Throwing fish at hamsters

Francis Chan is not a United Methodist, but reading some of the marketing materials produced by our denomination make me think of a Bible study he once taught.

Chan was teaching about how he has a hard time reading in the Bible about the church of the New Testament and then looking at the church as it exists in contemporary America. He describes his experience as being like walking into an ice skating rink and seeing people throwing fish at hamsters that are running around on the ice. When he asks them what they are doing, they say, “We’re playing soccer.”

Chan said, “I don’t even know where to start.”

When I read through the #BeUMC website materials produced by United Methodist Communications, I’m not sure where to start. The points of emphasis in the messaging have that unique quality that marketing language often has. It appears to say something without actually saying anything.

Take, for instance, this statement: “We embrace the fundamentals of the Wesleyan tradition and dedicate ourselves to the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

There are words here that sound specific, but they are empty containers that people can pour into whatever they desire. I have no idea what they mean by “the fundamentals of the Wesleyan tradition,” and I suspect that is the point. If we were to identify what those fundamentals were, we would start to draw lines and make distinctions that are not useful if your goal is to say “you can believe anything and be a United Methodist.”

What is most interesting to me in the overview materials is that they miss something that absolutely jumps out of some of the supporting research. I dug a little deeper — and it is hard to get too deep here — and found this nugget. In the research that supposedly supports the #BeUMC messaging they asked UMC laity what they thought should be the primary focus of the church — saving souls or advocating for social justice.

Go read the overview of the #BeUMC messaging again. Based on that page, what do you think the underlying research would say. Just take a guess. Based on what is written as a summary of their research, how important do you think UMC laity say saving souls should be?

Just as a reminder, John Wesley told the early Methodists we have no business in this world except the saving of souls.

What answer did you come up with?

Would you be surprised to learn that 70% of UMC laity said our main focus as a church should be saving souls for Jesus Christ?

Seven in ten.

And yet, in the materials about the #BeUMC message there is not a word about salvation.

Consider this for a moment. A website produced by the communications and marketing arm of a Christian church makes no reference to salvation, even though the supporting research behind the website notes that 70% of UMC members think the salvation of souls should be the main focus of the church.

As Francis Chan said, “I don’t even know where to start.”

An undivided life

I am fully aware that there are things other people can do that I cannot.

I cannot knit or play guitar or remove a gall bladder. Just because I cannot do these things, it does not mean I am judging people who can.

I hope you can keep that in mind as I write what follows, because, you see, there is something I see many of pastoral colleagues do that I cannot.

I know clergy who live two lives. There is the life they live when they are pastors, and there is the life they live as “normal” people. To them, this kind of distinction not only makes sense, but it is seen as crucial. It helps them preserve boundaries and a sense of self. If I have heard them properly, it helps them to remain authentic and even sane.

I’m sure I am not doing justice to why people do this. I struggle to explain it as much as I would struggle to explain how it feels for a fish to breathe water.

Here is the source of my problem in comprehending this strong need some of my fellow clergy experience. I cannot see this distinction within myself. There is no “me” that needs to be protected from the impinging demands of my vocation. There is only one me, and that me is a pastor.

All of us Christians are supposed to live our whole lives as an outflowing of our baptism. We do not have parts of our lives that are Christian and parts that are something else. We are Christians on Sunday morning and at home and at the ball game. We are Christians when we go to the doctor or when we are haggling with government bureaucrats about something petty and annoying. We are a new creation, the old has passed away.

For a small number of Christians, our baptism finds its expression in our call to pastoral ministry. My teachers told me that a pastor is merely one kind of Christian, a person set aside to do certain things in the life of the church. Being a pastor is not a separate thing from being a Christian. It is the way some of us are Christians.

Indeed, to be completely honest, my observation is that being a pastor relieves me of many of the strains that other Christians suffer. My work does not conflict with my faith. I do not have to navigate the tensions that so many Christians experience when they live huge chunks of their lives in settings and under rules that have nothing to do with the Gospel or may be hostile to it. Being a pastor — for me at least — is an opportunity for work and faith to overlap in ways that the great majority of my brothers and sisters in Christ do not get to experience. Far from being a burden to carry, being a pastor has given me a way to live with integrity.

