I once read of a pastor who made the commitment to spend several days out of every month with his parishioners at their workplaces. He made it his habit to arrange visits to their factories and offices, their stores and schools. He had a specific purpose in mind and one he believed would make him a more effective pastor: He wanted to understand their day-to-day lives so that in his preaching and counseling he could make application that would speak to their circumstances. He acknowledged that the life of a pastor is very different from the life of a student, a laborer, a CEO, or a store clerk. He acknowledged that unless he was aware of how their lives differed from his own, he could easily assume too much and understand too little.
This pastor discerned that one of the challenges of being a pastor—and particularly one who is paid to minister on a full-time basis—is to continue to have a realistic assessment of how the world works “out there.” It’s to acknowledge that much of what troubles an employee in the workforce does not trouble a pastor in his church (and vice versa). It’s to acknowledge that many of the factors that may enhance a pastor’s reputation may diminish a non-pastor’s (and, again, vice versa). The very things that can gain acclaim for a pastor and even fill the pews of his church may gain a warning for a non-pastor and even get him fired. (This is very much on my mind because, as a full-time writer who pastors on a part-time basis, I am also largely outside the workaday world and, therefore, in a similar position to this pastor.)
One of the women who attends his church works in an office setting. She is told she needs to take a course that will address matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion. At the end she is expected to write a pledge that will address her responsibility for the past marginalization and future empowerment of “sexual minorities.” What is she supposed to do in the face of this mandatory exercise? What counsel has she received from the pastor’s teaching and preaching ministry that can guide her right here and right now?
One of the teens in that congregation—a young woman who was brought to the church by a friend and who has just recently professed faith—has a part-time job at a restaurant. As she walks through the doors one morning her supervisor presses a rainbow bracelet into her hand. All around her the other service staff have slipped those bracelets onto their wrists. What is she to do? What guidance has the pastor provided that will meet her in this moment?
One of the men is a department manager at a nearby grocery store. He is handed a new shirt with his name on it and a place to write his pronouns beneath. Does he do it? One of the young women works in an office setting in which the entire department has been invited to a wedding shower for a same-sex couple. Does she attend? One of the men is a high school coach and is being told that he must welcome biologically male students onto the girls’ team and treat them as if they are female. What does he do?
All of these situations are happening today. They are happening in my church and, I rather suspect, in yours as well. Yet most of these situations are ones that pastors are sheltered from by the nature of their vocation. So many of the pressures of the modern workplace are absent in the church office. And even if a pastor did find himself in a similar situation, his refusal to participate would not jeopardize his position or diminish his reputation in his place of work. To the contrary, the congregation would actually honor him for his stance. People who heard what he did might actually begin to come to his church because of it.
So what is a pastor to do?
Mostly, I think pastors have to be aware—aware that their lives may be very different from those of many of their church members and aware that their instinctual response to a situation may reflect the security of their position, not the jeopardy of another person’s.
I also think pastors could take a cue from their colleague I mentioned earlier and do what they can to understand the current environment. This may mean they make regular visits to workplaces or it may mean they just spend time with people to hear what challenges they face. Either way, that kind of information will helpfully equip them.
And then pastors can speak about these situations with care and precision, admitting complexity rather than assuming the solution is always straightforward. The pastor can make sure he’s considered the social cost to a 16-year-old girl who won’t slip that bracelet over her wrist, the financial cost to the man who may get fired for declining to use the pronoun “she” to describe a man.
None of these factors will necessarily change the counsel, and neither should they. Right is right and wrong is wrong regardless of the context and regardless of the cost. We are not relativists. Yet though these factors may not change the counsel, they may shape it or condition the way it is delivered. The pastor’s greater knowledge will allow him to think more carefully, to pray more earnestly, to search the Scripture more exhaustively, and to empathize more truly. It will keep him from inadvertently assuming that his situation is normative rather than exceptional.
We have arrived at a cultural moment in which Christians often need extra counsel and encouragement as they navigate new realities and tough complexities. We have arrived at a moment in which simply living according to Christian principles in the workplace and simply speaking biological truth may exact a substantial cost. I’ve often heard it said that the easiest thing in the world is to spend other people’s money. But it’s just as easy to give people counsel that may cost them dearly but cost you nothing. I know I can be prone to this and suspect other pastors can as well. Hence, my encouragement to myself and to others is to do our absolute utmost to count the cost—to count the cost for the people we love, the people we are called to serve, the people we are called to teach and guide.