This post is part of a blog series on Pomomusings, discussing pastoral identity. To read about the series, as well as get a full schedule of participants, click here.
I’m getting ready to leave my job. I’ve served this congregation for close to three years, but a call came to another place, a call that is exciting and marvelous and closer to home, and so after baby number three is born in May, I’ll be saying good-bye, and starting somewhere new.
The first time I left one church and started somewhere new, six years ago now, the transition was paralyzing, and sermon writing like pulling teeth. What could I say to these people I did not know, how could I preach to them? How would I ever learn to love these strangers?
It is the mystery and miracle of ministry that you learn to love them. In each new place. Sometimes it is easier than others, but you can do it. Because it is your job, and it’s your gift.
In the United Methodist Church, those to be ordained elder are reminded that their call is to be “conformed to the life of Christ” and their task is “to proclaim by word and deed the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to fashion [their] lives in accordance with its precepts.”
There are other tasks, too – to preach and teach the Word of God, and faithfully administer the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion; to lead worship and prayer and exercise pastoral supervision and offer care and order the life of the congregation and lead the people, and serving the community – but they are all somehow bound up in this: be conformed to the life of Christ, to be a faithful example for all God’s people.
There are other callings in this life, of course – and not just parent or friend: other professional callings. I know folks who are called to be doctors and nurses, teachers and journalists and organizers and bureaucrats and lawyer. Their list of tasks is different, but the passion and gift for doing their work arises out of something deep within them, some part of their identity, in the same way my pastoral calling is a part of who I am, but is also shaped by the tasks before me.
Still, this pastoral profession is different. It requires – absolutely – skill acquisition. If you want to proclaim the Gospel in ways that compel and comfort people, you should learn how to be a good preacher; if you want to teach the fullness of the Scriptures and tradition in ways that speak to the needs and questions of those in your care – and wider publics – you need some depth and breadth of theological knowledge, and some practice articulating it. Ministry is far too important; the life of the church and the witness of Christ requires effective leaders.
What is so hard, though, is that the good a pastor does is often related to who the pastor is. We don’t all need to be IFPQs (that’s a made-up type) on the Myers-Briggs, but I think pastoral leaders are – no matter what the specific tasks before them in a given position – called to be gracious, and self-reflective. Honest and brave, or at the very least, working to be those things. Pastors should be truth tellers and good listeners, lovingly challenging in some moments and lovingly comforting in others. A sense of humor, and an appreciation of one’s own finitude and capacity to do and be wrong are critically important. A pastor needs to possess a willingness to apologize where appropriate, and to hold her ground when the need arises. A good pastor can see the hurts and sins of the world, but has some faith that God is present anyway, and that there’s always reason to hope.
In other words, a pastor should be a good Christian, fashioning his life according to the precepts of the Gospel. It can seem like a daunting thing: it requires some courage. And pastors, unlike most Christians, can be officially held to these standards. When parishioners are defensive or spout bad theology, we can gently correct, but it’s unrelated to their professional lives.
But to be called to professional faithfulness is an undeniable gift. I am paid to read, write, reflect, play with kids, see a counselor, shop at the craft store, build collegial and mentor relationships, think about public issues, lead hymns, hear people’s stories, visit the sick, cry and laugh with people, perform amazing liturgies, have great ideas, think deep thoughts… I am called to show up and bear witness.
By virtue of our baptism, all Christians are called to most of these things. But I get paid to do them; I am granted time to do them. But I am also expected to serve, and can be called to account if I’m failing.
I’ve wondered what my faith would look like if I wasn’t in ministry. I honestly don’t know. My ministry, my work, is the way I practice and live my faith. I am called to show up and bear witness, regardless of my ministry setting. I have loved the people here, and I will love the next community commended to my care.
Bromleigh McCleneghan is ordained as an Elder in the United Methodist Church and currently serves as the Associate for Congregational Life at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago. Come July, she’ll be serving as the Associate Pastor for Ministry with Families at the Union Church of Hinsdale. Part of her pastoral identity is to write; her first book, Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People (Alban, 2012) was co-written with her friend and colleague, the Rev. Lee Hull Moses. She’s finished the manuscript for a book on sex, love and faith that she hopes will be out in early 2016.