Yes, I can imagine that I could cease to be a pastor and still be me, but I don’t think I could cease to be a Christian without being a radially different person than I am. I can’t take that part of myself off and just be “normal” me. Being a Christian may be abnormal, but it is who I am. And, therefore, at least as long as the church and the Lord deem me worthy, being a pastor is who I am, as well.

The place as it really is

One of the things I’ve read that most resonates with my sense of pastoral work was written by Wendell Berry. Berry is not a pastor or theologian. He is a poet, a writer, and — most important here — a farmer.

In one book of his essays, I have a book mark that I go back to from time to time because it speaks to me of the heart and craft of pastoral ministry and work. Please pardon a fairly long quotation.

[I]t is not uncharacteristic for a farmer’s connection to a farm to begin in love. … One loves the place because present appearances recommend it, and because they suggest possibilities irresistibly imaginable. One’s head, like a lover’s, grows full of visions. One walks over the premises, saying, “If this were mine, I’d make a permanent pasture here; here is where I’d plant an orchard; here is where I’d dig a pond.” These visions are the usual stuff of unfulfilled love and induce wakefulness at night.

When ones buys the farm and moves there to live, something different begins. Thoughts begin to be translated into acts. Truth begins to intrude with its matter-of-fact. One’s work may be defined in part by one’s visions, but it is defined in part too by problems, which the work leads to and reveals. And daily life, work, and the problems gradually alter the visions. It invariably turns out, I think, that one’s first vision of one’s place was to some extent an imposition on it. But if one’s sight is clear and if one stays on and works well, one’s love responds to the place as it really is, and one’s visions gradually image possibilities that are really in it.

Wendell Berry, Standing by Words, pp. 69-70

I’m tempted to quote more, but I fear even this much is more than some of you will read. If you skipped the quotation, please, lift your gaze a couple paragraphs and give it a few moments of your time.

So what does this have to do with being a pastor?

Pastors coming to a new church are very much like Berry’s farmer. When you first see the place, when you stand in the pulpit and survey the rows of empty pews or chairs, when you drive through the neighborhood around the church, you begin to imagine things that might be. This is especially so if you are a pastor with “vision.” Many a pastor loves a new church not for what it is, but they imagine it might be or become.

But the truth always intrudes on these visions. Every church is a place with a history. Its people are a unique collection of sinners and saints who have worshipped, celebrated, grieved, worried, hoped, and fought with each other for a long time. The congregation is like Berry’s farm. It reveals to you over time how God is at work in and through it and how with some degree of skill and patience a pastor might work with what is already there to help nurture what could be.

Every pastor knows all this, but we do not all believe it. For some, the vision of what the church could be — what it should be — drives them to take a bulldozer to what is already there. If they are talented enough and stubborn enough, they can do impressive things to the old place, but they often leave a lot of spiritual wreckage to be carted off in the process.

And, sadly, most of us pastors are neither talented enough nor stubborn enough to force a congregation to conform to the visions we would impose on them. Instead, the pastors begin to resent the very flock they are supposed to serve. They tell cynical jokes to each other at clergy gatherings. They long for greener pastures and better church members. They have less and less joy in the work and, often, turn back from the plow they once spent so much time and energy to take up.

This is not a large church vs small church thing. I’ve seen pastors of churches of all sizes who learned to let the place shape their visions. I’ve seen pastors of churches of all sizes try, with growing anger, resentment, and heartbreak, to force the congregation into their vision of what the church should be.

I will never claim to be an expert or a great pastor. My ministry has been an immense blessing to me, and I pray I have been useful to the church. For my part, I have always seen my role very much in keeping with Berry’s description of the farmer who learns through the work to see what is possible, what is already being done by God, and how those things might be shaped by the gospel’s vision.

This is not speedy work, but our Lord who spoke to us of sheep and seeds and harvests, I think, appreciates a good farming metaphor. I know I am grateful to have been called to this work.