He doesn’t come to worship every week. He shows up randomly. He sits in the back. But we’re a small church, and from up front, four steps up on that chancel no less, I can see everything. Sometimes I remind the congregation, especially on mornings when they’re all studying their feet or sharing snacks in the pews (without offering to share with me), “You know I can see you from up here, right?” So I see when he is here. And every time he shows, I look down at my sermon manuscript and offer a quick, last minute prayer. God, give it something.
Because Mr. Back Pew is a scientist. And a deep thinker. And he will look at me with a blank expression on his face the entire 10-12 minutes I am up there, and sing along with the hymns, and close his eyes in prayer, and then wait until the very end of the by-the-door handshake line to speak with me. Every. Time. He will wait for every last person to come through and hug me and tell me about their week or their school project or their recent home improvements or their granny’s latest ailment, and then he will wait some more. And finally when the line has dwindled and everyone else is downstairs munching on cookies and sucking down church basement coffee, he’ll approach, always with a smile and a warm grip, and he’ll drop the question. He’ll share what he heard today, what he appreciated, what it brought up for him, a book or a memory the sermon triggered, and then, more often than not, he’ll close with a question. And it’s almost always a question that stumps me. That I have to ask if I can look it up and get back to him. That I have to dig deep into my own preparation, education, or faith formation to even begin to address. Because Mr. Back Pew is serious about his faith exploration. It matters deeply to him. And to me. And after a line full of people saying, “nice sermon, pastor” or “thanks for that, pastor” or on my bad preaching days, “nice to see you today, pastor,” I find myself anxiously and excitedly anticipating Mr. Back Pew’s questions, comments, and challenges.
When this congregation sat in those pews and voted to elect me, er, I mean, to call me as their pastor, they gave me a whole lot of power. I mean, again, we’re a small congregation, so it’s not like I’m taking over the town or anything. But they give me a microphone and a bible and an hour each week to tell them what I think God is saying to us right now. To share how I experience God’s love in this sacred text and in the context of our community. Now, because I take that call and that privilege seriously, I am careful with that power. Or I try to be. Actually, if I am being honest, I am most often overwhelmed by that power and privilege.
And it is because of that, that I adore when Mr. Back Pew comes up and challenges me. His questions have changed my preaching preparation process. I am a better preacher because of his nudging. Likewise, I am proud of the moment when Mr. Old School told me to my face, “I DO NOT agree with what you are doing,” and then stayed in the conversation with me long enough that we could hug it out. I give thanks to God for the conversation with The Couple Who Walked Out During a Sermon, who came back and sat in my office and shared how a sermon made them personally feel. I love That Kid who raises her hand in the middle of a very well thought through children’s sermon, to crush my entire theology with one simple and brilliant wondering.
These people make me a better pastor. They challenge me to think deeper. They force me to check my sources and to check my ego. I am a more thoughtful pastor because they hold me accountable. I am a more creative pastor because they challenge my opinions. I am a more generous pastor because they share their perspectives. I am a more reliable pastor because they demand truth from me.
I was elected, er… called, to serve and lead a diverse group of people who don’t all think like me, live like me, or believe like me. The only way I know serve and lead these folks faithfully, is to listen to all of them. To create space for them to question and challenge me. To take those challenges seriously. And open myself to the ways those very challenges, questions, concerns, and call outs are turning me into a better leader.
In a time when so many of our elected leaders are hiding from those who disagree with them, when the leader who sits in the highest office in our nation is using the very power of that office to try and shut down those who might challenge his decisions, comments, and choices, I pray for all our Mr. Back Pews- be they in the media, be they in one political party or another, be they in community organizations, be they in houses of worship, be they artists, be they our neighbors in the streets with banners and signs…. Go on, Mr. Back Pew. Keep questioning. Keep exploring. Keep challenging. Keep calling it out. Keep demanding accountability. And keep building better leaders. Please. We need you.
Oh, and may our leaders be so bold as to listen…
Rev. Erin Counihan serves as pastor at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in St. Louis, MO. She is a contributor to the RevGals book, There’s a Woman in the Pulpit, and blogs at http://www.somewhatreverend.wordpress.com.
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