Pastoral Principles for Prophetic People

by Ken Sehested

      Working for peace and justice isn't easy. We live in a world predicated by greed and violence. Swimming against that stream isn't easy. It can be unpopular and lonely. Flannery O'Connor, paraphrasing a verse from John's Gospel, wrote: "You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you odd!"Sometimes we wonder if we're crazy. Sometimes even prophets need pastoral care.

      All of us have known people who have attempted to "win the world" only to have their own spirits wither, their vision blurred. Maybe not with such tragic drama—maybe they've simply stopped speaking out . Something has come undone in their lives. Maybe it's happened to you.

      In the Bible, prophets people arose from the most unlikeliest of places. They were often "ordinary" people, without special training, and often protested, saying they didn't have enough talent for the job. Much like people in our congregations.

      How do we resist that withering of the spirit? And how do we effectively work with and develop a corps of justice and peace advocates? What follows is a series of 10 pastoral principles for nurturing prophetic impulses in your congregation.

1. Decide where to start, not where to finish.

      One of our dilemmas is the inability to act on what they already know. It's as if we refuse to do anything if we can't do everything. Edmund Burke noted that nobody made a greater mistake than those who did nothing because they could only do a little. Sometimes we suffer from "the paralysis of analysis."

      Developmental psychology teaches us that most people grow into maturity one step at a time. Most children learn to crawl before they walk, and walk before they run. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself once said: "If you can't fly, run; if you can't run, walk; if you can't walk, crawl. But by all means keep moving forward."

      People tend to start modestly, tend to make small steps and changes and choices and commitments. Don't disparage such modesty. It is on the basis of such concrete involvements that deeper commitment and analysis can grow. There's an old proverb that says: "I hear, and I forget; I see, and I remember; I do, and I understand." We live our way into new forms of thinking more often than we think our way into new forms of living.

      Well-educated people have a tendency, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to "replace simple action with complex thought." It's so much easier to take a position than to take action. Pay more attention to where you're going to be concretely invested and worry less about where you'll eventually end up. The directional road signs come into focus only as you begin to move toward them.

2.  Look for a community of conviction.

      One of our culture's most enduring myths is represented by the fictional character known as the Lone Ranger. It is the myth of the solitary, heroic figure who single-handedly confronts and overcomes the power of evil. That myth saturates Christian peacemakers as well.

      The most consistent problem we face is the sense of isolation felt by those committed to justice and peace issues. Being a part of a community of conviction functions like a "hothouse" does for plants, providing in much larger doses the kinds of elements necessary for growth in both our understanding and our commitment.

      There is also a rhythm to our lives, not unlike the rhythm of seasons. There are times when we are at full operating capacity, running at peak performance. But there are other times when we're not so fuel-efficient: times when we're more tired, less enthusiastic, less focused. It's at these points when a community of conviction can mean the difference between a slowdown and a breakdown.

3. Think globally, act locally.

      Thinking globally gives a fuller picture of cause-and-effect relations. Especially in an increasingly globalized economy, what happens a long way off has an impact close to home. But global analysis serves little purpose without some corresponding local action. It's more comfortable for some of us to think globally than it is to act locally.

      G.K. Chesterton once said: "Nothing is real until it is local." In saying that, he wasn't blessing or justifying this tendency in human nature. He was simply pointing out that that's the way most of us do operate. We usually don't react until something touches us personally.

      Thinking globally actually gives us the permission to do "small" things. We don't really have to tackle everything in the world, because we know there are lots of people out there doing their part, too. Acting locally keeps us grounded in reality, helps us "keep the rubber on the road."

4. Learn to name the poor.

      "Naming the poor" was the title of a sermon preached when a congregation opened a shelter in its facilities for homeless people. These guests are not just "street people," the pastor said. They each have names and unique personal histories. He urged members to "name" each person individually. Otherwise they would only remain faceless "objects" and abstractions.

      Care for and presence with the poor, the socially unacceptable, may involve charity work but is more than that. It also means speaking out for justice, attempting to shift the basic power dynamics which keep the poor in their condition. But even beyond the work of charity and the demands of justice, there is yet another reason for our involvement.

      We are to be with the poor to listen as well as to speak; to receive, as well as to give; to learn, as well as to teach. Those who suffer do need resources and advocates; but more than anything, they need relationship, friendship, built on mutual respect.

      Mohandas Gandhi wrote that "if you want something really important to be done you must not merely satisfy the reason. You must move the heart also." Our relationships are what will keep us going when the way forward appears dark.

5. Prepare for the long haul.

      Violence, and the injustice on which it is built, will never give way to a brief flurry of activity and enthusiasm. We need to prepare for a lifetime of conviction—along with a commitment to rear and shape the lives and generations that follow behind us.

      We have a great need to develop what the German theologian Dorothee Soelle calls "revolutionary patience." Such patience does not lull us to sleep. We stay engaged; but our barometer readings don't come from the daily paper and the evening news; nor are they dependent on the relative successes or failures of current political forces. We need to learn to plant dates and not just pumpkins, say the Brazilian theologian Rubem Alves. The latter can be planted and harvested in a single season; the former may not bear fruit in our lifetime.

