What a Pastor Does

I’m writing this post to clarify the long description that is the pastor’s.  Three things are in my mind as I blog.  First, there is a pastor in Florida whose actions are pushing a lot of people in my position to say, in other words, “Hey! We don’t do that!” 

Second, I’ve been writing or revising job descriptions since I first met with HR expert Bryan and his wife, Attorney Lashonda Hunt after I became the equivalent of a pastor with wide administrative responsibilities at Sweet Holy Spirit several years back.  I’m revising role descriptions now, including my own so this post is a reminder of sorts. 

And third, one of my mentors, my childhood-through-young-adulthood pastor, asked a really intriguing question, which I’ll talk about in the next post.  His status update is making me think about what we do and whether we can do this ministry while doing other things.

I’m interested to know what you’d add to this as you think about your pastor or spiritual leader.  For you who are spiritual leaders, contribute please.  Lincoln and Mamiya, in The Black Church in the African American Experience, said that the clergy and the church, particularly Black clergy and churches, “have carried burdens and performed roles and functions beyond their boundaries of spiritual nurture in politics, economics, education, music, and culture.”  I won’t be very specific going through these responsibilities.  In fact, I’m trying to be broad as I write these. 

Alright pastors…

1) Love people.  And not just people from our churches but plain people.  People we know and don’t.  People, we believe by our faith, that God knows.  This is the umbrella imperative to our work as religious leaders.  Without love, what we do can be summed up as pointless noise.  It means different things to do this, to offer love without condition.  It could mean staying on the phone with a person as he struggles with a problem.  It could mean sitting in a living room as someone repeats stories and recollections of a deceased relative’s life.  It could mean saying again the same thing you’ve said a dozen times.  It could mean remembering a detail, an important date, or a name.  Love looks a hundred and one ways.  It’s active in our work.  We don’t always love well.  We fail and sometimes more than we succeed.  We are subject to biases and wrongs like others.  But we must love or we should really do something else with our time.  Love lays the foundation for every other thing.  Like the cement floor in a home, love must be present, without cracks or blemishes, in order for the structure of our pastoral leadership to stand.  Indeed, those cracks and blemishes that decorate our attempts to love are remedied by time and pain and grace.

2) Promote the scriptures.  Reading is fundamental to most religious traditions.  There is history to learn and information to absorb and own and understand.  Of course for the Christian leader this means to read, study, reflect, and interpret scripture.  There’s no way to get around the fact that reading and interpreting and everything in between will produce a diverse reading of our scriptures.  But there is no stronger part of the job, so if we don’t do this, if we don’t do this well, everything else collapses.  One of my teachers said that the words of scripture are dangerous–because they intend to change us.  No one comes to them without either submitting to them or, being offended by them, wholeheartedly objecting.  A pastor is there, first, to put a person in front of those dangerous words.  Perhaps I should say a pastor is there, first, to put himself or herself in front of them.

3) Lead well with integrity.  Leaders lead.  We pull, push, and elbow those who follow us.  We move toward something, someone, some purpose or mission.  We do so with integrity.  Darlene Johnson is one of the women I think of when I talk about integrity.  She died last week.  I worked with Ms. Darlene.  She worked in the ante-chamber leading to my office at the last churched I served.  She was the first person I really greeted most mornings.  I hated to talk before 10AM or before that cup of tea, which I never found before 10AM.  Ms. Darlene heard what I said during my phone calls.  She saw my facial expressions when I met with people.  She watched me ignore certain folks and she sometimes explained when and if I wasn’t available.  Her presence tutored me in truth-telling and integrity.  Whatever I was going to say or do was heard and seen by someone else.  Of course, someone else always hears and sees, particularly since I believe in the Unseen One who is God, but Ms. Darlene was there, steps away, and her presence was no less divine.  She taught me to lead and serve by attaching truth to everything I did.  I already miss her smile and the melodic way she called my name while smiling.  But every time I open the door to my office, even at a different church, I remember what she taught me.  And everyday I leave my door open while I work as a reminder.

4) Pray with and for others.  One of the best things we do is talk to God.  Of course, this talk can seem delusional to some, but connecting with the Sacred, speaking to and with the Holy One, is central to loving and doing and being.  Talking to God with and for others is hard and pleasing work.  It grounds me, anchors me, and reminds me of something so easily forgotten–bidden or unbidden, God is present. 

5) Support the community where he lives.  I don’t use he to describe anything other than my own gender.  Along with the great men and women of my denomination, I gladly affirm the only real thing I’ve ever lived, that sisters are just as called and gifted to do anything, at any level, a man can in pastoral leadership.  That said, pastors live and serve in a place.  If we’re not present, where we are, our support and strength and leadership in that place goes lacking.  That’s my problem when we pastors go everywhere except where we’re called, where we’re planted, where we’re stationed.  It can be a strong temptation for a pastor to leave his post to do something else, perhaps, something more glamorizing, or, even better, something easier.  But in my book, it’s a stronger work to affix your heart where you are and to stay.  Staying takes courage and fortitude and stamina.  Now, my experience allows me to expand or at least define what I mean by community.  God defines the community a pastor is called to.  So, I don’t intend community to be the geographical boundaries named for me by legislative districts or neighborhood names.  I mean community the way one wise preacher did when he said that the world was his parish.  The world is a pastor’s community most broadly.  But a pastor’s particular community is the placed to which he or she was called, was told to go, was summoned by God to serve.  We must support those communities and do so ferociously.

If you’re interested to reading about a pastor’s role, my friend David Swanson gave me in 2002 the best book I’ve read in my so-far-still-short years of ministry.  It’s called The Reformed Pastor and it’s by Richard Baxter, a Puritan preacher whose language is of a more seasoned English tone than mine.  It’s a great, thoughtful, spiritually compelling read that points to the beauty, depth, and disciplined rigor of what it means to be a church leader.  Much is quotable in Baxter, but I’ll end with these lines (from pg. 75):

The whole course of our ministry must be carried on in a tender love to our people.  We must let them see that nothing pleaseth us but what profiteth them; and that what doeth them good doth us good; and that nothing troubleth us more than their hurt.  Yea, the tenderest love of a mother should not surpass ours.  We must even travail in birth, till Christ be formed in them.  They should see that we care for no outward thing, not money, not liberty, not credit, not life, in comparison of their salvation; but could even be content, with Moses, to have our names blotted out of the book of life rather than that they should not be found in the Lamb’s book of life.

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