Parish realities and a Doritos Eucharist

January 24, 2011

By now you’ve heard the uproar about the Dorito’s “Crash the Super Bowl” contest
entry that featured a Eucharist of Coke and chips. In the Mennonite
church our communal meals are often treated as Eucharist so I don’t feel
any particular discomfort about Jesus’ body and blood being represented
by something other than wafer and wine. (If anything, my concern issues
from the conviction that where our food comes from and what it does to
our bodies is of profound theological importance.) What’s really
interested me as a potential-future-pastor is the reality of parish
ministry portrayed in the commercial.

The truth is that a lot of churches suffer from low attendance. And
before we start to scoff and sneer at the priest saying the words of
institution over a Cheeto we need to take a step back and remember that
people’s lives depend on the church budget. This is not limited to the
minister’s salary (which as a possible-future-minister I think is vastly
important), and includes funding for mission groups, individual
missionaries, the church’s corporate structure, the lights, the heat and
(ahem) the scholarship funds allocated to seminarians. Maybe Doritos is
not the way we want to go. But let’s be honest enough to say that not
meeting your budget is a serious crisis.

That isn’t the only reality a minister must face. This commercial
could have featured an elderly parishoner waving her fat checkbook
tauntingly over the head over her cowering pastor. It could have
pictured an elder’s council meeting stretching into a third hour as the
discussion about Christmas carols in Advent reaches a fevered pitch.
Parish ministry isn’t always, or maybe ever, just about theological
scruples. It’s about pastoral concern/care meeting theological decision
again and again and again.

Seminarians are hilarious about pastoral realities. In just one
semester I’ve been in several situations where the suggestion of
compromise was met with shock and disapproval. The first was when a
pastoral counseling professor made the comment that there would
inevitably be pastoral care situations where we would have to pretend to
listen to the parishoner (the point being that pretending to listen
almost always leads to actual listening). Several students were
appalled. Shouldn’t they just listen? They assured the professor that they would always be “on.”

The other instance came out of a class on baptism when a group of
students created a teaching demonstration where one of the characters in
a role play was identified as “a wealthy parishoner who makes large
contributions to the church.” One student wanted to know why we consider
this a significant characteristic? Shouldn’t we treat all our flock the
same, regardless of how much they give?

I must say, I really do appreciate the optimism of my classmates. But
it does make me nervous about the time when they find themselves in
these difficult situations of negotiation. I wonder if they will have
put the time into working through their response while still in school
to figure out how to move their ministry forward. What are you willing
to lose your job over? What are you willing to give? When are you
willing to die?

I don’t say this because I’ve been beaten down by an
under-appreciated, under-resourced children’s ministry job in a
dwindling, conservative church. Okay, all that is true. But in addition
to my “lived experience” my classes at Princeton have helped me to see
that leadership in the church always emerges from a nexus of pastoral,
political, missional, ecclesial, theological and financial realities.
For instance, his semester I learned that the tradition of sprinkling
baptism is rooted in the pastoral concern that dunking babies,
especially fragile or premature babies, could hasten their demise.

The development of our church practices, even of our theology, is
never about purity in the name of an ultimate truth. Ministry is about
living into the contingency of human sinfulness, life in community and
meeting theology anew in every generation. I say semper reformanda, baby. And pass the chips.

Originally posted at Sign on the Window.