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Going the Second Yard

Going the Second Yard

    "I was a stranger and you welcomed me."  Matthew 25:35

    The last note of the postlude had sounded.  The bubbling of conversation at coffee hour had begun.  I stood at an edge of the very large room surveying the crowd.  And wondering, just wondering if... well, maybe challenging anyone to welcome me. No one did.  I was in someone else's church.  A stranger, and they may have taken me in, but they didn't open their arms... or their mouths. 

    I don't think of me as an imposing presence.  At the counters of local commerce (think hardware stores) I usually have to insist to be served.  But within a fellowship touting its own warm heart?  I wasn't scowling.  I took a shower that morning.  

    Maybe the problem wasn't me.  Nor was the problem them.  There was a conspicuous absence who bears the blame: the pastor.  He wasn't anywhere to be seen. Give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps a ne'er-do-well had accosted him following the benediction and he had retreated to his office in search of a ten dollar bill from discretionary funds.  Or he was suddenly summoned to the hospital to pray pre-op over a devoted congregant.  Could be, except I spied him in another corner munching a chocolate chip and sipping coffee.

    Which leads me to posit a previously unlisted quality sorely needed in the effective pastor: an open and engaging spirit.  The pastor in the fellowship room following the service, no less than in the pulpit, sets the tone for the congregation. 

    Right at the start let me be clear that I am not advocating extroversion as a requirement for clergy. I have suffered my share of the hale and well-met turned around collars, who with their smiles and quips would make a seasoned politician blush.  I am pushing for something more substantive, like what I read in Time Magazine, April 26, 1963, in an article on Richard Burton:

He talks to everyone as if they matter. It is his special gift, seldom found in actors, or, for all that, in clergymen. Burton's secret is simple. Everyone actually does matter to him. He tells more stories than Scheherazade, but between them he listens. He really wants to hear about one man's children or another's Sunday football match. He can make people feel larger than life. Men appreciate him for it; but women write him letters, chase him around tables, and follow him overseas.

This description, lodged in my brain and, recovered precisely with the help of Google and the Time's archive, stayed with me over the years because of that stinging caveat about my profession, there at the beginning, Burton's special quality, being open and engaging, "seldom found in actors, or, for all that, in clergymen."  More's the pity.  Especially since my reading of the Gospels convinces me that the first Christian pastor not only was a great preacher but a superb listener who could make those around him "feel larger than life."      

    It is, this gift, the one Burton had and pastors should get if they don't have it, a simple (but probably not so simple!) matter of really being there when you are there.  With someone else in front of you, speaking with them not just to them, hearing what they are saying, when the temptation is strong, especially if one is a competitive type like I am, to use the time the other is speaking to formulate one's own next narrative.  Truly engaging another soul, means giving them (and yourself) full integrity. In that miserly corner of my brain, where I keep score of slights (oh, Lord, forgive me, a sinner, such pettiness!), I list a mayor, a seminary president, and a college president, each of whom, in his own unwitting way, when speaking with me was obviously looking over my shoulder for someone else more important with whom to speak.  They weren't there when they were there in front of me.  That "miserly corner of my brain" shouts accusations at me when it finds me lapsing into the same modus operandi when a conversation runs on too long and I get antsy to get on with other business.  That is, the pastor, to be effective (and faithful!) should steer away from the cocktail party syndrome, where five minutes of small talk is operative and then it's time to move on to the next claque.  Just be there, reverend, when you are there.           

    There is, of course, a variety of gifts.  And this one, the ability to genuinely and deeply engage another soul, one on one, gets overlooked in most ordination requirements and seminary courses. In the United Methodist Church, my denomination, John Wesley, the church's founder, prescribed three measures for a prospective pastor: grace, gifts, and fruits. Perhaps in 18th century English society with its dilettante Deism a revival had to be thoroughly spiritual in nature, and it may explain why Mr. Wesley was so focused on gifts of the perception of transcendence that he ignored the necessity of an open and engaging spirit toward the stranger, at least in his prescriptions for leaders of the Methodist societies.  Here is a reflection of his concerns, under the category of gifts, I found in the ordination manual of the United Methodists referencing Wesley and his inquiry of ordinands:

Have they gifts, as well as evidence of Godís grace, for the work? Have they a clear, sound understanding; a right judgment in the things of God; a just conception of salvation by faith? Do they speak justly, readily, clearly?

