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Pastors, churches and working people

April 22, 2013

On Friday, I participated in a panel presentation and discussion at Brite Divinity School based on the topic “How the church marginalizes itself from the working world.”  Four of us served on the panel: a Christian education professor and three pastors from various contexts. Our comments were in response to an essay called “The Other 100,000 Hours” by Chris R. Armstrong. The article was published earlier this year in InTrust, a magazine for seminary presidents and board chairs. The discussion was conducted for members of  Brite’s Board of Visitors, and there was a wide variety of opinions among the four of us. Here was my take:

 

     Thank you for allowing me to participate in this discussion. I bring you greetings from Waxahachie, Texas, birthplace of many famous people, including Tom Blasingame, considered the oldest cowboy in the history of the American West; R&B singer Tevin Campbell; ZZ Top manager Bill Ham; pro golfing legend Byron Nelson, and of course, Academy Award winning director Robert Benton, who made the wonderful 1984 film “Places in the Heart” in his hometown. This was my favorite movie long before I moved there. If you have not seen it, or it has been awhile, you really should see it, and they will be showing it during the first Saturday in June at Getzendaner Park. I am planning on taking a group and would be glad for you to join us. If you have not guessed by now, I am thankful that God called me to Waxahachie, Texas, where redemption stories abound.

     My name is Matt Curry, and I graduated with a master’s in divinity from Brite Divinity School in May 2011.  This is my seminary. I was ordained as a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in July of 2012 and called as pastor of historic Central Church in Waxahachie. I began my call – we Presbyterians believe that each of us has a calling – on Aug. 20 of last year. So, full disclosure: If you have done the math, you have already figured out that I have only been a pastor for about 8 months.

      My congregation has about 260 members, and we average about 150 for worship on Sunday mornings. We are overall an older group, probably even by Presbyterian standards. In my denomination, the average age is 62. So many of my people are dealing with questions surrounding how they will spend their retirement years or what life will be like when that last child is off to college and they and their spouse are alone with one another for the first time in years.

       Still, the church includes doctors, lawyers, a few farmers, businesspeople, bankers, teachers, government employees and even a few executives and finance-related people who choose to live in Waxahachie but commute each day up the road to large corporations in Dallas. By virtue of my position, I also serve as the pastor for the Presbyterian Children’s Home, which provides residential care and other services to children and families with no place else to turn. So, every Sunday, some of the people sitting in my congregation are kids who have been through more personal trauma in their lives then you and I would prefer to really think about, and a number of staff members from the children’s home, including overworked and overstressed home parents who believe that God has called them to care for the children others have neglected, or worse. 

        I was asked to spend a few minutes sharing my thoughts on the topic “How the church marginalizes itself from the working world,” based on the article “The Other 100,000 Hours” by Chris R. Armstrong. I have a mixed reaction, based on my limited experience and what I know of the people God has allowed me to serve. My biggest difficulty with the article is that much of it stems from this basic idea: Clergy are disconnected or detached from what happens in the working world. I frankly do not see how this statement can be made if one is familiar at all with the makeup of seminaries these days.

     I came from the working world, having spent 20 years as a professional journalist, and I continued working while attending Brite. Most of my colleagues here were second career – and a few were third career or more. I shared classrooms with lawyers, teachers, and city and school system employees. Many of the pastors I know today have extensive experience in the business world. The pastor of the largest Presbyterian church in my part of North Texas, First-Dallas, is my friend and mentor, Joe Clifford, who has a degree and economics and came to ordained ministry from a career in banking and finance. The associate pastor at the church in Grapevine that supported me through seminary also came from a banking career.

      My background is not in business, but I do find myself as the only full-time employee of a church dealing with a number of matters that are not unique to small business owners – supervising a small staff, dealing with a budget, setting goals to grow, though the growth I am looking for is not just in membership numbers and pledges but spiritual growth and service to the world around us in the name of Jesus Christ.

