I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. —John 16:22
In 1746, Henry Melchior Mühlenberg wrote to his fellow Lutheran missionaries in the American colonies: they ought to behave more like fathers to their fledgling congregations than taskmasters. In a similar way in the next century, Samuel Crowther, the first African Anglican bishop in Nigeria, had remarkable success in gently leading the people of Yorubaland to put away idols at their own pace.
Pastoral leadership and pastoral care is an art to be honed over time. I am quite certain I will never master it, but it is one of the critical tasks of ministry, particularly in the post-Christian West.
Over the course of even a small unit of time, a week perhaps, a pastor works in multiple different settings and types of meetings: coffee dates, home and hospital visits, vestry or board meetings, and youth group planning sessions. And at each of these, the pastor will feel a niggle, will hear something that will stick in the brain. A suspicion may emerge.
Later in the conversation, that suspicion may be confirmed. The pastor starts to see all manner of things: systems, patterns of behavior, sometimes destructive, sometimes enabling. And the pattern repeats. What does the careful pastor do in this moment? Does it all come tumbling out?
The standard textbook wisdom of contextual ministry tells us that in our current cultural landscape the pastor must be the “non-anxious presence” (see, e.g., here). It’s true for a number of reasons. We live in a culture soaking in uncertainty, and there is pervasive fear within the Episcopal Church about the future, particularly in the face of decline.
The new mantra from so much of our leadership about being a smaller and more authentic church is not helpful (but then again I suppose my doubt can be written off as part of the problem). This situation is coupled with, if not intimately related to, a dearth of leadership. And our people know it.
Peace has to be part of the answer to my earlier question. The pastor has to know peace, and not just fake it, but have an abiding sense of Christ’s peace borne through prayer and sacrament.
In his Book of the Pastoral Rule (590), Pope Gregory the Great wrote that a pastor must attend to the pursuit of holiness, constantly being refreshed by grace. Clergy, by their life and conduct, are witnesses to the world about what it means to follow Jesus, and that includes their weakness before a merciful God who pours out grace. Part of Gregory’s advice is that people must know their clergy are shaped by deep, careful, and reflective prayer.
In a similar way, Gregory advises that the good pastor knows where the disciples need to go, what they need for the journey, and how to equip each individual in a way that is unique and effective. From the pastor’s perspective, pastoral care and discipleship has to attend to the needs of the individual: people grow in different ways to the same full stature of Christ (Eph. 4:13). God’s singular love, then, has to be communicated through a variety of media.
So, to return to the question, what is a pastor to do when seeing a pattern, particularly a destructive one? The line between pastoral leadership and pastoral care is fuzzy here. There are times to pull out the axe of St. Boniface and cut down the tree. (I adore the language of radicalism, and, after all, the prophet’s mantle fits so well!) But I wonder if the pastor’s role is sometimes to hear the jumbled secular priorities and nod at least for a season before the axe emerges?
As our Lord knew, part of exorcising a demon is knowing its name (Mark 5:9). Many clergy have been successful in bringing healing to congregations by naming problems, by pulling them out in the open to writhe and spit in the sun.
But part of the art of pastoral leadership and pastoral care is the abiding sense, firmly planted in the people of God, that their pastor’s love for them is there from the start, not on condition that they reach a point of success or even the most meager growth. The love of their pastor has to be clearly known in the midst of their brokenness and their need.
It’s in this way that we are godly fathers and mothers, rather than taskmasters (as in Mühlenberg’s admonition). Our God does not love us on the condition that we are good or that we straighten up and fly right; he loved us while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8).
So on the road from A to B, the pastor often smiles, nods, laughs a bit, and above all loves. Perhaps the axe will later appear.
Hopefully, by God’s grace, the people will put away their idols and fetish totems in the same way that the people of Yorubaland did, as Crowther loved them and shared with them the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Dr. Calvin Lane is associate rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Dayton, Ohio, while also serving as affiliate professor of church history at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and adjunct professor of history at Wright State University in Dayton. His other posts are here.
The featured image is from a stall at Thistle Chapel in St. Giles Church, Edinburgh. Photo via Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP.