself an anchorite.

Anchorites lived a monastic life.  But rather than living that life in a monastery or in some remote location, the anchorite’s cell shared at least one wall with a church sanctuary.  The anchorite’s life was one of worship, eucharist, and prayer – of total devotion to God.  They were provided for by the congregation with which they were associated.  They were available to the members of the congregation (and other visitors) to provide counsel – counsel that was understood to arise from the time they spent in communion with God.

Now granted, anchorites did not lead worship, so that is one key difference.  But I am not suggesting that pastors become anchorites – only that they consider it as a model / metaphor for the pastor’s life.  Shall we imagine that the congregation pays the pastor to be a CEO?  To give them a next quarter better than last quarter – on the books, anyway?  Or shall we imagine that they provide for the pastor’s needs in order that she may devote her time to the service of God, and that her doing so will benefit the members of the congregation (to which you are “attached,” as the cell of an anchorite was attached to the church wall) considerably – especially insofar as they seek her out?

The words of Paul are particularly instructive here:  “Am I now seeking the favor of God?  Or am I trying to please men?  If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ.”  Indeed, pastors spend all too much time trying to please (mostly) men in positions of “power” – the men who judge one’s ministry, whether on the Cabinet, on the SPRC, or in absurd Annual Conference proposals that adopt the standard of the number of “professions of faith” as the sole measure of the worth of a pastor.  As if Satan himself cannot recite scripture when it appears expedient.  The time has come for pastors to stop fearing men, and to fear God alone – because the way of serving the whims of men (you gotta serve somebody) puts us body and soul into a living hell.

But if pastors are to fear nothing but what their lives will be if they do not serve God alone, then we must not throw these fledglings out of the nest unprotected.  If the past generation (or two or three) has feared the bishop, the SPRC chair, the sweet little couple on the front row who has threatened to withhold their offering check, then the seminaries must share some of the blame: the seminaries who neither warned nor prepared these young pastors for the reality of service in the local churches.  (Better that Duke-stone be tied around our neck and we be thrown into the sea than that we mislead these young people.) Giving the students a model of a God-centered ministry may just give them a chance to make it as pastors – a role that requires them to be (perhaps more than any other Christian) in the world, but not of it.

The Collect for the Day

When I was a student at Duke Divinity School, I had the blessing of studying worship with Dr. Karen Westerfield Tucker.  She was equal parts ecumenically minded and Methodist identified, filled with practical advice grounded in the scripture and the tradition, filling our heads (or at least our notes, when our neurons were overloaded) with resources, funny anecdotes about life as a pastor, and all sorts of important details.  It is because of her that I can sing the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, that I can walk into many Methodist sanctuaries and pinpoint their date of construction within a couple of decades, and that I found myself spending a lovely morning off feeding “leftover” blessed bread to the pigeons at Byrd Park, in utter defiance of my bird phobia.

One of the mnemonics that she taught us was a key to writing our own collects: “To, Who, Do, Through”: TO – in which we address God; WHO – in which we express an attribute of God; DO – in which we petition God; THROUGH – in which we name God in an explicitly Triune manner.  For instance:

God of Abraham and Isaac, who led your people out of slavery in Egypt, release [name] from the powerful bonds of addiction, and provide [her/him] with every aid [she/he] requires to step forward with confidence into the wilderness through which [she/he] will reach the promised land.  Through your Son Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit is worshipped and glorified.  Amen.

One of my many wonderful experiences as a local church pastor didn’t take place in the local church at all, but on the District level:  the erstwhile Portsmouth District began offering (roughly) quarterly Lay Academies, in which lay people (that is, not paid pastor people) could come and spend a Saturday morning becoming more immersed in one of four topics of interest to them.  I was asked to teach a class on the topic of prayer at one of these events.  Not too broad, right?  All about prayer in two and a half hours!

