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Prophet or priest: pastoral leadership for extraordinary times

November 15, 2023

What does it mean to be a pastor during these extraordinary times? And how do we remain not only spiritually healthy, but also physically, emotionally, and psychologically balanced in our vocation?

By asserting that we live in “extraordinary times” I realize that I am already making an assumption of what “extraordinary times” mean. Arguably, the themes that describe the inner spirit of the age we live in include chaos, antagonism, fear, hate, moral disarray, and decentering.

In Charles Dickens’ classic historical novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” which frames the social conditions that led up to the French Revolution and the reign of terror that followed, we are reminded of its famous introduction:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”[i]

We too live in such polarizing times.

We now find ourselves living in a hyper-partisan, ideologically polarized, and adversarial discursive political environment where objective facts (e.g., that the sun always rises in the east) no longer determine the validity of truth claims. It is a time when it seems that a malignant ideological tribalism has spread in our public life where differences in perspectives or opinions have constructed an ideological arena where the rules of discourse are zero-sum, which means, in Game Theory, that whatever is gained by one side is — and must be — a loss by the other.

This toxic conversational environment now permeates every level of discourse in our society. As an avid student of politics and a curious social observer, I now find myself making intentional efforts each day when I wake up to stay centered and grounded so that I do not unwittingly allow myself to get unmoored and be forcibly drawn into the vortex of this centripetal counterfeit discourse that steals life of its inner harmony and beautiful complexity.

That concern extends much deeper and broader than my own individual commitment to stay grounded and centered. My concern extends to the pastors who I had the privilege of serving as a denominational official for many years. And because we must yet live out our faith in the public sphere, I am profoundly concerned — by extension — with the present state of the public testimony of the church in which they serve. I am concerned for our faith community because the contagion of this hyper-partisan and politically polarized environment has also permeated the discourse of the church.

And herein lies the danger. When people dont believe there is truth anymore, they stop looking for it. And without truth, Jesus said, we are easily enslaved by the dominion of false ideologies and false gods that demand our allegiance. Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” in John 18:38, right before he washed his hands to absolve himself of any responsibility to take a moral stance — a stance on truth. The church was called to be the embodiment of Jesus in the world, in the same way that Jesus of Nazareth was the embodiment of God on earth. It is from this theological bedrock profession that my abiding concern for the faithful voice of our churches emanates — that its voice might remain grounded and centered in the crucified Jesus and the risen Christ during these extraordinary days.

So how do we as pastors remain centered in the cruciform Christ who has ushered in the reign of Gods kingdom of love?

By “center,” I dont mean to speak of a middle point in a geometrical sphere, or an axis around which anything rotates or revolves; not an object or a location that is the focus of attention; nor an organization or agency that performs a specific form of service; and not a particular political view; not even a position on a sports team.

I am speaking of “center” in terms of the power that grounds and animates all of our strivings, all of our life-controlling efforts. The center I am speaking about is like the centripetal force of the vortex of a hurricane that draws everything around it towards itself.

What does it mean to be a pastor during these extraordinary times? And how do we remain not only spiritually healthy, but also physically, emotionally, and psychologically balanced in our vocation?

In times such as these, the pastors task is to remind the congregation that the basic tenets of our faith — grace and mercy, radical hospitality, social justice, and love of neighbor — go beyond partisan politics, yet have profound political implications. Gods inbreaking into time and history is grandiosely political, liberating a slave people from bondage and commissioning them to be a separate people. And then — in the Christian faith’s greatest mystery — God personally enters our humanity through Jesus, who proclaims his ministry in unequivocal and concrete political terms in his first recorded sermon found in Luke 4. But what kind of politics did Jesus introduce?

Secular, earthly partisan politics is an arena of contested power, where the ultimate goal is dominion over a vanquished adversary. Because it is that, it is innately antithetical to the gospel and the teachings of Jesus. Gods kingdom of love invites, it does not coerce. But the cause of Jesus is not a private matter either, as it has become in modern religion. In fact, the cause of Jesus is provocatively a public one. The ministry of Jesus took place within and during the reign of emperor Caesar, who was ascribed the nature of deity. When Jesus’ power and authority became well known, and spread like wildfire, the despotic hegemony of Caesar faced a grave and intolerable existential threat. It had to eliminate the threat, and by violence Jesus was arrested, found guilty of sedition, tortured, and executed by Rome’s most cruel form of punishment.

