De-Professionalizing Pastoral Identity?

On occupying time and being prophetic

Published

This essay was made possible by the Relevance to Resonance:  Exploring The Practices of Transcendence in Ministry and Congregational Life Lilly Endowment Grant in association with Luther Seminary.

Many churches’ weekly events calendars are chock full, from AA meetings to committee meetings, choir rehearsals to staff check-ins, youth fellowship, and fellowship hour. Of course, we can’t forget all that goes into getting ready for worship on Sunday morning—choir rehearsals, bulletin preparation, and signing up those ushers and greeters. 

Time feels so crunched, and mostly, I feel crushed by it—by its weight and speed. By the relentlessness, ensuing restlessness I feel as parent, pastor, and person. Yet, there are moments when I feel I can briefly come up for air. I began writing this in the early part of August, when it is slow around the church, and the kids are not yet back to school. When the days feel like one continuous, luxurious day. I found myself sitting in one of my favorite spots to write and reflect: the gazebo at the park where my youngest’s baseball team practices. The spot where I write allows for a touch of a breezeway, which was welcome after a hot or humid Mid-Atlantic summer day. A few trees were like an extra canopy around me. The leaves would filter the early evening light onto me in gentle ways, and I was close enough to see some of the action, but far enough away to not worry about getting hit by a pop fly. 

For a couple of weeks in July, I was at the Massanetta Middle School conference with a handful of youth from our church, singing and playing, truly, a suspension of time. Then I found myself entering a whole other world, traveling through multiple time zones to catch up with high schoolers from our church who were at Youth Fest in Iona. There were no energizers of middle schoolers jumping and dancing to Imagine Dragons in the Abbey chapel. Instead I marveled at the persistent sound of the bleating sheep and wind through the tall grasses on the island. These noises still continue to echo in my ears. At another moment, I found myself sitting in the sunroom of the manse, our home, but remembering how it always felt like at least dusk or dawn the way the light lingers in Iona as I gazed out at a darkening sky above a row of purple and pink hydrangeas becoming overtaken by the wild summer ivy determined to hang on to the sides of our house. Especially persistent if one does not keep up with the weeding during those summer days. 

Looking out another window, this time in my office at the church, at leaves that have caramelized in the autumnal sun, yellows and browns, I think that time is strange. I think about how amplified this notion felt during the COVID-19 pandemic. How time compresses, and slows down, and still somehow seems to slide by like the whisper of the Chesapeake Bay through the trees. But our relationship with time didn’t necessarily change with the world-wide “shutdown.” As we discovered certain inequalities and inequities around everything from education to healthcare access come to light, we began to hear more and more stories of how this was actually the reality all along. What I’m seeing is the reality that time moves through individuals and institutions, masking and uncovering social realities all around us. Andrew Root’s Ministry in a Secular Age trilogy gives us a way to consider the impact of the changes in our relationship to time, through engaging philosopher and political theorist Charles Taylor’s work on secularity and modernity. Showing how this might help us reflect on the congregation and the pastoral role. The critique that is especially meaningful to me is what we do with acceleration, as Root lays out in The Congregation in a Secular Age: from social life to technology to moral norms. What might it mean or look like to do (pastoral) ministry and be God’s church as we contend with the effects of time’s constant warping, expanding and compressing, and slippages? How do we occupy time? 

The question is pressing because it seems to me to be connected to something else that is also pressing in Taylor’s work as Root shows us throughout the whole trilogy but especially in The Pastor in a Secular Age: transcendence, or what Taylor explains is “the malaise of immanence.” Time is also connected to the change in our relationship to and perception of transcendence. What do I mean? I recently had a conversation with a retired minister who shared that she went into hospice ministry after serving at a “corporate” church for her first call. She explained that she felt she couldn’t be prophetic when she relied on the church to pay her but being a hospice chaplain freed her up to preach and teach, as she kept emphasizing, prophetically

And so, I began to wonder: is it possible to be prophetic and … “professional” (in the immanent frame)? I posed this question on a few social media platforms and the general response was one of agreement: there are risks, and the church, for all its ideals and values, cannot afford the prophetic. Indeed, if we are to understand being prophetic, in the way Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann encourages as a kind of relationship with the divine, with transcendence as truth-telling and reframing, and professionalization of the pastoral role as one of the tragic symptoms of modernity, these seem incompatible with one another. 

