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.
Who Is My Congregation?
“And have you met Brian; he’s a pastor.”
Being polite usually has meant not correcting the person making an informal introduction. The speaker is usually someone who is only an acquaintance, or isn’t Presbyterian, or hasn’t kept up with my life the last few years. It’s not a big deal, really; I know what they meant. But I still end up having to unpack the confusion once someone asks the inevitable follow-up question: “Where’s your church?”
I was a pastor of a congregation for 13 years, but now I’m not. I am a teaching elder, a minister of the Word and sacrament, a preacher and teacher. But I’m not—technically—a pastor, at least not in the way our denomination uses that word. In the morning, rather than drive to my church, I drive to the office. Or the airport. For my committee meetings, I don’t crank up the church coffeepot at 7 pm Tuesday; I swing by Starbucks and start up GoToMeeting on Wednesday at 10 am, always needing to specify the time zone. I ask, rather than answer, the questions now: Will we robe? What color stoles? Where do I stand for the benediction?
Had I been asked to write a blog post on pastoral identity three years ago – you know, when I was a pastor – I would surely have written something different. My essay would have touched on preaching and worship and teaching as essential tasks. It would have reflected on relationships and authority and trust as tools of the trade. And in the end, such a post would have settled into gratitude for the privilege of standing in community with a group united in love and common mission, naming my work ultimately as prodding us to move forward together, growing into the likeness of Christ.
But what do I do now? What is my vocational identity now that I’m not a pastor?
My non-pastoral ministry is frequently teaching and worship—at least these are certainly the most public aspects of my role—sharing Good News in sermon and lesson and newsletter article (and blog post!) about who God is and who God calls us to be as a people.
My non-pastoral work (as executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians) is all about relationships—with board members, with volunteers, with donors, with theological “opponents,” with churches, with colleagues, with reporters, with LGBT people seeking ordination or marriage, with the broader society. Building credibility, maintaining collegiality and friendship, speaking and listening to promote depth of mutual understanding and effectiveness … this is my job. That web of relationships (and the trust and authority inherent in them) in many ways defines me vocationally.
And my non-pastoral self-understanding places me in the midst of a larger movement—not a specifically progressive or pro-inclusion movement so much as a movement to strengthen the Church. It seems like every week I meet a new person with whom there is instant kinship because we’ve been working together (though we did not know each other), struggling, learning, campaigning, changing, building. My work is coordinating one aspect of a much larger effort, which spans many theological and geographic and organizational divisions—the effort to better reflect the love and justice of Jesus Christ. I stand in a community, gently prodding it to move forward together.
Which is to say …
My non-pastoral identity isn’t so different from my pastoral identity. It’s still about proclamation and relationships and common mission. What’s different now is the congregation I’m called to serve. Rather than one parish in one place, the congregation to which I am called spans the whole country. My self-understanding no longer has the luxury (that I had for 13 years) of thinking locally; I must always think globally. But fundamentally, the calling, the ministry, the identity is the same.
I find myself wondering: What if this is actually the better way to think about pastoral identity—what if this had been how I thought of it all along? What if all of us pastors thought of our calling as service to the whole Church of Jesus Christ (and not just to the 40 or 400 or 4000 people in our building). What if we all understood our accountability as being not to those who pay our salaries but to the one who called us, and to the whole of that great congregation we dare to call the body of Christ?
Granted, this would be a challenge if such a vision isn’t embraced by the people of the First Presbyterian Church of Anytown. But we’re talking here about identity—who we understand ourselves to be—which means that we may be living in hope that our lived reality will over time come to reflect this inner understanding. It’s not a new idea after all; it’s baked into Presbyterian polity that makes even those called pastors members not of their congregations but of the presbytery.
If we all really understood our identity this way, how many congregations would still be in the PCUSA rather than being led out? How much shared mission could be accomplished even though no congregation or pastor could claim credit for it? How might our church be more united if pastors all believed themselves bound up in a common effort to grow into the likeness of Christ? And how might the preaching and teaching and committee meetings led by even the most connectional pastors look different if every conversation were not just about “our people” but about all people?
All of us who are known as pastors—and even those of us who aren’t—are called to serve the same Church. May our ministry strengthen the whole Church of Jesus Christ, one congregation … or conference call … at a time.
Brian Ellison is executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. Before that, he was pastor/head of staff of a church in the Kansas City area for 13 years. He’s done a lot of Presbyterian stuff.