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Growing Together in Spirituality: Pastor and Parish Have a Check-Up

by Alfred C. Krass

Mr. Krass is co-pastor of the United Christian Church in Levittown, Pennsylvania. This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 1, 1987, pp. 311-314. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Parish clergy today are caught in a dilemma with regard to their role as pastors. Some voices are urging us to forsake entirely the use and connotation of the nouns "pastor" and "flock," arguing that such conceptions have no place in a world come of age. Yet the understanding of the clergy as guides in matters of faith and morality persists. Also, attempts over the past generation to dispense with the pastoral model in favor of a therapeutic one—in which the minister is one professional alongside others—have been unsatisfying.

All mainline clergy could cite examples of persons who have left their churches—where clear-cut "answers" rarely are given—for fundamentalist churches where authoritarian pastors rule. We in the mainstream tend not to fault ourselves for what has happened, rather, citing Erich Fromm or other notable critics, we attribute the departure of these church members to their inability to accept freedom. We blame them rather than ourselves, saying that perhaps they are attracted to authoritarian personalities. We remain content with the image of "laid-back" pastoring, contending that it is appropriate to the modern world.

It may be, however, that we need to re-examine our own pastoring. To my mind, the modern, "nonauthoritarian," "take-us-or-leave-us" style of pastoring owes more to the liberal world view—with its concept of the autonomous individual—than it does to any theological perspective. Christians believe—or should believe—in theonomy, not autonomy.

As we continue, in many areas, to move beyond the modern into a post-modern era, we need to re-examine our images of clergy and congregation. We need to challenge the individualism of the modern world view.

Last summer I initiated a program of spiritual direction in my congregation—one that I believe strengthened the congregation and broadened and deepened my ministry. Acting on a clear need, I did something hitherto uncharacteristic for me: I conceived of a program, announced it and conducted it. Although I solicited responses from our consistory and Ministry of Care and Fellowship—and would reluctantly have accepted a veto—I did not seek the congregation’s approval. I carried out the program because I sensed that the congregation needed it—and it would have taken a lot to deter me.

Let me explain. Though I’m identified by many in my congregation as a "social-action minister," surely I have been called to a pastoral as well as a prophetic ministry. I endeavor to preach wholistically and to develop a worship life, educational program, and initiatives for action that respond to the whole gamut of human existence. My parishioners expect to see my name at the end of letters to the editor on U.S. foreign policy and local social needs, but they also expect me to pop in to visit them, whether they are sick or well. I’m known to encourage individual spiritual reading and prayer during Advent and Lent, and I see to it that the congregation offers opportunities for group disciplines as well.

For some time now I’ve been dismayed by how few takers there have been for these activities. The small group that regularly participates in Bible-reading and prayer comes forward; they’re always ready for further suggestions as to what they might do. But only a relative handful ever adds to their number. Over the course of a year, probably less than one-fourth of the congregation avail themselves of these opportunities—and that is discouraging indeed.

Last year, overdue for a physical exam, I decided to go to a highly recommended young physician who had just opened a practice in my neighborhood. At his office his secretary handed me one of those questionnaires that medical doctors require patients to fill out nowadays. I dutifully listed my allergies and detailed my family health history. But this questionnaire didn’t stop there. The doctor, I was gratified to see, wanted to know whether I exercise regularly (I was proud to answer that I’m a runner). But then he asked, "Do you take an annual vacation?" and "Do you take a day off every week?" This was certainly a unique doctor! He went on to ask about time spent with spouse and/or family. The final question was: "Do you spend daily or weekly time in prayer or meditation?" That one blew my mind.

I got to thinking: If a medical doctor is aware that sabbath rest, prayer and meditation are good for patients’ health, and if he doesn’t hesitate to ask them whether they are following such practices, why am I, a pastor—professionally involved in what used to be called "the cure of souls"—so reluctant to ask such questions?

I then reflected further: If doctors expect people to come for regular physical examinations, why do we clergy not expect our parishioners to come to us for regular spiritual checkups?

I answered myself quickly: It goes against a liberal bias to have firm expectations of what people will or will not do concerning matters our society regards as "private" or "between the individual and his or her God." Heavens! We even hesitate to pray during hospital visits—how much more so when making home visits (unless, or perhaps even when, a crisis occurs).

This perverse attitude seemed to me a sign of our almost total accommodation—or capitulation—to the spirit of our times. but I could not by fiat undo a generation’s worth of cultural conditioning. What, then, was I to do? I decided that since I had been called by this congregation to "exercise pastoral leadership," I had a right—like the medical doctor in his field—to make it known that I would like to assist every member in having an "annual spiritual checkup."

Now several things were clear to me: (a) some people—the usual ones—would he eager to participate: (b) they were the ones who least needed a check-up." I was trying to move the others off the dime; (c) I could not demand such a session with anyone (any more than could the medical doctor); (d) I had too much respect for people’s right to privacy, for their freedom of conscience, and for their baptismal ordination to design a check-up in which I would be checking up on them.

