Monday, July 7, 2008

Pastor and Congregation: A Journey

Whenever there is a change of a leader in whatever position, in an office, teacher, a public office or pastor, it takes a bit of time to understand the new person’s style of leadership. When it is the pastor/priest of a congregation it takes a while longer.

No one likes change. That is a given, but when a congregation calls a new pastor it makes a pledge to work with someone in the process of trying to be the kind of Christian community that the larger community can see and recognize Christ’s presence among them. The pastor also pledges to be that person who will lead the congregation to encounter God. That is a tremendous pilgrimage indeed.

I have found that there are some differences between being a Lutheran pastor and being and Episcopal rector. In the Episcopal Church, the rector is an elected or called leader but is also one who is an agent of the bishop in parish. In the Lutheran tradition, the pastor is called to be completely the agent of the congregation. He or she becomes the “parson”—the old English word for Person—who connects the congregation with the heritage of the larger Church and the traditions of the apostolic faith.

When I speak of an apostolic faith or a catholic faith I am speaking of a traditional Trinitarian understanding of God that has been passed on through the history of Christianity. It is a faith that has evolved and grown over the past 2000 years and continues to be shared by millions throughout the world. And while each denomination of Christianity has its own characteristics, there is a commonality to the faith expressed by mainline Protestant (and in some cases even Roman Catholic) understandings of the church’s relationship with God. It is this commonality that is expressed in the various “pastoral understandings” that allow clergy of differing denominations to serve in other churches.

In the era before wide-spread literacy, the pastor was often the learned soul in the community who provided an educated introduction to God that was not bounded in the superstitions that often are given the guise of religion. He was the one who was trusted by the community to provide clear thinking in matters of faith as well as that connection with apostolic faith. In immigrant congregations when many could not speak English, “Herr Pastor” was often the bi-lingual link to the larger American community. And it is this notion of pastor that still serves in most of our congregations.

But we are in a new age. This Post-modern era is as much a time of new learning as was the Reformation. The internet is as much of a tool of religious growth and new theology as the printing press was for Martin Luther. The laity have as much access to the theology, creeds, Scripture and Scripture study as does the pastor. So the role of pastor is not “Herr Pastor” or some priestly notion that pastors are “holier than the laity”. Much of the job of a pastor these days is to keep the congregation connected not only to the new things but also to the past apostolic faith that has been passed on through succeeding generations. It is, therefore, incumbent on the pastor to be well-versed in the traditions. But the pastor must also be the one who calls his/her congregations to the implications of the Gospel on not only the past but the present age. The pastor must understand the wisdom that resides within the community of the faithful as well as the wisdom of the larger Church as well encourage the dialog between the two.

One of the problems with the role of the pastor in small congregations is that small congregations tend to be where brand new pastors just out of seminary are often called. There new pastors or priests often try out all stuff that they learned in seminary rather indiscriminately. They generally do not have the experience to know that much of the reality of the faith is in the lived-out relationships of people in close-knit communities. There is real wisdom in those communities—a kind of wisdom that one does not learn in seminary. Or small congregations get “visiting pastors” those who stay only a short time never allowing the congregation the experience of having a “parson”, a person of their own that they come to trust to be that God-touched soul in their midst.

So what should one do when an experienced pastor finds herself in a small congregation? One of the things that must be addressed first is the liturgy. The worship of the congregation is the life-blood of the Christian community. If that liturgy is not mirroring the apostolic faith—the traditions of centering on the Eucharist, good teaching, and most of all good involvement of the faithful, then it is time to adjust the worship practice. It is also important for the pastor to make sure that the worship practices are in-line with denominational standards. And most of all, the pastor is responsible to the congregation to provide a place where God may be encountered.

This is often where the rub comes in. Pastors must be change agents—calling their members to know the God that goes beyond the strangeness of new liturgies. They must challenge their flocks to let go of the past and embrace the freshness of God’s never-ending call to be new each day and yet stay fully rooted in the traditions of the apostles. It is a precarious journey because the tension between those two poles is fraught with stumbling blocks. It requires flexibility from members as well as the pastor. And the journey which the congregation pledges to take with the pastor is one in which trust must be at the center. It can only be walked in love.

This is where our faith really kicks in. To trust the pastor means members must step out into the unknown with someone they don’t know very well. For the pastor to trust the small congregation who does not well understand the role of the “parson” means that he/she must be willing to make him/herself open to the pain that they are experiencing so that the common goal of encountering Christ can be met. To walk together is the only way to engage the Christ. And it is this way that we will know Jesus is the Lord of our souls.

No comments: