Lastly, a vital part of our work together will be the role that I, as spiritual leader, will play in this journey. I believe that I must be an authentic and integral part in this work while avoiding the stigma that often accompanies the role of the pastor of the institution. I believe that my past ministry experience has been used by God to assist me in this endeavor.
At my first call, I had a fifty-four year-old carpenter who kept the church at arm’s length for his entire adult life even though his wife, in-laws and teens were very faithful and active in the congregation. Six months after my arrival I offered a class for new members and he showed up at the very first session. At the end of the process, I baptized him.
What changed? Why after all these years had he decided to be baptized and join the church? I just could not leave this alone since it was such a shocking event for the whole church, not just for his family; so I asked and he answered. His answer came in the way of a story about the first time we met. He was doing some carpentry work for the church and needed access to another section of the building so he stopped in the office to get a key. Our conversation was friendly enough as we stood in the front office and chatted for a couple of minutes; and then he went off to do his carpentry and I to my office. Even though I saw this conversation as nothing profoundly Christian and nothing more than casual small talk, he told me that our meeting completely resonated with him. He pointed out to me what I was wearing that day: a hooded Carhartt jacket, jeans, and sneakers. He told me that for the first time in his life, he saw a pastor as a “real human being.”
What I had tapped into with my experience with the carpenter was something different from what we were taught in seminary about the role of a pastor in a church setting. I remember sitting in a class on pastoral ethics and practices and hearing that we should never go to the office dressed in anything less than business casual. We were always to be spot on with our table manners, and always be on guard with what we are doing because people were watching how we behaved, and if we did not behave like a “pastor” we could do damage to our ability to lead. We were to be approachable, yet always undergirding this was an understanding that we were somehow different from these people. Yet what the carpenter told me was that I had entered his world in a setting he could understand; he saw me as a real person.
Some of what I am saying or remembering from seminary training is exaggeration, but I have no doubt that the model we were taught points more to the identity of the 1950s post-WWII church whose background included the rise of corporate image and practices that may not necessarily coincided with those of 21st Century America. Regardless, what I clearly heard from the carpenter, and many times since, is how I was different than any other pastors the people have experienced; “I was real” declared my first church organist, and that I actually “believe what I preach.” I have no doubt that most of my predecessors were excellent, hard-working, and effective pastors to the congregations they served. However, what I have discovered is that people want to see their pastor as one of them, and when that happens they seem to connect.
Another aspect of who I am as a pastor comes from my pre-ministry life. As a second career pastor, I lived a completely different life before entering the seminary, and that has had a profound effect on me as a minister.
Fifteen (now nineteen) years ago, I was an active Christian working in the corporate world, raising a family and sitting in the pew on Sunday morning. I have found that because I have worked in that world and yet still developed as a Christian, I am far more accessible to people than if I had been in ministry my entire career.
In addition, the dozen or so years in the corporate world coincided with the evolution from the suit-and-tie era to business casual and beyond. My last job prior to seminary was for a company where everyone, including upper management, wore a uniform. These shifts created a corporate environment that was less formal, and management became more accessible.
Turning once again to Flory & Miller, they found this is a characteristic that is very important for a pastor to possess as they minister to post-Boomers. They adopted the term “organic theologian.” Since post-Boomer congregants are seeking a more earthy or organic spiritual experience it makes sense that they would need a more organic and earthy leader.
…the organic theologian is one who, unlike the stuffy and authority–laden academic theologian (which McGrath suggests has completely lost touch with Christian practice in the daily life of the church), understands the importance and role of popular culture in shaping the ideas and the communication of values. Thus the organic theologian is “an activist, a popularizer – someone who sees his task as supportive and systematic within the community of faith, and as evangelistic and apologetic outside the community.” [Flory and Miller, p. 190]
Without knowing it or even understanding it at the time, I had stumbled into being an organic theologian. I wish I could take credit for it, but in the end it was God who placed me in the office wearing a Carhartt hooded jacket and conversing with a carpenter that day. This has powerfully influenced me throughout my ministry as I have been intentional about entering and relating to the circumstance in which I am serving.
…“crossing over” doesn’t just happen. We have to make a deliberate choice. We have to be intentional in resisting the forces that create gaps between ourselves and those we have been called to lead.[Bill Robinson, Incarnate Leadership: 5 Leadership Lessons from the Life of Jesus. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: 2009) 25.]
Everywhere I have served, I have tried to understand the DNA of each church and have been deliberate in bridging the gaps. In Farmington, Illinois, I had full-time farmers, blue collar employees of a major construction equipment manufacturer, and a spattering of white collar professionals. In West Newton, Pennsylvania were people who lived in an economy that never recovered from the mass closures of steel mills and coal mines of 1970s. In Sparta, New Jersey, many are from the upper middle class who are professionals who work closer to, or in, New York City. In each place, I have always tried to understand their background and sought aspects of my own life that could help me relate to the people I serve.
