Chapter 2. The Professional Christian
"Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven". Matthew 5:16
For the past fifty years Protestant ministers have been engaged in an unannounced liberation movement, away from the stuffy, stilted, stained glass image of the minister, toward greater freedom in personal habits and forms of piety. The ranks of these quiet revolutionaries have recently been swelled by Roman Catholic priests escaping the restraints of a rigid pastoral role shaped in part by the paranoia of Counter Reformation fears. Heads no longer turn very quickly when a Methodist clergyperson1 salutes the bride and groom with a glass of champagne; or when the parish priest appears at an ecumenical luncheon dressed in denims. Forty years ago a divorced minister was as hopelessly compromised as a married priest. Today, with more realistic and generous attitudes prevailing, each erring apostle can expect a second chance. The laity have heard and heeded the ecclesiastics' declaration, that they too are human.
It is in this context, of freedom newly won, a freedom I endorse and enjoy, that I propose a reconsideration of the ministry as an example of what a Christian ought to be: that person in the congregation who is paid not only to lead the prayer, sprinkle the water on babies or immerse adults, and stuff ten commandments into adolescent minds; but also to be a bona fide disciple to whom other Christians can look for moral and spiritual guidance. If the average parishioner has no right to expect more of his pastor than of himself, he certainly has the right to expect as much of his pastor as he in his best moments wants of himself.
This expectation of professionalism in the pastor means, first and most simply, competence. The spiritual mentor ought to be so thoroughly versed in Scripture he can locate a Biblical quote as to book and chapter without reference to a concordance. He should have at tongue tip articulations of basic Christian beliefs, able to explain at the drop of a doubt the traditional formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity in terms comprehensible to a thirteen year old. He should be equipped with that necessary combination of compassion and objectivity to referee the conflicts which inevitably arise between spouses, between parent and child, and among sheep within the same fold. He should be able to pray arrestingly without prior warning when the Lions assemble, when the family banquet threatens to get cold for lack of piety, or when another human being, whether for propriety's sake or in desperation, asks for a "word of prayer." He should have learned how to handle a gavel and browsed through Roberts' Rules of Order, the better to conduct a meeting fairly. He should develop the poise and accumulate the experience to enable him to complete the wedding service after he discovers he left his reading glasses at home, and to preach a full length sermon when the guest preacher fails to appear at the anointed hour.
Christian professionalism means, also and most importantly, integrity, that the pastor can be counted on to mean what he says, and do what he exhorts others to do. Without arrogance the pastor will take as his theme the Apostle Paul's appeal in Philippians 3:17, "Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us." In practice, therefore, the preacher will not only deliver the Loyalty Sunday sermon on "sacrificial giving," he will by the example of his own checkbook lead his congregation by the size of his contribution and the percentage it represents of his family income. The effective pastor will not only extol the rule of the turned cheek, he will in the strength of his own soul and the confidence of his faith, accept with equanimity the repeated abuse of those with less than deadly sin.2 And he who summons others to worldly service will be among the first to volunteer his counsel, his time, and his pint of blood for community purposes.
My immersion into the role of a pastor began in one of those semi-rural Connecticut towns slowly going exurbanite. The pastor who preceded me, Harold Wilson, had endeared himself to the tiny congregation for his eight years of devoted ministry given, it should be noted, in his retirement and as he suffered the restrictions of advancing blindness. Within the year after he passed the pulpit to me, he died. The funeral service was held in another exurbanite cathedral in Greenwich, Connecticut, the white clapboard building filled to overflowing with mourners, many of them overwhelmed with tears at remembered kindness. When the eulogies were over and the last triumphant hymn sung, Mrs. Wilson stood by the door to receive the guests who had come to thank the Lord of a good and kindly man who was an effective minister. But no tears streaked her face. It was not from lack of grief, but from a a surplus of hope supporting a brave faith. I overheard her explain to a former parishioner who remarked on her calm demeanor: "Harold and I always told others to be strong and trust in God in moments like this one; and now it's my turn to practice what we preached." In the pastor's most personal hours, whether he likes it or not, others will be looking on and, without ever saying so or thinking so, measuring the quality of his faith, how well it tolerates the testing, and taking their cue from him what the Gospel faith is really all about.3
Few aspects of a pastor's performance will be more closely watched than his ministry to those who dislike him or who have been losers to him in parochial battles about program, personnel, and even theology. The New Testament is replete with the exaltation of the softer virtues: patience, forbearance, forgiveness, kindness, second miles, turned cheeks, blessed meekness, the acceptance of undeserved persecution, all of the beautiful faces of that many splendored thing which is the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, love, agape. Among the rigors imposed by this grand imperative none is more critical in its application for an effective pastor than the Lordly rule with a double thrust: "if... you remember that your brother has something against you,... go... be reconciled to your brother" (Matthew 5:23,24); and (Matthew 18:15), "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone." Whether offended or the offender (and, I would add as a contemporary emendation, even if the brother only feels hurt, and, objectively considered, has no real reason to feel that way), the painful distance must be traversed from clerical doorstep to laic one. It is among the most arduous of second miles. Rarely does it lead to reconciliation or satisfaction. Often it will be interpreted as weakness. Yet it has to be traveled if the minister is to be believable... in his office or in the pulpit.
