‘We need a peculiar man, for the young people’.
So ran the opening of an article in a Congregational Christian magazine of the early twentieth century, defending the right of ministers to be boring ……and reliable. The dilemma of local churches’ frustration with their less-than-imagined appeal to absent generations, goes a long way back.
And it has been the burden of those sharing my calling, to be measured against a cherished magic solution, and frequently found wanting.
For a while, I was probably, on paper the ideal sought-after item: male, married to a woman, with two children, and neither too old nor too young, with good vocal projection. But then the specification might have slipped a bit, as I was vegetarian, I didn’t drive, had a pony-tail, wore sandals, and was rumoured to hang around with peace-loving activists. At least I wore a collar (it opens doors) and preferred to use the pulpit to preach from (as, frankly, you get better eye contact!)
In recent years, where applicable, the profiles churches assemble for their ideal minister have also taken on a still more intrusive slant, and the position on ‘marriage’ of a prospective candidate, one way or another, additionally, and sadly, narrows the field.
Still, the demand is great for someone young, mature, scholarly but not highbrow, prayerful but down-to-earth, who will gather a crowd of compliant young people, and CHANGE NOTHING.
Right now, however, I am actually delighted that more than one church in vacancy has begun to include a further criterion: commitment to environmental concern in prayer and action. Then again, for a local Christian leader publicly to espouse climate denial could do serious spiritual harm to the vulnerability of people becoming aware of the crisis we’re in.
We need to be able to cope with the scary truth of climate emergency on the holy ground of church, and keep the inevitable rude awakenings and penny-droppings to a minimum . (Heaven knows, I’ve had enough of those myself!) . Churches need to be sanctuaries first, before they can be hotbeds of activism, and that will now include the task of gently and compassionately easing heads out of the sand; helping folk see that it isn’t ‘just a matter of opinion’, and it’s not going to go away. Truth – even the frightening truth – sets us free.
Most sorts of church do, however, quite reasonably, look for someone, as pastoral leader, who has studied, and acquired skills in Biblical interpretation and spiritual reflection. Good. These are vital resources for a time of crisis. And they are actually pretty widespread, though colleagues often lack the confidence to stick their necks out in a sermon or elsewhere, when, like Moses and the unburned bush, they notice something worthy of a double-take. That’s where the encouragement of a congregation – and maybe their tolerance for attempts falling flat now and then – comes in.
I am heartened when I see current ministry training prioritising responsiveness to context and circumstances, because whatever else the future holds, I’m sure there is going to be more, and more unprecedented change to deal with.
And these are the parameters of Eco-Chaplaincy that Eco Congregation would dearly like to see spreading. To be normal, and run-of-the-mill , not ‘peculiar’. (But not boring, either!). Because this is what it means to be church in our day.
No minister, pastor, priest or whatever, in a local setting, can do the magic that is looked for without consistent and compassionate collaborative support from the congregation. I hope and pray (and from what I have seen, have confidence ) that eco-congregations in vacancy look to share rather than offload what it means to follow Christ, the Word made Flesh, in an age of uncertainty and threat.
(Hint: part of it does mean having fun along the way!)