I visited the saints today. Not haloed ones from long ago, but sniffly ones with winter colds — older saints with thinning hair and woollen socks. One was in her hospital bed recuperating from a fall, and another in his armchair at home. It was balm for the soul.
The past few days have been tough — lots of big-picture wrestling with public issues of ‘truth’ and ‘justice’; a weekend of impassioned debate and stirring convictions. All important stuff, but wearing too. Big pictures demand an energy all their own and I come away wrung out and wanting to hide. But sitting with older saints brings me back. It reminds me that life is more than big pictures; that ministry is just as much about sitting with loneliness as struggling for truth.
For me, there’s something about being with older people that brings perspective. It focusses attention and brings my wandering mind to the most immediate things. These dear people are often as concerned for me as I am for them. We talk about hearing aids, bung hips and blood pressure. From there we take the small step to family — its joys and sadnesses — and sometimes share treasured memories of yesterday.
As for the future, these older saints don’t go there much. Oh, there are concerns about tomorrow’s appointments and, occasionally, some pensive thoughts about the mystery of whatever lies beyond. But underneath there is faith. There is always faith. It’s that bedrock that sits just below the surface. Rarely complicated, it’s often as full of mystery as it is of certainty. Yet it is there, deep and reassuring. It’s faith for today, for now and for here. It’s a wisdom all its own and it holds us in the moment together … and I can breathe again.
Routinely I meet with men and women, mostly young, who aspire to pastoral leadership. They sense a calling to the church. The most common professional pathway to this end is ordination, a rite of commissioning for pastors and priests. In every tradition it’s done differently. For some there’s a high ceremonial ritual along with a uniform and a title. For others it’s less grand yet equally specific in intent. The purpose of ordination is to set particular people apart to lead and care for the church.
I’ve been done. It happened for me a long time ago. In fact, next year it’ll be twenty-five years since my ordination to ‘the ministry of word and sacrament’ in the Baptist tradition. I have a certificate on my wall to prove it! The preparation took a while; years in fact. There were those arduous programs of study, panels of interrogation, psychological testing, intense processes of formation, and apprenticeship with seasoned practitioners. The high moment of ordination itself was memorable and profoundly significant to my continuing sense of vocation.
A common critique of the process toward ordination is that it’s too much like a one-size-fits-all funnel that ignores the diversity of those who present. What’s more, it is said, the intent is to nurture a conformity of style in leadership. There may well be some truth in this, and I have no doubt those who lead such processes wrestle with the limitations of their systems. That said, uniformity has never been my experience of those who make it through. Quite the opposite.
I am often mystified by just how different we pastors are from one another. There are the gentle and caring types, the incisive minds, the charismatic leaders, the blusterers and pot stirrers, the gregarious and the introverts. There are the fine preachers, the poets, the liberals and conservatives, the thoughtful strategists, the bookish types and the ones who act more like coaches for the local football team. How they all got through the one funnel I have no idea. But I am glad for it.
The encouragement to me in this is that just as there are numerous types who get into this business, the business itself is broad and so very different from one context to another. Sure, the comparisons are inevitable: her church is bigger than mine; his sermons could do with some work; her way with people is extraordinary; I wish my leadership was a strong as his. Truth be told, in the midst of such comparisons I often wonder just how I scraped through. But if I have learned anything over the years, it’s this: I am who I am, and being who I am is as central to my calling as anything else.
A couple of years back, I had the pleasure of reading Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor. It’s a very particular story of ministry and open to critique for good reasons. But what was so very refreshing was Peterson’s refusal to offer anything formulaic to his readers. There are no five steps, seven habits or twelve secrets to successful pastoring. Only this:
‘There is no blueprint on file for becoming a pastor. In becoming one, I have found that it is a most context-specific way of life: the pastor’s emotional life, family life, experience in the faith, and aptitudes worked out in the actual congregation in the neighborhood in which she or he lives – these people just as they are, in this place. No copying. No trying to be successful. The ways in which the vocation of pastor is conceived, develops, and comes to birth is unique to each pastor.’
