Pastoring in Partisan Times
By Jim Simpson
At ordination, the Bishop lays hands on elders and deacons and says: Take authority to preach the Word of God … Faithful pastors know this authority reaches far beyond the pulpit to include organizing the life of the church for ministries of compassion and justice.
Most pastors find ourselves in ministry with persons or groups who have strongly diverse convictions on controversial issues. Our country has deep divisions, red and blue, which bleed into the conversations and commitments of the local church. Consensus can be an unreachable goal. How does one pastor in such a fractured mission field?
Treat people with respect. People want to be valued, heard, and understood. They do not want to be dismissed. Condescension cannot create community.
Listen deeply and carefully. Are we truly listening to each other or preparing our own talking points? Pastors can model effective listening and communication.
Be curious. What is driving the other person’s passion? Is there grief or loss? What is making this person afraid or anxious? Often, common ground can be found in sharing one’s own sense of grief or fear. Invite folks to talk about the feelings or needs beneath their anger or frustration.
Be biblical. People will listen closely to a pastor whose opinions are rooted and grounded in the Word. Even when people disagree, most will respect a pastor whose positions are strongly biblical.
Avoid debate. Encourage people to engage in a dialogue with their own beliefs and values. Discernment often involves choices between positive values which are in tension or conflict. Affirm those positive values, and help people engage these issues within themselves.
Jesus offers more than one approach for dialogue with conflicting values. We could be well informed by his saying: Whoever is not against us is for us. Mark 9:40. This seems an affirmation of the importance of shared core values. This was echoed by John Wesley in his sermon on The Catholic Spirit when he said: If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand. Another way we have affirmed this dynamic is the phrase often attributed to Augustine: In essentials, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; and in all things, love.
Pastoring in partisan times with integrity and authenticity requires clarity about one’s own core beliefs and values along with those of the United Methodist Church.
Sometimes events in society or a local church and community require a strong clear voice from the pastor. While there are issues about which United Methodists disagree, we do agree on many fronts. Recently, our Bishop, along with other leaders, has spoken emphatically about issues of racism and social justice. Our vows of faith include renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness and rejecting the evil powers of this world.
When people know their pastor loves and respects them—and will listen thoughtfully to them—they, in turn, will listen closely to a prophetic word from their spiritual leader. At times, such proclamations will lead to tension or conflict. Jesus was clear that faithfulness may lead to hostility and resistance. Pastoring in partisan times might well lead to heartache and bruises. Becoming caught between the red and blue may result in being a purple pastor! With integrity and compassion, faithful pastors are able to speak the truth with love and bring hope to a wounded, hurting world.