Today’s question comes from Stevie. She writes: “This must be a complicated, challenging, yet fulfilling time to be a pastor. What are you doing as a leader to help your church family cope, and what is the UCC doing to help bring peace to our divided land?”
Let me start by addressing your statement about what it’s like to be a pastor these days. These are very trying times, indeed. As each of you know, we live in a world that is incredibly polarized. Some folks show up at church expecting that we will reflect that back to them. Some want pastors who will take their side.
We spiritual leaders have a different goal – one perhaps best summed up by the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln: “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always rights.”
Because God’s truth is so much larger than a label or party we often end up taking positions that offend the sensibilities of one group or another. One week those on the left might love a sermon, and those on the right hate it. The next week, the responses might be the opposite. We are often what I like to call “an equal opportunity offender”. This can take quite a toll.
So how do we pastors manage to hang in there?
I can’t answer for all my peers, just myself. I am encouraged to hang in there by the fact that most people (including those on each side) know our current way of being is no longer working. And as much as there is a part of them that wants to point fingers and blame the other side, there is a greater part that simply wants healing and a hug.
We spiritual leaders are in a unique position to effect a change in consciousness that can bring about that healing and those hugs. That’s why I wouldn’t want to be anything other than a pastor these days. I feel so blessed to facilitate that healing: even when those most hurting seem most resistant to healing! (Okay, I don’t always feel blessed in the process. At the end of it, however, I do). J
What am I doing to help my church family hang in there?
The easiest way to answer that question comes from a sermon I preached the Third Sunday of Advent. The theme for that Sunday was “Joy!”; and the Scriptural passage included Mary’s Magnificat. The point of my sermon this year was that despite the challenging set of circumstances Mary faced (i.e. being an pregnant, unwed, young mother), Mary was able to feel joy because she knew she was not alone. For not only was God with her: her cousin, Elisabeth, was with her as well.
Since that Sunday, I have re-dedicated my ministry to communicating a simple 4-word phrase: “You are not alone”. The children in our Sunday school program picked up on the theme and made beautiful paper pyramids with each one of those words on each side – and a tea light that “burned” underneath the pyramid. Since that time, our Care Team members have incorporated those pyramids and started gifting those who are hurting with those beautiful pyramid reminders.
It doesn’t matter what circumstance people are in: whether their candidate of choice won or lost the election; or whether their personal, emotional or spiritual health is weak or strong. Those words have guided me – and us – toward a time when we can once again see our neighbor not as a threat, but a gift. And until our collective consciousness get there, each day of mine is devoted to helping my people NOT feel alone.
So what is the UCC doing to help bring peace to our divided land?
The United Church of Christ is doing at least three things. First, the UCC is being a prophetic witness speaking out on behalf of those who feel left behind and marginalized by some of the changes occurring. This is not new for us. Our tradition has been at the forefront of justice movements since the earliest days of our country. We are a denomination that understands the wisdom of the bumper sticker that reads: “No justice, no peace. Know justice, know peace.”
Second, we are providing spiritual resources that help individuals around our country heal and come together. Some of these resources are curriculum and devotional materials; and some of them are the incarnational ministries where local churches provide an important presence as we deal with divisive matters such as freedom of religion issues, immigration issues, and the like. You can find some of these resources at http://www.uccresources.com.
Third, the UCC provides a powerful model for the world of how to live together in peace. This model springs from our congregational polity (or form of church governance).
There are many religious traditions out there that model a top/down structure that is predicated on creating “winners” and “losers”. “Winners” are those who gain 51% of the vote – and have the luxury of getting their way; “losers” are those who gain only 49% of the love – and have to pray the majority treats them well.
In a congregational system, however, we model a powerful spiritual way of being whereby each voice (and vote) matters. Our system is built on two values: autonomy and covenant. Autonomy means that each individual (whether in the majority or minority!) has the freedom to live and believe and she or he chooses; covenant means that even though we are autonomous individuals, our life is predicated on a series of promises we make – to God and to one other – that binds us together as one sacred whole.
I often wonder how different our society would feel if they embraced a congregational way of being. If Americans worried less about “winning” and “losing” – less about imposing their faith and values on others – and more about living a life of integrity based upon their their personal faith and values. If Americans worried less about having majorities in Congress and on the Supreme Court, and more about caring for – and nurturing – their fellow human beings.
The world – in the timeless word’s of Louis Armstrong – just might be a little more “wonderful” if they lived as congregationalists.
Those are a few of my thoughts about the challenges – and rewards – of being a pastor. Those are a few thoughts about what the UCC is offering the world in terms of hope and peace.
So what about you? What do you think about these matters?