It is a little after 2 p.m. on a Wednesday during Lent as I write. Since arriving in the office at 9 a.m., I have: prayed the office of readings from the iBreviary app on my phone, revised the prayers of the people for this weekend’s services, tried to help arrange for a car payment for a member, picked Scripture readings for a Saturday funeral, had a phone conversation about the ELCA’s new fundraising campaign and another about our town’s Memorial Day parade, sent a few emails, left a couple of voicemails, set up a visit to a homebound member, discussed this Sunday’s first communion class with our Christian education director, and met with my senior pastor to discuss the pastoral care concerns of the parish. A little later I’ll be proofreading the bulletin and meeting with a family whose mother and daughter are new to church and preparing for baptism. Midweek worship will follow.
I have also spent some time chatting on Gmail with a colleague. I’ve eaten three Reese’s peanut butter cups and drunk two cups of tea (maintenance doses following my morning cups of coffee). I found a really exciting article via Twitter about Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit priest and poet, that I haven’t had the chance to read yet. But that’s ok, because three of the biggest items on my to-do list still stare accusingly, uncrossed, from the page.
Now and again I like to journal these work days, not to admire the quantity of work that I do—no one who regularly memorializes people who worked building houses or milking cows has any business feeling anything but lucky to have such soft-handed labor as this. Rather, I do it first and foremost to feel grateful for the sheer diversity of the work that is daily given for me to do. In a much-shared post at the Christian Century earlier this year, Carol Howard Merritt listed ten reasons being a pastor is “the best job ever,” and rare is the day that I don’t hit at least a few of them. Flowers (#7) don’t get left on my desk, but otherwise I can identify with the whole list, from the holy moments to the variety of tasks (and I get a lot—I mean a lot—of funeral leftovers, which Merritt doesn’t mention).
That’s not my only reason for taking stock of a random work day, however. Sometimes, in the midst of all the diversity and holiness and intellectual stimulation, I wonder whether there is any rhyme or reason to it. And if there is, I don’t have a very good way to explain or identify it.
I have been doing pastoral work long enough to have been exposed to several different models of pastoral leadership, all of them intriguing and all based on valuable insights into how religious communities function. I have also, crucially, never served anywhere long enough to actually attempt to adopt one wholeheartedly. A pastor who can keep to a closely defined strategic direction is like a dog who can sit still through a tennis game. Bouncing balls are always coming our way. And sometimes, to be perfectly honest, it can be easier to chase them than to think hard about what I really ought to be doing. Sometimes even a hard phone call is easier than asking what, exactly, would justify the money people voluntarily give so that I can have this best job ever.
But it is not just that I, at least, marvel at my colleagues who seem to know what they’re doing day by day. It’s also that that very models that aim to fix the problem of pastoral identity by limiting it end up being complicated by the swiftly-changing reality of the American church. One learns how to interact with a community’s family system, for instance, just as that system is shifting rapidly. Getting ahead of and reacting to those shifts become even more important than tending to the system as you found it.
And so it seems, to me at least, that a certain nimbleness is the key requirement of pastoral leadership as I’ve come to know it. Seminaries and denominations are moving—perhaps belatedly—to reduce requirements for degree programs and ordination preparation, and while the impulse is good and probably necessary, I wonder where that leaves the leaders of the future. We are contracting our model of ministry education even as we are expanding our model of ministry. Today religious leaders are responsible not just for cultivating their own tradition, but also for being knowledgeable enough to interact fruitfully with people in other traditions. They must not only guide and protect an institution with its own history and folkways, but help cut a path toward new organizational forms and ways of being in community. They need to be ministry professionals but also, increasingly, people with other vocations that help to support their needs and inform their pastoral work.
I don’t have any good ideas on how to cultivate this expansiveness in our leaders. Perhaps we should all be apprenticed to sea captains for a year in the hope of spurring a little Odysseus-like crazed ingenuity, not to mention picking up some bankable skills. Or we should have to spend summers raising livestock and praying together at dawn like the early monastics. Routing our language study through online classes and paring back academic requirements won’t do us any good if it doesn’t open up ways for our leaders to grow elsewhere.