three to follow
A few weeks ago, I confessed that I’m paralyzed by the multitude of models for pastoral leadership. Narrowing the field helps; instead of considering every possible kind of leadership, I’m able to identify simply what delights me. (That approach, however, often ends with an image of me tending a sunny garden, reading a novel and letting my mind walk the contours of its land, or perfecting the art of the sestina. In other words, it’s more about my ideal Sabbath than pastoral ministry.)
Another way to come at this question (a way that has the potential to take me to a different place than back to my garden) is to ask which pastors have influenced me and which of their qualities I most admire. So here are a few:
The summer before second grade, my family moved to Portage, Michigan, where we attended a little Baptist church half a mile down the road. I was mesmerized by the pastor. He had a big, boisterous family, which held a kind of magic for me. (I have one sister and even on my family’s rowdiest days, we’re pretty reserved.) A few months into our time there, I wrote him a note telling him that I loved how visibly he praised the Lord. He wrote back immediately, detailing the ages and personalities of all of his kids. With two daughters and five sons, he and his wife had a pretty open-door sensibility about their house. We were always welcome and always regarded as part of the family, even if that meant their deliberate encroachment on our gentle, sisterly ways. Beyond his hospitality, our pastor cared about the vigor of his congregation’s faith. Under his leadership, my parents developed an appreciation for Calvinism that they passed along to me. Young as I was, I absorbed a conception of pastoral leadership that loves its congregation through hospitality, theological teaching, and an obvious love for the Lord.
After an eight-year interlude in Illinois, I found myself back in Michigan for college. About the time that I declared an English major, I met the campus pastor. We hit it off immediately. He loved words; I loved words. He hailed from the Pacific Northwest; I was headed there for an off-campus semester. He had a poet’s soul. He led his congregation—the entire student body and some of the staff and faculty—by helping us imagine an embodied faith that carries us into, as he called it, the wide open country of salvation. Whenever he spoke those words, I felt my lungs expand with broad, clear air. He also frequently returned to the image of a tree, extending his arms to the sides like the growing limbs of a sturdy tree, giving us a picture of a Psalm 1, of Christians who are planted by streams of water. For him, the streams of water were Scripture and the liturgy. Each week, demonstrating his commitment to the Word, he spoke from memory the Scripture passage out of which his sermon arose. And each year, he introduced a new piece of the liturgy to our Sunday evening worship and thus provided for us a framework of confession and assurance, of communion with Christ and with each other, for us to lean into when our own spiritual resources were sapped. Outside of the chapel, he nurtured the faith of his congregation by dreaming big dreams for the college, strategizing how to move the campus toward a more robust Christianity, and cultivating students who would be able to lead the church toward vitality and union with Christ. From him, I learned that loving your congregation means being devoted to the Word of God, attending to imaginative language, envisioning a future toward which you aim, and investing in your people to help them get there.
In my final year of college, I joined a local church with two pastors: one male and one female. For the first time in my life, I was exposed to the regular leadership of a woman. She embodied for me the ability to be her hilarious, spunky, God-imaging self while also inhabiting the office of Minister of Word and Sacrament. With no more attention drawn to herself than that called by the blue bangles hanging from her ears one week, she greeted us with the blessing of God, guided us into sometimes painful confession, pronounced God’s pardon upon us, and captured in her prayers the wild longings and nameless gratitudes of our hearts. During the children’s sermon, she attended to each child with love, often by posing a question to the group, hearing out and engaging every response—whether precociously insightful or distractedly off-beat—and making sure the congregation could overhear it all. Out of the sanctuary, she revealed more of herself, which, I discovered, could be both sassy and wise. I found her to be an excellent spiritual director, for much the same reason that she led the children’s sermon so well: she honored us by listening us and calling out the places where she saw the stirring of the Spirit. Rather than giving advice, she asked questions and prodded for deeper understanding. She could recognize the hand of God with the ease of someone well acquainted with the ways of God. In her, I observed a pastor who loved her congregation by helping them notice and voice the sin, wisdom, and desire of their Spirit-filled souls.
There. Three pastors whose philosophy of leadership I’d be more than pleased to adopt.
I hope they know who they are.