Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Pastors and Evangelists

In a semi-recent post, the thought-provoking Vice Moderator of our denomination suggested in a "letter" to God that perhaps it was time for the Numinous Font of All Being to stop calling people to be pastors.  With fewer and fewer congregations, the folks who come a-boppin' bright-eyed and bushy tailed out of seminary have a problem.  Here you are, all afire for Jesus and filled with the latest and greatest ideas, and...there's nowhere to go.   Our shrinking congregational ecosystem is already supersaturated with folks who can take your M.Div., and raise you a Doctorate, 25 years of experience, a well-received book, and a deep and broad network of social connections within the denomination.

When it comes to finding a call, you're up [polity] creek without a paddle.

Sure, a few churches will have the boldness to look beyond the siren song of expansive resumes and credentials and publications.  Some will take that risk on a promising new pastor.  But most won't.  We're Presbyterians, after all.  Risk is something we manage, not take on.

The Good Rev. Whitsitt then suggested that perhaps the Great Cloud of Unknowing should call some evangelists instead, and this suggestion was well taken.  But evangelism is not a strength of our system, truth be told.   Take a look at our Ordination Exams, and you get a good sense of what we care about.  We care about Polity, and Worship, and Bible writ both broad and deep.  But ain't no Evangelism Exam for hopeful pastors.

Not that I'm saying there should be.  The last thing we need is yet another Good Idea to stack up on top of our camel's long-broken back.  Lord have mercy.

Still, it's evidently not a priority.  We're oriented towards not what might be, but towards what is and was.

And there, I wonder about how willing we'd be structurally to prioritize calling folks as evangelists.   It does sound great, mind you.  We like talking that talk.  But in practice, how would a system that is already in retreat respond to that call?   As I was personally preparing to transition out of my prior ministry last year, I found myself musing about the possibility of starting something up.  The idea of creating an a-locational gathering was particularly exciting.  

When I did the personal SWOT analysis of weaknesses and threats, though, I looked out at my community...and at the prospect of doing something like that locally...I just couldn't fail to notice that there was already a set of PC(USA) congregations in place.  Most of them are healthy churches.  I know the pastors leading them, and know their aspirations and hopes for growing their communities.

Within the dynamics of the existing Presbyterian landscape, where was there the space to plant?  How could you do something, even something that bore no resemblance to existing congregational structures and expectations, without being perceived as "threatening the system?"  And if you "threaten the system," the odds of getting support from that same system are as likely as Ron Paul becoming the GOP nominee.

But it went deeper.  Knowing those communities of faith and their efforts, I had no desire to compete with them, or to take any actions that might mess with them.   When you conceptualize those in surrounding congregations not as 1) folks who just don't get Jesus in the special magical fashion-forward way you do or 2) competitors in the AmeriChrist marketplace, things get different.   When you see them as brothers, sisters, and fellow walkers of the Way, the task of evangelizing becomes more...complex.