‘Where's that?’: the burden of obscurity

3/7/2018

(Editor’s note: The following reflection was delivered by Rev. Dr. Robert Phillips at a clergy/spouse retreat in Elsah March 1-3)
 
How many books on successful ministry have you read recently by pastors of small churches or rural circuits who began and remained in that setting?  My hunch is that you can't do it.
 
The recent stuff I've read with titles about having wonderful ministries in small, obscure settings generally has been produced by birds who did it for a while in a previous professional incarnation but flew out of Crippled Creek as soon as larger churches or jobs in teaching or consulting ministry settings beckoned.
 
The books written for clergy by clergy on effective pastoral ministry tend to come from the pens of those who have broken into the big leagues, pastors of four-digit churches with six-digit salaries. The role models for adoration among clergy are the folks who may have begun their ministry by organizing a church in a drain pipe behind the town dump but now have an industrial-sized complex on the edge of town peopled by boomers and busters, yuppies with guppies and millennials with perennials. Pastor Stellar has a staff to counsel, run meetings, medicate the youth group and follow the sacred cows with the proper institutional shovels. All Pastor Stellar has to do is...whatever he or she wants.
 
I emphasize that pastors of huge parishes are not the villains of the piece. Their stories embody the cultural fairy tale that has taken root in pastoral lore. The fairy tale has a familiar litany. To begin ministry in obscurity is commendable. To continue ministry in obscurity is problematic. To end ministry in obscurity is to fail.
           
What is obscurity?  The standard definition of this word is to be in a place or a state where one cannot clearly be seen. For clergy it is a condition in which one's location or position of ministry blocks the pastor from the view of others. It often links itself to isolation, the unsought and unwelcome separation from peers. Its linguistic handmaidens are anonymity and vagueness. A common dictionary synonym is...oblivion.
 
The demographics of ministry tell the tale. For every megachurch there are a thousand mini-churches, little buildings with modest groups who gather for weekly worship. For every call or pastoral appointment to the bright lights, there are dozens of assignments to the bleary burgs. For every "plum" there are plenty of "pits."  Since the beginning of the Christian church, obscurity has been the defining context for ministry for the vast majority of clergy.
 
Much in modern ministry sets us up for the fall. The tacit assumption is that if you really have your act together, someone besides Jesus will notice. Someone will recognize your gifts. Some larger congregation or denominational leader will say, "Well done...come up higher."  If you really are good at what you do and faithful in who you are, then of the many whom are called, you will be one of the few who are chosen.
 
It isn't true. With very few exceptions, pastors live and die in relative obscurity. They never oversee large or well-known congregations. They never publish books or articles and their sermon are not read. Community movers and shakers do not seek their advice, do not know their names and do not care about what they do. In retirement some, like the proverbial old soldier, just fade away. Lots of others seem to fall of the end of the earth.
 
Recently I have read some interesting stuff from laity and clergy living in rural areas. These writers sing of the wonders of nature, the earthy life and return to basics that calm the soul.
 
Yeah, sure. I've lived in northern rural areas, too. The people are marvelous, the winters are horrendous, and the Bronx can swallow every man, woman and child in both Dakotas without a burp. Human nature being, well, human nature, most clergy still would rather be known as the pastor of a thousand people than the pastor of five hundred thousand...acres.
 
Some try to apply cosmetics. I'll have you know I once was pastor of the First UMC of Dale, Ill. The title needs elaboration. It should have been called the first and only United Methodist Church of Dale. Its population was 150, and I don't mean the church membership. The people in the congregation were dedicated and gracious Christians, very tolerant of their new, seminary-minted preacher. The fact that I was pastor of a "First" church did not cloak the obscurity of the setting. To paraphrase scripture, in such places the first really is the last.
 
What's so bad about obscurity?  The tough questions arise in the issue of significance. Do my labors matter when few seem to notice and fewer seem to care?  Am I investing my life in meaningful ways when my parishioners seem unappreciative of what I am doing?  Is satisfaction possible when my peers seem indifferent to my efforts and those above me seem unconcerned about my potential?  How is the pastor of an obscure parish to feel when his or her words at clergy meetings are brushed aside because the voice does not come from a ‘significant’ source? 
 
What is a pastor to think when really good sermons, equal to anything the big names are publishing, pour from a heart on fire, only to "bloom unseen in the desert air?"  What is a pastor to do when the spirit of innovation that once splashed over the cup of the soul, brimming with the sparkle of fresh insights, gradually goes flat, bottled and corked by decent folk who are content to keep their spiritual lives at room temperature until rigor mortis takes hold?
 
