There’s an old saying about pastors: ‘Invisible six days a week and incomprehensible the seventh.’ While I don’t care much for the incomprehensible bit, a degree of invisibility is part of our lot. To many people in our congregations, and even more outside of them, the work of the pastor is a mystery. I’m often asked what I do with myself once Sunday is over. There’s no hidden critique in the question, but genuine curiosity. To the majority, our daily working life is hidden from view.
Before we bemoan just how ‘misunderstood’ we are, it’s good to put the boot on the other foot. The fact is, pastors are as prone to weekday ignorance as anyone else. We see and relate to the majority of people in our congregations on a Sunday. Perhaps we see the committed ones at other times, but mostly related to their roles and responsibilities in the church. Certainly I know that Rick is a teacher, that Judy works in insurance, that Sacha volunteers at the local homework club, but outside of that my experience of their day-to-day work is limited. What specific responsibilities do they have? What daily challenges do they face? What relationships are most demanding of them? In the typical Sunday gathering, the weekday work of the people is as invisible as that of the pastor.
I am often challenged by this, and encouraged to think creatively about how pastors can help to make visible what is largely invisible. How can we nurture the connections between worship on a Sunday and what the people are engaged with on Monday? How can we be more sensitive to the challenges of the workplaces and neighbourhoods our congregations inhabit? For me the challenge is two-fold. It’s both pastoral and liturgical.
To care pastorally is to care for the whole person. By necessity the felt need for pastoral care kicks in when there’s a crisis, usually of a personal nature – someone is sick, struggling in a relationship, or wrestling with an experience of loss or doubt. Ministry like this is vital to what we do. But there’s also a place for genuine expressions of pastoral interest in the more routine stuff of life.
One of the most effective means of expressing this interest is by taking our care out of our own offices and into theirs. Some of the most significant pastoral conversations I have ever had have been in the spaces people inhabit during the week. Sometimes that has been in their workplaces, or in a café close by. I have sat with teachers in their classrooms at the end of a teaching day. I have been walked around someone’s office space and introduced to colleagues. I have toured a building site and walked through a market garden. While pastoral interactions like these are not always possible, finding ways to show genuine interest in who people are and what they do away from the worship service is well worth our time and creativity.
Pastors spend a great deal of time preparing services of worship. It’s for that visible part of our job. We know instinctively that our sermons, liturgy and prayers provide an essential framework for the congregation’s response to God and we long that through these services our communities experience grace, transcendence and challenge in equal measure.
With this in mind, there is a legitimate need for the Sunday experience to be different — a context in which we lift our eyes beyond the chaos of the world and are reminded of God. For this reason the language of faith is often distinctive, shifting from the immediate to the eternal. That said, it would be a tragedy if our pursuit of the ‘beyond’ rendered the here-and-now irrelevant to faith, for it’s in the immediate that we most need a sense of the eternal.
The purpose of good liturgy is to bring the beyond and the here-and-now together into a deeper relationship. We do this with preaching that approaches the text of scripture and the routine challenges of life with equal rigour. We do it with confession that is rooted in the real struggles of the everyday. We do it with rituals, songs, stories and prayers that embrace the stuff of daily life as holy.
Not long ago I sat with a member of my congregation who is unemployed and looking for work. He spoke honestly of the exhausting and humbling business of applications, interviews and knock-backs. In the midst of our conversation, he reached down into his bag and pulled out a printed copy of his CV. ‘I don’t need you to find me a job,’ he said as he handed it to me, ‘but I need you to know who I am.’ It’s a longing for all of us. We want to be known, not just as people of faith but as flesh-and-blood people seeking to live out that faith in our everyday lives.