Who am I a Pastor to?
At our Seattle church it was called the Wednesday Night Dinner. In Hollywood, it was The Lord’s Lighthouse. Here in Santa Rosa, it’s the Nomadic Shelter. All of these ministries have provided regular opportunities for me to be around friends who are homeless, challenged with mental illness, struggling with addictions or battling major physical issues. Or all of the above. At every turn, it has pushed me to think about this question: Who am I a pastor to? If you are not currently pastoring, insert “mentor,” “friend,” “ministry leader” or something else when I say “pastor.”
I don’t think I’m unusual. When I first became a pastor and thought about my congregation, I envisioned pastoring members who were relatively stable, with gifts and talents to be shared. Not perfect, of course, but somewhat healthy. When our staff dreamed of new endeavors, we expected people with potential leadership skills, homes, good jobs, solid parenting skills, dependable cars and a high level of education. These were the people to build a church upon. Conscious or not, they lurked in our minds as images of who we hoped would walk in the door. This was the group I imagined counseling, baptizing, marrying and doing life with. These were the people church growth books are written about.
After some years, and the more our churches engaged in urban ministry with folks who were living in cars, staying in shelters, sleeping under cardboard and struggling with mental illness…the more I realized that the question “Who am I a pastor to?” required multiple answers. Would I make myself available to Greg in our time in Los Angeles? He shared a small apartment with multiple unstable people and drove our staff crazy. When he asked for appointments with me, I knew it would be 45 minutes of obsessive-compulsive looping. Or would I spend all my time with people who had some spiritual maturity, could get together for a nice dinner and financially support the church? Paupers or pillars? The longer I’ve been in ministry, the more I’ve realized a call to pastor the whole spectrum of people God puts in front of me. If all my time is spent only with people who can do good things for our church, am I being a pastor or running a “successful” church?
Last Sunday night our church hosted the Nomadic Shelter, a local mission partner’s ministry that gives people in need a place to have a good meal and a warm place to sleep in the winter months. Roughly 20 churches rotate to host overnights, and Sunday was our night. A group of volunteers put a great meal together, the heat was on in the sanctuary, church members greeted the guests and then sat and chatted over dinner. So here’s a partial list of who I spent the evening with.
George is a 40-something military veteran who has lived all over the world. He had his 10-year-old son Felix with him, whom he is single-parenting. Felix is in a local elementary school. His dad is looking for work, which is probably difficult when a potential employer finds out he is a non-stop talker.
Barry will turn 80 this year. He says he has lived in Hawaii and various parts of California most of his life. He dresses neatly, and after dinner sidled up to me and asked if he could make a donation to the church. Sure. He slid me a wadded-up bill and winked at me. A few minutes later I unfolded the bill. It was a Benjamin. One hundred dollars from a man with nowhere to live. I quietly pulled him aside to say he didn’t need to do that, it was a lot of money. Barry told me he had money from social security, and thanks to the shelter program he wasn’t spending much on food or housing right now and he really wanted to help.
Michelle is a sweet and fragile woman who says she is a musician. We talked about the recent Beatles documentary, and she pulled out stories of growing up as a Beatles fan in the Midwest.
Dave. Whoo boy. Dave has a large brace around one knee, smokes like a chimney and talks a hundred miles an hour. After 15 minutes of conversation, I begin adding up all the places Dave says he lived, all the work experiences, all the educational degrees he claims to have and realize that Dave would have to be 125 years old instead of 55 to have done all those things. Dave seems happiest when he has someone to listen to his stories.
Joseph. A large black man, Joseph has a very gentle spirit and the slightly British diction of English he learned in his home country of Ghana. We talk about the country western music he is listening to on headphones. He tells me he still has family in Ghana. When I ask if he has been to visit them since immigrating to the States 17 years ago, with a sad smile he says “No. Not yet. When things look brighter for me, I hope to.”
I could go on, but you get the picture. Will I make an appointment to have coffee with one of these friends just as readily as I’ll meet one of our elders on Session? It’s important I keep asking these questions. I need to remember who I am a pastor to.
Peace of Christ,
Dan Baumgartner is the senior pastor at The Cove in Santa Rosa CA and serves as a member of The Fellowship Community Board.