We invited priests and pastors from across the country to participate in a short survey about the joys, challenges and day-to-day work of leading a church in contemporary America. A selection of their responses is presented here.
Is there a specific story, or passage of scripture, that inspired you to become a pastor?
Geneva Campus Church, Madison, Wisconsin
For me it was the parable of the talents. I had a sense of calling into ministry, but I struggled with a more basic calling to live a thoroughly Christian lifestyle. I remember saying to my pastor, “I can’t even manage my own life very well; how could I be responsible for the spiritual well-being of a whole congregation?” He just sat there looking at me. In the uncomfortable silence that followed, the parable of the talents popped into my head—the story where we’re reminded that we can save up our resources and never use them, or we can take risks and try to do some good in the world.
It occurred to me in that moment that if I did have a calling into ministry, the best response was to live in a way that was consistent with that calling. I felt that I had to make a choice between using the gift God gave me, or burying it in the ground, so to speak. It wasn’t a total guilt trip, though. I felt like I was being presented with an opportunity to take repentance seriously and live in a way that would actually please God. It was a redemptive moment for me.
Joshua Ryan Butler
Imago Dei – Eastside, Portland, Oregon
We have a phrase, “pastors can’t start ministries,” that has been inspiring for me. The idea is: many people expect the pastor to create the ministries and rope people into them. But we start from the opposite end, believing God has gifted his people, the body of Christ, with vision, talent and imagination.
So I see a lot of my role as surfacing, empowering and unleashing our people in ministry, what Ephesians 4:12 calls “equipping the saints for the work of ministry.” Our people have come up with the most phenomenal, creative approaches to serve and bless our city in areas like foster care, refugees, anti-trafficking, homelessness and schools.
They have way better ideas than I do, and one of my delights has been shepherding them and their teams as they lead out in our city.
What is the best part of your job? What is the most difficult?
Zion City Church, Madison, Wisconsin
The best part of my job is the miraculous transformation that takes place in the lives of those who respond to God’s Word and apply it faithfully in their daily walk. The most difficult part is learning to deliver intelligently the truth of God’s Word, with love, particularly to naysayers—those who ignore it, oppose it, reject it, rationalize it, justify their lives despite it or outright deny it.
Theopolis Institute, Birmingham, Alabama
Standing at the Lord’s table every week, inviting people to eat and drink their Lord Jesus, I am at the center of the universe. I love preaching and teaching the Bible. I initially found pastoral care and counseling unnerving, but over time I came to enjoy that too. It’s a great privilege to be sent into the squalor of people’s lives, commissioned to speak the good news in the darkness.
What is the biggest threat, or challenge, your church faces right now?
The question I asked myself several years ago was “How does the church become relevant in today’s culture without compromising the sacred tenets and precepts of God’s Word?” Our group has grown increasingly confident with the ideas we’ve been entertaining and employing in recent years. Implementing them fully is where the challenge lies—particularly if you’re an urban ministry that is trying to lead in different ways, going beyond traditional church presentations, without alienating your most devout supporters.
Most of us tend to cram too much activity into the space of a single human life. We do too much, and we say too much. We’re rarely still, and we’re rarely silent. On a purely practical level, that’s a challenge for the church. People who are always doing and talking don’t have much left to serve the church with, and even if they are willing to serve, it’s harder to find a time that works for all the busy people in a given group.
But I think there’s an even darker side to this problem, representing a deeper challenge to the church. People, relationships and communities are the embodied realities that constitute the church. We may not be taking these embodied realities seriously enough, or making enough space for grace to shape them. We devote too much time and attention to things that don’t contribute to the formation of our own selves, to the maintenance of real relationships, or to the cultivation of deep communion.
The church, by grace, has the potential to be a community that resists and overcomes this kind of debilitating conformity to the pattern of this world. But there is also a risk that we may succumb simply by paying too little attention to what sustains us, like people who forget to eat until we no longer have the strength to feed ourselves.
What are you proudest of about your church?
We have great teaching, a steady pastor, a good atmosphere of friendship and camaraderie. The church has a clear focus on the work of worship. It is a theologically serious orthodox church that is also very welcoming and friendly. The church is full of young children, and the leaders put a lot of effort into helping parents train their children for the kingdom.