If I had no background in my own life experience that was related, I would try to understand what life-issue the people were dealing with by inserting myself. One example of bridging the gap happened early in my career. I grew up a suburban kid in southern New England, so I had no understanding of farming. I asked one of the farmers in Farmington to let me experience a growing season with him and his family. I went from tilling/planting all the way through to harvest, and I now know more about corn and soybeans than I ever thought possible. I also have developed a special love and appreciation for family farming.
Again, I am no intuitive genius; I simply stumbled upon a formula that I believe is an essential part of pastoral ministry; Context.
Every pastor’s ministry is set in the context of a real place – a place defined by geography and history. It is in a context that gives birth to real stories, about real people, set in real places. If we chose to remain ignorant of the stories that have shaped the character of this place, we do so to our detriment. Part of being a pastor is plugging into and becoming part of the story that was in progress long before we ever appeared on the scene.[David Rohrer, The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry; Preparing a People for the Presence of the Lord (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2012) 87.]
But we also must never forget that “…we come into places with a bigger story to tell, and if we forget this calling to proclaim the bigger story, we will fail in the prophetic dimensions of our work.[Rohrer, p.87]
(This is a picture of my wife (Jenise), her friend (Bev) and me in a church production of Bow the Knee. I played Pontius Pilate in the bigger story. Don’t I look approachable????)
George Hunter looks to the church’s movement into Celtic Ireland by Saint Patrick as a model that we, in the modern western church, need to pay attention to as we go forward. He absolutely speaks to the essentialness of appreciating the context of our ministry when he says; “Patrick understood the people and their language, their issues, and their ways…” and that this “serves as the most strategically significant single insight that was to drive the wider expansion of Celtic Christianity, and stands perhaps as the greatest single learning from this movement.”[Hunter, p19, 20] I do not think Hunter can be any clearer.
My wife and I are members of GenX, albeit on the older side of the demographic, but I believe that our participation in the covenant group will be crucial for the other post-Boomers.
Another aspect of understanding their background that will be applied to this work is that I will seek opportunities to meet with the participants as they go about their daily lives. If someone works in the public sector, I will try to meet with them in that background to share a meal and let them share with me the environment in which they spend most of their time. If one of them is a stay-at-home mom/dad, I will try to meet with them and their children at a story-time at the library or at a play group and share a meal as well. None of this will be done for “religious” purposes, but rather to allow for me to enter into their environment and know them better. I want to learn their language, issues, and ways thus allowing them to enter into my life as well.
I am hoping this work will make the Living Christ incarnational and relevant in their lives. I am also hoping that it will continue to inform me in my sacred call as a spiritual leader while helping them to see where God is at work in their lives. As Ray Anderson puts it; “Effective leadership means reading the signs of God’s promise in the context of present events and translating these signs into goals; this is “preparing the way of the Lord.”[Ray S. Anderson, The Soul of Ministry: Forming Leaders for God’s People. (Louisville, Kentucky, 1997) 199. ]
Finally, I am hoping that the focus on this particular group of individuals will foster something larger within the entire congregation. In other words, this organic focus will reach far more than a dozen people but rather their expressive communalism will move outward among their peers and even to other generations represented at FPC.
Pliny the Younger once referred to the Christian “superstition” as a plague.[“What to do with the Christians? 112 AD” EyeWitness to History, (2008). http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/christianproblem.htm.] This has always intrigued me as I think of plagues as infections that spread throughout a population. To refer to followers of Christ in this way means that we, too, are to be like an infection. As statedearlier, my hope is that this work leads post-Boomer couples to a keener awareness of Jesus Christ at work in their lives, the church, and the world, which in turn leads them to a passionate response to engage in ministry with Christ in the world.
So what will this ministry with Christ look like? It will be organic and earthy, and will come as naturally as breathing in and breathing out. No longer will compartmentalization of our faith into a little quadrant on Sunday morning or the occasional good act in the name of the church be the norm. The hope is to bridge the gap between “church on Sunday and work on Monday.” Rather, it is my hope that a living, breathing ministry of presence will develop in their midst, and it is upon this that the church will grow.
We are not entering this work for the sake of some organization or for some personal warm and fuzzy that we made a difference. The motivation for our work together is to do it with The Lamb that was slain and model our relationship with him so that our children and our children’s children may experience him in all his glory and join that joyful chorus of hope. For God’s transcendence and immanence along with his “solidarity with the suffering as demonstrated on the cross offers the promise of a future hope that makes possible transformative hope in the present.”[Julie Clawson. “Imagination, Hope, and Reconciliation in Ricoeur and Moltmann.” Anglican Theological Review 95, no. 2 (Spring 2003) 294ff]
If those of the post-Boomer generations can see that Christ shares in their struggles in life and faith, his transformative hope in the present will allow them to hear the Triune God of Grace announce new things that we have not known (Isaiah 48:6), thus encouraging participation with him in the Kingdom now.