This past June, in the span of about a week, I officiated at four funerals and a wedding. Eat your heart out, Hugh Grant.
Death always comes as an intrusion, certainly in the lives of the bereaved but also in the lives of pastors. Contrary to much greeting-card wisdom, death is not just a natural part of things. Life is God’s plan. Death is an interruption, the result of sin.
My parishioners were certainly feeling that interruption back in June. Death interrupted the visits and conversations they had planned with the ones who had died. It interrupted their future parties at which their grandmother should have been holding court in her usual spot.
As a pastor, more selfishly, I felt that interruption as well. Three of the four funerals were for people I never knew, so I had to give up time with my family to rush to the hospital and funeral home. Moping like Jonah, I was doing ministry for people who did not find the church’s ministrations usually worth their time. Tarshish would have been preferable. That week, even the wedding felt like an intrusion, since I doubted I’d see the couple in our church again.
These services felt to me like an interruption, though, only because I did not see them as part of my regular duties. In a little over a week, including my Sunday duties, I was writing seven sermons and leading eleven worship services. It felt as if the funerals and the wedding were bloating my schedule.
But what else, really, is a pastor called to do? Preaching to the bereaved and to brides and grooms—this is my job. It was an exhausting week, but it provided some vocational clarity.
Jesus sent out his disciples with basic instructions. He told them that repentance and forgiveness in his name should be preached to all nations. He told them to baptize and teach. He told them to offer bread and wine, his body and blood, for the forgiveness of sin. Lutherans call this word and sacrament ministry. Preach. Teach. Baptize. Give the supper.
Pastors, however, feel a strong urge to do lots of other things. A glance at my June calendar shows that the week of the wedding and funerals found me at a youth lock-in, a men’s club meeting, a parish nursing event, a premarital counseling session, and a wedding anniversary party.
Pastors might blame their congregations and councils for asking too much of them, but we are, to our own detriment, an eager bunch. We are eager to please and afraid of not doing enough. We are afraid that membership might dwindle, and that in the end it will be because we weren’t active enough, didn’t plan enough, didn’t place ourselves at enough activities with parishioners. Pastors love a full church parking lot, and if it tells of our success on Sundays, then why not try filling it the rest of the week as well?
One of the best pastors in all of literature is Fritz Kruppenbach, who inhabits a brief scene in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. The Episcopal priest Jack Eccles has taken the wayward Rabbit Angstrom under his care, golfing with him and visiting his family in order to sort out the mess that Rabbit created when he left his wife. Eccles is stymied in his attempts at restoring order to the Angstrom family, so he goes to visit Kruppenbach, the pastor to Rabbit’s in-laws, and a long-time fixture in town. Surely, he will have some helpful insights.
Kruppenbach surprises Eccles. He is uninterested in Eccles’s evaluations of Rabbit’s family dynamics and emotional make-up. To him, Eccles is “selling his message for a few scraps of gossip and a few games of golf,” acting like a cop “without handcuffs, without guns, without anything but… human good nature.” Kruppenbach reminds him that their duty as pastors is to be strong in faith, so that when facing parishioners in mourning, they can say, “Yes, he is dead, but you will see him again in heaven.” The old kraut provides much-needed clarity as to what the pastoral office entails, even though Eccles will not accept it.
Significantly, when Eccles arrives at the house, Kruppenbach is out on his lawnmower. The yard has the groomed appearance “that comes with much fertilizing, much weed-killing, and much mowing.” A nearby colleague of mine says you should never trust a pastor who doesn’t know the daytime television schedule. It’s another way of saying that a pastor who’s doing his job should have enough time to get out of the office and watch some television or, in Kruppenbach’s case, mow the lawn. Eccles thinks it is his job to go golfing with Rabbit and straighten out his family. A preacher’s work is less complicated than that.
Every pastor has surely heard his parishioners crack the joke that he’s got an easy life, since he only has to work on Sundays. The humor is obvious, since pastors work throughout the week, often morning, noon, and night. But there is a kernel of truth to the joke. Pastors do not need to golf with their parishioners. They need to preach.
