Pastor and congregation

When I was a seminarian, we had a series of substantive conversations with our professors about the relationship between pastor and congregation. That relationship was seen as sacred, called and ordained by God, with special commitments and obligations for both pastor and congregation. When the right relationship is formed, it holds the potential for wonderful ministry. When there is a problem in the relationship, it can be threatening to all involved.

Back in those days, I had a vision of that relationship as being rather simple. I was newly wed, having married a year before entering seminary. I had some understanding that relationships could be challenging and worth the challenge. I had grown up in a stable family with a healthy marriage at its heart, so i had good examples to which to look. I had witnessed my small home congregation go through pastors at the rate of about one every four years, with some relationships being better than others. I had a little bit of experience. So I imagined that the relationship between a pastor and a congregation was fairly simple. The congregation would be a group of people who were already formed into a community and they would come to common agreement and call a pastor according to their needs and mission and the gifts and abilities of the pastor. It would be a simple, two-party relationship.

Of course there is nothing simple about the relationship and I learned that early in my career. A congregation is never a single entity. We began our careers serving two small congregations yoked together in a parish. The smaller of the two churches was essentially two family groups. All of the members of the congregation, with the exception of my family, could trace trace their connections to one of two family trees in the congregation. It is important, to understand the dynamics of that congregation that there were two family groupings - as in the church was not of a single mind on many different aspects of its life. There was a kind of natural tension in the church that was built into the lives of its members. The first disagreements in the church were a bit frightening to me. I thought the church might split. But splitting was never considered as a serious option. The members of the church knew they needed each other.

That parish also had the dynamic of two congregations who had to negotiate all kinds of different items each year. What time wold their services were to be held? They both wanted the same hour for worship. How much should the pastor be paid and who should pay which percentage? They split the salary 50/50, but had different opinions about benefits. Who assumes costs for shared office services, like printing bulletins? There were plenty of differences of opinion in the relationship. It was complex, to say the least.

But, in another sense, the relationship was fairly straight-forward. The parish was small enough that I could visit every household each year. I could visit everyone in the local hospital every day and those in regional hospitals once a week. I visited shut-ins and those in the nursing home once a month. And I had time left over for a part-time job on the side.

Our next call was to a congregation that was a bit larger and located in an urban area. Just figuring out how to make home visits was a challenge. Not everyone was at home during the day. Just dropping in for a visit wasn’t the norm. And there were more people for starters. The congregation gathered for a single worship service each week, but not everyone attended every week. There were plenty of sub groups within the congregation. The youth group and the women’s fellowship had different senses of how the space of the church should be used and different standards of cleaning. The physical plant of the church was a bit too small for the congregation, so there were conflicts over space, including storage space. The quilters liked the temperature in the fellowship hall to be very warm. Another group complained about the wastefulness of having the room so warm. You get the picture.

By the time I was called to this congregation, I had already begun to understand that the relationship between pastor and congregation is not a single thing because a church is not just one congregation. We have many different congregations gathered in one organization. Some people really enjoy participating in the church’s boards and departments and understand the structures of decision-making. Others ignore it. Some people strive hard to uphold traditions. Traditions mean nothing to others. We have a congregation about the same size as that first small church we served, who check into Facebook every day. It isn’t a majority, but it is too many people to ignore. We have a choir who, in addition to being mostly every-Sunday worshipers who understand that side of our church very well, are also their own social group with relationships forged over hours and hours of rehearsal. We have new members who seem attracted to each other, but who don’t even know the names of some of the people who sit at different tables during coffee hour. We have people who consider this to be their church, but who rarely attend worship. They expect and receive pastoral services when needs arise, and are somewhat unseen at other times. We have people whose primary connection to the church is a class or study group. Others connect through a fellowship group. There are participants in craft groups who never attend worship. Last night we were discussing possible members for a task force when someone commented that all of the names suggested so far, save one, were of women over 70 years of age. We get lots of leadership from those women, but they don’t represent the entire congregation.

I still believe that the relationship between pastor and congregation is a sacred relationship. It is a covenant, worthy of the best of our efforts. And it is a challenge because a congregation is many-faceted.

I’m still learning how to nurture that relationship.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!