Care & Feeding of Spiritual Leaders, Part 3

Crossing Borders Without Crossing Boundaries

There are dilemmas we face in spiritual leadership. Sometimes we are unaware of where we are, our sense of place. Then we look around and wonder, "how did we get here?" Is this where my vocation has led? Or, has there been a current into which I have stepped, unreflectively, and just gone along with the flow?

I remember a dreadful realization during my seminary education. One of my jobs during seminary was to sit up all night and make sure that the seminary was safe. On the hour, I would walk the halls of the seminary classrooms and dorms to make sure that the doors leading outside were all closed and locked. It was a great job for a student. I ended up doing most all of my studying on my night shift.

One night as the dorms were quiet and the whole building was silent, a fearful insight hit me. I lived in the dorm, an institution of the church. I spent my days in the classrooms of the seminary, an institution of the church. At night, I worked for the seminary security, an institution of the church. When I ventured off campus, I served as an assistant to one of my professors, himself an institution of the church. And when I went outside those institutions, I was usually either at church in worship, or visiting with friends from church. How could I be learning to extend the good news of the reign of God when everyone I knew already went to church and was a professed Christian? Shouldn’t I be hanging around non-Christians? I realized then and there, this might very well be my life.

Years after that night of reflection on my immersion in the institutes of the church, I had a similar revelation. I was in my first congregation. I happened to be preaching through Luke-Acts (if that helps to set up the theological dissonance!) at that period in my life. But one day it hit me as I was in our parsonage. I lived in the parsonage, an institution of the church. I spend my days in committee meetings, visiting members, and in the office preparing sermons and photo-copying bulletins, supporting the institutions of the church. When I ventured away from the “parish”, I went to ministerial groups and church-wide conventions. While the unity of life and work can be energizing, for me it had become too narrow. How could I be preaching and teaching from the great missionaries, Paul, Luke, and the early disciples, and not know a single non-Christian?

Now I am not against the supportive care of pastoral ministry and the deep abiding value of sharing good news with those who have already committed themselves to the reign of God and to a personal relationship with Jesus. But there was a leash of sorts in my training and in my pastorate that either led me to fulfill certain expectations, or, kept me close to home. The leash can lead, or the leash can restrain. Crossing boundaries becomes problematic in this kind of life. The ever-moving plan in the Acts of the Apostles kept frustrating me.

As we speak of developing missionally formed spiritual leaders, there is a need to take time to consider the borders we are, or want to be, crossing. For some, crossing another border can become an outlet to get away from too narrow a horizon for ministry. For these, crossing the border may have more to do with a need to get away, rather than a need to engage. Sometimes leaving behind to flee that which is painful is necessary, but it can also become a temporary escape. When a broken person seeks escape, rather than dealing with the issues that are causing pain, there is a possibility that crossing borders is not the intention at all. If there is enough brokenness it may be healthy boundaries that have been broken and crossed.

For others, there may be opportunities to cross borders out of a positive calling forward, not an escaping from. One acquaintance in full-time pastoral ministry has spent the past twenty years as a soccer coach for community (not church) leagues. The intention has not been that he brings these families into the church, but the church, through the giving up of their pastor, brings itself into the community. Another friend in full-time pastoral ministry accepted the call to his present church with the caveat that he be allowed to be, “the public chaplain, not just the parochial priest.” Both of these spiritual leaders have an opportunity to carry out a missional pastorate. They are capable of crossing borders with a positive calling forward, rather than a negative sense of escapism.

As we speak of developing spiritual leaders, there has to be an awareness of the leader’s ability to find an awareness of her or his part in the missional church. It may be in quiet friendships with neighbors, or in larger, “public chaplain” activities. But the degree to which a spiritual leader can do this has ramifications on the expectations of the local congregation being served as pastorate. A lively polarity needs to be addressed: the tension between the local church being served, and the spiritual leader finding ways to engage the community beyond the congregation, “within” versus “beyond”.

A vital spiritual awareness of our sense of place in God’s care and hope is a foundation for forming as a missionally formed spiritual leader. More on sense of place next time…