What I wanted to communicate to the congregation, I concluded, was that, as a pastor, I believed it was spiritually healthy to reflect with a spiritual director of some sort on at least an annual basis. The checkup was to be basically a self-examination, though I would be available as a spiritual friend and—if anyone requested it—as a counselor.

The week’s epistle lection happened to be Colossians 1:9-14, Paul’s prayer for the Christians at Colossae. I was impressed by the breadth of Paul’s concern for their well-being; he wanted God to help them grow in many ways to be able to live their faith, to bear fruit in good deeds, and ultimately to come to salvation.

A great prayer! I decided to base my questionnaire on it. Preaching a sermon on "Paul’s Sense of Christian Wellness," I listed what Paul saw as "signs of health"—e.g., "being filled with the full knowledge of God’s will in all wisdom," "walking worthy of the Lord" "bearing fruit in active goodness of every kind," and "growing in the knowledge of the Lord."

These, I explained, are not things Christians ought to do—a list of obligations—but a composite of what we as Christians under the Spirit’s influence can be and do. Rather than lay a trip on the congregation, I sought to open their eyes to a new vision of what in Christ we could become.

I devised a 15-question inventory for people to complete—one based on a somewhat literal but sometimes reinterpreted or expanded version of Paul’s words. After a brief sermon I handed out the inventory, asking people to take five minutes to begin to reflect on it. Then I announced that I would like, over the summer, to go through the questionnaire with every member. In the next weeks I would try to schedule half-hour appointments with them.

As I had expected, few people volunteered. Generally it was I who took the initiative in setting a date. Only one person refused outright, though some people kept putting me off or, when I had scheduled a date, would call to cancel because "something has come up." If this happened twice. I didn’t press the matter.

What most surprised people was that, with very few exceptions, I refused to take their completed inventory. "I don’t have to check it"’ I joked. "This isn’t a high school exam! No one needs to grade it. Its purpose is to help you think of areas you need to talk about. On the last question, which numbers did you list on which you need some discussion or guidance?"

So many people failed to fill out that last question that it was obvious they didn’t trust what I’d said; clearly, I would need to look at what they had written and decide at what points counseling was needed. So I started to number that question, too, and I deferred speaking with people until they had completed it.

In only one instance did a parishioner say, "There’s really nothing here on which I have any questions or seek any guidance." "Fine!" I responded. "Let’s have a prayer and then I’ll go."

The majority of the interviews took more than half an hour, and by and large the participants really became enthused. I was excited and encouraged.

What were the interviews’ main findings? The questions that people most wanted to talk about were those concerning growth as a Christian, life goals, the mix of personal and corporate spiritual practices, how to understand God’s will in today’s world, how to make use of the Bible, and what it means to bear fruit for the Lord.

The respondents discovered; first of all, that they haven’t grown in the faith in a long time. That was predictable, since I had sought out people who seemed to be doing little more than going through the motions, who had settled down to a routine of occasional worship attendance, no religious reading or Bible study, only cursory prayer, and no discussion with other Christians.

Although I wasn’t surprised that they said they hadn’t grown, I was pleased that, when confronted with a range of options, they chose to rate themselves at the bottom of the growth scale and to ask to talk about that. To make such decisions might be the first step on the way to change. Long years of habit won’t be altered by one brief self-evaluation, but I do expect to see a number of the interviewees move in the direction of growth—if not this year, then next.

Quite a few of the respondents were actually surprised by the suggestion that one could or should have goals for one’s Christian life. "I recognize I have absolutely no goals," said a high-school teacher nearing retirement. "I’ve grown fat and lazy." We talked about how goal setting might help him recover intentionality in his life as he prepares for retirement, which he doesn’t want to be a "downer."

But the problem isn’t only the future. I’m burnt out," the teacher admitted. "I’m no longer as excited by the chance of influencing students as I used to be. And unfortunately I’ve grown to accept that."

A number of people acknowledged having an inadequate level of shared devotional practices with others. That was also a predictable response; after all, why does the pastor ask to talk with you if not to get you to take your prayer life and Bible-reading more seriously? Looking back, I think I gave in to a stereotype at this point. Though the statement, "I believe I have a good mix of personal devotional practices, and prayer and Bible study shared with others," might loosely reflect Colossians 1:9 and 3:16, Paul—or whoever wrote Colossians—would never have put it that way.

What were the results of the discussions about these matters? So far none of the interviewees has joined our prayer group or Sunday school. I still hope that a couple of them will take the dramatic step of placing themselves in a face-to-face relationship with other Christians for study or prayer. On the other hand, our well-supplied book and Bible table was rapidly depleted over the ensuing weeks. I’d like to think that more personal, and perhaps family, Bible study is going on now.

Some people blamed their lack of growth on their relationship to the church. Either they had changed or the church had, and they no longer found it to be meeting their needs. Some regarded it as an actual obstacle to faith. We explored the question of whether that feeling was likely to change or whether, in order to regain their devotion, they ought to look for another church.

