A few years ago, when Jane and the girls and I were away all summer on sabbatical, members of our church decided to build us a porch. They knew I loved porch sitting, and since our house did not have a porch, they thought it was a great idea to give us one. We agreed.
Since then, our porch has become the major gathering place for any social occasion at our house, none more so than the churchwide Easter potluck, with kids and adults everywhere, food, laughter, a slamming screen door (“You kids make up your minds -- either in or out!”), and lots of conversation and stories among everyone lazily rocking back and forth in the rocking chairs and swing.
We all love the porch.
From time to time, I’ll get a phone call from someone saying, “Are you going to be on your porch this evening?” To which I’ll reply, “Yeah, I’ll be there. Probably be out about 7.”
Sure enough, around 7 the caller will come walking up and join me on the porch. We’ll visit, catch up on news, likely I’ll tell a story or two, and eventually the visitor will get to whatever it is that’s bothering him or her. We’re not in a hurry; it is porching, after all.
What I’ve learned is that conversation on the porch is important ministry. If the caller comes to my study at the church for an appointment, it is called “counseling.” But if someone drops by my porch and we sit in the rocking chairs, it is just two friends having a conversation. We’re visiting.
Both counseling and visiting are significant ministries, but they are different. Part of the difference is need -- sometimes the formality of the church building is more appropriate. But sometimes the difference has to do with different visions of the church and the role of the pastor.
The standard and dominant view is that the office of pastor has clearly defined boundaries and roles. For example, I was trained both in seminary and in college that the pastor should never make friends within the congregation. Having friends, in this view, is fraught with peril at every turn: the dangers of showing favoritism or having cliques within the church, the temptation to break confidences, the undermining of pastoral authority and so on.
I was taught that the pastor’s friendship is with God -- and the rest of the church is on their own. I was taught that relationships of mutuality are different from those of service as a pastor, and that ordination creates a holy distance between the pastor and the people.
Maybe so. But maybe not.
What if the church is understood to be a community of friends? And what if the pastor is one of those friends? What if the hierarchy of the church is not as pronounced and formal as we might think? Perhaps the church is more like the body of Christ, with the different members connected to one another in Christ, but with each member having certain spiritual gifts, pastoring being one of those gifts.
I realize that I’m talking about two versions of the role of the pastor and models of the church in church teaching: Reformed and Anabaptist. But my Baptist polity has long mixed those two contrasting perspectives.
In practice, a new pastor has to earn her or his pastoral credibility within the first year or so. A congregation wants to see whether the pastor visits and cares and shows up. Do you listen to the people, and are you accessible?
They’ll know whether you can lead worship and preach from the day they voted to call you. But will you be their pastor? That’s a question that is answered over time. Beneath the issues of how well you visit and do pastoral care is the question of spiritual gifts. Are you a member of the body of Christ with the gift of being a pastor or not? In that first year, the congregation is discerning your calling and gifts.
But what does all that have to do with friendship and porches? In John 15:12-17, Jesus calls the church a community of friends who love one another. To me, the primary responsibility of a pastor is the nurturing and growing of such a community of mutual love. And that includes the pastor. We’re in it, too. We’re not separate or distanced from this community of friends. We’re immersed in it; we participate in it. I believe we call it incarnation.
The pastor’s authority comes out of this mutual love and friendship, not in spite of it. Over time, the members of the congregation come to know the pastor as a friend -- a friend who prays for them, loves them, cares for them, shows up and works alongside them, and listens to them, while also being a friend who is immersed in God.
When Sunday morning rolls around, the 20 minutes of preaching comes out of this mutual friendship, of listening to the people and to God. My authority comes from being a friend who sometimes shares a strong word of challenge, and other times, a word of comfort in the midst of heartbreaking grief. They listen, not because I hold an office, but because we love one another and they recognize the gift and work of the Spirit in and through me. That’s why they come and visit on my porch.
Cultural critic and writer bell hooks says, “In the days of my girlhood, when everyone sat on their porches, usually on their swings, it was the way we all became acquainted with one another, the way we created community.”
She goes on: “A perfect porch is a place where the soul can rest.”
That sounds right to me. Sitting on my porch among friends, our souls can rest.