Ah me, nothing here about the gift to listen.  Nothing about mingling during the coffee hour.

    In my travels through the years, lots of them, I have rubbed elbows and drunk coffee with some of the most famous American pulpiteers of this and the past century; and, more often than not, found them strangely wanting in this pastoral gift, the one Richard Burton reputedly possessed.  I think of a much-published fellow known for his expansive, optimistic take on the Christian faith.  He was, in my conversation with him across the dinner table, unexpectedly shy and hesitant, unlike his bold posturing in the pulpit.  I found myself feeling sorry for him, embarrassed even, and he was the shining star, I was the dim satellite. Then there is that prophetic preacher, who had a story for every occasion, whose sermons were erudite, witty, and very much to the point; but around the after-service coffee table he continued to behave as if the benediction had never been pronounced, offering one witty anecdote after another, while I remained in rapt and annoyed silence.  The next time we met he had, of course, not the slightest idea that we had met before.   

    On the other hand, I have conversed with (and cherished!) a goodly number of ecclesiastics gifted with an engaging and open spirit. An Episcopalian priest, for a recent example, sat me down one New Year's Eve and asked me how it was going with me in retirement; and she really wanted to know, persisted gently with her questions, until I found myself telling her an inordinate amount of my private thoughts.  At which point, it dawning on me that I, a pastor, was being pastored, said words to this effect, "Whoa! I'm divulging stuff only my wife should know."  The priest in Richard Burton's footsteps smiled and proceeded to elicit even more.  She has the gift... and she uses it to good advantage as a professional in pastoral counseling... that is, counseling from a pastoral perspective, not counseling only pastors.

    Those clergypersons who match her way with me and, presumably, many others share two characteristics: they are secure in their own identity and they are curious about others. Being secure in your own identity, feeling comfortable with yourself, should not be confused, I regularly explain to a teenager living with us, with being full of yourself.  The latter is a posture, more to be pitied than envied, usually issuing from a very uncertain ego seeking to pump itself up with notions of its own importance.  The truly secure soul is identified by an absence of insistence on his own rightness or goodness or, in the entry halls of heaven, holiness.  He does not, when under attack, rush quickly to his own defense.  He knows, as those on the campaign trail seem not to, that character eventually will out.

    Like Richard Allen Hildebrand, a Methodist minister in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant years ago, said to me one evening at the Montauk Club following the monthly gathering of a clerical club that fancied itself as the faithful intelligentsia.  He had finished reading a paper for us, on the Ten Percenters, a Black militant group the memory of which, happily, is lost in the antiquity of the 1960's.  I pressed Pastor Hildebrand on his stance on the issue, Black power.  He responded, "Bob, I know who I am," which I took (rightly so!) to mean he had no need for raised fists and belligerent rhetoric, that, with the peaceably insistent and challenging spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. as his model, he would, and we all would, see racial justice prevail.

    The coffee hour, no less than the picket line, needs the presence of a pastor who knows who he is and, therefore, with such self-confidence, is able to reach out and embrace the stranger standing idly alone on the edge of the room.  An inapt comparison, some might suggest, coffee hour and picket line.  Maybe.  But, I submit, breaking the ice in a room full of strangers, going that Biblical second mile that is only a couple of yards, finding the courage to reach out, can be as fearsome a challenge as marching in front of a Congressman's office in the name of world peace, the more so if you are doing it alone.  Still, it's the pastor's duty.

