Pastoral leadership in troubled times

Last week I had a front-table speech for Brian McLaren’s early-morning keynote to a room full of clergy cohort conveners. When he dove into his very meaty content, I was glad I was already 2/3 of the way through my coffee. He had some challenging words for faith leaders who are very concerned with the direction of our congregations, denominations, and/or country. In these chaotic, divisive times, McLaren said, we must be intentional and honest about our pastoral approach. In choosing our tack, we have four choices:

Offend no one. We can limit our preaching and teaching to “safe” topics. (I imagine this list of subjects is pretty short!) McLaren noted that we will nevertheless discover new ways to offend people every week, because the Gospel is political.

Go where the wind blows. We can listen to what the people in our care want to hear, then echo it from the pulpit. McLaren warned that there is grave danger in this approach, as our constituents are being tugged by opposing forces, not all of which are in line with the Gospel. We might find ourselves espousing – or at least leaving unchallenged – convictions that are contrary to the core of who we are and what we believe.

Push the congregation. We can prod our parishioners on the core issues of the dignity of all people, stewardship of the planet, caring for the poor, and ushering in peace – what McLaren considers the four core issues of faith. This is a bold move for those of us who pastor purple churches and/or who worry about making ends meet if our congregations can’t tolerate our stances.

Lead by anxiety. We can share our concerns about the fissures in our culture from a personal perspective, such as “I am worried about the normalization of bullying in our country.” (This is permission-giving for people to acknowledge their own concerns in a safe container, not a handing-off of our own worries.) After we have surfaced the tensions, we can discuss with our members what a faithful, corporate response might look like.

I have talked with many ministers who are mulling how to navigate our charged climate. What does it look like to be faithful both to our personal beliefs and to our call to the setting we serve? How do we exercise our prophetic voices in ways that our people can hear? How do we model ways of listening deeply to one another? How do we balance our desire to be engaged – even activist – citizens with our responsibilities as pastors?

I have struggled with these same questions as a guest preacher and a clergy spouse in a more-red-than-purple congregation. I found Brian McLaren’s framework helpful for making a more conscious decision about my own approach. Maybe there’s a nugget in there for you too.

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