Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The grind of pastoral life

Some chats with leaders from across Canada and denominational lines have unearthed some disturbing pastoral realities: weariness, despair and quandary.

One pastor friend, sporting a different brand of kingdom wear (he’s Reformed—I still love him, but of course I was predestined to!), reminded me that recent U.S. statistics show 1,500 church leaders leaving ministry monthly because of conflict, burnout or moral failure. They’re not taking a break; most have no intention of returning to the grind of pastoral life.

All this makes the whole idea of the “pastoral life” a horrible oxymoronic and sarcastic kick to the nether-regions. “Pastoral life” can conjure up images of quaint log cabins or hillsides dotted with cud-chewing, tail-swishing cattle. What I’m hearing—and granted this is not every leader’s current experience—is that the life of a pastor is anything but tranquil. This, of course, is nothing new. Leaders have always been fair game from without and within. Those who have experienced the church under persecution realize that the enemy always aims for those living the pastoral life first.

These current trends, however, are a revealing indictment of a church not facing overt persecution. Perhaps the enemy is using more subtle tactics. As an under-shepherd with my weary brothers and sisters, allow me make the following observations:
• The pastoral life is being made weary by the unrealistic demands of consumerist religious idolatry.
This sounds harsh, but a culture demanding what it wants, expecting what it wants, and generally getting what it wants, has invaded our churches without anyone asking for proper identification. We are idolatrous consumers who expect a church life that will feed our spiritual, fee-for-service, drive-through appetites.
Leaders are weary and burned out trying to meet these impossible demands. Too many have been told their job is simply to keep people happy. Too few have been given the charge to simply do the will of the Father.
• The pastoral life is plagued with despair by the dysfunctional mess of our age.
Every era has its quirks, but a unique challenge of this age is the rapid unravelling of the home. While the mess left by a hurricane through your home can produce some wonderful clean-up stories, pastoral leaders are dealing with increasingly complicated family dysfunction that leaves them without answers when they are expected to have them.
Too many pastors are being told they bear responsibility for fixing messes they didn’t create. Too few have been freed to call for the responsibility of the individual and the community to the repenting, embracing and healing process of increasingly broken lives.
• The pastoral life is left in a quandary by the unstoppable shift of culture.
The boundary lines have moved. The church no longer functions anywhere near the centre of cultural conversation. We are a side-show, a nicety for the old, unscientific and ignorant; at least that’s what the culture believes.
To be a leader of this chastised remnant of yesteryear is not a title many clamour after. Many leaders are baffled why pews are empty or their best-laid plans produce nary a blip on the radar.

We wonder if we’re still necessary when Oprah is more popular than Jesus, even in the church. Too many pastors have been told they must simply do what has always been done. Too few have been released to lead their community into full-fledged missionary engagement with the world as it now is.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Prime Time Elections

The two most northern nations of North America are facing general elections this fall. The United States will choose to anoint either President Obama or President McCain in early November. In Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called an election for October 14 (circumventing the law his Conservative Party introduced in 2006 to hold elections every four years).

In the US the 2008 election has been front-page news since, it seems, shortly after the Revolutionary War. I am trying to remember a newscast without mention of McCain or Obama and can’t conjure it up. With great respect to my American friends, your elections are quite entertaining and are almost full-blown soap operas with scripts you couldn’t even dream up: a first woman seems a shoe-in only to be booted to the sidelines; a second woman rises from nowhere (as a hockey mom from snow-land you’d almost think she’s Canadian) only to become the butt of jokes. Throw in a pregnant teen, a war hero, a first-ever candidate from the African American community, a stock market crash and eye-popping bank collapses, a mortgage Armageddon, and the incredible graphics and banter of nonstop news broadcasts who can make headline news out of even the glasses the candidates wear and you’ve got a hit! Wow, how do you pull this stuff off? It seems like American Idol, the Washington version.

In Canada, our elections are truly boring by comparison. We barely know who the spouses of our potential Prime Ministers are and I don’t see anyone running out to Canadian Tire or Zellers in search of Stephen Harper’s sweater collection. We have a separatist regional party that runs on the national stage. Where we once had two parties to choose from we now have five (although that’s only in Quebec. English Canada has the mind-numbing choice of four flavours). The leader of the Green Party will in this election be on stage in the televised leader’s debate even though her party has no elected members of parliament … ever! Well, maybe we’re not so boring … just banal … and redundant, since we seem to go through this about every 18-24 months.

The political process and leadership of two truly great nations have been reduced to sound bites and who can go negative best (does that make “negative” the new positive?). It’s easy to see why many, especially younger members of the population, have become disinterested or are seeking ways to challenge the current ways and means. Here in Canada the idea of Proportional Representation has been floated, but even more interesting is the vote swapping that is characterizing this election. The questionable ethics of voting now seems to be running neck and neck with the ethics of those seeking the votes.

So, what are we as Christians to do in a world of Prime Time Elections (I’m still waiting for the TV station that will have the courage to voice over their coverage with the guy who does the Monster TRUCK … truck … COMMERCIALS …commercials – it would seem humourously fitting)?

Despite the quirks and quandaries, or actually maybe because of them, Christians must engage themselves in the process. Now, of course, we could debate endlessly whether the “Religious Right” or the “Socialist Left” is most proper for the Christian to support. That, however, would be the wrong place to begin. Christians should engage themselves in the process for two primary reasons:
• First, this world is the locale both of wickedness and the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. However sarcastic or disappointed we may be with the state of our unions the reality is that we are placed here and now and we have a responsibility to work, as followers of Jesus, for the good of the city to which we have been called for such a time as this. The party politics and banter are sideshows that we must avoid, but to excuse ourselves from working for the good of the land is unbiblical. Even the Israelites in exile were told to settle in and help Babylon thrive while keeping their eyes on the only true and enduring Kingdom. The forced exile of Christians from the public sphere in the twenty-first century does not excuse us from being prophetic and prayerful regarding our nations in hope of seeing resurrection and Kingdom life emerge and prosper. As Lesslie Newbigin writes, “The Christian … has no right to become indifferent to the good working of those authorities which God has ordained for a good purpose but which can easily become instruments of wickedness.”
• Second, we ultimately do not find our hope in the politics of people. This might sound contradictory. If the world is going to hell in a hand basket why not let it go there? This is negative advertising at its best, no? I want to suggest that our working for a better way and more just and righteous world is actually an important prelude to the gospel (please note, however, that it is NOT the gospel as some Christians have been want to conclude). We work and involve ourselves for good in order that the beauty of Jesus may be more clearly seen. If the followers of Jesus engage this broken and wicked world for good, for wholeness, for shalom, imagine what Jesus must be like. In addition, since even our best laid plans and policies ultimately fall short, prove inadequate and need re-working yet again (and sometimes election after election), doesn’t our involvement in the process reveal a humility that allows us to point to our Lord as the one who will ultimately fulfill all our hopes and aspirations for the just society? We serve – and that is a key word - not in futility, not in self-centeredness, not with pompous political prowess, but with a keen awareness of ourselves and a vision for what will one day be. In our political involvement we are not fooling ourselves that somehow we will usher in a utopia – that is the failed modernist vision that we still hear from some political types – but seeking to create another window into the just and whole society that God alone can bring. Our hope is, in John Howard Yoder’s famous words, in the “politics of Jesus.” As our resurrected Lord’s disciples therefore, as those who know the way of the cross politics can lay upon those with truly hope-filled vision, we serve for the sake of Jerusalem, Babylon, Washington, Ottawa and every Adamsville and Zurich in between.