As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
I knew a man who suffered an immense tragedy a few years ago.
In the same month, he lost both his wife and his daughter—his wife to a tragic accident and his daughter to what should have been a routine surgical procedure. In the days and weeks after these losses, he waited. He waited for his church to reach out. He waited to hear from the elders. He waited for his pastors (plural) to visit.
Nothing. The church office never contacted him. The elders never called. The pastors never visited.
Unsurprisingly, he stopped attending, and he also stopped giving.
Eventually, someone finally did reach out. A deacon. She was curious why his years-long steady giving had suddenly ended. He responded that if she wanted to know, one of the pastors should give him a call.
A month or two later, one did. The pastor got straight to the point and asked this man why he’d stopped giving. The man responded, “Have you noticed I haven’t been attending worship either?” There was silence on the other end of the line. “Would you like to know why?” he asked. The pastor begrudgingly said he would. The man continued, “I lost both my wife and my daughter a few months ago. And do you know how many people reached out to me from church? Zero. The church never contacted me. The elders never called. And you never visited. The first I’ve heard from anyone at church was a deacon asking me why I’m not giving anymore. Can you understand why that might make me not want to come anymore? Can you understand why that might make me decide not to keep giving?”
Flustered, the pastor started to defend himself, “Look, I’m just not that good at visiting people after a tragedy. I never know what to say. Some pastors do. But it’s not my gift. I’m good at other things, but not that.”
“Not your gift?” the man said. “I didn’t need you to be gifted! I didn’t need you to know what to do. I didn’t need you to know what to say. I simply needed you to visit! I simply needed to know that you were there for me. I simply needed a pastor.”
I’d like to say that’s not a true story. And I’d also like to say the church in question wasn’t a Christian Reformed congregation. But, unfortunately, it is, and it was. And I’ve never forgotten it. I doubt I ever will. More than all my pastoral care classes in seminary, that story taught me the importance of being a pastor to people in times of crisis, in times of confusion, in times of questioning, uncertainty, and pain. Again, like that man reminded his own pastor, sometimes people just need a pastor to lead them through difficult times.
But it’s not just people. It’s congregations too. In fact, I would make the case that sometimes it’s even entire churches, entire denominations. Sometimes we need a pastor to shepherd and guide us through times of difficulty, to lead the way through uncertain situations, to help steer us through our collective pain and confusion. And, with the search for the new “ecclesiastical officer” position in the CRC beginning, I think one of those times is now.
Truth be told, I’m not a big fan of the whole “Church as Corporation,” “Church as Country or Kingdom,” “Church as Nonprofit,” or “Church as Entertainment Outlet” models of “doing church,” either at local or larger levels.
I could give a number of reasons.
I mean, for starters, as Christians, rather than taking our cues about how the church should function, operate, and be administered from what we see working “out there” in the world, shouldn’t we be taking our cues from Scripture? I’ll suffice it to say that I’ve been more than a little dismayed by what I perceive to be a vacuum of biblically-based perspective in the CRC when it comes to our understanding of the church in recent years. Just because multinational conglomerates run themselves a certain way doesn’t mean the church should follow their lead. Or that of the civil government. Or social services agencies. Or Hollywood studios.
But the bigger issue I have with those models of church is what it turns the expectation of a pastor into. You see, if we view the church like a corporation, then we’ll seek a CEO—someone with administrative gifts and a bottom-line mentality. If we see the church as a country or a kingdom, then we’ll look for a president or a monarch. If we see the church as a nonprofit, we’ll look for a social worker. If we see the church as an entertainment outlet, then we’ll seek a celebrity.
But in none of those situations will we get a pastor—someone who can winsomely and wisely lead a body of believers through troubling times, someone who can non-anxiously care for a diverse and fractured crowd of Christians, someone who can shepherd (isn’t that the origin of the word, “pastor,” after all?) the flock when it needs it the most. We might get leadership, sure. It might even be good leadership. But it won’t be the kind of leadership we need most.
Put simply, while other forms of leadership work well in other arenas, when it comes to the Church, we need a pastor to lead us.
I say that all of this because it seems to me there are a number of issues coming up in our denomination over the next few years that are going to require pastoral leadership from our new ecclesiastical officer:
First, the upcoming debate about human sexuality. Make no mistake, no matter how well we prepare, how much we pray, or how carefully and sensitively we frame it, navigating that conversation is going to be a difficult process, fraught with pitfalls. And so, I believe we need a leader who can not only administrate the fallout afterward, but also provide orthodox, theological vision leading up to and throughout that discussion that keeps us rooted in a biblical understanding of sex, sexuality, and marriage, no matter how backwards or unenlightened it might make us seem in the eyes of some.