“I am a pastor. My work has to do with God and souls — immense mysteries that no one has ever seen at any time. But I carry out this work in conditions — place and time — that I see and measure wherever I find myself, whatever time it is. There is no avoiding the conditions. I want to be mindful of the conditions. I want to be as mindful of the conditions as I am of the holy mysteries.”
I’ve returned to work this year with a small resolution in mind. Not small in the sense of being insignificant. More in the sense that my life is small, not grand, and any resolutions to do with its living will be, by necessity, humble.
The resolution is this: I want to work as much as possible out of my strengths. I have them, just like everyone does. There are things I do well, inclinations that are naturally honed, investments of energy that bring life and fulfillment. I am hoping that in this new year I can give the expression of these strengths a larger space to flourish in my days and weeks.
Profound or not, there’s something here that’s important. I have been conscious this past year that I spend a great deal of energy trying to make up for my weaknesses. While there are things I do well in ministry, the list of things I do less than well is long. Of course, I’m not alone. As I listen to the confessions of other pastors, I hear the same insecurity. We’re gifted, but we’re not all-rounders. The deficits are as obvious as the surpluses. Conscious of our lacks, we’re commonly driven to compensate, to work ever harder improving our skill-set and pushing through in areas of mediocrity. But the truth is, it’s exhausting.
The exhaustion is only exacerbated by the voices that speak loudly around us. It seems like every book I read, every conference I attend, every Facebook link I follow, every PD seminar I complete, I’m left with a new list of things I should really do better, or more of. If the church is struggling in areas X, Y and Z, it’s probably because, in part at least, I’m less than I need to be in capacities A, B and C. So come on, Simon, pull up your socks!
I know. Pulling up our socks is part of life. In every job, every role, there are things that just have to be done. Not everything we do can be about fulfilment and fit. But surely, in the longer term, the greatest impacts we’ll have upon our communities will arise out of our primary gifting. I am a good pastor but I’m not a charismatic leader. I’m a good communicator and teacher, but I’m not great at strategy and five-year plans. I have a passion for writing, but I’m exhausted by spreadsheets. I’m committed to community building and hospitality, but I’m not a great manager.
One of the things I’ve observed about myself and others is that as much time as we might invest in those tasks that sit outside our abilities, the longer term impacts are minimal, indeed far less than we imagine. The deepest impression that you will make upon your church will almost certainly arise out of what you are really good at and passionate about.
I reckon we owe it to ourselves and our communities to give these things a generous space in our lives and ministry.
As pastor of a city church, there are moments and events—both civic and ecclesial—that stand out. Last week was one of those. I was privileged to attend the inauguration of the new Anglican Primate of Australia. It was an impressive occasion in a majestic space.
With Bishops and Archbishops from around the nation, the Archbishop of Canterbury in the pulpit, the Governor of Victoria and the immediate past Governor-General of Australia, and Heads of churches and traditions from across the ecclesial spectrum, the procession of clerical spendour was long and grand. Feeling awkward in my poor excuse for Baptist robes, I paraded in self-consciously alongside others looking resplendent and assured. Once seated under the great dome that soars above the altar, I looked out on the grandeur of St Paul’s. The organ fanfares were beautiful, the magnificent choral music of the choir rising into the space above. It was a moment, majestic and splendid in every way.
But then, like every moment, it was over. As I made my way home, walking along Flinders Street, robes draped over my arm, I felt like I often do at such times. The contrast is stark. From the heights of liturgical splendour and the trappings of clerical office to standing in the drizzling rain, waiting for a pedestrian light to turn green as impatient drivers sound their horns. The footpaths underfoot were wet as I navigated my way through the crowded overflow at the corner pub. No processions here. No titles. No deference. If the extraordinary has its moment, the ordinary has the day.
Next morning at the office it’s back to the routines of what I do. Phone calls to return, emails to answer, chairs to move, and appointments that don’t show. There are moments in any job, I suppose; moments of reward and recognition, those moments when you get a glimpse of something much bigger than your little patch and contribution. But they are just that: moments.
