January 29, 2014

The Community as Pastor

Pastoral care is a basic expectation of clergy and probably high on the list of any given parishioner’s understanding of what they get in return for their participation. I know that church isn’t a give-and-take but our current base of support is pretty steeped in this understanding. So what happens, then, when we try to organize under a different model? Does becoming a missional church mean that we won’t have time to act as the quaint, local vicar, the one who’s at everyone’s beck and call?

If we were in a seminary classroom or, for instance, reading a blog we’d of course say that ‘missional’ and ‘pastoral’ are not exclusive concepts. This is true … in theory. In practice, they can very quickly become competing goods. Be honest: where’s the time to dream and envision when you’re running around the parish responding to crises and acting like the 21st century country parson?

Given the work we’ve done to re-frame the budget and re-organize the infrastructure of how we do business, we’ve stumbled upon a new and, I think, healthier understanding of pastoral care. Simply, the community is the pastor. Church events and gatherings, for us, have become a significant means of pastoral care. The rector still wears many hats, and it’s important to know which one I’ve got on: Am I here as one among many? Am I serving in this moment as the pastoral coordinator, so to speak? Am I present as one who has a set of gifts that’s unique to my office; namely, the priesthood? Knowing those roles and the distinctions among them is key to this new, yet ancient model.

The funny thing is this renewed mission came from our attention, years ago, to the church budget. When we first thought about a new budget strategy it really was, in part, to solve a problem: the money raised from fundraisers would never solve the money issues. Plus, those events were counter-productive; they depleted spiritual and missional energy from the congregation. So we stopped fundraising. We learned to, (1) fit our core expenditures within our baseline means and, (2) free up ministry groups to dream and raise funds on their own.

What this didn’t mean was that those events would end. In fact, those events which have drawn people together around worship or food or fellowship or study or conversation have not ended; if anything, they’ve grown. Our parish leadership pays a lot of attention to how and when we gather the parish, by which we mean the congregation and the community. We make regular plans and stick to a schedule: midweek worship, bible study, Sunday morning breakfast, healing prayers, lunch groups, fellowship opportunities and regular, at least monthly festive celebrations. Most often, there’s no money involved and, if there is, the goal is just to break even.

At these events, strangers become a little more friendly, a new community is built, and, perhaps, someone has a story that someone else needs to hear at that moment in their life. And through it all Christ is present. Personally, I love that moment when, for instance, you look across the parish hall and see a long-time St. Mary’s County resident, whose family has been here since 1634, talking with a young couple who just moved here while their newborn child is being held by a teenager across the room. To me, there’s real freedom in not needing to be everything for everyone. (Someone once quipped that St. Paul, having written, “I have become all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22) was very clearly never a rector!) There’s freedom in knowing that I am not a lone ranger, nor am I a sole practitioner but, instead, the community – the only word the New Testament uses for ‘church’ – is both the pastor and the sacrament, the vehicle and the destination, the old-fashioned throwback and, at once, a new and revolutionary gift to human civilization.

Today at St. George’s, coffee hour is not just for the club called ‘church’ and the events we do don’t exist to feed the operating budget (which is all consuming and never sated, anyway). No, they exist for their own and original purpose: for renewal in Christ; for the life of the world.