6. Beware of compassion fatigue.

      The old-fashioned word is burnout. It comes from working too hard for too long with too little rest. It's important to keep in mind that compassion fatigue doesn't happen overnight. It builds over a long period, and it usually has at least two advance symptoms.

      The first is a loss of a sense of humor. If you find it harder to laugh, to play and to relax, then you may be headed for a breakdown. A volunteer in a Third World country got this warning from her colleague, a national in that country: "We are suspicious of those who have no sense of humor," her co-worker said. "If you cannot take time to laugh, even in the midst of all this misery, then we doubt that you have the patience to stay here very long."

      A second advance symptom of compassion fatigue is a growing sense of resentment. If you find yourself frequently complaining that other people aren't doing their part, that you're the only one that really cares, then watch out! If after every event you're more concerned with who didn't show up than overjoyed at who did, beware!

7. Be bold about the demands of the Gospel, but patient with people.

      Most of us find it difficult to live with the chasm separating the expectations we have of ourselves (and of others) and the recurring experiences we have of not living up to those expectations. Ours is truly a high calling; but also a low success rate. So we're tempted to either give up on the calling or on the results. That is, we begin to tone down the Bible's radical challenge to our ways of living, adjusting it to prevailing cultural standards, to more manageable expectations. Or, on the other hand, we become so alienated from people (and sometimes ourselves)—living lives overflowing with accusation, judgment and intimidation—that we lack any capacity to engage people in genuine dialogue.

      In your pastoral work be sure you don't confuse the integrity of the Gospel with your own agenda. Obviously you will have strong convictions. But always leave room for slippage. Never be too quick to assume that if someone disagrees with you they're disagreeing with the truth. Sometimes people with relatively equal levels of commitment, intelligence and courage disagree on how to solve a given problem. Remember: In the end we are saved not by our merits but only by grace.

8. The Gospel is still a scandal, but not every scandal is the Gospel.

      Just because the Gospel is indeed a scandal, liable to provoke controversy, not every scandal and controversy is Gospel-inspired. Controversy and confrontation can be the occasion for transformation, for dialogue. Sometimes it can make a bad situation worse. Learning to distinguish the difference takes wisdom.

      Generally, we tend to be quite fearful of controversy. When controversy occurs, your ability to use pastoral authority depends a lot on whether you've earned the respect which authorizes your leadership.

      Some years ago I attended a workshop led by the pastor of a Baptist church in a small North Carolina town. He had recently convinced his congregation to join him in a march one Sunday in August, from his church's sanctuary to the downtown courthouse, to commemorate the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The group wanted to know how he was able to get his people to do this—an out-of-the-ordinary thing for a traditional Baptist congregation. "Probably a number of reasons," he said. "But I think it boiled down to the fact that for seven years I've been present with these people in their births, their weddings, their sicknesses and their deaths." His congregation knew he loved them, knew he saw them as more than objects in need of adjustment. As a result, he had been invested with leadership authority—in this case, to lead many on a path they had not previously traveled.

9. Expect miracles, or at least surprises!

      Don't assign too much weight to labels like "conservative" or "liberal." They tell you more about people's self-perceptions and culture than anything else. And don't "write off" certain groups, certain churches, certain parts of your city, region or country. Politically progressive people have an enormous bias toward cosmopolitan, urban and well-educated constituencies. Ours is an enormously class- and culture-bound movement.

      Do you remember the story in Luke's Gospel when Andrew came running up to his brother Nathaniel and said, "Nat, we've found the Messiah! He's from Nazareth." And do you recall Nathaniel's incredulous question: "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" In first century Palestine, Nazareth was the stick, the boondocks, where parochial, uneducated, unsophisticated, narrow-minded and uninteresting people lived, unlike liberal-minded, cosmopolitan, well-educated Jerusalem. Ever since Jesus came from Nazareth, there's no such thing as the boondocks any more.

10. Finally, remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy.

      What is it about "sabbath time" that God cautions us not to forget? First, remembering the sabbath is a regular, habitual reminder that everything isn't up to us. Prophetic types tend to get too serious about their work, have a hard time taking a break. There's so much left to do!

      Walter Rauschenbusch, the Baptist pastor and theologian most associated with the early 20th century "Social Gospel Movement," once wrote to a Methodist colleague who had confided that he was thinking about leaving the ministry because of his denomination's resistance to change: "It is not sin," Rauschenbusch chided, "to leave some things to our children, and to God."

      Sabbath time is when we slow the hands and the mind in order to do a different kind of work: that of opening ourselves to a renewal of vision regarding the deepest character of life. "The paranoid and the mystic share much in common," said Matthew Fox. "Paranoid persons believe there is a conspiracy in the universe against them; mystics believe there is a conspiracy in the universe on their behalf."

      In the midst of sabbath discipline we have our imaginations reshaped; we rediscover and reaffirm Who, finally, is in charge around here! More than at any other time, this is when we are finally able to say with conviction: No, that's not the way things are; no, I won't get used to it; and no, I won't live my life accordingly.

Ken Sehested This article was originally printed in PeaceWork, newsletter of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, #4,6, 1997, then reprinted in The Other Side magazine, May 2004.