    Made possible by a humble sense of one's own worth... aided and abetted by a curiosity about others.  That's the secret of small talk with strangers, wanting to know where they come from, what they do, where they live, what excites them and what doesn't.  Yes, it borders on nosiness; but, as a practitioner of this inquisitive art, I can assure you that nine out of ten people like nothing better than to talk about themselves. And the quieter they seem to be, the more they have to say.  Armed with this intelligence, breaking the ice with a stranger in the coffee hour, the sanctity of the counseling room, or anywhere else, is as easy as melting the snow in a January thaw.  The second greatest commandment would seem to require it, seeing that most of us find ourselves the most interesting subject, we should give the other guy a chance with his most favorite subject. Stepping out beyond the restricting borders of your own persona, like Richard Burton, convincing the other that you are genuinely interested in them, that they do matter... well, few qualities will enhance a pastor's ministry more.           

    For which the rewards are considerable.  Communally, the payoff is a church that gains a reputation as friendly, which is something more than sociable, a place where there is no ice to break and the worshiper will feel instantly at home; and by "home" is meant quite a bit more than a peaceable and comforting moment in time, a place akin to Psalm 23:6 and John 14:1. In my travels in retirement, during which I have applied my critical faculties to the spiritual offerings of fifty different churches, I have, as you might expect of a preacher, given primary emphasis on the sermon, the faithfulness of it, the imagination in it, and the effectiveness of its presentation.  A poor twenty minutes in the pulpit ruins the whole service for me, taints the splendor of the music and the generosity of the fellowship.  On the other hand, a cold and unresponsive fellowship during the coffee hour seriously, though not terminally, diminishes the morning experience, no matter how standout the effectiveness of the preaching.  The final judgment to be rendered in each of the reviews I've posted (which see, under "Reviews" as at the top left on this page), only once stated, otherwise assumed, is "Would I return or encourage others to attend?"  With no second yard/mile in the coffee hour, I would be hesitant to say "Sure," to this question about a church, lest the advisee determine on the basis of my recommendation that I too must belong to the "frozen chosen."

    The rewards not only benefit the church fellowship; they also accrue to the pastor personally.  The Rev. Lewis H. Davis, better known in our family as Dad or Dub, my dear wife's father, counseled me long ago to "get so close to your congregation that when they kick it won't hurt."  That is, if your kicker is within arm's embrace, there won't be much distance to gather momentum for the boot.  Pastor Davis practiced what he preached.  A seminarian in the day of the Social Gospel he was passionate about social and political issues, like world peace in the post World War II era.  When the scuttlebutt in the church he was pastoring whispered that such concerns were communist, in a time when Senator Joseph McCarthy was stirring the political pot, a devoted member of the church and also a devoted Republican, upon hearing the scuttlebutt opined that, "Well, if the Rev. Davis is for it, there must be something good in it."  The pastor whom you know and love is not easy to dismiss.

    That's a practical, maybe even self-serving reason, the pastor should learn from Richard Burton... who, knowingly or not, was borrowing from Jesus.

    If you've read this far, God bless you!  You might also have begun to conclude that I am laying on the pastor one more among the many onerous expectations that office has been asked to shoulder.  And you're probably right.  Even the Apostle Paul, who advocated it, failed (if you read his biography between the verses) to be "all things to all people."  So, if the pastor prefers to munch his chocolate chip coffee in an obscure corner of the room during the coffee hour, then the church council should establish a cadre of greeters to do the mingling for him or her. 

    But I would not so easily relieve the pastor of the necessity of learning from Burton and Jesus.  If the arts of intimate conversation are not taught at seminary and if the classes in clinical pastoral education fail to impart the strategies and the attitudes to turn a reluctant temperament in that direction, then I would suggest that during a course of continuing study (required annually in the United Methodist Church) or during a sabbatical, the chilly pastor avail himself of a tutor in these arts.  Like the aforesaid Mr. Wesley who famously counseled preachers: "Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith."

    Practice intentionally the gift of an open and engaging spirit until it becomes second nature.      

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