Joshua Ryan Butler
The amazing creativity and leadership: people really own the life of the ministry, and find amazing creative ways to love and serve Jesus, each other and our world.
What is church for?
Saint Sabina Faith Community, Chicago, Illinois
Church, I believe, must be the place where we gather to be healed, loved and strengthened, but also challenged and trained to impact the world. The church is the boot camp for soldiers who have signed up to be agents of change. Sunday morning is the “huddle” where we come together, and when we leave we must be like Mary of Bethany and change the atmosphere wherever we are. Church is the gathering of those who have chosen to be conscious of society and lobby for the poor, disenfranchised and abandoned.
The Shorter Catechism so beautifully describes what a human being is for: to glorify God and to enjoy God forever. I would say that also describes what the church is for. As the Bride of Christ, the church uniquely honors and enjoys God. But as the Body of Christ, the church also uniquely serves God.
I would say that the church serves God mainly in two ways. First, the church is called to gather disciples, and continue forming them into a community of mutual service. The church is actually pretty good at this. Second, the church is called to bear witness to Christ by being his presence in the world, living—as he did—according to God’s wisdom, and embodying—as he did—God’s sacrificial and self-giving love for the world. The church is much less adept at bearing that kind of witness to Jesus, but I can’t escape the conclusion that this is what the church is for: to be a spectacle to the world of God’s foolishness; to be the weak thing that shames the strong, the powerless humanity that God empowers. That’s what the early church did so well, and I can’t think of anything the world needs more in our times.
I want to say one more thing about what the church is for, since so many people these days seem to think you can be a faithful Christian without really being part of the church. I want to say that this is a kind of arrogance that needs to be weeded out of a person’s soul as quickly as possible. For one thing, we all need the means of grace that God provides through the church—a common devotion to the Apostles teaching, to the breaking of bread, to community (I think that’s a decent translation of koinonia), and to “the prayers” (which I think implies praying with others). But perhaps more than that, it’s impossible to bear witness to the love of the Triune God without being part of the community Christ is gathering. God’s love is by its very nature communal. I’m afraid that trying to be Christian apart from the church in most cases demonstrates an unwillingness to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Church is the place where we learn to do that, and there is no other place to learn it. We need the church to teach us how to die to ourselves so that we may live to God.
Church is for all people! Thus, those who serve and call on the name of YHWH and are filled with His Holy Spirit should so encapsulate His divine will, presence and attributes in the way they live, love and work that anyone and everyone who comes into contact with them are compelled—without a single word spoken—to come and experience the Glory of a King and Savior who loves us more than we’ll ever know. I know that’s a mouthful. But, it’s not as hard as it sounds if we remember God’s greatest gift to us: grace.
Joshua Ryan Butler
We are the body of Christ, united to Jesus and one another. We’ve been baptized not only into Jesus, but into his body—his people—bound together under his authority in the power of his Spirit. So in this, we love Jesus and one another, and are called to embody his presence into the world, in the redemptive power of his Spirit. We are to be a place of heaven breaking into earth.
The question is backwards, I think. The church is the end, not a means to an end. The last thing will be the Bride joined with her divine Husband in an eternal marriage celebration.
On the way, the church exists as the community of that future feast, an outpost of the world to come in this world, a sign of God’s reign because it is a place where human beings acknowledge and celebrate His reign. If it is “for” something, it is “for” God’s praise, and the glory of His Son in the Spirit.
Joshua Ryan Butler is pastoring in Portland, Oregon, at Imago Dei – Eastside, a multi-ethnic congregation that is theologically conservative but politically all over the map, and learning how to live together in a national culture that is becoming increasingly polarized, hostile and divisive.
Peter Leithart is the president of Theopolis Institute and an adjunct Senior Fellow of Theology at New St. Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho. He is ordained in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC). He has served in two pastorates, one in Alabama and another in Idaho, for a total of fifteen years.
Coliér McNair is lead pastor of Zion City Church, a predominantly African-American evangelical ministry located in Madison, Wisconsin.
Father Michael Louis Pfleger is senior pastor of the Faith Community of Saint Sabina, a Catholic church located in Auburn-Gresham, on Chicago’s South Side. He has been nationally recognized for his commitment to equality and passionate stances against racism, injustice and gun violence.
Mike Winnowski is pastor of Geneva Campus Church, an intergenerational Christian Reformed congregation on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.