Sunday, July 25, 2021

Flunky Rural Pastor

The neighboring farm children with whom I played, as well as elementary school classmates did not seem too different from me. My distinguishing characteristic may have been my size. Some children taunted by using my initials referring to me as "Two Bellies." Running into and over said taunters during a kickball, softball, or football game brought an internal smile. A couple years before graduating from high school the need to stand out, to be superior to others, to be seen in the popular group became more important. Striving to be academically superior also gained priority. A friend of my older brother was accepted and attended an Ivy League college. He was academically and athletically talented. Now I had a goal to really set me apart, as well as to get away from the small town. Despite being rejected by that Ivy League college, I was accepted by a highly regarded Lutheran, liberal arts institution. Four years later I graduated with honors from a "run-of-the-mill" state university. I learned a great deal about the world and myself. Yet my self-image was still in development.

Goals of becoming a physician and a teacher were dashed during the college years (see previous post). Attending seminary, I embraced the idea of becoming a "flunky rural pastor." This provided a bit of comfort. I did not set the bar too high. And all of my prior church experience was in a rural setting. Academically I did well. There were a couple of speed bumps in classes on worship/liturgy and church history. However, I still graduated with honors.  

Me (Summer 1981)
Beyond academics there was the influence of others. Being in graduate school had significance. Four years to earn a Master of Divinity degree was not as good as a Doctoral degree, but it held power in Lutheran circles. A friend at the time was deeply rooted in all things Lutheran. The academic, theological, and systematic nuances of doctrine seemed powerfully important. It was a way to ascend above the common clergy. I was taken in by the possibilities. I also was enamored by those who promoted appropriate clergy attire. The wrap around collar easily provided recognition, as well as an aura of holy influence. Finally the advice from a person at the farewell gathering for my internship/vicariate/practicum year, "Make certain you have people address you as 'Pastor.' You have a special place in life."

Moving into the parish setting I searched for significance. There was the given power and authority conveyed by the title. I attempted to become well versed in traditional and proper Lutheran theology. A course for clergy on marital relationships promoted God's intention for the man to be the leader and authority. The instructor stated God's intention went beyond the institution of marriage for men to be in charge. Wrap around collars were in the wardrobe. What I said was followed (at least on the surface) by others. Yet I questioned if this was authentic for me. Was I playing a role in the theater of religion?

Loading cattle from the pasture
Four decades have provided plenty of time for practice and reflection. I do not remember the exact time, but collars (wrap around and tab) were removed from my closet. Robes and stoles no longer hold significance other than the times when people desire the "pastoral look" when I am leading a service or ceremony. Striving for external significance for the most part has been set aside. Practical, simple, relevant, pastoral care has become the norm. Being with people, hearing their stories, sitting in their homes, learning about their lives, driving farm equipment, shoveling chicken manure, and going for a stroll with a goat herd is the pastoral care which fills my vocational life. This has become the real life picture of a "flunky rural pastor."

While specialization has its place, my skills are being a generalist. Being a pastor has provided the opportunity to explore so much of life and get paid to do so. The prestige of being above the common crowd is no longer significant. There is no desire to be honored or remembered by those with whom I interact. I cringe at my photograph hanging on a congregation's "wall of past pastors."  As of today it appears the longest tenure of my career will be with the smallest congregation I have served. It is a group that is learning the process of selling a building and adapting to the realities of being a fluid gathering of people. Even congregations have a life cycle. 

What would I change in my career of pastoral ministry? Nothing! The journey has provided challenge, struggle, growth, and serenity. I am who I am. I have provided quality pastoral care. Some of which was not authentic, but I do not believe much harm was caused. God's grace covers a multitude of sins! (1 Peter 4.8)

I enjoy authentically being with people. I have no need for a role in religious theater. My goal of being a "flunky rural pastor" has been met!

Sunday, July 11, 2021

There Has to be a Reason?

The Red River of the North does not go straight!
During the final year of Confirmation Instruction (1969), I was positively impacted by the pastor. He was personable, took interest in each student, and helped place Christian faith and Lutheran traditions in practical terms. I thought being a pastor might be in my future, EXCEPT I could not sing (the pastor had a great voice) and speaking in front of people petrified me. A couple of months following the Rite of Confirmation, the pastor was asked to resign by one of the Parish's congregations. He was not "traditional" enough. In current terms, he was too liberal and/or too relevant. 

Entering college my plans were to become a physician. Too much competition and too much socialization (partying) changed those plans. Next up (at the next collage) was becoming a teacher. My advisor stated numerous times that teachers would be "a dime a dozen." Well, strike two! If all else fails a history and philosophy major can apply for law school. My job as the evening janitor at a large congregation in Mankato MN (3rd college in 3 years and final college) brought me into contact with the three pastors on staff. Two of them had a direct, positive impact on my turbulent, personal struggles. So, why not become a pastor? I had thought about it before. Still the fear of public speaking and the lack of musical ability loomed large.

Graduate school to earn a Master of Divinity degree began with an intensive summer course in New Testament Greek. The cadre of students shared study time and communal time. A fellow student, after I spoke about my oldest brother's death by drowning with alcohol being a factor said, "God used your brother's death to get you to seminary." My initial reaction was to tell this person to go to hell. I realized that would not be appropriate in the setting. So I responded, "God must be a crazed risk taker to use my brother's death that way.  I am trying to get through Greek. Becoming a pastor may never happen." 

We like things straight.
The belief that there is a reason for everything may provide surface level comfort. Yet this is a Western Civilization concept. Greek and Roman rational thinking provides the foundation for "There has to be a reason" world view. Looking at the world from a limited construct, while important for initial education detracts from experiential learning. It is in the everyday, empirical evidence where I have grown in faith. Answers are derived from experiment and trail and error. Faith is not a rational construct, but relational interaction. Faith has raised up more questions than it has provided answers. 

A major struggle in life has been with hypocrisy. It was ingrained that people, life, events, and interactions should be linear and rationally understandable. While seeing hypocrisy in other was disturbing, finally owning my hypocrisy had me standing on the precipice of devastation. Pastoral care based on theory while neglecting lived experience was for me similar to Jacob wrestling with God. (Genesis 32.22+) Four decades of pastoral ministry has produced struggles, healing, scars, and perseverance. None of it has been defined and understandable let alone rational. I have ceased trying to place life and faith into the confines of reason. I have come to find life and faith in the embrace of "what is." I believe that a power greater than myself has provided opportunities, more than one boot in the behind, and plenty of grace to empower my vocation for so long. 

Person 1: “I refuse to go to church because it is filled with hypocrites.”

Curves add adventure!

Person 2: “I am not certain where you have gone before, but we have plenty of room!”

THANK YOU for reading! I will continue to look back at my 40 years in pastoral ministry both in my YouTube videos and in this blog for a number of weeks.