A recent Alban Institute post Culture Streams outlined how culture can affect the congregations we minister to. It identified the macro culture with its large trends, meso culture which is all about regional ways that people interact and the local (micro) community culture. The question I would like to ask ministry leaders is what is our role in each of these areas. In order to start a discussion I will out line a few thoughts on each.
Our Role in the Wider Culture
I can honestly say that I have only seen a few of instances of a depiction of a clergy person in film or television that did not leave me creeped out (Rev. Book in the cult Sci-Fi series Firefly, the Vicar of Dibley from the BBC, one memorable episode about Rev. Lovejoy on the Simpsons are a few of the rare positive examples). Most often the clergy person is set up as a straw man (or woman) to further some aspect of the plot. They almost always lack any depth at all. The judgmental religious nut (who is always sexually repressed), the naive out of touch boob who has no idea of what real life is like, the goody two-shoes helpless (usually) guy who means well, and the wooden saintly figure are some of the typical archetypes.
In addition, most of the stories in the news media that people will see and read about the clergy are overwhelmingly negative. They usually involve one of our profession doing something criminal, stupid, or both (think Jim Baker or Jimmy Swaggart). Factor in that less and less people are coming to church and never see what we actually do first hand, and one can see that we should no longer expect prestige or a positive reception because of what we do. Therefore because of our wider culture trends we should have to expect to work harder at building trust, be vigilant about our boundaries, and be clear in our own understanding about what our role is. Most of all we need to learn to be patient with those we serve to demonstrate our genuine love and concern in Christ.
We still do have some significant privileges left that should not be taken for granted. the Federal government affords us a special status in the tax code. We are often still given positive roles in public ceremonies and events, and because the overwhelming majority of people are still interested in dialoging about God I have never found opportunities to engage in faith conversations lacking. We need to be thankful for these privileges and leverage them faithfully to help bring God's Word to our communities.
Our Role in New Jersey
The chief reason I no longer wear a clerical collar is that I am tired of being called "Father". As Jesus taught us our true "Abba" is in heaven. I am only the earthy father of Beata and Paul and honestly that is all I should be. As a Lutheran, I am called to preach the Word and administer the sacrements, to do what Eric Gritsch and Robert Jenson called "tending to the life of the Gospel." In a regional culture where the Roman Catholic priest is the primary archetype of our calling we will always have some explaining to do (even when we don't dress in black). People can see how we can serve God through our ordinary lives as neighbors, parents and friends.
The other major factor I have dealt with in our area is the pace of life. People just do not seem to have it in their DNA to slow down and let God breathe into our lives around here. This has had all kinds of implications in my ministry over the years. Worship service lengths are under strict (albeit informal) time covenants, prayers can be rushed through to get the the "real business" of the church, and everyone has limits on their time because they have to be somewhere else. The pastor can then be merely viewed as one more person making a demand on their time which always seems to be running through their fingers. However, it is precisely in this aspect of our culture where we may be able to help lead people toward a healthier way of living. Eugene Peterson identified "prayer and spiritual direction" as two of the three pillars of ministry (the other being tending to the Word). We can help people slow and down take time for the simple things so they can see how God works in their lives.
Our Role in our Congregation
I have served three congregations in New Jersey and each has had it's own distinct culture and the role of the pastor has varied greatly in each. One expected a high degree of pastoral care and affirmation, another revitalization and new life, and another reconciliation and unity to bring the congregation together to move forward in mission. I have always found that there is a tension between what I feel called to do and what the congregation culture expects. This tension can be creative and life giving if dealt with openly through prayer and discussion. I have grown both as a person and a minister because I have been given the opportunity to learn from those I am called to serve, it is certainly one of the greatest blessings of ministry. There is always lots more to discuss on this aspect and I look forward to those interactions.