“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.

This week’s soundtrack

So I’m in the midst of preparing a lecture for Thursday, for Dr. Amy Laura Hall’s Intro to Christian Ethics class.  I’ll be drawing together themes from the books Home and Jesus Land. (Pray for me, folks.  Seriously.)

This is my internal soundtrack for the lecture so far – songs in no particular order – if anyone has other suggestions about songs that would prove to be helpful companions while thinking through these books, let me know.

 

Tori Amos “These Precious Things” and “Crucify”

Tracy Chapman “Change”

Billie Holliday “Strange Fruit”

The Impressions “People Get Ready”

Dar Williams “Mercy of the Fallen” and “Iowa”

Indigo Girls “Galileo”

M. Ward “To Save Me”

Counting Crows “Round Here”

Cake “Sheep Go to Heaven”

Fleetwood Mac “Landslide”

 

By their fruits you shall know them

When I was a seminary student, Dr. David Steinmetz shed light on the practice of executing heretics. If you really believe in hell, he said, and if you believe that people who believe incorrectly will go there, then if someone is leading people astray, then aren’t you justified in ending that person’s earthly life, in order to save countless people’s eternal lives? If the wages of sin are (eternal) death, then the stakes are high, and the use of battle language in a more than metaphorical way is justified.

This perspective unsettled a number of my peers. They believed in hell, and yet were convinced that Lutherans executing Mennonites, or Presbyterians executing Quakers, etc etc, was unconscionable. Were there certain doctrines that they were not taking seriously enough? Maybe there were certain doctrines that were once taken too seriously. But how far could you take it? If a very convincing atheist were turning erstwhile Christians against the church and God, would they kill them? No, not even the atheist, even though they felt such beliefs led straight to hell. But Steinmetz had them wondering, at least for a few days, if they weren’t perhaps being inconsistent. A straight line could be drawn between certain beliefs – beliefs my classmates held – and certain actions – actions they were sure were not “What Jesus Would Do.”

Dr. J. Kameron Carter has argued persuasively that we ought to be suspicious of a theology that allows – or perhaps even requires, if practiced consistently – actions that are clearly repugnant and counter to the message of the Gospel. His particular concern is racism/slavery/genocide as practiced by devout individuals with the blessing of the church, beginning in the late middle ages, but he can find plenty of other examples of problematic theology being revealed in problematic practice. If pressed to encapsulate his theological project in a single verse of scripture, I would make the case for Matthew 7:16 – “You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” (Full passage here, with parallels here and here.)

I thought about Dr. Carter a lot as I read the second half of Jesus Land. (See my review of Part One of that book here.)  Escuela Caribe is a sufficient critique of a certain brand of evangelicalism. It cannot be written off as the nightmare of a single crazy individual, as they seemed to have no problem finding “Christian” staff to keep the place going. The abuse and dehumanization was seemingly endless. The staff did all they could to “break down” the miscreant students, and to discourage community. Instead, they cultivated an atmosphere of dishonesty and mistrust — a competitive, rather than cooperative system. They justified all of this because they were, in their minds, saving the souls of the teenagers who were sent to them. But instead, they were turning them from Christ, and damaging their ability to form healthy relationships with other people.

Julia Scheeres was not in the business of writing a theological critique of her time at this school in the Dominican Republic. However, I found myself asking, What was wrong with the theology of those who founded and ran the school that allowed them to treat these teenagers so abysmally? Was it their emphasis on individual salvation – on Christianity as an individual decision for Christ rather than a community practice? Or was it a failure in their understanding of love – that loving entails knowing another, understanding another – and that means first listening to and attending to the other? Did they view forgiveness as conditional on our repentance, as opposed to something that is freely available to all? Perhaps all of these things and more.

Scheeres writes in the epilogue of a return visit she made to the school:
“‘What’s the most important lesson you learned at Escuela Caribe?’ one of [the staff] asked me with a smug smile.
“‘Not to trust people,’ I answered without hesitation.”

What’s the most important lesson that others will learn from us?

While there are many who bemoan that Christians are still so divided (and I have been known to be among them), the seemingly small details that divide us are not always indifferent matters. There are some beliefs that make all the difference in the fruit that we bear – the witness that we bear in the world.