Gods reign on earth is political because the consequences of the redemptive and unrestricted power of the Holy Spirit in the world dislocates, disrupts, and transforms all human relations and all human structures — including earthly partisan politics — towards the requirements of love: requirements that always demand mercy, justice and righteousness, and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. And so the gospel transcends partisan politics, but by its very nature the gospel has political implications. I would argue that at the root of the ennui of many pastors these days about their vocation, is the drift away from their prophetic role, and the unwitting overindulgence in their priestly role in a consumerist church that is likewise adrift in a sea of self-fulfillment spirituality. It is no small thing that Jesus taught his disciples about cross-bearing as the signet of the vocation, and the paradoxical nature of the task of the servant follower: that it is in losing our life for his sake, that we truly find it.

One of the symptoms of our disenchanted age is that vocation/spirituality and occupation/profession have come apart or have been uncoupled. Perhaps more than any other profession, pastoral ministry is about holding these two dimensions of living together. People look to pastors to tell them how to live, and, more importantly, to model it as well. But many pastors now who are caught in the grip of a consumerist church culture carry the burden of “performing” and “delivering services” to their congregations, like salesmen having to carry a quota of goods to sell. This expectation easily turns the pastors attention to their own resources, which obscures their self-awareness of the limits of their own abilities. In this coming apart of vocation and occupation, I have seen far too many pastors leave the vocation of pastoral ministry emotionally drained and cynical about the call to pastoral work. Several articles authored by pastors have recently been circulating in social media, painfully telling the story of how they have not only resigned their pastoral positions but, like a dirge, also lament why they have left the vocation of ministry entirely.

As pastors in these extraordinary times, we must remain centered. Our moral compasses must be pointed to true north.

Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset, once cited a story about the great explorer Commander Robert Peary, Sr., who rose up early one morning to travel towards the North Pole. For one whole day he and his team trekked all day, “making their sleigh dogs run briskly. At night he checked his bearings to determine his latitude and noticed with great surprise that he was much further south than where he started in the morning. It turns out that all this while he had been toiling all day toward the north on an immense iceberg drawn by an ocean current headed southwards.”[ii]

Because of our provisional perspectives, we must always guard against even that which already convinces us about its certitude. Whom we follow, whom we offer the ultimate allegiance of our hearts, and who grounds us in the journey — was and is the abiding concern of Jesus for his disciples. Jesus wants to keep our journey straight and true, towards the way to life, towards Gods living presence, that is now on earth embodied in his life and ministry. Jesus wants us to calibrate our compasses to true north, to impel all our strivings to live under the present reign of God on earth. While this kingdom awaits its final consummation, it is already here in Jesus and in the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit in the world.

I love maps and compasses. But in my seeming reliance on the superiority of fixed points of reference that maps and compasses offer, I realized that the “north” of maps and compasses is not “True North.” Rather, it is “Magnetic North.” The “North” of our compass is simply a location in Northern Canada where earths magnetic field is concentrated. “True North,” it turns out, is a fixed point on top of the axis around which the earth rotates. And that is 1,000 miles away from the magnetic north of our compasses. Amid changing and shifting perspectives swirling around in our life, let us not forget our True North — Jesus.

One cannot be a steward of the mysteries of God’s grace if one is not deeply acquainted with Gods merciful resources beyond oneself. Only the rich springs of a vital, nourished faith — a spirituality that is humbly aware that it is still continually being formed — can water the ground that becomes parched amidst the challenges of ministry. A spiritually healthy and faithful pastor is not automatically made when one completes three or four years of seminary, and does not come out of the oven with fully formed competencies. With all the radical changes happening in society and in theological education, there is one constant that remains the same: to lead a community of faith in a spiritually healthy and faithful way, the pastor must be spiritually centered.

Being spiritually centered does not happen to a solitary individual, standing alone, as it were, dispassionately aloof from the formative forces of other lives lived in community. It is in the crucible of the intersectionality of lived life, and in submission to the presence of the Holy Spirit, that one’s spirituality is clarified and centered. Those beautifully rounded river rocks did not start out smooth and rounded. They first were rocks with jagged, sharp edges. They lie at the bottom of the river where for years and years, the river current that is constantly in motion exerts friction on them and ultimately grinds the sharp edges smooth and well rounded. Such is the work of Christian community. The community of believers — both academy and church — is the venue of spiritual formation. L. Gregory Jones asserts a similar theme when he calls for leaders who practice “traditioned innovation.” These are leaders who are deeply imbedded in their ecclesial traditions, but continually engage their traditions in ways that create space for innovative engagement in the future.

We cannot be transformative stewards of the mysteries of God’s suffering love, we cannot have fortitude to endure the hard work of being culture creators and cultivators of intercultural life in this globalized environment, if we are not grounded in the heart of Jesus.

