Monday, September 23, 2013

The once and future pastor(s)

From Toledo, IA
[Insert here the appropriate Anabaptist
theological commentary about
kingship, swords, etc...]
Last week I had a meeting with two of my mentors, one of whom is my "church boss," to discuss next steps on my path to ordination as a minister in the Church of the Brethren. I don't write about that process much (if at all) here because, for one thing, I have a lot of questions about formal ministry in the free church/priesthood of all believers tradition. To call me "minister" and not, for instance, my wife - who serves as a mental health counselor in our local community and does so out of a sense of spiritual gifting flowing from her Christian faith - has and continues to seem somewhat off-kilter. Brethren have come up with some cute ways to address this in theory, but the institutionalization of the ministry has nevertheless created some power differentials.

So that's just my hangups about being characterized as a "minister" in some formal sense. The term "pastor" is even more touchy for me...

Let me first say that pastors have long been my favorite kind of people. Even after seminary and being approved for ordination, I continue to be very reluctant to think of/call myself a "pastor," mostly out of a sense of deep respect for those pastors who have played significant and various roles in shaping me as a person, generally, and as a minister in particular.

Put simply: I don't think I'm a "pastor" in the amazing ways that pastors have pastored me.

But the other week I conducted my first funeral service as a formal minister in our local community. The departed was a man who married into my wife's side of the family, and they wanted someone close to preside over the graveside service. So I happily and without hesitation said "yes" to that. For preparation of the obituary for the local paper, I emphasized to the family that when it came to ministerial titles, I preferred "Pastor" rather than "Reverend." (Oh, don't even get me started on Reverend!!)

So I guess I'm a pastor now. It's in print. And a sweet child in our local congregation called me "Pastor Brian" yesterday, so her word carries weight for me as well...

But I've also noticed that I continue to call my pastors as such - i.e. "my pastor" - even after my (or their) leaving the particular congregations in which I grew under their pastoral ministry. So what follows is a list of my pastor-heros from the course of my 34 years in the church and in (but not of!) the world. This is not an exhaustive list, because there are others not named here for whom I have a deep love and admiration. I'll give each a kind of "type," something to highlight their particular ministry gifts and their impact on me.

So here goes: My once and future pastors...

The pastor-counselor-friend: Tim Peter, pastor of Prairie City Church (IA) of the Brethren - Tim shepherded me through my jr. high and high school years growing up in Prairie City-Monroe. During this period, I was a kid who was both hyperactive (got in trouble a lot, poor grades) and morose (nerdy, prone to moping). When some of life's biggest teenage challenges and questions faced me, it was Tim that I turned to, sometimes even before turning to my parents (with whom I also had a great relationship). He helped me prepare my first sermon, he talked pop culture and theology with me, I babysat his two boys, I literally ran to him when I had an up-close encounter with God's Spirit at a youth convention, and I practically crawled to him when I had done some pretty stupid s#!t - and he was there, not lording anything over me (his authority, God's wrath, etc.), but lovingly and patiently working with me where I was struggling. He's also my exemplar for the virtue of "fun" (joy) in pastoring. Tim is now one of my mentors and continues to pastor my home congregation, where he's been for over twenty years.

The pastor-professor: Sara Wenger Shenk, president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary - I have written about Sara here before, for a "leadership biography" project during grad school. For my first two years of grad school/seminary, before she transitioned to her current role at AMBS, Sara was my professor and academic advisor at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, but was also my pastor at a small/experimental Mennonite congregation, The Table. Her model of servant leadership combined with her love of Christian worship practices completely re-wired my brain for how "church" can be done. (Our experience at The Table also convinced me that weekly communion in the Anabaptist tradition is not only possible, but theologically right and good. I still miss that...)

[Very honorable mention: Jeff Bach, Director of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies - Jeff was my childhood pastor before moving on to complete his PhD at Duke University. A few years ago at seminary, I took a directed study course on Brethren beliefs and practices with him, which was like a homecoming of sorts. His gentle and humble manner - as both pastor and professor - is a living witness to the "simple life" that Brethren show at their best.]

