Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Preacher

Sunday morning in Fort Bragg, California, 1961: my mother, my father, and me.

For 25 years, I heard my father answer the telephone with the greeting, "Pastor Elam." I loved this friendly, informal touch. In public settings, others would call him "Reverend Anderson," and I appreciated this, too: my father was a man of distinction who held an office worthy of respect. Once I began serving churches, I called myself "Pastor Mark," and encouraged others to dispense with the formality of "Reverend." But in my first church, a rural chapel in southern Illinois, I was called something else: "Preacher." I heard this from many of my parishioners, in the same way, now that I'm in a classroom, my students will often just call me "Teacher." At the end of that student pastorate, I returned to Oregon for a month, and shared with Dad the title my flock had called me by. He smiled sadly and told me he'd been wishing for his entire career to have someone call him "Preacher," because in his mind, the most important thing he did was the twenty minutes on Sunday morning when he expounded on God's word before his congregation. He retired two years later, and as far as I know, never was called by the title he had so coveted.

Consult any church's official rulebook on the definition and job description of "pastor" and you'll find a very long paragraph. Pastors are responsible for the spiritual well-being of every member of the church they serve. This entails teaching, counseling, programming, visiting, socializing, leading, and, of course, preaching. And it extends well beyond the boundaries of the congregation. Pastors are expected to be active in their communities, presenting the public face of the church, caring for the marginalized, belonging to committees and councils, engaging in diplomacy with leaders of other churches and faith communities, and reaching out to the unchurched. Globally, pastors must be active in their denominational bodies and work to connect their local congregations with mission work in other parts of the world. And finally--and often most difficultly--pastors are expected to be intentional about their own spiritual welfare, engaging in regular disciplines of study, prayer, and meditation. The flashpoint of all these responsibilities is the worship hour, when the needs and demands of congregation, community, and world are all focused on the person in the pulpit. In the planning and execution of the service, and especially, at least for Protestants of the evangelical tradition, in the proclamation of the word, the pastor brings together the mundane and the sacred in a regularly scheduled "thin place." (Marcus Borg's term for a place where one feels the presence of the ineffable more fully.)

At least, that's how it's supposed to work.

For pastors who take these expectations seriously, ministry is far more than a job. Most pastors won't even refer to it as "work," "employment," or "job." It's a "vocation," from the Latin for "call." Dedicating one's entire life in this way is never an easy thing, and no pastor does it to perfection. Some fail horribly, committing crimes against innocent people, abusing their office, becoming addicts, living double lives, and because of the high expectations of their parish and community, keeping it all a secret until it's just too late. When pastors implode, it's a terrible blow not just to them and their families, but to everyone they work with and around. The ripple effect can cause many to walk away from or never consider joining a church. If they recover, it may take them the rest of their careers to repair the damage they've done. Most never try: once caught having an affair, preaching under the influence, abusing a child, dipping into the emergency fund, they quickly surrender their orders and vanish from public life.

And that's just the monsters. Far more pastors struggle with the demands of their vocations, experience spiritual crises, and either mark time, shuffled from church to church while performing minimal work until they reach early retirement, or, as in my case, are gently ushered out by church leaders and encouraged to find a different line of work that better suits them.

And then there's my father, the Reverend Elam J. Anderson who, though never achieving high office or acclaim in either the American Baptist or the United Methodist Church, lived his vocation with as much integrity as any pastor I've known.

It was never easy for him. Balancing the expectations of demanding congregations with the responsibilities of raising a family cost him on both the home and work fronts. The flexibility of his schedule--he didn't have to be at church until after dropping us off at school, he could come home for lunch every day if he wished, and with the church usually next door to the parsonage, he could be around at many other points throughout the day if he needed to be--caused us to have unrealistic expectations about his availability for parenting. At the same time, he was out far more evenings than most working parents, and he was often late for dinner. He missed most of my high school concerts, which tended to be scheduled on the same evenings as church council meetings. There were times when he drove me to youth meetings in another town, went off to do some visiting, and was far later than I expected picking me up, leading me to wonder if he'd forgotten. While he tried to keep his day off sacrosanct, pastoral emergencies always took precedence over relaxing with his family; and weekends were never free of work. He rarely finished his sermon before Saturday night. Looking back across my entire childhood, I know he was present for me to an exemplary level, but it was never something I could predict.

I know he was diligent about visitation, going from house to house throughout his parish. I know he found meetings stressful, and often came home from them weary and frustrated with a church that refused to be led by its pastor. I remember seeing one book prominently displayed in his library: When the Church Says No. I experienced that frustration myself on many occasions in my short ministerial career.

That frustration came out in his preaching. I heard my father preach hundreds of times. On most Sundays, I would find my mind drifting, and wish I could politely read a book through the sermon. Once in awhile, Dad would tell a story, something I wish he'd done more, as he always held my attention with those illustrations. The other thing that got my attention, uncomfortably, was when he felt the need to be prophetic. Then his voice would rise, and take on the same tone he used when storming up the stairs to break up a fight between his sons, and I'd know there would be a price exacted on him and on us, as his family of cold glares from the church's lay leaders.

Some pastors never take on that tone, never raise their voices in righteous anger, always manage to leave their congregations comforted and encouraged by their sermons. Those pastors usually enjoy long appointments. My father, on the other hand, stayed at churches for an average of three years. That's how long it took for people to tire of being prophesied to, whether from the pulpit or across the meeting table. I remember, in particular, the struggles he had with the church in Philomath, which rejected a request from Head Start to house a preschool. Apart from being an excellent opportunity to be involved in the social needs of the community, renting out space to Head Start would've meant a steady source of income for the church. The church council, though, would have none of it, because they didn't want "those people"--the poor families served by Head Start--on church premises.

Yes, I know, it's blatant hypocrisy, a rejection of all that Jesus stood for, a turning inward from the social justice mandate of even the most conservative denomination; and that's what my father preached the Sunday after that meeting, concluding with a call to join him in prayer, kneeling at the rail, for forgiveness. He knelt by himself as the sanctuary silently emptied.

Miraculously, we didn't move that year, though clearly the church wanted us to. I know my father was called up to Portland to meet with the Bishop who questioned whether he should even still be in ministry, asking him if maybe he should consider leaving to pursue a different vocation. He held fast, though, and pleaded for another year, a fourth year in that place, so that I wouldn't have to move just before my senior year of high school. The Bishop consented, and I was able to graduate with my class the following year, oblivious to what that request had cost him. I attended the same high school for all four years, in fact, a luxury known by none of my younger brothers.

There's a cliche about preachers, that their task is to "comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable." I've known many successful preachers who hewed mostly to the first half of that axiom. I'm sure my father preached many such sermons in his time; but I know it was the latter part of the job that kept him from long pastorates of the kind that allow a pastor to settle down, get to know multiple generations of a congregation, and provide some stability for his family. I know he struggled with this, trying to strike the right balance among the demands of family, congregation, world, and what I know meant most to him, following Christ's example. That he lived that struggle with integrity, that he fully embraced the cost of discipleship, and that he did so without complaint, and in all humility, is the highest praise I can imagine for any Christian who, like my father, aspires to be called "preacher."

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