Pastor as Spiritual Leader - Part III

Take Thou Authority?

In one of the last posts on this matter, I noted that the UMC has no theology of ordination, but we have a host of procedures and policies. We are one of a handful of denominations that will place someone as a pastor of a church without ordaining them, such as local pastors, commissioned pastors, etc. Whether one is ordained or not, one is a pastor of a United Methodist church not because of ordination (a means of grace and sacramental action), but because of authority being granted to them by the Book of Discipline.

Herein lies a problem, I think: we are granting pastors authority from a standpoint of church law and ministerial office, and pastors often assert their authority by persuasion (which can be good and bad). But in a day and age where people are suspect of authority and disillusioned with the Church, none of those standpoints really grant any empowering authority at all. Pastors are going to have to realize that true authority comes from God, and pastoral authority comes from God's grace. This is where ordination SHOULD be couched, but I fear (at least in the UMC) that it is not.

Authority is power - but power misplaced gets us nowhere. Ministry is done by all of the people, not just the pastor. In fact, the word liturgy literally means "the work of the people." It may be that pastoral authority's real power comes from shared leadership and vision. It is clear that pastors do not know best and our education is not helping us - or our denomination would be growing instead of dying. Unlike the paradigms of the world, the parish model is to use the power and authority God gives us WITH others, rather than OVER others.

Author Howard Rice contends that until pastors can be straightforward about their own spiritual journeys, those that they pastor will never be able to recognize similar movements of the Spirit in their own lives:
The deeper we [pastors] go in our own experiences, the more general those experiences turn out to be; the more we dare to lift up the struggles and successes of our own faith pilgrimage and share them with others, the more others are helped to articulate events along the way of their own journeys. All too often laity keep their deepest religious experiences from pastors. Parishioners fear that pastors will not understand or accept their experiences. They may worry that they are not good enough. They don't show themselves for fear of rejection. They hide behind walls and hope that someone will notice them and pay attention. They hope that the pastor will say words that validate their experiences...

People need help to sort out their deepest experiences. They need someone they trust to help them recognize the dangers of some choices. They need help to reorganize their tendency to spiritual pride. They need guidance to distinguish the voice of God from the welter of other voices. At heart, therefore, the pastor must be a guide to the spiritual life, a person others trust to share the struggle. The pastor offers assistance, not as one who has already arrived but as one who is on the same journey, going alongside the people and perhaps a step or two ahead.
- Howard Rice, The Pastor as Spiritual Guide, pp. 185-6.

Those two paragraphs are damning to many pastors - are we as adept and (more to the point) bold as we should be in matters spiritual? Can we share our own spiritual journey and struggles competently and articulately? As well as we (claim to) preach? Can we speak the language? And can we be humble enough to realize that we have not "arrived" yet? We learned - and indeed, were trained - to be the resident theologians to our churches. Can we honestly say that we are also the resident spiritual directors of our churches?

It'll take work - and prayer - to get there if we're not the spiritual directors or guides of our churches. And in the process of shoring ourselves up, we cannot shirk off our other responsibilities. Effective ministry requires priorities. We still have to be managers and administrators. The sick need visited. The youth need instructed. People may need the pastor and not have an appointment. Some pastors have been labeled as lazy, and it is hard to refute the label. Others don't heed the signs of needing sabbath. Still others work hard, but don't prioritize well. Working and taking sabbath require spiritual adeptness and maturity to discern! I know that I am still learning.

For a season, we UM pastors may have to see "being connectional" as being connected to God and discerning the Holy Spirit, instead of being connected to Annual Conference, continuing education seminars, and district gatherings - these are tools, not ends to themselves. And instead of prayers of petition, we may need to be praying in silence and listening to what God has to say to us, instead of telling God what we want to say. God is certainly essential to the task of pastoral ministry - no duty can call us higher (not even duty to the district or conference!!!); secondary and tertiary matters must yield to the primary.

A lot of pastors burn out or get jaded because they either think they are alone, or that they believe that they alone have the wisdom, education, and authority to do ministry. The fact of the matter is that Christ empowers us - and "us" includes laity and clergy alike. In order to empower the masses, we have to be spiritual leaders who derive authority from the witness of their personal integrity and model, rather than deriving it from the pastoral role or office. As Rice says in his book, that kind of authority becomes authentic, powerful, and changes lives.

It may be that we pastors need to lead and follow... or get out of the way.