By Pastor Jeff Fox-Kline
There was a time, in a previous job, that I went to lunch with an ecumenical group of pastors from the town. This was a monthly(ish) gathering that was a great way of hearing about the work of the other churches. It was a town of about 20,000 people, so chances are the churches present represented a pretty significant percentage of the Christians in that town. Let me start by reaffirming that it was a good thing that we got together. I was happy to do so and appreciated the opportunity.
That being said, there was one meeting in particular that stood out to me that I’ve held onto to this day. It was a lunch meeting. At the lunch meeting were probably 10-15 clergy members of various denominations. The meetings had no particular agenda, except we’d get updates from people at the start; we’d sometimes invite someone from the community to share a bit about what was happening in town; and we’d close with sharing joys and concerns and closing with prayer. Pretty loose.
Now it came to pass that one day there was an idea. This idea was, on its face, not a bad idea. However, context is everything and the idea quickly became an idea.
For the closing prayer, instead of sharing joys and concerns and having one person close us in prayer we would go around the table. Each of us would have a time to pray: for the community, for our colleagues, for our lives, for our churches…
Like I said, that’s a good idea.
But, and I say this with all the professional respect for my colleagues and the profession of clergy as a whole--asking pastors to pray one after another is a recipe for the lunch meeting to suddenly turn into a dinner meeting. One by one, we went around the room. Each of us reaching deep into our souls and bringing out a deep, soulful prayer that reflected our hopes and dreams for God’s work in our midst.
Good things, right? But each of us gave the kind of prayer that we would give in a worship service that needed some extra padding.
It. Was. Long.
And I want to reaffirm that the intentions and motives for this were pure, as far as I could tell. But I could also sense in the room some sort of expectation. “This is the time for us to show off our chops. I better knock this one out of the park”. So we prayed in that room like we were auditioning for a chorus line, each of us given a chance to shine before backing away and letting the next person go. We weren’t sweating, but you could tell we were working out, if that makes sense.
This lunch came to mind yesterday in worship when Nancy preached a wonderful sermon on 2 Corinthians 4:1-12. Specifically, it came to mind when we got to this verse, “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake”.
Look, I’m not saying that the people in that meeting were proclaiming themselves. But sometimes we let ourselves get carried away. People, when together in a group, will subconsciously compete. It’s just how people work.
Pastors do this too. Sometimes we do it intentionally because we want to be recognized, important, valued. Sometimes we do it because we feel that we’re the only ones equipped to do it. Sometimes we do it because we fail to read the room.
I’m not telling you that every prayer, sermon, visit, program, is to proclaim ourselves. But I hope that as you continue your journey of faith that you remember that pastors are people, and people get things wrong.
I believe in the institution of the Church. I also believe that institutions should be questioned, motives be scrutinized, and leaders be humans.
We’re all going to do stuff like that, because as Paul reminds us, we’re clay jars. Fragile, kind of dirty, normal. But we keep it up, because we know that to imperfectly love God means that we are still loving God. We keep it up, because sometimes we accidentally praise ourselves when we try to praise God, and sometimes we accidentally praise God when we try to do nothing at all.
Pastor Jeff Fox-Kline