By way of illustration I cite an incident in which I was required to manifest the personal and faithful integrity I here urge for all pastors. At a meeting of the church's governing board, then named Official Board, I committed the regrettable but understandable sin of losing my temper and venting it upon one person in particular. Needless to say, I felt I had been adequately provoked. But I was young and still had to learn the hard lesson of every effective pastor, to suffer fools, if not gladly, then quietly. I was twenty-eight and he was fifty-two, the church had been his longer than it had been mine, and what I considered provocation he considered long-standing habit. Before I finished my tongue-lashing, be it noted, in the presence of his peers who were rooting for me, he stood up, announced he did not have to take such venom from anyone, but especially a minister of God, and left the building, his family's church (!), never to return. Two weeks later when it became apparent he meant what he said, I drove to his home. How I longed for the pushing of the doorbell to produce no answer. Before I had a chance to turn and hide in my car, the maligned parishioner's wife answered and ushered me into the living room where my antagonist waited. The meeting was strangely calm. I apologized. He accepted. We then covered the topic of our earlier conversations: basketball, his son, his parents, and why didn't I wear snappier clothes. But he never again worshiped in the sanctuary which had been his home for a lifetime. Thereafter whenever we met we were quite cordial. We were reconciled, but more like the partners to a divorce who remain amicable. His friends, my parishioners, watching carefully, concluded evidently that I had behaved in accordance with the rules of the Kingdom and, after all, whether one wins or loses, what matters is how one plays the Christian.
This portray of the professional Christian may appear to be the "repedestalization" of the clergy, at a time when the laity have learned to grant him at least one foot of clay. It is to this tendency of people to idealize the men and women of God that the effective minister can bring his most salutary witness. Indeed, if, as Karl Barth and others have taught, Christ descended into true humanity (the Incarnation), his disciples should be busy defining in their own lives the character of that true humanity.4
Those pastors I have admired most, people whose own example made the ministry conceivable as a vocational choice for me, were full of life and love. Rarely did I notice their godliness, what in an earlier century might have been touted as true piety. The pastor of my home church, bald as Telly Savalas except for two tufts of white, collected lost causes like euthanasia, miscegenation, abstinence from alcohol, and world federalism. From him I learned a thorny justice; plus an abundance of fun songs for campfires, including "Ten Blue Pigeons." Another minister, whose thriftiness and laughter are legendary among those who knew him in Brooklyn, impressed me with the violence of his slide into second base and the equal passion with which he offered in one of those sharing prayers in an assembly of Junior Highs his highest gratitude for Jesus Christ. My first District Superintendent fascinated me with his two obsessions: (1) people, caring for and delighting in them; and (2) carpentry, a redemptive ministry of sorts, reclaiming for usefulness old dressers and chests heaped on someone's trash pile. These twin occupations were worthy of carpenter Joseph's son, also known as The Good Shepherd.
I was, obviously, watching and measuring this trio (and many more) of professional Christians to see what it takes, whether I would have to sacrifice my individuality on a vocational altar or could continue to play roundball on hardwood courts in shorts and a T shirt, clip hedges on Sunday, and ride a bicycle enroute to a shut-in for holy communion.5
For better of worse, like it or not, the minister is an example of the Christian; inevitably he re-presents Christ.
A young preacher, still mouthing the impossible possibilities of his Neo-Orthodox theological training, scorning the easy yoke in favor of the narrow way, was dumbfounded when a woman presented herself for church membership. For years she had worshiped in the fifth pew from back, but had refused other invitations to join the church. She explained that for the first time in her life, listening to to the young pastor, she felt she could be a Christian. In retrospect it would not be difficult to guess the reason for her change of heart: the deeds which were the background for the preacher's words, his vitality and love for people, were like honey to bees, sweetly appealing, despite the thorns protecting the bloom.6
The effective pastor will gladly embrace the role Providence thrusts upon him, the professional Christian, and make it serve better purposes than were apparent to Elmer Gantry.7
Second Thoughts Twenty-five Years Later
1. "Clergyperson" is one of two places in the original document that I acknowledge the influence of gender concerns about language. I know it is a "hot" issue with many of my colleagues. Modern Mainline Protestant seminaries have elevated the concern to course status. But I have decided not to edit out the original use of the masculine pronoun convention in the English language in reference to clergy. I hope this lack of political correctness will not stunt the aspirations of young women of the present generation keen to become pastors. (A little sarcasm here!) The "he's" and "his's" are generic for "he/she" and "his/her." I confess to being a literalist (but not in the fundamentalist sense), however, when it comes to the translation of the Bible. If the original text is masculine, then, in my view, the translation should reflect that gender. Mea culpa, and a seventy year old one at that.