(While synod obviously has not yet made on a decision on the upcoming report on human sexuality, my belief is that a biblically centered and orthodox decision will reflect our denomination’s historical understanding that homosexual sexual acts are not a God-honoring way of expressing our God-given gift of human sexuality.)
And yet, that leader also needs to be someone who can compassionately care for those who will inevitably be hurt, feel marginalized, and interpret our stance as a closed-door for their inclusion in the church. In other words, we need someone who, while sending one important biblical message about an orthodox understanding of sexuality and marriage, does not inadvertently communicate another equally unbiblical one—that there is no hope for those who engage in certain sexual sins. That is clearly not the case. Instead, there is mercy and grace found in repentance for all at the foot of the cross, and we need a leader who can both balance the beauty and joy of that gospel message with the unwavering authority of Scripture on how we are called to live in response.
Second, what about the dangerous lean toward the idolatry of civil religion in many Christian corners? Especially in the U.S., and especially in the age of Trump, it seems to me that many Evangelical Christians, including large swathes of CRC folks, are more committed to their candidate, party, and country than they are to Christ. Of course, they would never admit that. But if we were to compare the amount of time they spend watching Fox News or CNN to reading Scripture, the level of loyalty they have for their preferred presidential candidate to the level they have for their church, or the amount of passion with which they share their political views to the amount they have for sharing the gospel, we’re likely to get a much different picture.
And so, we need someone who can forcefully, consistently, and clearly communicate that as Christian believers, we must always hold our loyalty to our country second to our commitment to Christ and his kingdom. We are Christians first and citizens of our earthly countries second, always, even—in fact, especially—when it’s inconvenient for our support of certain positions, pundits, and politicians. For too long we’ve slid more and more toward viewing our faith through the lens of our political preferences. And so we need a leader who can help us repent of such idolatry and outline a biblical and theological way of evaluating our political priorities and positions through the lens of our faith instead of the other way around.
Third, in the post-George Floyd era and in response to the renewed awareness about racial inequity both in North America and abroad, we need someone who can help us confront our decidedly insular history, confess our own racist and paternalistic policies (past and present), and articulate a way forward for broadening our denomination to include those of other (meaning non-Dutch, non-white) ethnic backgrounds.
A quick aside to make my point:
The church I serve is in the suburbs, just outside Milwaukee, Wisc. For years, though, we’ve partnered with a number of inner-city organizations working in the predominantly black “central city” of Milwaukee. From time to time, our involvement there has brought up an idea. Put simply, over the years some of us have wondered if our witness for Christ in that part of the city can and should go beyond simply working with the nonprofits we partner with. “Maybe,” we’ve mused, “We should plant a church there.”
After all, as Christians, that’s what we believe people really need, right? They certainly need their physical needs taken care of, yes. And that’s precisely why we partner with many of the organizations we do—because we know they’re doing a good job of caring for the day-to-day needs of that community. But people need spiritual care too. We all do. No matter who we are or where we live, we need the gospel. We need faith in Christ. And so that’s another need we’ve heard from that community—the need for a good, orthodox Reformed church, right there in their own neighborhood.
The problem, though, is that none of the folks in our church (or our existing church plant, for that matter) can provide that. Put simply, as a predominantly white, affluent congregation, none of us are going to have the cultural buy-in necessary to minister in that community. I certainly won’t. Neither will any of the other white, middle-class pastors I work with. Instead, if we were to plant a church in Milwaukee’s central city, we’d need to find an orthodox, Reformed black pastor to come in and make it work.
The only thing is that those are hard to come by. You see, because we’ve spent so long ministering in the same communities in the same ways to the same types of people, by and large, our denomination is not set up to serve others. Because we’ve historically remained so culturally and ethnically homogenous, we’ve kept ourselves at a profound disadvantage when it comes to the possibility of broadening our denominational horizons. And so, to that end, we need a leader who can help us move the needle on our lack of cultural and ethnic diversity. If we truly want to be the kind of Christian witnesses we often say we want to be, then part of it needs to start with widening the bounds of what we look like.
And we could consider other areas too: navigating the continued restructuring of the denomination; providing ongoing support, wisdom, and recommendations in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis; managing the contextual diversity between vastly different CRC communities. The list goes on. The point, though, is that when it comes to appointing this new ecclesiastical officer for our denomination, we need someone who can reflect biblically and theologically on the issues before us and keep us founded on the Word of God. We need someone who can shepherd and guide us through nuanced and difficult discussions where we will not all agree. We need someone who can calmly, compassionately, but steadily lead us to continue to be faithful witnesses of the gospel in a world that desperately needs it. Most of all, though, we need someone who always and everywhere can direct us to the founder and perfecter of our faith, that great shepherd of the sheep, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
In other words, we need a pastor. I, for one, am hoping we can find one.