Daniel Novotny is a retired United Church of Christ pastor living in West Chatam, Massachusetts.
This article appeared in The Christian Century March 20-27, l998, p. 319. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This text was prepared for the Religion Online by John C. Purdy.
The tensions a pastor faces between feeling "at home" and "not at home" among parishioners.
Dear Jonathan: I appreciate your letter about experiences in your first parish, and I want to respond to your remarks about the tension between feeling "at home" and "not at home." Feeling at home helps us penetrate the thoughts and feelings of our parishioners, so as to help them make sense of life. But identifying with parishioners' needs and pleasures can make us rely too much on their approval. We no longer are able to take a broad or critical view of what's going on in their lives or ours.
It is painful to recognize that the very achievements that make us feel good about ministry can be danger signs: that people begin to call this Dan's church," that I am getting careless about repetition in sermons that I'm reluctant to challenge the folks who are my friends, that I tend to socialize with the people I'm comfortable with and avoid the "difficult" ones, that I can control in advance a committee's deliberations.
On the other side, to insist on a professional distance can mask an aloofness that undercuts ministry. And I can comfort myself with the thought that I deserve better than this backwater parish, or these parishioners, can provide. Distance can be a way of not trusting the checks and balances of congregational life - the organic relationship of people and pastor with God.
To think of being "at home" or "not at home" is to think about limits. Limits, which are seldom the ones we choose, define every place. In a rural parish where farming is shrinking both in acreage and influence, one enjoys little prospect for numerical growth. In a university town one is limited by a "single industry town" and a certain level of privilege. Suburbia is limited by its affluence and perhaps its guilt. But such limits also outline outreach. Can we help the farmers see the needs of other farmers, binding themselves across community or cultural lines? (In one such community we found it was the Heifer Project that broadened our outlook.) Can the university parishioners look to the international students in their midst? Can the suburban parish give its young people experiences in deprived parts of the world? In the biblical stories, local problems require setting out anew - perhaps leaving the place of oppression, as with Moses, or figuratively "leaving" by reorienting our minds, as did the captives in Babylonia.
Limits define the ministry. When Duke Ellington was asked how he composed his music, he explained that his trumpet player could reach only certain notes and his trombone player,only certain other notes, so he wrote music within those notes. The limits, for him, described a channel for creativity.
Religious folk speak of life as a pilgrimage toward our eternal home toward seeing the face of God, toward being reunited with the family of earth. In the Middle Ages it was the fashion in Europe to make a journey to the Holy Land. As the pilgrims came on foot across France and Italy, they traveled slowly, taking in the wonders of the lands they passed through. When people asked where they were going, they replied, "A la Sainte Terre," to the Holy Land. From this we have the word "saunter," which refers to a way of moving through life that is neither rambling nor reckless.
We are pilgrims in this way, finding moments and places that seem like home or that remind us of home, yet always with an unusual title that prods our ingenuity and resilience, and keeps us off balance. To paraphrase Miguel de Unamuno, "May God deny you a settled peace and give you glory."