About the time I was enmeshed in four funerals and a wedding, I got a call from the council president at one of my churches concerning the parsonage lawn. Some people were complaining that the grass was getting too long. The next day several of our neighbors were holding garage sales, so lots of people would be driving by. If I didn’t have time to mow it before then, there were youth in our congregation whom I could hire to get the job done. The implied message was clear: long grass reflects badly on the pastor and on the parish. Who would want to attend a church led by a slob?
I bristled at the phone call, but tried to remain courteous. My wife got to hear me vent after hanging up. The grass was long enough to mow, not long enough to warrant a call from the council president. Parsonages are as close as you can get to a glass house.
Still, the phone call signaled that I had forgotten the contours of my pastoral vocation. It might as well have been Fritz Kruppenbach on the other end of the line. A pastor always should have enough time to mow the lawn. Four funerals and a wedding might make for a busy week, but a pastor’s schedule should have space for it. My job is to preach and administer the sacraments. That certainly means work besides Sunday morning, but the responsibility is really the same whether teaching confirmation, visiting the homebound, or leading devotions at a council meeting: take a word from Christ, and hand it over. A pastor doesn’t need to do everything.
Rabbit, Run was published in 1960, and Updike’s portrayal of the young pastor Eccles is nearly as accurate today as it was in 1960. Seminary curricula in the 1960s encouraged pastors to see themselves as counselors and learn from the psychological arts. In today’s seminaries, we are schooled not only in the psychology of the individual, but in the web of family systems that produce anxiety and need our benevolent delineation.
If Kruppenbach could see our church today, he would find another paradigm of ministry replacing the model of counselor. I can only assume he would scorn this one just as much. The new paradigm is leadership. My own seminary’s mission statement does not even use the word pastor but instead refers to “leaders for Christian communities.” Leadership has become its own division of faculty, including teachers of education and pastoral care.
It is not hard to see the influence of culture in all this nor hard to guess at the sciences which are sitting on the cultural throne. Fifty years ago, the church had grown enamored of psychology—it seemed to explain so much about who we were, and so our pastors had to learn to analyze and affirm. These days we are in awe of the business world, and so our churches and seminaries have been learning to speak in the language of markets and demographics. With the current international recession and the collapse of major businesses, a new paradigm of ministry might soon emerge—although the church is often a good many years behind the culture when she tries imitating it (how else does one explain today’s “contemporary” worship which sounds like adult light pop from the 1980s?), so I’m not holding my breath.
The proponents of churchly leadership would say that it differs from the business model, and that an MDiv is something other than an MBA. We are not just leaders, after all, but leaders in mission. And whose mission is it? It is God’s mission. Yet the mission of redeeming the world has one leader, and that is God. The mission itself along with its power and its methods belong to God. Christians—whether they are ordained or not—are more like earthen vessels than leaders. We are pots and not the potter, showing that anything accomplished through us must be owing to the power of God. We are stewards who have been entrusted with the keys to our master’s property and have been told to use those keys to let people in the door.
The trouble with borrowing from the culture for our ministry paradigms is that the culture’s methods are so rarely God’s own. How many businesses would hang their hopes on water, bread, wine, and words to accomplish anything? When we should be relying on these simple methods—since they were the ones God gave us—we end up learning all kinds of other methods, ones that don’t allow time for lawn-mowing. We end up learning five-step processes such as Attending-Asserting-Agreeing-Acting-Assessing. We research population shifts and traffic patterns outside our church buildings. We schedule meetings and cast a vision. Naaman surely would have spent lots of time pursuing his own cure to leprosy if his servants hadn’t stopped him. Elisha had simply said, “Go to the river and wash.”
When we gather, my colleagues and I often complain of fatigue. The job is demanding. It will always be demanding. We work for a Lord who had to tell his disciples to “come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while,” because “they had no leisure even to eat.” Yet much of it is self-inflicted. The unplanned funerals are many, but the unnecessary pursuits are far more. Like the Psalm says, the Lord does give sleep to his beloved. Waking up early, going to bed late, eating the bread of anxious toil… it’s all vanity.
My grass is getting long again. I must have been taking myself too seriously this week.
Paul Koch is pastor of Wannaska Lutheran Parish in rural northwestern Minnesota.