This past Thursday, I had the privilege of sharing a lunchtime meal with a retired pastor. We chatted about books, about liturgy, about “church growth” and “Generation X”. We wondered about the state of theological formation for would-be ordinands. We compared notes on the state of our respective denominations (Episcopal Church for me and Presbyterian Church, USA for him). All of this chat comprises the usual “side dishes” of a clergy luncheon.
What made the lunch so remarkable, though was the way in which this quiet, understated, former pastor spoke of his years in ministry. He talked about the joy he derived from sitting in parishioners’ dining rooms, looking at photo albums, sipping tea and listening to their stories. He reminisced about the “tender moments” of the pastoral life — births, baptisms, confirmations, weddings, celebrations, difficulties of all sorts, illnesses, deaths and funerals — those times when pastors are invited into the very hearts and lives of the people we serve.
My friend joked about his “naturally serious” way of being and gave thanks that, through the years, he had learned (with the help of the Lord and Garrison Keillor) to lighten up a bit. He didn’t fill me up with “war stories” — of church conflict, resistance to change, irritable personalities and petty power struggles — the sorts of things we more recently ordained folks seem to endlessly discuss with one another. He offered me a double helping of the joys to be found in knowing the names of babies and taking one’s time in the world when time seems so scarce. I couldn’t help but think to myself that I probably needed to lighten up a bit (and I don’t need to listen to Keillor, I can have lunch with Howard!).
Decades of service to the Church in the local setting of “church” and then one’s “active” ministry is ended. The Church goes on…as does the “churches” one served. All of the issues that seemed to matter so much in the day to day drama of congregational life fade away. A new generation of clergy-types takes up the challenge. The times change. The technology changes. But day to day congregational life remains remarkably the same — as groups of would be disciples practice living the teachings of the Lord we say we follow with one another in the rickety and raucous world of parochial relationships.
I think I got an insight into what “the cure of souls” might actually look like when its lived out with generosity of spirit, an attitude of humility and a solid sense of one’s own gifts and “growing edges”. Such a pastoral life is remarkable in its lack of self-induced drama. Perhaps what Howard taught me most in our hour and a half together is the day to day journey of this wonderfully strange vocation is much more important than whatever aspirations one might have for “the parish” (which might be nothing more than a cheap veneer of vanity and career aspirations anyway) pale in comparison with the opportunities to grow in relationship with fellow followers of Jesus, and by extension, to grow in relationship with God.
Someone once told me that the most maddening thing about the clergy life is the stuff we do when we’re working doesn’t look much like work. Here’s what I learned at lunch on Thursday: the work that doesn’t look much like work is the real and important work. And while I suspect he would demur about our lunch being a “teaching moment”, I would say Howard filled me up with plenty of lessons from a life lived and a Lord served.