On a plane in conversation with a seat-partner or in a line at the grocery store when I introduce myself and my profession, I notice the surprise that breaks across the face of my conversation partner. Sometimes, the surprise holds a twinge of disapproval, but most of the time it reflects general disorientation. I know my gender and age have a significant part of their reaction: I am not what they expected. As a blonde thirty-five-year-old mother of three, I am not the typical ordained Baptist pastor.
But an article I read this week caused me to wonder if the reaction might be, instead, a reaction to this ancient profession to which I have been called.
While the article is written hyperbolically, I know it attests to a real perception amongst our culture. “What do you do during the week?” is asked with some regularity. If someone has longer than a few moments with me, they seek some details of what keeps me busy, with an underlying sense of judgment or disbelief.
I discussed the article with my husband last night as we cleaned up the kitchen. My oldest son listened as he was playing Legos at the table. I know he is listening in on our conversations more lately. I look over and wonder, what will he think of me one day? What will be left of this clergy tradition? Will he understand this vocation to which I give my life? Will he know what I do in the office each week? Will he know what I labor over and whether it was all worth it?
Journalists write about the dying church. The “nones” are changing the religious landscape. This profession is in a time of great unrest. Now is the time for surveys like these to instigate not self-righteous defensiveness (though I confess that was my first reaction) but to invite creative exploring, imagining, wondering, renovating. What is it that we are doing here? What do people hope to receive from us? How can we be effective?
It is as this point that I must confess: I nearly fell in the trap. I was tired from a long week. I showed up on Thursday in the office and wanted to pin down the answer: what are people needing, and how do we be relevant to them?
But this morning in the quiet, all that began to shift. For I write this from my Sabbath day. Sabbath days are precisely for this purpose: Sabbath days protect us from stepping into a role not designed for us. I nearly stumbled into the role of fighting for the relevancy of pastors. But this is not a job I created, and I am not the One who called me into it.
The truth is that this survey is not really about clergy. This survey is about the relevancy of faith. This is a survey whose title should read, “New poll shows growing view that God is irrelevant.”
This survey reveals the magnitude which people do not understand the essence of the human life nor do they understand God as anything more than a therapist or handy-man. So yes – pastors are irrelevant as therapists and fixers, for the human life is about living and loving, not perfecting and evolving.
If irrelevance is the state of being disconnected to the “important” matters of our day, then I claim my irrelevance.
I celebrate all things irrelevant in our fast-paced society:
trees swaying in the wind,
the way people greet one another when they love one another,
phone calls just to check in,
hymn-singing in uncertain times,
poetry that opens me up,
people whose worth and relevancy could never be evaluated in surveys, polls, or a census.
Pastors are not connected to the channels of commerce, nor are we good at producing commodities for the marketplace. We stand in the most ancient of professions – caring for all people, meeting the distressed wherever they are stuck, preparing ourselves to welcome anyone who walks in our doors, seeking to form the human heart into a state of moldable and teachable humility, and speaking Christ’s call to go out into the world to love boldly in the name of some divine force bigger than yourself.
We are the spirit-tenders.
We are the people-gatherers.
We are the teachers of prayer.
We are keepers of stories.
We are burden-sharers.
We are marchers-in-resistance.
We are the ones praying for the soul of a nation who no longer recognizes itself.
We help truth be passed generation to generation.
We fuel soul-curiosity.
We listen to the broken-hearted.
We notice the poor.
When all else fails before you, our doors are open.
I read this article mid-week as I was between appointments in which I was laboring for the caring and tending to grieving people – work that is rarely publicized due to the privacy and intimacy. If you were to be in the moments of my work day, though, and see the people whom the church was caring for – you would have seen the tears in their eyes. You would have seen people who knew exactly the relevancy of our work. We were honoring life together in difficult moments. As pastors, we were standing by people who had to look straight in the face of fragility for a moment – people who knew that they could not do it alone. There seemed nothing more important than that work.
This is a profession whose relevancy is often known most uniquely by the broken-hearted, by the people at the end of their emotional rope, by people facing the end. People who deem us irrelevant are privileged enough to not have encountered life’s profound sadness yet. We come into work each week to care for the living and the dying. We schedule events, plan programming, and equip leaders that will enable the healing and flourishing of those in our congregation and community. We labor for meaningful relationships and intergenerational community. We work with the emotionally imprisoned, mentally stuck, wounded, and all those who haven’t yet realized their own obstacles.
Pastors seek to teach people how to love. We seek to teach people that they are loved. We seek to help people see the best in one another, especially in the worst of times. These are lessons that require a lifetime to learn them. If that seems irrelevant, you have not sought to be loved or to love. Is there a greater way to devote one’s labor each week? For me, there is not.
In a world and day when pastors are deemed irrelevant, can we not see the irony? The survey results released the same week that hatred is again running rampant along our media channels.
Don’t tell me that peacemakers are irrelevant.
Don’t tell me that community builders are irrelevant.
Don’t tell me that we are no longer hoping for what is possible among us.
God, you are Relevance. You are the source of life. You are the only Creator who determines the worth of our identity and our work.
Make me content to be one irrelevant blade of grass that is moved by the wind.
Make me content to be one irrelevant wildflower in a sea of them.
Make me content to write a few irrelevant words lost in the internet.
Help me to claim my (ir)relevance.
I pray that you continue to create pastors who are irrelevant in the systems of capitalism and consumerism. I pray that we may be poets, songwriters, and playful hearts. I pray that all people of faith might receive the freedom and courage necessary to love your relevancy more than desiring our own.
Shock the world by the ways that our irrelevancy ends up sparking a transformation of this national mess in which we find ourselves. Let it be clear when our great-grandchildren look back and sing the story in new hymns.
I pray in the name of the One whose only relevancy I ever need, Amen. May it be.