Friday, May 15, 2009

A Plate Full of Gravy

Every once in a while, I'll get brochures coming across my desk presenting me with opportunities for continuing education. We Presbyterian-types are supposed to take advantage of this sort of thing regularly, but I've been pretty remiss on that front. Having dug my way through four years of undergraduate religious education and seven years of part-time seminary, I'd rather just read on my own or explore whatever happens to be interesting to me this week. Eventually, sure, I might bother with more. But for the time being, I'll stick with the autodidact thing. Why?

I was reminded of why when a continuing ed pitch from a local seminary showed up this week. It was full of professional development classes for pastors. Here's a seminar helping you assess the health of a small church. Here's a course training you for providing support to churches that need interim ministers. Here's a seminar on using technology to further the mission of your church.

All of these are useful pastoral skills. But how many are necessary pastoral skills? The most essential thing for a pastor is 1) that they be deeply grounded in their understanding of Torah, Prophets, Writings, Gospels, and Epistles and 2) that they be good at sharing that knowledge with others. We have to know our Jesus-stuff backwards and forwards, and have that good story so woven up into our own personal narrative that relevant teachings rooted in that ancient sacred tradition spring to mind almost without bidding.

The other stuff is gravy, but it isn't the meal.

Looking over the listing of stuff pastors should go learn more about, I found myself thinking that much of it was tangential to what matters. I say this as a pastor who 1) sets parameters for website design for his church 2) takes point on the annual budget, down to the planning and spreadsheet development 3) does strategic planning and 4) has a series of specific metrics for assessing the health of my little church. All of those things, unfortunately, aren't totally necessary for a pastor to know. That's what a congregation's lay leadership is for. What they want from you, if you're a pastor, are the skills needed to teach more about the faith.

No matter how competent a manager you might be, if your little corner of the beloved community doesn't look to you for an understanding of scripture and a deeply informed sense of're not serving a pastoral role.

That, I think, is where progressive Christians tend to stumble. It isn't that we don't know our Jesus stuff. It's that we get so woven up into knowing so much other stuff that we kinda forget to focus on the stuff that counts. We focus on being church managers or experts in some particular subroutine of the institutional church, and are surprised when people seeking spiritual growth seem to be wandering off.