Occasionally, I would like for us to consider case studies, so that we can discuss actual life situations rather than just theological ideas or religious issues.
As iMonk readers know, I am deeply concerned about the state of pastoral ministry (especially pastoral care) in our churches. Today’s study is a snapshot from a situation involving a hard conversation in a pastor’s office between the minister and a couple that came to complain about someone in the church.
You who are pastors will recognize this conversation. I’m sure you will join me in acknowledging that we have had many such talks with people. I will confess I have not always handled them well, for various reasons. As we reflect on this meeting today, feel free to relate your own experiences with such encounters.
Nor are these kinds of conversations limited to ministers, though that is today’s focus. As Christians, we all feel a “burden” to minister to our brothers and sisters, our neighbors. We don’t always do it well. In particular, we don’t always listen well, and we tend to jump in with “answers” when it is not appropriate. Perhaps this case study can help us all relate to others with more grace and sensitivity.
This conversation is recorded in M. Craig Barnes’ excellent book, The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life. I find it an instructive and moving example of a pastoral conversation.
This is the kind of work pastors are called to do “between Sundays.” It involves…
- meeting personally with people
- knowing them well enough to understand some history behind the immediate situation
- allowing them to speak
- being a careful, sensitive, and discerning listener
- patiently processing what they are saying without jumping in with “answers”
- refusing to “take the bait” when they say things that could make me defensive
- recognizing that there may be (usually are) deeper “soul” issues involved below the issue being presented
- confronting the deeper “soul” issues with gentleness and grace, not always “giving answers,” but helping people come to see the issues first, for themselves
- realizing that I can’t “change” people, but I may be able to help them hear God’s voice so that they must deal with him.
Here’s the conversation. After you read it, come back to this list and see if I’ve read the conversation correctly. Is there anything you would add or modify? What pastoral wisdom (or lack thereof) do you see in this encounter?
When Bob and Carol Stratton arrived at my study for their appointment, all of the air in the room immediately disappeared. It was clear that this was going to be a hard hour. Before he even sat down, Bob began his now-familiar litany of complaints about the choir director, and Carol was already fishing around in her purse for a Kleenex. (Why are you already crying? What does that mean?)
“I just don’t understand why you keep that woman here,” Bob said as he finally settled back into his chair. “She has absolutely no regard for the wonderful heritage of worship in this church, and she insists on driving people away. I’ve heard from members of your choir, and they’re so unhappy that I’d be surprised if there even is a choir in another month. You’ve got to do something and do it now.”
I was already rubbing my temples as I asked, “What do you want me to do, Bob?”
“Well, I think we all know what needs to be done. What we don’t know is if our pastor is a strong enough leader to do it.”
“Ah, yes, I understand, but I don’t think your concerns are really about me,” I responded. [I'm not biting on that.] “Let’s get back to the issue that brought you here. What exactly is it about our music that has you so upset?”
After blowing her nose, Carol joined in. “She never uses the anthems our previous director of music, Dr. Adams, wrote. You know he was here for over twenty-five years, and in those days our church was highly regarded in the community. People came just to hear him play the organ. [Is that true? Should it be?] Now it’s an embarrassment when that woman gets up there and starts waving her arms in front of the choir.”
“So you don’t like the way she conducts the choir?” I asked.
“No, it isn’t just that,” Bob said quickly. “She plays the organ too loudly; she’s thrown out all of the music Dr. Adams wrote, and it seems to us that she’s just up there performing. Frankly, the music just isn’t as good as it should be. You know, pastor, we’re a sophisticated congregation [That can't be good], and we’re not going to be able to worship with all of this noise she produces.”
I sat forward in my chair and as quietly as possible said, “I’ve noticed that both of you mentioned Ted Adams. He was clearly a great musician, and I know he was also a very close friend of yours. You must miss him a great deal.”
They both looked down at the floor, silent, for a very long time.
â€¢ M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet, 15f