Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Pastoral Authority

I am in Durham this week, working with four other pastors and a professor from Duke Divinity School.  Dr. Jackson Carroll is in the process of revising his book, "As One With Authority."  As a result, we were given the opportunity to share cases from our settings on how we have exercised or failed to exercise an appropriate amount of authority.

Authority is an interesting gift.  When I was ordained in the United Methodist Church, the bishop said, "Donna Mardell Claycomb, take thou authority upon you as an elder to....preach, teach, administer and order."  There was authority that came down from Bishop Kammerer to me on that hot June night.  But there are other kinds of authority.  There is the authority that comes when people trust you, when the follow you, and when they are willing to allow you to take them to new places yet unknown.

My colleagues with me this week have taught me rich lessons in what pastoral authority is.  One of them shared an incident at his church when a pastor and members of a church in Kansas were protesting at his church.  This particular church is filled with people who hate gay and lesbian people.  They even named their website "God hates fags."  The hatred is real and rough.  When this particular pastor was notified of the visit of these people, he came up with the idea to set a table in the yard.  The table would be set with a table cloth, fresh flowers and dishes.  No explanation would be given.  However, the table would serve as a reminder of the 23rd Psalm, "though prepares a table before me in the midst of my enemies..."  Authority.  This is pastoral authority.

Another pastor shared with us how a broken playground at the church needed to be fixed.  The playground equipment was dangerous.  The pastor soon learned that there were layers upon layers of racism beneath the reasons for why the playground was still broken.  She set out to get funding for the new equipment.  She is leading her people into an understanding of what it means to be loving of all people.  She yearns for her congregation to see all colors as equal in the small, rural North Carolina community where she serves.  Authority.  This is pastoral authority.

Still another pastor shared how when he started a new church that he knew that anytime there were 100 more people at the church that it was time to hire a new pastor.  The church is named after the "Good Shepherd."  In this story from John, the sheep know their shepherd and the shepherd knows the name.  Each 100 people need a shepherd - someone who knows them by name.  Authority.  this is pastoral authority.

A table set up in the midst of a protest where people are shouting words of hatred.
A new playground is created where all children are welcome.
A community comes where the shepherd always knows his sheep.

Pastoral authority is a beautiful thing.

There was authority given to me at my baptism.  There was additional authority passed on when I experienced a call to ministry.  Still more authority came when I graduated from seminary and yet more authority came when I was ordained.  But there is another kind of authority.  It is the authority that comes from the people who we minister with and alongside.  It is the kind of authority that comes when one calls you "pastor," when one calls you in the middle of the night because a child is being born or someone is dying, when one wants to confess their sins to you, when one trusts you to do a new thing in the life of the congregation, when one says, "God might be calling me to ministry."  This authority does not come immediately, and it cannot be taken for granted.   This authority comes when one sets a table, when one calls her sheep by name, and when one does something for the entire community because she believes in it so much.

Good Lord, please help me to never take authority for granted.

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