Parish priest in post-Christian America

Every minister must navigate the polarity between ministry within the congregation and in the surrounding community.

By Bill Wilson

Is the minister called to serve the members of the local church exclusively, or is there a larger call to a “parish” that includes all those who live in the geographical reach of the congregation?

John Wesley famously wrote: “I look upon all the world as my parish.” In another era, being the “village priest” conveyed an approachability to the minister by all those in the community. Not only were ministers called to minister to the literal members of the parish church but also to all of those in need in their village or community. 

Today, healthy ministers attempt to manage those two polarities by giving attention to local congregants but also keeping an eye open to the needs of the larger community in which they live. Some ministers become immersed in their community and are as well known in their local school system, among nonprofits, at the coffee shop or in the business community as they are in the halls of the church building. 

In the 21st-century local church, such a dual missional identity is critical for both minister and congregation. Sadly, we have allowed some bad habits and unhealthy expectations to dilute the power of this model.

Specifically, too many clergy focus their ministry exclusively upon their congregants. All their energy and attention is given to those on the church roll, or potentially on that roll. They visit, work with, pray for and generally associate only with church members and their loved ones. If they happen to engage their community, it is simply as a means to pull people into their church.

This is what many congregations demand from their minister. While giving lip service to ministering to the community, in reality they hire a minister or staff to care for them and their needs.

Pastors are there to serve their members. Age-group ministers are expected to give the biological children of the congregation their full and undivided attention. Members expect to be visited, remembered, acknowledged and generally treated with focused attention from their church staff. The prevailing attitude is “membership has its privileges.”

This relationship between minister and congregation breeds dysfunction and poor spiritual health. Practicing only the half of the gospel imperative that invites us to love one another while ignoring the command to love the world produces an inwardly focused church that becomes increasingly irrelevant and cut off from reality.

Ministers in such churches are under constant pressure, much like a concierge at a hotel, to provide for and to meet the needs and expectations of their members.

The result is a minister who is relatively invisible beyond the church walls, and a church that melts into the background of a community. Such churches are largely overlooked when issues or concerns arise in the community, for they are too self-absorbed to be noticed.

Life in post-Christian America begs for a more balanced model. Ministers and churches must take seriously the call to be salt and light in a world desperate for both. Rather than retreat to our fortress facilities and cast judgment upon the world, we are called to immerse ourselves in our community and show by our words and our actions the difference Christ can and does make.

Unfortunately, many communities are openly skeptical of our churches. We are often best known for what we oppose or those we disdain. Seen as an economic drain upon the tax base, our very existence is questioned by those who doubt whether we actually add value to our surroundings.

Healthy churches wrestle with this complex polarity. They expect, and even insist, that their ministers give attention to those in the community who may never darken the door of the church building. To do that, they accept that their minister may not be available to meet every need or whim of his or her congregants. Thus, they mobilize their membership to collaborate in ministry, rather than expect their minister(s) to do it all.

One church I know took a first step toward better balance by writing into the job descriptions of all ministers that they will devote one-half day a week to minister in their community away from their church. Some do this through recreation, some through fellowship, some by volunteering at a school or hospital, some in other extremely creative ways.

The result has been a surge in recognition by all the congregation of each member’s dual responsibility to love one another and to love the world as God does.

If you agree that all of your city or community is your parish, then make that a meaningful part of your identity. Your community is waiting for you. 

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.