Many years ago, and several times since, I struggled to express some of what I felt about the privilege of being a pastor. Putting it into words, I said that I found myself standing at the intersection of a vertical axis and a horizontal axis.
The vertical axis was all the people reaching up to God in worship and prayer. And it was God reaching down through the means of grace to grant forgiveness and peace and joy through Christ. I got to be the one to help direct people’s worship. And I got to say and do the things that God says and does to his people. Standing at the font or the table or behind the pulpit, or sitting or kneeling with someone seeking the right relationship with God, I felt the love and power flowing up and down that vertical axis. And I had done nothing to earn that place; there was nothing special about my words or my hands or my qualifications, but I had been called, and I got to be there in the middle of all that . . . Life.
The horizontal axis was the people of God in their relations with each other. Teaching each other. Mentoring each other. Building each other up. Even correcting each other. And certainly, forgiving each other. The right relationship with God that flows along the vertical axis is complemented by the right relationships that spread out along the horizontal axis of the congregation. And I was becoming acutely aware that we never come to the table or the font or the altar alone. There are always those who brought us or guided us, and there are those present with us. It was my privilege to be part of all these families, as well as a leader in the church family. I got invited to events that I never earned the entry to – but I was their pastor, so I got to be there.
And when you are in the midst of a congregation where people are in a right relationship, or coming into a right relationship with God, and the same with each other, then you occupy a special, unearned place in the grace of God. All the exchanges of love and power flow through you – not because you have anything really great to offer, but because they just need to cross somewhere, and you are in that place. In the words of Dinadan to Taliessin,
“If an image lacks, since God backs all,This, to me, was the greatest privilege of being a pastor, to be right there where the vertical axis of our relationship with God and the horizontal axis of our relationships with each other crossed. It was, literally, standing at the cross.
be the image, a needless image of peace
to those in peace . . .
But in thinking it over, I realized that there is also a third axis of ministry, and it wouldn’t do to ignore it. In addition to an up-and-down (vertical) axis and a side-by-side (horizontal) axis, there is also an internal-external axis. Looking back over our shoulder, further in, is the church as an organization, with all the needs for maintenance and operational stuff that all orgs need. We have buildings to keep up, bills to pay, leaders to recruit, policies to develop. All congregations wrestle with this. And at the conference level, there are even more things, especially for the clergy, to do. There are other clergy to recruit and certify and deploy and supervise. In the other direction, forward – out the doors, so to speak – there is the world, with lots of people to help (missions) and people to bring in (evangelism) and a culture and society to address (witness).
And what I realized is that in our day, a whole bunch of our best leaders are just obsessed with this third axis. So obsessed that they have emphasized it far more than the first or second axes. They think the third axis = ministry, as such, and their attempt to reach out and control the outcomes at either end has driven them crazy. We fight each other for control of the congregational or denominational machinery, and we try to use the church to change the world beyond the church – which isn’t a bad thing, but if it becomes a goal in itself, it, too, becomes a mere contest for imposing our will upon resisting material. We have become proud – all of us, of every theological and ideological stripe. We have forgotten that if we over-emphasize the third axis to the neglect of the first and second axes, the power will not flow. We may be right (for what that’s worth), but we are out of position, so we will wither and die clinging to a rightness that brings no satisfaction.
One could over-emphasize the second axis, too. If we move away from the vertical axis or the internal-external axis, we risk becoming a mere club, where belonging to each other is divorced from belonging to God; we become smug, and insular, and sterile. Or we go all frantic on the programmatic side, equating the number of seats in the seats with spiritual growth, and pouring mammoth energies into an exhausting attempt to keep the seven-day-a-week, programmatic congregation going. But we aren’t supposed to be either a club or a carnival, but a church.
I even suppose one could somehow twist or miss the point of the first axis, though it remains the first axis, the one that must be gotten right in order for the other axes to align themselves with. But my point is, we are all striving against obstacles – and defining other people as obstacles, too – while being unaware that we are not lined up right. The orientations of our various axes do not come together in a focal point. And until we are lined up right, nothing is going to work very well.