Nowhere else do the ways of the world and the ways of our biblical faith diverge then on the issue of leadership. There is something radically new in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ passion that upend our understanding of the usual ways of power in the world. His teachings on servanthood around the Last Supper are distilled in Luke 22:24-27, “I am among you as one who serves.” Jesus redefined power for his disciples.

The Gospel of Luke tells us that after Jesus’ baptism by John, Jesus was led by the Spirit not to a resort or to a spiritual director, but to the wilderness. There, Jesus, we are told, symbolically stood at the river of decision wrestling with the “Satanas” — the “Trickster” who inhabits the banks of every river crossing of church vocation. The Satanas did everything it could to keep Jesus from crossing the river, to keep him only by the edge of the river of decision — on the side where the euphoria of his baptism naturally resides. It is the desire of the “Trickster” that we neither pursue nor complete our missional journeys.

Lukes account of the trials of Jesus in the wilderness is not a post-mortem assessment of failure or defeat but in fact, in a narrative way, is an unequivocal witness to the true mission and call of Jesus. Luke says that Jesus left the wilderness “in the power of the Spirit.” We cannot be a transformative steward of the mysteries of Gods suffering love, we cannot have the fortitude to endure the hard work of being culture creators and cultivators of intercultural life in this globalized environment, if we are not deeply grounded in the heart of Jesus. Prophet or Priest is a false choice. One cannot proclaim the Word, the Good News, without being prophetic, and vice versa. These pastoral tasks are inseparable.

So how do we continue in the journey?

Remember the confession that lies at the heart of the spirituality and piety of Gods people, the Shema, the call to Israel to “listen and to hear” that the Lord our God is one; and that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). From that emanates everything that sustains you in your task as pastor. Never cease in your prayer life and in cultivating the life of the mind so that not only will you be equipped to account for the hope that is in you, but that through the discipline of study of the scriptures and engaging the rich intellectual heritage of our faith, you will make the heart of scripture beat with the authentic longings and hopes of your people.

Remember that you are only a branch of the True Vine. The problem is that deep in the human condition is the desire to be better than others. Like James and John, we too ask, “Who amongst us is the greatest?” When these moments come – and I guarantee you that they will – remember that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Many of us still find it difficult to realize the new understanding of power and love that Jesus modeled in his life. Even at the Last Supper, an argument still arose among the disciples – people closest to Jesus – as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.

Remember that the one who you seek to follow and claim as Lord of your life is the same one who said, Whoever would be first among you, must be last of all.” When you face the temptations of power, self-importance, when you are seduced by your own pride and inflated self-regard, be reminded that to abide in Gods grace means being aware that we are dependent on God. Be close to the True Vine, stay attached. Once you are detached, you will wither and die in your vocation. You stand in an ecclesial heritage that is much larger than your personal horizon. Remember always, therefore, how great a treasure is committed to your care, for while you are called to a privilege you are also asked to bear a burden. And like Elijah who delighted in serving the Lord, there will also come a time when you will want to hide in a cave and say “enough!”

Remember your experience of call, that moment when Christ visited you, perhaps in a dream, and called you to the ministry. You must be able to visit that moment and hear the call with all clarity and power. For if you lose the conviction and understanding that you have been sent, then you will grow weary in the journey. If that voice becomes faint or even muted, then you must set aside time to reclaim that voice, even if it comes as a “still, small, voice” so that you may endure. And, if honesty faces you to ultimately say that you didn’t have such an experience of call to begin with, the essence of the Hippocratic Oath is informative in its counsel, primum non nocere, “First, do no harm.” Jesus invites us to follow him willingly. He does not conscript us against our will. It is not Jesus’ desire that we enter the vocation coerced, because if we do so bearing the pain of being coerced into the vocation, we inevitably hurt ourselves and others. It is better to prayerfully submit yourself to the gentle ministrations of the Spirit, and seek guidance as to how you might discern God’s will for your life in another journey.

Remember that you are a mirror of the larger community of pastors who you represent in occupying this office. You are bound by the ethics of the gospel life, and when you step outside of your home each day, you do not step out as yourself, but rather you, in fact, step out as a mirror of the community of colleagues who you represent. That is a sacred trust.

May it be so for all of us.

Rev. Dr. Elmo Familiaran is a pastor, writer, and practitioner in the mission and purpose of the church in the world. Ordained in the American Baptist Churches, USA, he is a 39-year veteran in pastoral ministry, in ecumenical and cross-cultural engagement, and executive leadership in both national and regional denominational settings.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. London: James Nisbet & Co, 1902, p. 3.

[ii] Minuchin, Salvador. Families and Family Therapy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974, p. 2.

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