The truth is, most of what we do as pastors and priests is entirely without fanfare, unseen and mundane. Eugene Peterson calls ours an ‘essentially modest and obscure way of life.’ He’s right. Whatever our tradition, whatever ways we decorate and slice our ecclesial cake, the real work is in the baking, and in sweeping up the crumbs afterwards. Really, it’s a modest business we’re in.
Though I confess to enjoying a moment every now and then, I am kind of glad they are few and far between. In my experience, there is something about the nature of ministry that finds its deepest integrity in the routine fidelities and duties of what we do. Honestly, there is so much we can hide under robes and in pulpits, but so little we can camouflage for any length of time in the daily routines of our work.
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.
How does a pastor measure her success? How does a church leader rate his impact week by week? As ignoble as they sound, questions like these are with us all the time. In rare moments of honesty, I hear them in the confession of colleagues struggling with their adequacy. I hear them, too, hidden in the bravado of the over-confident — the ones who need to tell you all the time just how successful their churches are. For both, I suspect, the questions are the same: Am I doing any good? Am I kicking goals? Am I really up for this? And how can I know?
The ‘right’ answer is obvious. I’ve heard it before: ‘It’s not about success, Simon, it’s about faithfulness. Be faithful to God and let success take care of itself.’ Yeah, ok. But honestly, faithfulness? Isn’t there something a bit more … countable? Frankly, we crave more than a ‘chestnut’ to assess our impact, no matter how truthful. What we want are numbers!
Numbers tell us things. Numbers make success measurable. If there are ten more people this Sunday than last, that’s good, right? If the pews are more obviously full this year than they were last year, that’s a goal, right? If the offerings are on the up, that’s a clear indicator of success, right? To say no to any of this is disingenous. Whether we like it or not, numbers matter to us. Numbers are tangible and, given they’re headed in the right direction, they make a pastoral report look so much better! That said, numbers like these are also the bane of a pastor’s life. They are extraordinarily fickle things — slippery, and so very hard to hold for any length of time. Numbers can be used to stroke your ego one day and hit you over the head the next. Numbers can hurt.
Years ago, as a young pastor-in-training, I spent time in the US. I stayed with a seasoned pastor and his family, sitting at their dining room table for Sunday lunch over several months. After each Sunday service and on his way out the door, the pastor was handed a little slip of paper. On it were three numbers: the day’s participants in all-age Sunday School, the offerings for the morning, and the number of worshippers in attendance that day. The slip of paper would sit just to the right of his lunch plate as we ate, and I would watch his mood rise or fall week by week depending on the trend of those figures. The truth is, he was a far more gifted pastor than I will ever be, but as I watched the weekly impact of those numbers on his sense of worth, I remember thinking, ‘God, save me from this!’
Certainly the desire for numerical measures of success in the church, while not always nobly inspired, is human. In the midst of all the vagaries of pastoral ministry, it’s good to have something we can count. Besides, aspiring to growth through what we do is surely worthwile. Without vision, longing, aspiration, ministry can stagnate. It can even start to smell. Occasionally, as I walk through our old sanctuary at Collins Street (when no one else is around), I stop and imagine. I imagine the sanctuary full of people, the gallery overflowing with worshippers. I hear the stories of the golden days, the days when you had to have a ticket to get a seat, when neighbouring theatres had to be booked to cope with the crowds. Yes, it was a long time ago, a different age, but it’s still a great story. Who wouldn’t aspire to the visible signs of a vital and growing congregation, no matter what the context?
I suspect an important question for pastors is around just what the signs of spiritual vitality are in a church. After all, if we’re going to measure things, we need to measure the right things. What’s more, any measuring we do needs to be done with a generous dose of humility, for there’s a good chance that, held captive by numbers, we become blind to more significant truths. In my experience, there is so much to the deepening of faith in a church — things that cannot be tallied on a spreadsheet. Indeed, there’s a great deal about the church as a living, fragile organism of faith that is intangible and defies the simple trajectory of graphs and charts. While numbers can tell us things important to ministry — things to which we need to pay attention — they can also be deceptive. Numbers can hide as much as they reveal.