A small but significant number of people flagged for discussion the question asking whether they agree with the statement, "I’m basically living at peace and in love with others at this point in my life." The interviews gave them a chance to grapple with this concern and see it as part of their Christian lives. We spoke about the problems they had experienced, the rebuffed attempts to bring about reconciliation, their unwillingness to forgive, or the way in which they and another party had drifted into a state of irreconciliation and didn’t know what to do about it.

We spoke of the help that prayer or journal-keeping could offer. In one instance I recommended that a person see a counselor. In another I suggested that, since it seemed likely that little could be done to bring about reconciliation—the other party had left the church—and since the church remained a source of pain because it had failed to minister when the crisis erupted, the person might consider making a fresh start in her Christian life by seeking out a congregation of another denomination.

Perhaps the most tangible result of these several conversations came when one of the participants approached me at church the following Sunday and exclaimed, "As soon as I left you, I called and we made up. She’s invited me over for coffee tomorrow!"

Up till now I’ve spoken of the benefits of the check-ups to the members of the congregation. But I benefited at least as much. The check-ups helped me realize how little I knew about the interior lives of many of my parishioners. My admiration for a number of people has increased a thousand-fold now that I am acquainted with some of their struggles. So many people are valiantly and quietly coping with major problems—emotionally disabled spouses or parents, intense financial pressures, intolerable relationships with adolescent children. "Pastor, forgive me," one woman said, "I’m in no position to consider growth. All I ask is to be able to survive." I know now how to pray intelligently for these people. And I have new understandings to guide my preaching.

For many, it turned out that the primary problem is intense loneliness, the bearing of difficult burdens in isolation. And these people don’t expect their circumstances to be otherwise. Our religion is so individualist, it seems, that few think they have any right to the support of Christian sisters or brothers. A look of incomprehension came over one woman’s face when, after she had disclosed grievous problems, I said, "It sounds like you could use a friend."

People don’t tend to view the church as constituting a supportive community. They think it a sign of weakness if they can’t cope on their own. Since the check-up interviews, I’ve taken steps to see that our church, through its Ministry of Care and Fellowship, provides more support to those who need it.

Finally, the interviews provided me with new insights about our church’s peace-and-justice ministry. Though we have an active program in these areas, only a minority of members become involved in social action. We’re inclined to think that the others are apathetic or uncommitted. But I was impressed by the number of people who interpreted Question 9— "I believe I bear fruit for the Lord, that I live a life worthy of Christ"—as saying something about social involvement.

"I’ve never been willing to take the risk of becoming committed and involved in action on behalf of others," a quiet, middle-level corporate executive told me. "What is your image of what it would be like for you to bear fruit for the Lord?" I asked. "I wish I could be like—" he replied, using the name of a congregation member recently arrested in a demonstration at the capitol!

Another person—who never speaks in church—revealed how bothered she is by her inability to influence people at her workplace toward making their lives more Christian. A third said that she always measures herself against one of our most dedicated members, who is always reaching out in love to others.

As the pastoral friend of these individuals, I intend to hold them accountable to their vision as time goes on. But what is critical is that the accountability be in terms of their vision, not mine—of their sense of how they ought to be growing, coming to understand the Word, or changing their relationships with others. I hope to meet with most of these folk after a year for a session in which they assess their growth in the interim.

Between then and now they will be given numerous opportunities to continue to move toward their goals—a New Year’s covenant renewal service, special Lenten foci, new course offerings, new outlets for Christian service or action. I believe that, because we have talked together, they will recognize opportunities as "having their names written on them"—ones they earlier might have let pass by. I also believe that I am now, as a result of having had these conversations, better equipped to prepare such programs in order to meet people’s needs and to challenge them where they are.

Does this kind of program offer a hope of moving my congregation beyond the individualistic approach to ministry characteristic of the previous generation—beyond the "autonomy of the individual member" that is basic to the liberal world view?

The program certainly does not move us rapidly toward a situation in which every member of the congregation has a "spiritual director" or "spiritual friend," much as I might hope for that. Nor does it move us in the direction of a basic Christian community, in which the congregation would be composed of face-to-face primary groups whose members reflect biblically on their engagement in society and support one another in daily ministry. Neither does it move us back to the authoritarianisms of the past, particularly those attached to the pastoral role.

But the program is, I hope, a first step toward the recovery of corporate discipleship in the postmodern era. And it is an approach particularly appropriate to a denominational church. Such a church is not "the company of the committed," nor is it a housechurch Christian community. It consists of people who have come into it by birth and by prior denominational attachments, as well as of people who have made a conscious choice of exercising their discipleship in it. No one, in entering it, takes a vow of obedience. No person has been "set in authority" over it. As pastoral leader I am one traveler on pilgrimage speaking to and caring for other pilgrims. I can be a spiritual friend and, if they wish, a mentor or guide. But I dare not let the limitations of pluralism—limitations I respect—keep me from exercising the pastoral role that God wants congregational leaders to exercise.

That’s different from the asking the members to accompany me on my journey. But it’s also different from the despairing attitude that says pastoring belongs to a past era. Ultimately we will all answer to God and not to one another, but along the way the Divine Pastor gifts the congregation with pastors who assist us in being accountable for our discipleship. I am trying to find a way to be such a helper.


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