Prophet or Pastor?

                                                                                                                     wellsprings_spinningthesacred

Jacqueline M. Burgess, Greater New Jersey Annual Conference

I have learned that it is fine to speak and act prophetically about the social, economic, and political systems and structures beyond the local church and be pastoral too. It is hard to be the one whom people seek out for counsel, healing, confession, and grace when you take on the systems and structures within that congregation. How can I become “Pastor Jackie” to the flock whom God has called me to serve without compromising my deepest convictions or keeping them to myself? How can I mediate grace and speak the truth at the same time? Should these really be in conflict with each other? Do I have to choose one or the other?

When I was ordained, the bishop laid his hands on me and said, “Take thou the authority.” Many times since then I’ve wondered if that was some kind of setup. In a system in which ordination is conferred by a hierarchical structure with which many local churches are disenchanted or downright angry, where is the authority to lead pastorally and prophetically? I remember Jesus’ experience after he preached to the folks in his “home church,” the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:22–30). Before they tried to run him off a cliff, he said that “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (Luke 4:24). According to Mark 6:5, Jesus was unable to heal sick, lame, and blind people as he had in the surrounding areas. I have come to realize that, like Jesus’, my ability to be in ministry in a local church is limited or expanded by the will of the people, even when they know me. My witness can reach people only if they receive me as a leader.

Here are a few things I have learned along the way that have helped me find the balance between speaking out against the “principalities and powers” and being effective in ministry. First, I must love my people—the members, their families and friends, the neighbors, the community leaders—no matter what. The people whom God has given a minister to pastor are a gift. They need to know that their pastor values them and wants to be their pastor.

Second, I must learn their stories as I tell mine. Pastors need to spend more time learning about their members than they spend sharing about themselves. Getting to know the relationships in the congregation means ministering to, rather than dividing and conquering, the congregation. My members were together long before I arrived and will most likely remain together after I leave. I must be their pastor.

Third, ministers must preach about the biblical texts, not the issues. The issues are best countered by the Word of God, not a well-thought-out treatise on the ills of the people. My passion for peace with justice for all people comes from my understanding of the gospel. It is not separate from my faith. There will be times when pastors will need to give examples of attitudes and behaviors that conflict with the gospel. When I do, I make sure that I do not give specific references to conflicts that have happened within my congregation without first having a conversation with my Staff Parish Relations Committee and district superintendent. Ministers must make sure that their personal feelings are not clouding the way they are viewing the text or bringing into congregational worship an issue limited to a few people.

My passion for peace with justice for all people comes from my understanding of the gospel. It is not separate from my faith.

In three specific instances, if I had been present during the conversations, I would have reacted differently. When I attended my first annual conference meeting while I was in seminary, I was so excited because I was receiving a Frances Nelson scholarship. I was only there for one day and the evening presentation. A heated debate arose on the floor of annual conference that day. One laywoman was fuming after the vote was taken, apparently because it did not proceed as she had hoped. As I was standing in an aisle trying to decide where to go, she walked up to me and snarled, “You feminists are killing the Church!”

Later, after being approved as a probationary deacon (1992 Discipline), I visited the parsonage of my first full-time appointment. I would be the congregation’s first woman pastor. My parents had come along for the ride. While my mother and I went inside with members of the parsonage committee and Staff Parish Relations Committee, my father stayed outside with one of the church leaders, a distinguished-looking older gentleman. On the way home my father told me that had he asked the man how he felt about having a woman for a pastor. The man had said, “At least she isn’t Black.” My heart sank and I felt nauseous. How do you respond to that?

Next, in a new appointment, after worship, greetings, and refreshments were over that first Sunday, I began walking back to the church office to check in with the secretary who was showing me the ropes. She came out and met me before I went in. The antagonist was in there. In my sermon I had mentioned that my oldest son and I had attended seminary together. I was a single parent at the time and was working my way through school. My helper was upset because this man was demanding to know how I was a single parent: Was I divorced or did I have a baby out of wedlock? She was unsure what to tell him. She then told me that he followed it up with the statement, “Given the choice between a woman and a Black, I would have preferred a Black.” A woman? A Black? A choice! Is this the Church of Jesus Christ?

At those times, I did not know the speakers well, and during the last two, I was not present for what was said. After those situations occurred, I intentionally inquired about who these people were and listened for issues of race and gender in their conversations in my presence. Neither of these men ever did or said anything in my presence that evoked a strong response from me. In such cases, I cannot act as if I were present. I cannot know exactly what transpired, only what the teller experienced. What I can do is empower others to speak to the situations themselves, even if it is as simple as saying, “That’s offensive,” or “I’m not really comfortable with that.”

When people are suffering injustices, I must speak directly to the situations. In those situations I have felt it best to address the issue with specific words or actions, tell exactly what I believe is wrong, and offer an alternative approach. So many voices of condemnation confront people today, and too few people offer anything beyond what they believe is wrong. But we are a people of good news! We need to be more interested in speaking out about what we are for than what we are against since God desires that all people live in a loving relationship with God and others. My speaking out should include confronting the issue and reconciling and restoring the person. These words enable me to confront, reconcile, and restore others with my words: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. . . . Do not repay anyone evil for evil, . . . for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:14, 17a, 20c–21).

Many times pastors may feel that they live alone in the wilderness of the local church, but they are not alone. Many have walked this way before them. Pastors need to remember to keep wise counsel, to stay spiritually vital, and to practice the means of grace.1 Pastors need to worship regularly outside their congregation at midweek or early morning services, to attend ministerial and/or lectionary study groups, and to take care of themselves physically and emotionally as well.

By the way, the church leader with a distinguished look ended up a partner in ministry with me before the end of the first year. When his brother had a crisis, he came to me and wondered out loud if I thought I could talk to him. I did. He and his brother cried as they hugged me to say good-bye when it was time for me to move. I had become their pastor. The antagonist later became an important part of the finance committee. He was shocked when I asked him. I let him know that I recognized and valued his gifts and believed that we could work together for the good of the Church. I pointed out that as Christians we can disagree about many things and still experience grace. He eventually confided in me regarding deep personal pains and disappointments. Through this he experienced healing. It took a while, but I was glad when I became his pastor.


1 David Lowes Watson outlines the means of grace in the early Methodist class meetings as prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, and Christian conference in Covenant Discipleship: Christian Formation through Mutual Accountability (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1991), 47. Other texts add tithing.

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