"Pilgrims on a Journey," A Sermon Preached for the Installation of Rev. Susan Brecht as Pastor and Teacher of Eliot Church, UCC

                                    Pilgrims on a Journey

                                       William McKinney

Sermon for the Installation of Rev. Susan Brecht
Eliot Church, UCC, Newton, MA,

December 8, 2013

Text: Romans 12

A few years ago I read a book by my friend and former colleague, Jackson Carroll. Its title is God’s Potters and it is a reflection on lessons from Duke Divinity School’s “Pulpit and Pew” project – a multi-year, multi-dimensional, multi-million dollar study of excellence in pastoral ministry.

The book is full of facts and insights, some of which are hopeful. Carroll is encouraged by the fact that most clergy are happy with their work. Sure, there’s burnout, frustration and stress (and Carroll does a good job of pointing to their sources) but most clergy feel a strong sense of call and of commitment to the places they are called to serve.

There were some surprises in the book. We learn a lot about how parish clergy spend their time. For example, in a typical week clergy spend 14 hours preparing for preaching and worship leadership (out of a 48 hour work week). A full day goes to administration and committee meetings. Teaching and visitation get four hours apiece and counseling gets another three. Involvement in community affairs gets an average of two hours a week, which is less than half the time such activities received in a 1954 study. That’s disturbing to me.

Carroll also documented the growing crisis facing clergy families due to low wages, especially in small churches. In the year 2000 the average salary and housing for Mainline Protestant clergy serving as senior or solo pastors in churches of under 100 members was $35,400. Carroll shows that dissatisfaction with clergy compensation is the single largest correlate of doubting one’s call to ministry and considering leaving for another church or secular job. Contrast this with a report in The New York Times the same year that starting salaries for attorneys in New York firms had reached $145,000. That, of course, is in New York. It’s “only” $135,000 in the rest of the country. That’s disturbing to me.

Carroll’s book is worth reading for the results of his survey research, but it’s worth reading for other reasons as well. He has some important things to say about pastoral excellence. In focus groups around the country, researchers asked people to reflect on questions like these:

What is your impression when you hear the words “good ministry?”

What is the core work of a congregation?

If you visited with the dean of a seminary, what one thing would you suggest she change to help foster good pastoral leadership?

These are good questions that we ought to be asking all the time.

The week I read Carroll’s book one of my students dropped by my office to talk about his M.A. thesis project and we talked about books he ought to read to develop his argument. He wanted to look at lay and clergy expectations for pastoral ministry. As we talked I was reminded of an important multi-denominational study published several years ago that surveyed members of churches served by ministers in their first pastorate. It talked about expectations laity have in preaching, counseling, teaching, church growth, social justice leadership and other areas. The authors were surprised to discover that while some of these were more important to members of some denominations than to others they weren’t the main thing people were looking for from recent seminary graduates. More than anything they were looking for persons of character.

Carroll reported a similar finding. Excellence in pastoral ministry involves several dimensions. It is shaped normatively and contextually. Christians cannot speak of excellence without speaking first of Jesus and of what Gregory Jones and Kevin Armstrong call “resurrecting excellence.” It is also contextual. An effective leader in one place can be a disaster in another. Pastoral excellence involves both normative and contextual dimensions.

The marks of pastoral excellence, for Jack Carroll, are Resilience and Spiritual Discipline, Agility and Reflective Leadership, Staying Connected, Self-directed Lifelong Learning and Trust and Personal Authority. Excellence implies trust.Pastoral excellence takes us to questions of character and trust.

I suspect many of us might disagree with what many people in these two studies mean by these words. At the same time, I think they make an important point: ministry (and, I would be quick to add, other professions) involves more than the accumulation of knowledge and skills. These are important, but insufficient.

For a long time faculties of Protestant theological schools followed a traditional pattern in thinking of curriculum as a collection of courses that would pour into students’ brains the information the faculty thought they ought to have. For some very good reasons, and in contrast to seminaries in more liturgical traditions, Protestant seminaries didn’t talk much about issues of formation.

