April 4, 2013
The Challenge of Pope Francis
How far will you take this “Christ-like thing?”
Humble style isn’t new for Pope Francis. As an archbishop he lived in a simple downtown apartment, took the bus to work, and cooked his own meals. He was a challenging example of a true pastoral heart to the priests who served under his care. He once stated that he believed too many priests had become administrators rather than pastors.
Priests, he said, should strive to “go out to meet the people,” especially those who were not a part of his church. The pastor who confines himself in the rectory, he stated, is not an “authentic pastor.”
His lifestyle has been a powerful challenge to clergy excess and entitlement, for both Catholics and Protestants.
Simplicity or Duplicity?
I know that most pastors live lives that we could call “simple.” We’re often underpaid, underappreciated and underwhelmed by the results of our ministries—both in our quality of life, and in our retirement accounts.
Yet we still see a flood of images of “successful” pastors. They’re living large. He or she leads a large congregation, lives in a large house, has a large book publishing deal and speaks to large conferences for large fees.
And it’s those pastors that many of us long to become.
We might not easily admit it, but we long for the larger churches, the prestige and financial security that comes with all of it. Every year we wistfully read the lists of 100 Most Influential churches, 100 Most Influential Pastors, 100 Most Elegant Pastoral Homes (okay, I made that last one up… but give it time), and we daydream about it being us. Or worse, we look at those who have “made the cut” with a certain level of resentment.
It’s not simply our hearts that are at fault here. In some Christian circles (I’m looking at you Prosperity people), it’s a given in the pews that the pastor should drive one of the nicer, if not the nicest car in the congregation, should live in a fine house and wear fine clothes. After all, how else could we assess God’s blessing on our leader?
We have all seen Pastors with their own jets, riding in limousines to speaking engagements and generally flaunting the wealth that “success” in big-dollar ministry can bring. But you don’t need the bling to be suffering from the same disease. Even in the more modest settings of most American churches, it’s not unknown to see pastors sitting on large red thrones (what other word could be used?) on church platforms, their cars parked out front in their own marked space (often right next to the one reserved for his wife, the “First Lady” of the church). During the week, many of these leaders are cut off from the Body by layers and layers of staff while they concentrate on “casting vision” from their paneled offices. The principle looks different based on context and theological values, but the bottom line is the same. We hear the message that the pastoral vocation elevates the leader above the rest of the church. Our ideal American pastor has become “a leader of leaders,” not one who spends time with the hoi polloi in the pew.
Serving like the Shepherd
In his inaugural Mass, Pope Francis reminded the Catholic church that a priest’s authority derives largely from service, especially service to the poorest, weakest, the least important and those most often overlooked by the church. One Catholic commentator reflected on this message: “Like the Good Shepherd, the priest must seek to be the servant, not the lord, of the rest. This is the exact opposite of the haughty clericalism that in many places has hurt many and wounded the Church.”
As important as this message is for the “princes of the Church” as the Catholic Cardinals are often called, it’s equally important for the princes and princesses of the protestant church as well.
Few of us go into ministry to become rich, to lead large churches, to live large. But hey, if it happens, it must be God’s will, right?
Perhaps. Or maybe God is seeing how far we will take this “Christ-like” thing. How much we are willing to be known for our humility rather than our accomplishments, for the depths of our service rather than the size or numbers of our services. For how willing we are to be the kind of leaders who take seriously Christ’s call not to be “like the Gentiles” who lord it over those they lead, but rather be like the Lord who gave up his prestige and privileges and took on Himself the nature of a servant.
Pope Francis has challenged me to renew my consideration of just what I expect to get out of being a pastor. How quickly do I let others pick up the check at a ministry lunch and just what do I order when the tab is on the church? Who are my pastoral heroes? How do I handle “pastoral privilege” if and when it comes my way? How connected am I to those I serve in my church and more importantly, how do I serve those not yet (or who may never be) in my church?
These aren’t black and white issues. Few are. But left unconsidered, they can lead us down the road to a character very unlike that of Christ.
I never thought I’d say this, but I hope more and more of us American pastors can begin to be more and more like the Pope.
Bob Hyatt is a Pastor/Elder at The Evergreen Community in Portland, OR. Read more of Bob's Out of Ur posts here.