Words often get twisted around. For example, contrary to popular notion, Will Rogers did not say, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” He said that his epitaph should read, “I joked about every prominent man in my lifetime, but I never met one I didn’t like.” There’s a big difference.
Early in my ministry I was told that a highly regarded Unitarian minister said that ‘the job of the minister is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ Later I learned that the origin of this charge is not in reference to clergy nor did it originate with one. It was penned by a well-known 19th century newspaper man, Finley Peter Dunne for journalists: “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Before experience taught me otherwise, I assumed that the biggest part of my job was to afflict the comfortable. The war in Vietnam was tearing our nation apart, racism was rampant, homophobia was the cultural norm, anti-Semitism was accepted in polite society and women’s issues were minimized. I had a lot of afflicting to do!
Fortunately there were mature members of my first congregation who took me aside and carefully expressed their discomfort with all of the above issues; they let me know that they were not comfortable with any of them, and they didn’t come to Sunday services to have me hit them over the head with them, but rather to acknowledge that we needed to work to rid the world of these pernicious pests.
In seminary a teacher told us, “When you feel it necessary to talk about the problems of the world, things you’ll be tempted to preach about from the pulpit, my advice is to insert them in your spoken prayers. He gave an example, “O, Lord, our well-intentioned leaders have led us astray in Vietnam, show them, O God, the error of their ways…help us to rid the world of the scourge of racism and homophobia, etc.”
Popular parlance said Harry Truman ‘gave them hell.’ Truman responded, “I never gave anybody hell. I simply told the truth and they thought it was hell “
The work of ministry can be divided into three parts: priest, prophet, and pastor. The priestly function is to lead the liturgy. For us that means to create an order of service that allows the people the freedom and responsibility to ‘get what you came for.’ We do this with readings, music, chalice and candle lighting, silent meditation and spoken reflection.
The pastoral piece is to listen, to notice the people, and let them know that you’ve heard. The prophet part is to speak the truth, not foretelling, but forth-telling. The most challenging part is to decide when to simply be pastoral and when to be prophetic. In those early years I had an unbalanced division: 5% priestly, 90% prophet and 5% pastoral.
There are many benefits to a long-term ministry, one of which is that there is less need to afflict the comfortable and more opportunity to comfort the afflicted. Now I see that what’s needed is more like 20% priestly, 20% prophetic and 100% pastoral. It’s the new math – new to me, at least. And I like it. I hope you are well and hope to see you soon.