About two weeks ago now, my friend Todd, a UCC pastor in Massachusetts posted something on his Facebook page about “having a conversation with the father of creation spirituality…” I was so struck by this, that I decided to write. What was astounding to me was 1) Todd knew how to find “the father of creation spirituality”, Matthew Fox and 2) That he was so nonchalant about it and 3) That no one else made a big deal about it – maybe because it seems “normal”.
When I was a church pastor, struggling with the Bible and homosexuality, I sent a letter to Robert MacAfee Brown asking him what he thought, and he graciously replied saying, “you think you understand the issue until you actually meet them, then you have to think about it and what to do”. By this, I guess Todd is “normal” for a pastor, but being a pastor is – for the rest of the world, almost by definition, not normal – and it’s not for the reasons most people think.
If you went to your local dentist – another professional – and he mentioned in conversation that he has just had a conversation with the man who invented crowns for teeth so he could do a better job, you’d think he was remarkable to go that far. If your mechanic said he had just spoken with the CEO of Ford about your oil filter, you’d think that extraordinary. If your lawyer had just had a conversation with a Supreme Court about something to do with your case, you’d think you were getting the best lawyer in town, but pastors do this kind of thing all the time. It’s part of their job. Local church pastors are the great translators, the bridge between worlds, for much of society.
Theologian Gabe Fackre pointed out that the cross had 2 axes – a vertical axis, connecting God to humans and a horizontal one connecting humans to humans. He said this in relation to Jesus’ work and salvation. I have used the analogy when speaking about forgiveness – “it’s great that God forgives you, but you still have the other side of the cross to deal with”. This Cross/Bridge is what makes the job of being a pastor so different.
I’ve been fascinated by the idea that George Harris, the pastor at my home church, has put forth a vision statement that talks about the church “bridging” different parts of society in our little corner of New Britain, because it is indeed the work of the church to do this, but it is also the unspoken work of pastors on a daily basis.
When Todd brings his seminary education to the pulpit or talks to Matthew Fox, he connects the worlds of learned theology to people of all different stripes. He preaches to those with good education and those who like to read, but don’t have time to hack away at St. Augustine – and he preaches to people who can’t read.
When he steps out of the pulpit and joins people for coffee hour, he is just as likely to talk to a 4 year old about Barney as a 14 year old who cares about Katie Perry and High School or a 70 year old man who fought in Vietnam or Korea – and he is expected to be fluent in all of their languages. This is that vertical axis Fackre talked about.
And it is this way for every pastor I have ever known. It has been said that “pastors are the last great “generalists”. They are supposed to know a little something about everything”. In fact, they know a little about a lot of things in order to preach or counsel or teach or just hang out with people in the parish. But the reality goes deeper than that. The fact is that pastors know a little bit about a lot of things because they know a lot of people and they see everyone on the horizontal axis as well.
When Benny or Gerry Claytor or Vernon Thompson or any member of Bridgeport’s IMA had an issue in their community, they spoke to the Mayor or the State Rep whom they knew and was no more important than the Church Mother back in their pew. When Char Corbett does work on healthcare, she speaks the truth to power because the people in power are no more important in God’s eyes than the person in her church with no heat in her house because of her hospital bills. Pastors speak the Truth to power all the time and they bridge worlds doing it.
If you want a letter of reference for your kid’s college application, the pastor writes one. If you need help with immigration, the pastor writes to the State Department or the INS on your behalf. If you need to find food or heating assistance, your pastor calls around and knows who to call or finds out. If your family is burned out of their home, as clients of mine were recently, the pastor gets the gears of the church going so that the church supplies furniture as best they can.
It’s not unusual for a pastor to speak to the mayor, read to school children, visit a wealthy matron, meet with local businesspeople at a committee meeting, and speak with a poor homeless addict all in the same day. Oh, yeah, and during the week, they try to find time to speak with God, as well – about the needs of their congregations. At the end of the day, that same pastor carries the weight around of each of them and builds another piece of the bridge that their lives become.
There are studies of job satisfaction which indicate that pastors, of all professions, are the most satisfied with their careers. At the same time, many pastors I know are nearly “burned out” at certain times of the year. How can this be? Here’s where the metaphor breaks down – or not – depending on your viewpoint. Pastors either are the bridge, in which case people drive over them all day, or pastors cross the bridge all the time. In any case, being a pastor is not a job for someone who doesn’t handle change or transitions well. All of this motion, all of this switching gears, all of this building connections wears a person out, even if they like the job. This is why they need so much time off.
So, here’s to that local church pastor, the bridge between worlds – the sacred and profane, the rich, the poor and the middle class, the powerful and the weak, the educated and the illiterate, those being born and those dying. May we and God, who gain so much from them, support them on their journey.
(And congradulations to Todd, Joe, Eric, Lucille, Leigh, Matt, Pete, John, Gerry, and so many others who have been in the ministry for 25 years or so now. I still miss Charlie, Benny and Newt.)