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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

En Route to a Pastoral Identity

As a descendent from four generations of pastors, I have often heard of the complaints pastors encounter from their parishioners. I remember my uncle and my grandfather talking about them at all family get-togethers from the time I was a young child. Oddly enough, they always seemed to center on music. In preparing for the ministry, I have been most anxious of having to field similar complaints, many of which seem petty and I do not anticipate having the patience for them. So I was struck by M. Craig Barnes’s comments: "Seldom do people make an appointment just to tell us that they’re overwhelmed with gratitude….It has taken me too long to figure this out, but most of the time, even when they’re talking about a complaint with the church, the true issue is closer to home. Complaining is usually a veiled lament about deeper issues of the soul. Since people are unaccustomed to exploring the mystery of their own souls, they will often work out their spiritual anxieties by attempting to rearrange something external….But it doesn’t matter how many changes they make to the environment around them. They will never succeed in finding peace for the angst of the soul until they attend directly to it….To be of service to the Holy Spirit, who is at work in human lives, the pastor can never reduce ministry to servicing parishioners’ complaints about the church." [1]

In thinking about “fielding complaints” and the way my pastor relatives have managed them, it has never occurred to me that handling them pastorally requires discerning the heart condition which underlies the complaints. Yet it is difficult to imagine a better response to disgruntled congregants. Paying attention to such pastoral concerns seems to be more difficult than merely fielding complaints, but at the same time sounds less taxing. The pastor no longer has to “play the game” or learn how to politically navigate a complex landscape. Instead, even in such situations, the focus can be on helping others more deeply experience the love of Christ, which is what first drew us to the pastorate.

In order to perform this task, Barnes tells us we must be minor poets. “The major poets, who are few and far between, provide enduring expressions of the deep truth of life. Minor poets have the more modest goal of inculcating that truth to particular people in particular places.” [2] Alongside this quote, I was also struck by a statement by Eugene Peterson: “The theologian’s best ally is the artist….We must see the imagination as an aspect of ministry….What we are after is creating new life.” [3] I was struck by both of these quotes because of my background in music. My bachelor’s degree is in music composition. As I have thought about developing a pastoral identity, I have recently been wondering how different from my identity as a composer it actually is. Should my experiences as a musician and composer change how I pastor? These quotes indicate that it should. In my composing, I am always searching for ways to express my deepest longings and deepest disappointments and the longings and disappointments of those around me. Writing music puts one in touch with deep emotions in a unique way, one which easily brushes aside the walls we put up. It is this kind of artistic sensibility which Peterson and Barnes say is required in the pastorate. It is also a sensibility I never expected would serve me well in the pastorate. The process developing a pastoral identity will be learning how to develop this side of myself and learning how to apply it to ministry, a prospect which greatly excites me.

[1] M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet, p. 16.

[2] Ibid. p. 24.

[3] Eugene Peterson, Subversive Spirituality, p. 252.

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