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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

The Poetic Congregation

When I worked at Liberti Center City and Main Line, I spent a large portion of my time there working with the homeless ministry, Emmanuel. There were many faithful volunteers there, week in and week out. There were other leaders, none of whom were paid, making sure the vegetables got chopped, coffee was in the pots, and the tables were set. Some of these leaders never took a week off, even when the pastor asked them to. Those who did take a week off would still find their way there, delivering plates of food to tables. They understood what God was doing there and could not keep themselves away from it. I, on the other hand, in the midst of my busy seminary life and the hour commute it took to arrive there on a Saturday morning, arrived tired. Many Saturdays, I clocked in, did the work, and went home. I did not always see what the others did, nor did I always experience the joy they had. Now that I no longer work there, when I have gone back to help during the holidays, I understand the joy in a fresh way and miss being there, even though at the time, I did not always understand what God was doing.

While reading M. Craig Barnes on the poetic congregation, I thought of these individuals and their faithful service week in and week out. “In most congregations there are at least some people, strangely called the laity, who have long understood that there is a sacred subtext to the drama of their lives” [1]. My initial reaction to this revelation was, “Phew, at least there will be some people to help me out and who will not require as much attention.” Yet such people are not formed from thin air, nor are they self-made. These individuals are formed by the Spirit after listening to the pastor proclaim God’s Word week after week. They are nourished and strengthened by the Eucharist, handed to them by the pastor. Pastors play a vital role in the Spirit’s creation of such poetic people. Even the most unimpressive members of the congregation have the possibility of becoming such poetic people by the Spirit’s work through the pastors He has given the Church.

Poetic people need the pastor to help them continue in discerning the poetry of their lives. The pastor does not have the luxury of being less of a pastor with them. “The pastor is always the pastor when surrounded by members of the congregation” [2]. Yet when I think of the pastors I have had, I think most assumed they did not need to do much with me. I had a call to ministry and have spent several years in seminary. They seem to have assumed I did not need much help making sense of God. While the pastors at Liberti were better in this area, I had limited time with them, since I lived an hour away, and we had church business to talk about. Few pastors have asked me what my prayer life is like or ways I fail to see God at work in my life that need to be addressed.

Before becoming a pastor, I would like to gain skills as a poetic layperson. Currently, I use the Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer. It includes four short liturgies for prayer throughout the day: morning, noon, evening, and night. I find these offices help me pause and pay attention throughout my day. In between, I inconsistently use the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I find this prayer centers me on the person of Jesus and redirects my attention towards him. Finally, the Sunday morning liturgy proclaims the good news of Jesus and feeds me in the sacrament. The weekly rhythm of the liturgy is the most powerful tool I use to refocus myself on the work of the Spirit in our world.

As I discern what church to commit to, I am paying attention to the pastors, looking for someone who is not quick to recruit a seminary student to help in the church’s task, but takes the time to ask what my prayer life is like, what God is doing in me, and how he or she can come alongside that work. That remains an ongoing task. I have a second coffee meeting with the pastor of the church I have been at the past several months and am looking forward to seeing what comes of it.

[1] Barnes, M. Craig. The Pastor As Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2009, p. 58

[2] Ibid. p. 63

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