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!

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