Harvard professor of Divinity, Harvey Cox, writes in his book, The Future of Faith, “Christianity understood as a system of beliefs guarded and transmitted through a privileged religious institution by a clerical class is dying.” This statement gets to the heart of my struggle with what it means to be a pastor in a mainline religious institution in this time.
I have taken a few pictures along the road on this pilgrimage of old, tired buildings sagging and falling in on themselves. I am not talking about houses and sheds that are simply in disrepair. I am talking about those barns and old farmhouses that were probably erected in the 1800’s and have lived out there life and purpose. Truth be told, I find them rather beautiful. Their functionality has long since passed, but there is a soft beautiful spirit of gratitude that I feel when I stand before one of these abandoned relics.
Why do I bring this up? This pilgrimage is the result of feeling like I had not one more ounce of energy left to prop up any part of our religious structure that has seemed to have served its purpose and must now be left to the natural forces of decline. All of life eventually sags and gives way to the force of gravity and the gentle descent of life. I am not talking about the totality of the Christian tradition here, nor am I making a one-to-one comparison with the whole structure and mission of the church. I am just saying that I have come to place where I have no interest or energy in trying to prop up that which is ready to give way. I am glad to be part of the process of gracefully allowing and dismantling that which has lost its purpose. I will gladly put my energy into building new structures. But, I will not shoulder the weight of a rotting, weakened beam that is only waiting for me to buckle under its load.
Now, of course, discerning between that which is sagging and that which is still supporting vital ministry can be a bit of a trick. This is where I return once again to this distinction between being a “pastor of the faith” and a “chaplain of the spirit”. If I own the identity of being a pastor of the faith I feel this weight of being the one to protect, preserve, and promote the long historic faith of our tradition. It can feel like running around an old building trying to prop up, repair, and plug the holes that keep emerging. And the focus is on the faith tradition, not on the people. The focus is on the institution, not on the movement of the spirit.
Why would or could I feel compelled to continue to prop up the institution? Harvey Cox’s comment rings true here for me. As a member of the clerical class there is this assumption that I am a representative of the faith and that my ordained duty is to continue to see that this structure and this tradition live on in perpetuity. In fact, the questions of ordination make this quite clear. The first few questions focus almost entirely on the faith of our tradition, being guided by our confessions, and promising to “further the peace, purity and unity of the church”. Only the last question (which I find pastors quoting most often these days) asks, “Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?”
This is where the rub is coming for me. I just don’t see myself as a “pastor of the faith”. I feel deeply that I am a “chaplain of the spirit”. As such, I take my cues from people, the community, and the society around me. My focus is not on promoting and preserving the Church, but in serving the people. This means that I often use the gifts of my tradition to serve the people. We have a rich history of mission, of educational and healing ministries, and of worship that feeds the soul and lifts the spirit of people.
But, more and more I am finding that my tradition does not have enough tools to serve our local community. We have become the old tired barn that used to be the community gathering place for dances and auctions and the storage of hay. Today we looking more like a relic of the past rather than a vital hub of activity for the present. I have nothing against older people (heck, I am showing signs of being one!). But, even the average age of our congregations show that either we are losing our structural integrity or edging toward becoming permanent senior centers. Eastminster Church, where I serve has an average age of 79 or 80. The last statistics I saw for our national Presbyterian body had our average age at 58. At 51 I still am one of “the kids” of our denomination. With my graying hair that is not a good sign!
I just left Yellowstone Park a few days ago. I was in seminary when the great wildfires burned so much of the park after years fire prevention had left the park a flammable tinderbox. Four years later I drove through Yellowstone and I was amazed at the new beauty that had emerged. Still standing were the charred remains of the forest and yet underneath was a lush blanket of wildflowers and emerging saplings. Now, nearly twenty years later I have biked through and seen the next stage of this death and resurrection story. Still, many of the old barren trees stripped by the fire stand. And a whole new forest is emerging among them.
Could this be a metaphor for the Church in our time? Have we worked too hard at “damage control” when what we really need to do is let go? Is it time to let some of the structure of our institution fall to the natural cycles of nature? Are some things meant to burn off to make room for the new? Please don’t take this metaphor too far! I am not talking about burning people. We already tried that once with very limited success! I am talking about letting some of the rigid, dogmatic, static aspects of our institution go if they have worn out there purpose, if they are no longer serving the people of our communities.
I didn’t really answer the question that I had posed at the end of my last post under this title, “A Break in the Clouds.” That question was, “How does one serve the community of the faithful when one has the heart of a chaplain?” The question emerged after reflecting on the fact that as a chaplain I can easily dance between religious traditions and spiritual philosophies as I work with each individual client. A good chaplain listens for the story, the images, the language and the values of each client and then enters THEIR world in order to serve them. But, what does a pastor do when there are 50, 100, 500 people in one room and he or she has a chaplain’s heart? How does one enter the story world of a community of people who have a diversity of backgrounds and broad spectrum of beliefs and values? I’ll have to make another stab at that question in Part 3.
I read this line from Harvey Cox about what he perceives as the “dying of a Christianity that is rooted in a system of beliefs protected by a clergy class” and I recognized my own journey as a minister. I no longer feel that my role is to protect, preserve, and promote the faith. My role is to listen to the people and let the faith unfold, emerge, and evolve from there. I will “serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love”. But, quite honestly, I plan to leave the peace, purity and unity of the church in God’s hands. I just don’t have that much control.