We live in a time unprecedented in history. There is more information available to us than ever before, and for most of us it comes with the click of a button on our phone or computer. As has often been noted, we are busier than ever before and yet we have more time saving devices than ever before. What do these facts have to do with the role of clergy in community leadership? As far as I’m concerned: everything!
Never before has our society needed relationships with one another as badly as we do now. In spite of how much we as clergy may complain about the diminishing respect given to clergy, the truth is that people know for whom we stand and we can be advocates for relationships that matter. While we may bemoan our society and how impersonal everything has become, there has been no greater time to be in ministry than now.
The only advice my father ever gave me about being a minister (he spent 51 years in active ministry before his death) was that “a little bit of visiting makes up for a whole lot of bad preaching.” Besides being a bit of a slam on my preaching (!), that advice is a reminder that ministry isn’t rocket science. We are called to know the people and care for them and learn from them. It has always made sense to me to be involved a local civic club in the community where I live because it allows me to meet folks and be involved in the community. If all I offer as a minister are words without relationship, I feel that I am missing out on the greatest example Jesus Christ gave us of loving one another.
I believe that more and more churches are realizing that we must have a vision greater than the membership of the church. Our United Methodist Bishop in Western NC, Larry Goodpaster, is fond of saying to the over 1,100 clergy under his care, “You are appointed to a community where there just happens to be a church!” His obvious implication is that he expects those of us in ministry to be involved in the community. As clergy, we are missing great opportunities to serve our Lord if we do not get involved with the community.
I tell people all the time that I have the best job in the world because when I was appointed to First UMC in Gastonia, I was told that my three priorities were: (1) Preach, (2) Be involved in the community, and (3) Cast a vision for the church. What a gift I have been given to serve a church that knows we simply must be involved in the community where we are and that any vision of ministry for any church simply must involve caring for those in the immediate neighborhood.
An amazing theologian and story-teller, Tex Sample, shared about a membership drive for a downtown church where the community had changed over the years from affluence to poverty. Membership was rapidly declining and a new pastor had a vision to go out to the suburbs, “where the money was”, and advertise their church. Dr. Sample, hired as a consultant to the church, told that young preacher that he could finish that drive in Hell, because that’s where any church that doesn’t care for its neighbors will end up! Jesus’ words were less harsh on the subject: “love God with all you have, and love your neighbor as yourself”. Much is changing in our world, but the command to love those around us never changes… we must, as clergy and laypersons, be involved in our communities!
We are blessed to live in a community where so many people care about the greater good, beginning with relationships with those around us. May we all see beyond the walls that surround us!
David Christy, Senior Pastor
First United Methodist Church