2. Those of you who are familiar with the swath I have cut through the fields of ecclesiastical bureaucracy might be thinking me a hypocrite, because I have been quite vocal and literal in my complaints against those in positions of leadership in the church beyond the local congregation. Yes, I am willing to suffer fools if they are members of my congregation or someone else's congregation. But, no, I am not ready to forgive and forget, when the fool wears a purple shirt with a large pectoral cross. Nor am I ready to offer excuses for other clergy who make fools of themselves by their stupidity and arrogant posturing. I seem to remember a certain Galilean prophet who forgave the sinner woman but who spared no hyperbolic invective against the ruling religious parties of his day. Like I said earlier in this chapter, about laity having a right to hold the pastor to a standard as high as they set for themselves: just as appropriate it is for me to expect behavior from those over me on the ecclesiastical pecking order as I would expect of myself.
3. As I retyped this ancient (!) text I do so having just learned of the death of a colleague in the United Methodist ministry, Bill Perkins. He suffered from cancer, through a siege that lasted several years. Within the month of his passing, he had returned to the land where he had served so happily in retirement, Ireland. Throughout the last stages of his illness friends shared messages of his courage and faith. The benediction in this morning's Email (10/2/2002) was that he had come to terms with his death and was ready for the next adventure. I am reminded of the warhorse of a hymn, "Are Ye Able," the verse which has us sing, "Are ye able when the shadows close around you with the sod, to believe that spirit triumphs, to commend your soul to God?" For Bill, whom I would surely number in my pantheon of effective pastors, the answer to the question the hymn poses is "Yes." Each of us, including me, will have to answer for ourselves as time on earth winds down.
4. My reference here is, at best, obscure. No need to credit Karl Barth as if he were a lonely witness. The descent into our humanity is eloquently phrased by the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2:1-11. In the traditional Christian witness to Jesus believers have been at pains to exalt him, without, perhaps, explaining just why the Almighty lifts the Lord Jesus up, namely, because he became one of us, even to suffering our death. The point is: if God took great pains to descend into our humanity in Jesus Christ, then Christians should go and do likewise, reach out and down into the world around us in compassion and kindness, for justice and peace. The first and greatest commandment is fulfilled in the second, to love our neighbors as ourselves. The effective pastor will lead this way of the church's descent into human need.
5. Among the most memorable of many memorable letters presented to me at my retirement was one composed by a young woman just beginning her college years. She wrote to the effect that in this very imperfect world where so many people we look up to disappoint us, she was grateful that I had been around during her formative years, as something of a signpost from God, that people can be kind and good and faithful. Wow, did her words ever make me feel wonderful, even as they filled me with anxiety for fear I might let her down when she got to know me better. But every pastor should herewith be put on notice, that others, especially young others, are looking on and taking it all in, just how the professional Christian conducts his life.
6. This woman's response needs more explaining. It wasn't that I was offering her a lower standard for the Christian's witness, but that I was presenting her with a standard different from that she had previously experienced in an evangelistic, pietistic environment. Among many members of that church lipstick was suspect. Going to the movies was the road to perdition. Christianity was defined in individualistic and moralistic terms. Getting close to Jesus meant eliminating in your life patterns every vestige of worldliness, such as makeup, cocktails, and singing popular songs. It also meant making a nuisance of yourself in polite conversation by asking people if they are saved. The woman volunteering for membership got the message from me that Jesus wasn't a spiritual bluenose; and that he loved people, all sorts and conditions of people.
7. This reference, to Elmer Gantry, is a tad dated. The movie of the same name, starring Burt Lancaster in, I think, an Oscar winning role, was still in the popular mind when I wrote this sentence. Elmer Gantry, for those of you who do no remember him, was an evangelist with a decidedly opportunistic streak... like Jim Baker (Tammy's husband, remember?) maybe, someone whose spirit was seriously lacking in authenticity. If you want to be a preacher, then be prepared to be the "real deal."