[There are a handful of you at The Shame who are pastor/minister/leader types; most of you, however, are not. But many of you attend church, frequent a church, drive by a church on occasion, or have fond memories of such a place. Here's the skinny - this post is primarily for the handful. My request for the rest of you is this - would you be willing to forward this to your pastor/preacher/minister/revered/leader type? I would love to hear their reactions/responses. And even though you may not be in the primary audience, this post is still about you. It really is. Trust me. And thanks.]
If the great bear is still living in the Yaak,
then so too are all the other species below it.
- Rick Bass, The Book of Yaak
I SHIVER, AS I WRITE THIS.
Those words begin Rick Bass’s plea for the conservation of a once secret valley up near the Canadian border: The Yaak. It is a place immensely important to Bass; he would say it is to us as well. The Yaak valley is one of the few remaining areas of true wilderness in the United States. Everything from local customs to big business threatens and has threatened this sacred ground. Bass is an activist in the best sense of the word and he does what he can; mainly, he writes. He shivers because he knows that writing to preserve the Yaak can actually end up doing harm, that such revelation will draw acquisitive types – “those who come to a valley to take something, rather than give.” It is risky.
I’ll let his words begin my plea, for I too desire the conservation of a specific place of beauty and wildness: the pastor’s heart. For many reasons, it is a place very important to me. The threats to this sacred region are legion, maybe today more than ever. But I want to do what I can with what I have seen and heard in the time there is. And so I write.
But I’m shivering. I know that writing about the pastor’s heart can draw the acquisitive types – those who seek to debate or proof-text or dismiss outright. There will always be those who come to take rather than give. It is always risky. But I must write.
It may even make good sense to maintain such large animals…
for the disappearance of large animals often leads to the decline
and extirpation of many smaller animals.
- The Book of Yaak
If you find grizzly bears in an ecosystem, then it’s possible that everything else can exist as well. Not that you would find everything else, but that you could. Basically, if there’s space for the big guys (bears, caribou, wolves), then there’ll be space for the little guys. But if the big guys go, then the ground beneath everyone else's feet becomes extremely fragile.
Consider the church an ecosystem. Maybe you prefer the word culture; that’s fine. Let’s further consider you, the pastor, as a grizzly bear. Now it’s possible you’ve been through those personality tests that grade you as a golden retriever or a beaver. Set that aside for a moment, live on the wild side, and embrace the bear, alright? It’s a metaphor.
Is there room for you in your church culture? Is there room for a grizzly in your ecosystem, be it non-denom, Baptist, or Episcopal? Please note that I’m not talking about room for the role of a pastor; there will always be a minister-shaped slot. No, I’m talking about room for you. Here’s a quick story in the interest of clarity.
Newly hired as the pastor of a mid-sized church, I remember being given the tour of the pastor’s study. It was a room prepared before the foundations of my arriving. Phrases like We just know you’re going to love it and these lamps are one-of-a-kind should have tipped me off. I stepped into a room filled with a polished mahogany desk, Tiffany lamps, two large decorative trees, and an assortment of faux Persian rugs. You may be saying And what’s the problem? Well, the problem was that wasn’t me. It was who some hoped and wanted me to be (polished, rather decorative), but it wasn’t me. I stepped into a culture that was not healthy. No room for grizzlies.
Of the inventories you can take to assess whether or not your church is healthy, there is no end. A congregation’s health is measured these days in terms of everything from amount of small group participation to satisfaction in worship services to orthodox preaching. While those are all indicators of something, I’m not convinced they always indicate health. But I believe there is a question, rarely asked, that does. So, I ask you again.
Is there room for you in your church?
Let me be very clear: I believe if there’s room for you and your heart in your church, there’ll be room for everyone else and their heart. And that, pastor, is not a slight thing; in fact, it may be the thing.
If you think this is sounding just a tad selfish, that's fair. I heard the poet David Whyte use a phrase years ago – the arrogance of belonging. I’ve never forgotten it. You’ve no doubt come across people like this before, men and women who fully inhabit their place. They are unutterably themselves, regardless of public opinion; a force to be reckoned with; the sheer weight of their person affects every room they enter. They believe no one else could do what they’re doing at the particular time. To someone who looks lightly, they appear incredibly arrogant. But with those who’ve eyes to see and ears to hear, they demonstrate a face set like flint to the life they’ve been given to live.
If you believe that God has really called you to be the pastor of a particular church, then he’s called you; not some you that’s expendable or interchangeable with someone else. No, you.
They refuse the men themselves; they insist upon a diagram
of humanity instead. They dwell only upon what they would
like a man to conform to; they never come within a hundred
miles of knowing what a man is.
- Robert Farrar Capon, The Romance of the Word