The pastoral-dynamic-duo: Mary Jane and Tim Button-Harrison, pastors within the Northern Plains District of the Church of the Brethren - While these two were never my pastors in a congregational sense, my growing up in the same district where they served in various leadership roles put me in frequent contact with them, together and on their own. It was Mary Jane who told me in my mid-20s, "Brian, you'd love seminary." It was Tim who busted me in high school doing some aforementioned "stupid s#!t" and responded in one of the most graceful and humble ways possible, while still holding out the firm moral-relational line that I'd crossed. Tim is now my District Executive ("church boss"), and he and I have an intellectual bond that is tremendously life-giving for me. They have both - together and individually - modeled servant leadership in ways that continue to instruct me.

The pastor-administrator: Duane Miller, interim minister in Iowa/Minnesota, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America - Pastor Duane served in an interim capacity at the Ankeny (IA) Presbyterian Church for one of the three years we worshiped with that congregation, and where my wife was the director of music. His administrative leadership of that congregation, which was in a state of conflict and transition, was a wonder to watch. At the time I was working in corporate America and noticing that many of Pr. Duane's leadership styles looked very professional/corporate. My anti-establishment proclivities were rightly challenged, as I saw him employ his leadership and administration gifts in ways that kept the collective "temperature" down in the congregation. I've taken some cues from him in formulating my own organizational leadership style.

The Mennonite Pastor: Phil Kniss, pastor at Park View Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, VA - I don't know what else to call Phil but "The Mennonite Pastor." I fell in love with the EMU Mennonite community, and Phil exemplifies many of the best characteristics of that tradition as I learned and experienced it. We spent our last two years in Virginia at Park View, and found just what we needed for that period of time. PVMC is a large congregation (in my book, that means anything over 100 people; Park View is around 400, I think) - and I have a suspicion of large congregations (and large anything for that matter). But Pastor Phil and the other pastoral staff at PVMC, and the congregation as a whole, have somehow developed a culture that doesn't feel "big." As pastor of a congregation very close to EMU, Phil's preaching style is cerebral but practical, which is exactly my kind of balance, and very explicitly Anabaptist-Mennonite but with a deep ecumenical spirit. The first Sunday we showed up, he began a series of sermons based on James K.A. Smith's book, Desiring the Kingdom, and that was it for me. Deal! - Phil and PVMC continue to have a place in our lives now that we've moved to Iowa. We listen to live PVMC services most Sunday mornings via internet radio, and Phil is also now my coffee dealer (a subject for another post, perhaps).

My own emerging "type": The pastor-thinker-organizer - That last bit, the "organizer," I picked up from a post by David Fitch on becoming "political organizers for the Kingdom." Fitch is also responsible for the term "organic intellectual" (the "thinker" bit) becoming a term with some weight in my own self-understanding as I've transitioned out of university/academic life and into a rural Midwestern community, but am still very much animated by an intellectual impulse. The life of the mind is something I remain committed to, but only for the glory of God and my service in the body of Christ in this local community and in other communities to which I relate. This also jives with my recent reading on radical democracy/radical ecclesia (church) in the Hauerwas-Coles book-blogging series I'm doing with the Bros. Jonathan.

This is the emerging sense of my ministry which began to take shape in seminary and continues to seem right in light of this pastor-thinker-organizer gig: I've sensed a call to church-planting a community of radical disciples who are committed to the patient, peaceful way of Jesus Christ - and that his radical love should form us in his likeness, and that love can and should flow out from our fellowship of worship to service in/with the local community, to "seek the peace of the farm town," as I've grown fond of saying.

So this post is my giving thanks to God for the pastor-heroes who've come alongside me on my own journey to this point, who continue to be dear friends and mentors, and who will no doubt continue to make an impact on my ministry. Thank you all!

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