Romans 15:1 We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2Each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour. 3For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’ 4For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Neighbor. Putting up with the failings of the weak. Making choices for the common good, not self. Build up and encourage neighbor and the whole body of Christ is strengthened. Watering, tending, caring for your own turf – your neighbor, your people. These are the thoughts that paused me this morning in light of news that yet another priest has left a weak, struggling congregation for greener pastures – the second I’ve learned of in just two week’s time.
One had served in the parish where I once served. In his short time there he, along with his large family, had effected some big changes (namely, directing their outreach program to a favorite of his, a non-denominational mission in another country) and became a trusted, even loved, pastor. The parish had been withering away when the former rector had died unexpectedly. There was a collective resistance to getting attached to a new rector. But after a long search, they called someone who appeared to be pastorally inclined – as their late rector had been, and quickly became attached.
Then, after only 18 months, this new rector announced that he was leaving. Explained that he wasn’t really ever called to parish ministry – wanted to be out in the mission field, in greener pastures, traveling the world with his family. And away he went.
Sound effect of sucking sound here would be appropriate as the good folks of this parish felt like they had been kicked in the gut and the wind taken out of them. They are now struggling to gather the energy and enthusiasm needed to even begin a search for a new pastoral leader. In the eyes of the departing rector, God’s church will be strengthened as he travels the world preaching the gospel – where he, apparently, feels more comfortable. But what of the folks he has left behind? How is God’s church going to fare in that neighborhood? Who will water that little piece of God’s garden?
So, too, with another of God’s local churches whose pastoral leader has recently chosen to leave for a different neighborhood. He was called to serve at a parish barely holding on after having been abandoned by their pastor years before because of a profound disagreement with the national church’s position on human sexuality. This wasn’t the only parish to have been abandoned by ordained leadership for the same reason. Many left and actually took entire congregations with them to what they considered ‘safe harbors’ and better neighborhoods, aligning their congregations with a different organizational chart, if you will, of authority. This preoccupation with the national church’s platform and position on one issue caused a schism in the national church and many, many local folk – many local parishes – many in the body of Christ – were just left in the dust, grieving.
This particular parish had seen their priest exit, taking with him several congregants. Since then, they had been through a few interims. It took a lot for them to move past their collective resistance to bonding with any new leadership and yet they knew they had to else they wither away. A match was finally found and that priest stepped in and up, was welcomed, and became beloved. He engaged with the community helping them identify where healing was needed, lead them to it and began to lead them through it. The folks began to respond, to get attached, wanted him to stay on and lead them back to full health.
But it wasn’t an easy time for him and a bit of an uncomfortable fit at first. Theologically and doctrinally he aligned with those newly created neighborhoods the previous leadership had put together. He found himself challenged to do the work God sent him to do in this broken parish community and felt increasingly that his ministry in the broader church was unappreciated. He’s always had issues with the national church and it wasn’t easy for him to ignore what he considered ‘insults’ on his ministry. All this, despite the truth that he was encouraging the weakened neighbor, that he was doing exactly what Paul reminds us all to do with God’s people for the purpose of building up God’s kingdom.
Them bam. One of these new churches reaches out to him – to his ego, for the good purpose of building him and thus, their neighborhood. His ego is watered. The pastures look greener over there.
Like the former pastor, he is loses sight of the folks he is pastoring – sees them not as neighbors he has been called to strengthen any longer. He casts his eyes outward in search of a place where ‘insults’ will be no more. He leaves – abandons them for a safer harbor, for the suburbs, for a place that would make him feel comfortable.
In both cases, the existing community was in a weakened state when these two rectors stepped in to strengthen and encourage them in their faith. They each accepted the call ‘for the purpose of building up the neighbor’, ‘living in harmony’ with them, so that together they – their community, God’s church – would glorify God. So what happened?
In both cases, the needs of self trumped the needs of neighbor. Safe harbors were sought. Their ministries were excised from God’s church – cut out as if they existed in isolation – the minute they each decided to please self, take care of self, choose different neighbors and a different neighborhood.
Are we to ‘choose’ our neighbors? Pick who we want to encourage and who we don’t? Is this really our call? Last time I checked it is clear everyone is our neighbor – so, no, we don’t get to pick our neighbors – any more than we pick our family of origin.
And when it comes to proclaiming the gospel and leading in God’s church, I can’t think of anything more offensive than leaving a wounded, hurting, weakened community high and dry because someplace else might offer me a chance of doing ministry the way I want to do ministry.
We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2Each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour.
I am saddened for the good people in both these parishes. How will they ever trust again?
We who are in ministry leadership are wise to remember the local, personal nature of parish ministry. We are called to serve very particular people in a particular place. When pastors fail to consider the people of God’s church as neighbors but instead as a ‘thing’ – a parish (I am not called to be a parish priest, but a missionary) or as part of a national organization (I don’t agree with the national church on most issues) they are vulnerable to making self-serving ministry decisions – moves and decisions that do not glorify God but glorify self.
And God’s church is weakened.
Just makes me sad.