     I do agree with what I take as one of the main points of the article: that how we live out our faith in the world, including the workplace, is vitally important. In the Reformed tradition I represent, we understand that God calls people to serve and honor and glorify God – and not just on Sunday morning. Some Christians emphasize the question “Am I saved?” Presbyterians emphasize the question “What am I saved for?” We believe that in Christ God saved us, and our lives are lived in grateful response. The Word and the sacraments empower us to go out from our faith communities on Sunday and live holy lives in community Monday through Saturday, as well. We do that by following Christ into our work and home lives, practicing forgiveness, behaving ethically, seeking justice and showing mercy. And we continually acknowledge that we fall short in all of those areas, and that we need to repent – not just as individuals, but as organizations and institutions, and even as the church.  

    One of the challenges that I face, however, regards how my parishioners view themselves – how each of us understands our identity. I once was part of a church in which on certain Sundays people of various professions were called forward, recognized and given a blessing that honored what they do in the workplace – their jobs. I do like confirming that faith does not just belong to Sunday, but I have questions about re-enforcing what I see as a prevalent societal idea that people and their work are indistinguishable. Our culture is built around our work as our identity, especially for men. One of the things that men tend to ask each other when they meet for the first time is “What do you do?”  I want people in my church to see one another as being equally children of God bearing the divine image, whether they happen to be executives in high-powered businesses or staff members at the children’s home.

    There is a tendency to separate the spiritual life from the rest of life that did not exist in Jesus’ time but is part of our culture. Many people practice religion on Sunday, and as the old revivalist would say, live like hell the rest of the week.  One way we recognize and try to address this problem is the way we conduct the church’s business, by framing all our meetings with prayer. There should be no compartmentalization of our faith and work.   

      In our society, status is attached to certain professions. That status, frankly, can sometimes collide with the equality we find at the communion table, where all are invited to share in the body and blood of Christ, regardless of their societal standing. God does not more highly value the wealthiest individual in my church over the homeless man who knocks at my office door and asks for a gallon of gas and something to eat. In fact, scripture strongly indicates a reversal of our values on these matters. So, there is that. The Armstrong article wants to argue that churches should better value businesspeople. I want to say that we should value all people – working or not – and that may mean that, on some occasions, those who hold highly esteemed positions in the world may have to be willing to let go or set aside some of their standing for the sake of the Gospel. Then, scripture tells us, they will be truly rich.

      Businesspeople hold key positions in my congregation, for example, overseeing the church’s budget. The church would not run well without them. But they are really involved in every other kind of ministry we do, as well. They, like others, are looking for ways to serve the Kingdom of God and to make a transformative difference in people’s lives.

        I do agree with my Mother, who always said: All work is honorable. And I do believe we should acknowledge the gifts that God gives and the creativity people use in the workplace. Preaching should relate to daily living, including making ethical decisions on the job, where we spend most of their time. At the same time, my experience so far has been that many people are overworked. They need to know that there is a commandment about keeping the Sabbath – and, I confess, pastors are terrible about following it.  A preacher I know used to say: “No one ever says on their death bed: I just wish I had spent more time at work.” So my inclination is to wish that we could do a better job encouraging people not only to live their faith at work, but find Sabbath for their souls and a personal identity in Christ, not by climbing the corporate ladder. I’m not saying climbing the corporate ladder is necessarily wrong. It may be what you have been called to do, and if you are, then you will be a great blessing to many because of how you do it. But what I see is a society in which personal identity is too much based on our work. Christ comes first – and for many that seems to involve a reprioritization which makes all of life more joyful and tends to make us more productive in everything we do, whether we are at work or at play, at home or away.

      Ultimately, I agree that pastors – and again, I can only speak from my own experience – probably do not spend enough time affirming the creativity and God-given talents of those in the business world. However, I do not believe this is because the work world is misunderstood by clergy people. I think it is more likely that the pastor simply does not have enough hours in the day to get around to everyone who needs to be affirmed by the love and forgiveness of God: working people, nonworking people, the poor, the downcast, the underemployed and the overpaid.

     But all are welcome at the table – and all have an identity that is higher than his or her profession and a calling that includes and certainly goes well beyond vocation.

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

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