I’m pleased to say that this is changing. Formation is very much on the mind of seminaries these days. I hope it is on your mind as well.

It is clearly on the mind of the Apostle Paul in our text today from Romans 12. This was the principal text of one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s most famous sermons. It is included in his book Strength to Love. Christians, Dr. King said, are called to lives of “transformed nonconformity.” That notion shaped his ministry. It reshaped a slumbering church. It propelled a movement that in turn transformed a nation.

The People’s New Testament Commentary reminds us that Paul is not writing to individuals but to the church community at Rome. When he appeals to his brothers and sisters to present their bodies as “living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God,” he is not talking about what they put into or do with their physical bodies but to the nature of the church as a community. “You” really means y’all. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” is not a message to individual members, but a message to the church itself.

I’ve probably heard 50 sermons on this text (and I’ve preached a couple myself!). Almost all of these sermons have read this text incorrectly as a call to you and me to clean up our acts by living piously and taking our work seriously. Those aren’t bad things, but Paul’s point here is very different. The “transformed” community – the church that refuses to conform to the ways of the world – is the church that is free to discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

This is a good word to Eliot Church and to Susan as we gather to celebrate your new ministry together. What might it look like if you were to do what Paul was asking the Romans to do? What would it look like for Eliot Church to take seriously its formation as a community? To ask questions about trust and character? To recognize that pastoral excellence is less about the performance of the pastor than about the transformation of your life together as a congregation?

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of preaching for the installation of another MBA pastor who had been a student of my friend Carl Dudley and dedicated the service to his memory.

Carl Dudley was a pastor and teacher and consultant to local churches.
But Carl Dudley was fundamentally a pastor. His happiest moments were as a storyteller. He had the ability to find great meaning in the simplest incident, usually in a local church.

In that sermon I told a story that is worth repeating today as a reminder of what pastoral excellence can look like in a congregation when we focus on qualities of character and trust.

Early in his career, Carl was called to serve a small black Presbyterian church in St. Louis. One day he had a visit from a young woman in the congregation who had recently had a baby and wanted to have her child baptized. The pregnancy had been something of a scandal as the teenager was unmarried. Carl’s response was “Of course. We’ll do it next Sunday.”

When Carl reported this to the church’s session a huge fight broke out. The matriarch of the congregation, a woman who was related to just about everybody in the church, was fiercely opposed. “Over my dead body,” she said. “Think of the message that will send to all the other young girls in the congregation.”

In telling the story Carl would point out that in the Presbyterian system the pastor has the ultimate say when it comes to the administration of the sacraments. He also knew that in most congregations there are people who control the destiny of the pastor.

The session meeting went long into the night and no-one changed their views.

Sunday morning arrived and the time in the service came for the baptism. Carl called the young woman forward with her baby. You could feel the tension in the air as the pastor turned to the congregation and asked, “And who will stand with this young woman and her child?”

There was silence in the sanctuary until the matriarch of the congregation stood up. “I will stand with her,” said the woman, “and so will everyone else who is here this morning.” And the entire congregation rose and came forward to surround the mother and her child.

We are gathered this afternoon for what we call an installation, but that strikes me as the wrong word for what we are doing. I don’t know about you but when I think of “installing” something I think of furnaces or carpeting. I don’t think of installations as something we do to people. What we are doing today is more like a baptism or a marriage. We are blessing the coming together of a pastor and her people.

I suspect none of you knows exactly what lies ahead in your relationship. You have hopes and dreams but probably also some fears and anxieties. That’s what happens when you do a new thing. In this sense you are no different from Jesus and the disciples and the Apostle Paul from ancient times or from that little black church in St. Louis or the founders of this congregation back in 1845. You know that something knew is being born. And you know that this new thing is good. Savor that feeling. Enjoy that transformed nonconformity that comes with breaking ground.

Thanks be to God!