And yet, I wonder if there is an alternative through how we understand time. As pastors, and preachers, I’m always a bit mystified and in awe of the way we play in the stream of time: how we prepare for Advent and Christmas in the fall, and Lent and Holy Week/Easter shortly after the New Year’s resolutions have faded away. We slide between seasons celebrating all the saints who have departed from our midst over the last year even as we look towards Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord. We visit older folks in homes and facilities holding their hands in prayer until suddenly they are gone. Babies we’ve baptized show up with their own babies. Stories and images seem transposed onto one another. Most days, I feel I am occupying multiple spaces, times and seasons, even as I seek to be present in the here and now. 

So, I wonder if the pastor’s (and the church’s) persistence in being okay with being behind (the times)—as is often bemoaned about and from within the church—and holding not necessarily alternative (or sacred) time, but rather being in time in this way, being present in multiple ways, in the here and now while maintaining a healthy critique of this culture’s “depreciation of memory and a ridicule of hope,” as Bruggeman says in The Prophetic Imagination, might be a way of being prophetic and “professional” (or fully in the immanent frame). Are these necessarily opposed to one another? It may seem so. But could the professional setting, the professionalization of the pastoral role, be the exact setting or space in which being prophetic is all the more necessary and potent? Because of this exact relationship with and engagement of the challenges and trappings, and inevitability of time? 

I felt compelled to think with and about time because I was inspired by a post that popped up in my email recently from The Marginalian, by Maria Popova, who provides a regular “record of the reckoning—a one-woman labor of love, exploring what it means to live a tender, thoughtful life of purpose and gladness, wonder-smitten by reality, governed by the understanding that creativity is a combinatorial force: ideas, insights, knowledge, and inspiration acquired in the course of being alive and awake to the world, composited into things of beauty and substance we call our own.” To simply read Popova’s engagement is inspiring in and of itself, but I offer what she offered that day when I went down a rabbit hole of her entries, which is a poem by Ursula K. Le Guin, perhaps mildly apropos to us church folk who speak in hymns and this theme of time in “Hymn to Time”: Time is being and being/time, it is all one thing,/the shining, the seeing,/the dark abounding. 

Perhaps the pastoral role today rather than the closed off system suggested by “identity,” might instead be a mode, and an ongoing practice, of being in time, being time, a work of “making room,” and “for going and coming home,” as simple as that—making space and journeying with others. What about all the structures of time, its institutions, and the norming work of administration and organization? The pastoral work, I want to suggest, is not simply towards re-enchantment, a re-introduction to the divine and what is transcendent, but helping all of us to see that the border between what is secular and sacred is actually (and has always remained) quite porous. In other words, as some prophets have told us already in so many words, God’s (kingdom) in-breaking is persistent and ever present.

Again, perhaps all of this for me, as I struggle with the crush of the weight of time—and not only time, but responsibilities, along with what lies ahead, and what lies forgotten, and then all those seeming interruptions to our ever increasingly shorter days—is, at the risk of sounding cliché, a reminder to stay open. Time actually makes room for it all: the meandering, the skimming, the depths. Perhaps we will feel it all, or maybe we’ll only feel an ounce of it, but the wonder is in the seeing. I wonder if part of our pastoral (prophetic) call is the miraculous work of putting to words what we see, whether in proclamation or over a pot of tea, no matter how difficult or strange, with what may seem, at best, like a shaky trust, but a connection to and confirmation by God’s very (immanent) presence. 

Do you see the possible ways things, moments, and creatures are tied together? Or a part of a bigger whole? A larger beauty? A wondrous magic. Maybe I’m being too sentimental thinking that this is the larger work. To see. To feel. To be awake to the world and all its entanglements. For example, the buzz of the church full of cheerful people on Sunday mornings, the buzz of the mosquitos around me in the gazebo as I watch my youngest hit a line drive, the buzz of the ferry surging though the Sound of Mull—like a chorus, a hymn. To which I can only breathe: Thanks be to God.

  • Mihee Kim-Kort

    Mihee Kim-Kort is a Presbyterian minister, agitator, speaker, writer, and slinger of hopeful stories about faith and church. She is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at Indiana University. Mihee's writing and commentary can be found in the New York Times, TIME, BBC World Service, USA Today, Huffington Post, Christian Century, On Being, Sojourners, Faith and Leadership, The Revealer, and Religion Dispatches. (Links to some of her work can be found here.) In 2021, she was named one of Center for American Progress’s “21 Faith Leaders to watch.” She lives with her family in Annapolis, MD where she is co-pastor with her spouse of First Presbyterian Church.

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