I wanted to be sure to talk some about private prayer and aids to prayer, about using our bodies in prayer, and about praying together in groups.  But I had been informed by the organizer that the reason he was wanting to offer the class was because so many lay people feel intimidated by the prospect of praying in public.  Which I easily identify with, because I myself had not been so comfortable with it before entering seminary, and I was a pastor’s daughter!  And so I decided to teach the group about how to write collects.  After running the ten or so students in my seminar through TO, WHO, DO, THROUGH, I gave them all a piece of paper with that heading on it (to remind them), and set them loose with a stack of church news magazines and recent issues of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot (our regional newspaper.)  Their assignment was to find an article that moved them to prayer, and to write a collect based on that news article.  Then we each shared our collects with one another – which is to say, we took turns praying before the group – leading the group in prayer.

I took both the local (weekly) and regional (daily) papers when I was in the parish, and saw reading them and praying over them as part of my job as pastor.  I tried a subscription to the Durham paper after moving here, but found that enjoying raising a child led to a stack of untouched tree corpses.  Which, having lived downwind from a paper mill, is not an abstract image for me.  So instead, these days, I buy papers one at a time only on those days when I know I have the time to read.

Somehow, not having that daily inoculation has given me a real newspaper sensitivity. Picking up the paper today to read over breakfast, celebrating my little one’s return to school, I found myself needing to pause to plead with God many times before I made it even to page A7.  Iowa Caucuses, the Keystone XL pipeline, unemployment, budget cuts in the public schools, ongoing killing of peaceful protestors in Syria, the routine acceptance of civilian casualties in war.  Arson, murder, PTSD as a result of military service, divorce and restraining orders…  I folded the paper and put my head in my hands.  It was too much, too much, too much.  As I say to my daughter when she is dithering, “Focus, Crocus!”  But when I am feeling bombarded with the unlovely and surrounded by the unloved, how can this one person choose where to put her focus?

To? Lamb of God  Who? Takes away the sins of the world   Do? Have mercy upon us  Through? In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Where I am from

Got the idea for this from Brian Madison, who got it in turn from George Ella Lyon –

Taste and See

I am from popcorn popped in Wesson oil and smothered in salt on a Sunday night,
From Wonderful World of Disney and the Mini Page.

I am from a series of homes not my own with furniture not my own,
Made home only by the people within and the pictures on the wall,
and by just caught fish dredged in cornmeal and deep-fried
on so many summer nights that the kitchen curtains
took on a perpetually greasy smell.

I am from the white clover and the yellow dandelion and the red raspberry:
a thicket full of thorns and flowers and profuse green leaves, with fruit enough
for the rabbits and the birds and three small children to eat their fill of,
and still enough left over to fill jar after jar of seed studded jam.

I’m from the Easter family softball game and a dogged insistence on fair play:
From Winburn and Mason and Charlie and Ed.

I’m from rooting for the underdog
And tense rivalries.

From “Let your little brother win” and
“You could have killed your little sister!”

I’m from the parsonage and the pew and the taste of grape juice
Made holy by my father’s reassurance, “poured out for you and for many…”

I’m from just outside the Beltway and the banks of the James,
From venison and oyster stew, and squash boiled with onions and then mashed;

From the spicy sweet smell of my Father’s head, that lingered on his pillow,
The showtunes Mom sang as she stirred bargain ground beef in Ragu.

From the countless carousels of slides, pulled out and shown
With a hum and a click-clack, but only after wrestling the screen from its mustard-yellow metal tube.

I am from a bottomless cup of coffee at a pharmacy lunchcounter,
I am limeades and calamari and fried chicken livers;
I am the smell of dead pine needles in the hot summer sun,
Sitting on a wood deck by the Rappahanock and cracking crabs.
I am from learning to lose graciously in the pool halls of Austin, Texas,
and from learning that love doesn’t have to destroy me, almost too late.
I am from Brian and Hannah and a baby whose name I do not know yet, but whom I will love just as fiercely.
I am from the halls of Duke Divinity, from the distant sound of hymns being sung and the warmth of a hand in mine as we pray together.  I am from discovering that I am not the firstborn, but that Christ is, and he has forever redefined for me who is my blood-kin.