What Time Is It — Contextually?

April 19, 2010

Here is a question to ponder: “Pastor, what time is it? I mean, what time is it for the church in the life of our times? What is it time for?”

You and I occupy a particular place in time. We lead a church of mostly middle-class North Americans in the early 21st century, not to mention other particulars. Other church leaders in various places of time and space have seen aspects of the gospel that address their historical situation. But we have our unique place in time and “where we stand determines what we see.” (Robert McAfee Brown)

I am referring to context. Yet, mostly we focus on the text. We have to. We are paid to. Sundays come at least every three or four days! Our job requires that we ask regularly, “What is the message of this text to be declared and embodied?” Nobody, I assume, presses you to answer the question of con-text? So allow me.

I submit: the clearer our assumptions about context, the sharper the point will be on the text.

Recently I raised the question of context to a circle of six seasoned pastors with whom I meet monthly. I invited them to complete the sentence: “I assume that the church is called in our times to . . .”

Responses welled up from each person, eager, it seemed, for the light of day. This is both my version of what we said, plus what was further stimulated in me.

I assume that the church is called in our times . . .

  • to release its hold on hardened structures and prepare for a church that looks different, smaller staffs, more empowered laity, experimental forms.
  • to do theological work, re-conceiving the meaning of loving God by seeing and loving all living beings as neighbor.
  • to lead dangerously, staying focused on transformation, personal and collective, amid a reactive, polarizing atmosphere resistant to the loss within change.
  • to align with the movement from egoic, us-them, power-over consciousness to a more unitive, interdependent, power-with consciousness of partnership.
  • to welcome dis-establishment as a main-line institution, acknowledge post-Christendom, becoming feisty communities bearing witness to an alternative way of abundant living, more akin to the early church.
  • to transform North American middle-class privilege into sacrificial generosity.

There was a tone of urgency in our responses, an eschatological sense of time running out for enough decisions of care for the earth, for the poor, for the privileged, for the alienated to occur.

And, for us as well, time ran out. It was 4:00, time to stop. So, I left them with an assignment. “In our May meeting, let’s discuss the obvious next step: With these assumptions about doing church in our time, how do these assumptions (and others that come to mind) show up in the way you lead? How does your sense of ‘what time is it?’ or “what is it time for?’ open in fresh ways certain imperatives of the gospel for our day? In short, in what way does your awareness of con-text inform your declaration of text?”

You understand, I trust, that the point of this reflection is not agreement about the responses that came from the group and me. They are illustrative, I hope provocative.

Furthermore, I note that this is a macro question, a “big picture” kind of query requiring a “balcony,” a place apart for reflection. It’s not the kind of question you ask on the run from task to task.

Nevertheless, I challenge you to carve out some time—even twenty or so minutes—-and smoke out your assumptions. I invite you to sit down before the question: “I assume that the church is called in our times to . . .”

Even better, carry the question along with you, pack it away, taking it out occasionally, as you would a pocket watch, asking, “Now . . . what time is it?”

For Pastors — Good Grief

April 5, 2010

You in grief ministry, how do you handle your own grieving?

As pastors we are knee deep in grief work. It may be our specialty. Isn’t death and dying our professional “turf”? While many other professionals, like doctors, nurses, chaplains, funeral home directors, are involved in the care for the dying and their families, the pastor is the “point person.” Ideally, we are the overseer of the continuity of care—alongside during the process of dying, sometimes present at the time of death, then designer and leader of the funeral/ memorial service, and afterwards, the follow-through care to the grieving family. This spectrum, I submit, is our arena of expertise. Our congregants expect this. We expect this of ourselves. We are general practitioners with a specialty. (I am also thinking of chaplains and counselors for whom grief work is a primary practice.)

It was Tom, let’s call him, who put his finger on an occupational hazard. He was in Raleigh on sabbatical leave from a congregation he had been leading for twenty years. He was feeling tired, slightly depressed. Tom turned to me as a fellow pastor to probe the source of his heaviness.

In our first pastoral visit, I asked him to tell me about his last years of ministry. I saw my question as a gentle way of easing into our conversation. To his surprise, and mine, losses came pouring out—the deaths of congregants, many of whom were intimate friends and leaders in the church; families with whom he shared life-changing events who moved away; resignations of close colleagues; and members who left the church in anger or indifference. Multiple “deaths,” I heard.

These were not the “necessary losses” from living described in Judith Viorst’s book by that title. Rather, my friend’s felt losses are peculiar to our vocation.

Tom’s focus centered on the mourning of others, shepherding them through grief’s movement in theirs lives. That was his role. That was his job. But few, if any, turned to assist him with his grieving. More to the point, seldom did he ask for assistance.

Tom saw the pattern. While fulfilling his role as comforter, he discounted his need for comfort. And after twenty years of neglect, he sat before me with layers of unprocessed grief. We began to peal off these layers, one by one, as he recalled, and in some sense relived, the loss of each important relationship. He left our conversations a little lighter.

I left more aware.

Tom’s vulnerability was a mirror in which I saw myself. I too, in the care of grieving parishioners, would discount my own grieving. I didn’t have the time, I would tell myself. Often I stuffed it down in my haste toward next tasks, responsibilities postponed due to the unanticipated, additional attention that crisis grief-care requires.

Today, in the catbird seat of retirement, I wonder what happened to my unacknowledged grieving. Did it contribute to the occasional heaviness I could feel, wanting to curl up before a fire-place, reflecting and digesting? Did my denials of death caution me from investing deeply in relationships, using my role as buffer? Did the pain of these losses spark the fantasies of escaping to another congregation or another job free of emotional entanglements? (I wonder if unprocessed grief contributes to short, not long, pastoral commitments to congregations.)

Yes, to all the above but . . . thanks to Tom, I see, more than an occupational hazard. I also see an occupational opportunity, even blessing. At the time of death, including the death of a relationship, I drew on my pastoral authority by insisting on private time with the persons, usually the family. I see now, this was one place where I could share my sense of loss along with theirs. My tears, my stories, my laughter, my regrets, my gratitude could join theirs. Invariably these were cherished sacred moments.

I think of Nouwen’s infamous description of our role as “wounded healer.” Yes, it surely means that we lead from our own vulnerability, weakness, and woundedness. But I am also thinking, as I write this reflection, that welcoming, not denying, our proximity to the wounds of those under our care carves out and deepens our capacity for compassion. In this sense, by their wounds we are healed.

Do you identity, as I did, with Tom denial of grieving? Would you name this as an occupational hazard and/or blessing?

I don’t see these questions raised in the literature about pastoral leadership. I hope you find them provocative, and, if you have the time, respond with your thoughts on the matter.