It seems as if all the pastors I know either have read Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead or claim that it is on the top of the pile of books they intend to read. Pastors—myself among them—love the book. Some of the reasons are obvious.
At ordination Presbyterian ministers promise to give their “energy, intelligence, imagination and love” to ministry. Sometimes just managing the institution of the church exhausts such capacities. Sometimes attending to the committees, task forces, program evaluations, staff supervision and budgets is all-consuming.
One of my laments over the years has been over the dreadful image of clergy in popular media. With some notable exceptions, ministers are portrayed as inept, shallow, out of touch with the world and basically irrelevant—like Chaplain Mulcahy in the old M*A*S*H television series.
Those of us who work in the church know how trivial, vain and self-serving the “institutional” church (as we used to call it in seminary—as if there were any other kind) can be. But we also wonder what we would do without the church. How could you celebrate Christmas without the church? How could you wake up in the dark of Easter morning without the church?
A church I pastored in Portland, Oregon, ran an after-school children’s program. One afternoon someone came to tell me that twin brothers, aged six, had pushed a little girl during a play period. Although she recovered quickly, we had some anxious moments. She had hit her head hard on a concrete floor and needed a CAT scan to make sure that there was no serious damage.
Recently I celebrated 15 years as pastor of a congregation in East Texas of under 200 members with about half of them present for Sunday worship. At denominational meetings and around town I’m asked, “When are you going to a bigger church? Why do you stay?” Sometimes I give a long, rambling explanation, but often I respond with, “Because I read too much Wendell Berry.”
While wrestling with me and my hesitations, down along the riverbank, God whispered in my ear, “Barb: If you are going to tell a story, tell my story.” Ever since that day, honoring that stipulation has been part of the privilege and part of the burden in this vocation called ministry.
Seminarians preparing to serve as pastors are increasingly taking out low-interest government loans to pay educational costs, but researchers say that trend is dangerously compounding the struggles of fledgling ministers and small churches.
Pastors often experience an uncomfortable tension between trying to be both a truth-telling prophet and a caring pastor. That’s the case these days as I, like most pastors, take in the news of ghastly terrorist violence in the Middle East, the ongoing violence in Iraq, and the regular reports of civilians and U.S. soldiers killed.