Frankly, I don’t know how one measures success in church leadership. What’s more, I’m rarely comfortable with those who say they do. While I suspect there’s a legitimate need for doing so — a place for KPIs, numerical targets and counting things — I am also conscious that the church I lead is not a business and that I dare not reduce our evaluation of mission to measuring market share. What I do know is that the call to follow Jesus is a call as much to loss as gain, as much to a downward journey as an upward trajectory. Because of this, a pastor’s self-evaluation demands a level of rigour and grace that numbers alone will never provide.
‘ … there is no blueprint on file for becoming a pastor. In becoming one, I have found that it is a most context-specific way of life: the pastor’s emotional life, family life, experience in the faith, and aptitudes worked out in the actual congregation in the neighborhood in which she or he lives — these people just as they are, in this place. No copying. No trying to be successful. The ways in which the vocation of pastor is conceived, develops, and comes to birth is unique to each one.’
‘I am a pastor. My work has to do with God and souls — immense mysteries that no one has ever seen at any time. But I carry out this work in conditions — place and time — that I see and measure wherever I find myself, whatever time it is. There is no avoiding the conditions. I want to be mindful of the conditions. I want to be as mindful of the conditions as I am of the holy mysteries.’
‘How do we preach the good news to those who, because they pass the time indoors, have rarely wondered at the stars or been terrified before storms; to those who, because of human congregating and its attendant psychological effects, are inclined to think of themselves of little worth; to those who, because of technological advances, are predisposed to associate salvation with self-help and science? Those who preach while unaware of these questions can only wonder why many in their audience grow ever more suspicious. Christians may claim that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. But the rest of us are not.’
Preaching sermons has never been my favourite thing to do. Pulpits have always been awkward, difficult places for me to fill. It’s an odd confession from a pastor, especially a Baptist and in a church like mine. The sanctuary at Collins Street is old school, grand and built in the 1840s with a solid mahogany pulpit sitting high above the pews. As you mount the stairs of the church under the high Corinthian columns and then make you way into the sanctuary, the 170-year tradition of rousing oratory hangs heavy in the air.
It’s not just the pulpit that’s challenging, nor the space. It’s the business of standing in front of people with an obligation to say something of truth, something that might shift or change things for those who listen. I don’t do it easily nor always well, but it’s part of my job, even my calling.
My aversion to preaching is not common among colleagues. Indeed, I listen longingly as I hear other pastors talk of the things most fulfilling in their work. Invariably, preaching is near the top of the list. I’ve often thought that’s how it should be for me too, but though there are times — moments when I feel something more — for the most part it’s a challenge.
The danger for reluctant preachers like me is that we constantly hunt for models to emulate. Not content with ourselves, we imagine things differently: ‘If only I could be more like him!’; ‘I like her style. Perhaps I could do that!’ It’s certainly true that we have much to learn from others, but perhaps the best piece of advice I’ve been given by a seasoned pastor was this: ‘Simon, be yourself. That’s the gift you have to give.’
In 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), the American essayist and poet, addressed the graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School. In the midst of a rousing and often biting lecture, and one that reflected his entirely male audience, Emerson said this:
‘Let me admonish you, first of all: to go it alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred to the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. Friends enough you shall find who will hold up to your emulation Wesleys and Oberlins, Saints and Prophets. Thank God for these good men, but say, ‘I also am a man.’ Imitation cannot go above its models. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity.’
After twenty five years of standing in pulpits, the challenge of doing so remains. But I’ve been slowly relieved of the burden to do so in ways that are not me and not real. I may never be the preacher I once imagined I should be, and I will always cherish the gifts of others who do it differently, but the words of my advisor from long ago bring comfort and challenge enough: ‘Simon, be yourself. That’s the gift you have to give.’