Some pastors react badly, though understandably, to obscurity. Bitterness can take root against the larger churches beyond their reach and the dreary local congregation that seems to be the pastor’s destiny. The stream of living water flowing from the pastor's heart can be polluted by the poison of resentment. The pastor can come to feel the congregation is unworthy of the shepherd. When a subtle voice whispers within the pastor, "These people just don't know who they have for their minister," one can pray that holy realism responds with chastening grace, "Yes, thanks be to God."
 
The Gift of Obscurity
"Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  This jeering rhetorical question is famous for the irony of history's reply. The `pits' contain the seeds for a fresh generation of `plums.'  From an improbable dump called Nazareth came the King of Glory. Modern Nazareths continue the tradition of grace-filled surprises that confuse those who equate satisfaction with applause.
Among the gifts that the experience of obscurity can bring is a doorway through which the pastor refines and deepens the integrity of the call to ministry. In this sense, obscurity is God's reminder that the place of service is in His hands. The integrity of service is in ours. As a friend once told me, "At the end of time God will not ask, `What did you do in your ministry?'  He will ask, `Did you do what I asked you to do?'"  Obscurity can open the door to asking that question and finding the answer in a context of dignity and grace.
 
Obscurity offers an avenue for release from the treadmill of comparisons. The pastor with nothing to lose, no one to impress and nothing to prove has everything to give. The virus of calculated relationships based on leverage cannot thrive when the notions of "up" and "down" are removed from the value one places on ministry. The pastor can be freed from the fear of not measuring up as defined by the pecking order. As the great theologian Janis Joplin said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Or consider Paul, who braced the marginalized saints in Colossae with the reminder, “For you have died and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). There are advantages to being dead.
 
The mind games that revolve around institutional recognition are no-win contests. Those who drink at the well of recognition find their thirst deepened, not slaked. Those who yield to the cultural emphasis on finding fulfillment in ways that can be measured and counted risk losing the ability to say, "Enough."  No pastor infected with the virus of misplaced ambition ever feels visible enough, important enough, consulted enough, appreciated enough or paid enough. Coming to terms with obscurity can provide an inoculation against this deadly spiritual virus.
           
Obscurity offers the gift of perspective. Consider Paul's words in Philippians 4: "I know how to be abased and I know how to abound." These words become more than words as they play out in a life touched by obscurity. The pastor begins to see that to deal with obscurity is not synonymous with having one's life and worth defined by it. The pastor who moves toward recognizing and appreciating the paradox of obscurity makes a cleansing discovery. It is possible to have a marginal ministry in a highly visible setting and to have an eternally significant ministry in a marginal setting. Remember, appointment to serve First Church Nazareth was a career-ending move in 15 A.D., no matter whose Kid was in the youth group at the time.
 
The curtain of obscurity drapes the stage upon which the drama of faithfulness to Christ is played. The drama continues, the play unfolds, the players deliver their lines with passion, but the curtain never rises so a larger audience can see what is happening. Is it enough that the Author of the drama sees?  Is it enough that the cast chosen by the Author to share the drama witness the actions and words?  Is it enough at the end of the play to hear the solitary voice say, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant?"
 
Can anything good come from Nazareth?  The model is Christ, whom the Father plucked from the place of glory and groomed for the privilege of ministry among the obscure. God had a reason to send His son into the world via the path of obscurity, a path Jesus walked until the conclusion of His earthly life. Only at the end, the very end, did Jesus emerge into high visibility. A person who is hanging on a cross is very visible indeed.
 
The depth of intimacy with people in a pastoral relationship is limited by the human and relational capacity of the minister to love, to visit, to counsel and to preach. One can manage a denomination, supervise a large staff, preach to a multitude, but one can pastor a relative few. The price of quality pastoral care always has been and always shall be obscurity. The relational mathematics is clear. A pastor cannot be spiritually intimate with a cast of thousands, or hundreds. Spiritual intimacy of this sort comes one by one.
 
Clergy who resist the pressure to measure their pastoral or personal worth by the level of public recognition will discover an intriguing visibility that comes with the territory. It is the visibility of those who have been set at liberty from the hungers that drive so many toward seeking the rewards of renown. It is the visibility of those whose very indifference to visibility stands the preferential pecking order of the institution on its head and gives it a good bounce. It is the visibility of those who have found spiritual sanity and uninhibited holiness as the side dishes God serves to those who sit with Him to feast among the obscure.
 
To pastors bending under the burden of obscurity for the sake of faithful ministry, to that vast majority whose call to serve by the Chief Shepherd will play the entirety of its course among people and places obscure the words of Isaiah offer comfort and release:
 
"But I said, `I have labored to no purpose.
I have spent my strength in vain, and for nothing.
Yet what is due me is in the Lord's hands,
and my reward is with my God."
(Isaiah 49:4)
 
(Rev. Dr. Robert Phillips is a retired IGRC clergy member)