Pastor in the Pew

(An edited version appeared online in Fidelia’s Sisters, the publication of Young Clergy Women International.)

When I let it slide in conversation that I am a pastor, the natural follow-up question is, “Where’s your congregation?” For me right now, the answer requires extra explanation. I am a “pastor in the pew,” a phrase I am not entirely sure I should be coining. My national church body’s term for my status is “on leave from call for family reasons,” but in plain language, I am staying home with the kids for awhile. I do not believe at all that everyone should (even if they could, financially) do this, but for me and my family all the factors converged at once to make this what I wanted to be doing right now. Others gain the status of “pastor in the pew” by going into specialized ministries as chaplains or counselors, serving camp ministries or non-profits, going to graduate school, becoming professors or synod/regional church staff or retiring. Then, there we are: in the pews of a congregation where we are not the pastor.

We have the specialized education of seminary, and also gifts and insights into various kinds of ministries developed through experience. We also carry the confidence and wounds of being deeply embedded in congregational life. All of those things are recognizable and can be shepherded to the good of the congregation by a thoughtful pastoral leader, in whose flock we now bleat. But my real question is this: How do I still carry the identity of “pastor”? My church body does not ordain pastors until they have received a call from a congregation (only rarely to specialized ministry first), and we imbue the “call process” with spiritual weight, believing that the call of the Church is the action of the Holy Spirit herself. But, does it wear off? If I’m not actively leading a congregation, am I still a pastor? How do I be a faithful “pastor in the pew”?

First do no harm, right? My first priority is to be as respectful as possible of the pastor in the congregation where we joined. We could only join, of course, a congregation where I found the pastor respectable, but there are all the daily ways to live it out. I pay attention to details like always referring to her by using “Pastor” in front of her name. I am that rare person who responds to announcements by volunteering and strives to reply promptly to e-mails. If I had feedback to give about how she is doing her job, I would give it privately but never anonymously. Even theological challenges must be made with respect to the authority of her office, in my view. I only suggest ideas that I am willing to participate in bringing to fruition, and include her in official capacities (like opening with prayer) in projects I have instigated. I trust our pastor, so I am honest with her about what I do and do not want to lead or participate in. I negotiate directly and transparently when I am asked to perform pastoral duties (in my case for neighbors) such as baptisms in the church’s space, so it cannot even be perceived by an onlooker as usurping any authority. As another clergy woman, I try to think about when I would have liked someone to just volunteer to cut me some slack (because it wasn’t in the budget); that’s why I preached not long after our pastor returned from her maternity leave, and this year during Lent.

Those are the practical things, helpful notes from the field guide to being a decent “pastor in the pew”. The deeper stuff has to do with working out where my head and heart are, while I sit in the pew. I have to figure out what this call, and the identity I’ve worn for most of my adult life, mean when I am not in congregational leadership. I have to find outlets for my gifts for ministry outside of our congregation, because there I am not the pastor. I have been using my theological mind and my penchant for words to write: articles, blogposts, and even a book proposal. Writing about faith and life has been really meaningful and healthy both to exercise my mind, but also stretch and challenge myself theologically. The more I write, the more I want to read theology too. I feel like I’m contributing to a larger conversation. Next, what about all those organizational skills, connections I’ve cultivated and creative ideas I still have? I was pleased to stumble upon a ministry under development in my very neighborhood, whose leadership team could use an infusion of my energy. The exploration phase ended 6 months after I came on board, unfortunately with a failure to launch, but it was an outlet for me to use my pastor’s mind and networks, for which I am very grateful. As long as I remain a pastor in the pew, I’ll need to find these ways to live out that part of my vocation. Because, I have an ego.

Extrovert or introvert, call of God and all, I am still convinced that anyone must have a certain level of confidence and appreciation for themselves to stand up in front of others week after week and preach. The responses, even when negative, tell us that people are listening enough to our voice to struggle with what we have said. In sermons, classes, meetings, and even one-on-one pastoral care situations: the authority of the pastor still holds power for many people. Having been accustomed to that kind of authority makes me want to be cautious and self-aware about what affirmations and sense of value I might be seeking now. I have noticed that particular parishioners dig in their heels and exercise control in churches, when they do not have outlets for exerting authority in other parts of their lives, such as at a place of work or in a family system. I want to guard against becoming that thorn in the pastor’s side!

Finally, this time as a “pastor in the pew” is an opportunity to put my other vocations, of spouse/partner, parent, child, and friend, before being the leader of a congregation. The balancing act is suspended for awhile. My spouse and my kids get to chart their own course in this congregation, to be known for their own personalities and opinions, without reference to me as the pastor. They can be involved or not, without the concern that it reflects on my pastoral identity. Outside our household, we also get to show up more for friends who have something going on Sunday mornings: baptisms, installations in a new call, children’s programs, or just an interesting presentation happening at a friend’s church. While in congregational leadership, I guarded my limited Sundays off for travel and vacations, so many of these things were not feasible.

Of course there are things I miss about leading a congregation, and my identity when I was doing so. I cannot imagine how difficult maintaining clear boundaries would be for a person who retires or takes another job, but continues to worship in a congregation they had formerly served in pastoral leadership. That must be why most denominations have written or unwritten guidelines about contact with former congregations and members. In my view, a “pastor in the pew” can be an honored, supportive vocation for whatever time span, but it must be embarked upon with careful consideration.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s