The Next Faithful Step
They Expect Me to Tell Them What to Do
A Pastor's Reflection
I imagine the words, “they expect me to tell them what to do”, might mean different things on the lips of new pastors as opposed to more seasoned and experienced ones. I know that in my first call in parish ministry these words would have indicated a number of things that I was experiencing and feeling as I settled in to my new role in life. I was 26 years old and called as solo pastor of a small, generally older congregation. In fact, many of the members were older than my grandparents were at the time. It was also my first real full time job. I had worked throughout high school, college, and seminary, but that was always something on the side as I was working toward other goals. This was now the goal. In the multifaceted strangeness of my situation, realizing that these folks I was called to serve were often expecting me to tell them what to do struck me in a variety of ways.
First was the fact that everyone was older than me. Well, almost everyone—there were about a dozen or so children and youth. I remember doing the math and realizing that I was closer in age to the jr. and sr. high schoolers than I was to their parents. Just about everyone was either my parents’ or grandparents’ age and I was the one called to lead. This was definitely surreal. One morning at a men’s breakfast at the local Coco’s the men gathered started talking about the good old days when milk was delivered to your porch. I’ve only seen that in old cartoons I used to watch as a kid.
Beside this was the fact that they actually thought I had something to say. There was no condescending patting me on the head. I was their pastor and they actually looked to me as an authority. That was weird. But more so, it quickly became a real honor. And it added depth to my experience and understanding of my own ordination. God had called me to do something and I wasn’t the only one who believed it. I had worked with youth and young adults fairly extensively before I was ordained and I didn’t experience it as odd to be looked on as a kind of leader then. But these people were fort, fifty, sixty years older than me. And they expected me to tell them what to do. Sort of a miracle.
It then struck me as quite a responsibility. There were people who were actually depending on me to somehow have access to and communicate the truth to them. My ideas and suggestions would actually be taken seriously and as authoritative. This is no small thing. It is one thing to have opinions as to what should be done. It is another thing entirely for others to take them seriously and follow you in putting them into practice. Theoretical opinions are easy to have because you are not accountable to how they turn out in the real world. But it is quite different when you are responsible for the fruit of your opinions.
But above all this was a sense that I really didn’t want to tell people what to do. This was not because I was scared of committing myself to any one course of action in any given situation. Rather it had to do with leadership style. I knew that, as the ordained pastor called to lead the congregation, I indeed had a responsibility to do just that—lead. But I wanted to do that through what Paul calls “equip(ping) the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). I didn’t want to just tell them what to do, I wanted them to come to a place that they felt empowered and equipped to come to faithful decisions on their own. And so I focused my energy on biblical education, spiritual formation, and an understanding of our officers’ ordination vows. What eventually began to happen, for some at least, was that people began to think about the church in new ways. They began thinking less in terms of expediency and more in terms of faithfulness. It was a joy to watch this transformation in these people.
Gradually, their expectations of me began to shift as well. While, as the pastor of the congregation, I was still looked to for my thoughts on what should be done in particular situations, people began to want from me direction on how to think about decisions to be made more so than telling them what I believed the answer to be. I was then able to go about equipping people by framing faithfulness rather than handing down decisions. And it was a win/win. An equipping and framing ministry fit me, my style, and my beliefs much better and I saw people grow in their faith and faithfulness as they partnered with me in the work of ministry.