Ask Pastor Paul

One of the great challenges of preaching — and perhaps ministry more generally — is getting outside the ecclesial bubble that congregational leaders live in.

We may not create that bubble, but it’s there. That is, when people meet with us, talk with us, relate to us, most of those interactions are colored by the fact that they know we are church leaders, a.k.a. professional Christians. Let me explain.

Recent studies in psychology and sociology, particularly with regard to the subject of identity construction — have demonstrated that far from operating with a single, seamless identity, most of us have multiple identities shaped very much by our immediate context and situation. That means we have a work-self, a home-self, a school-self (if you’re in school), a religious- or church-self, a civic-self and so on. These various identities are held together by some deep and abiding stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, but they are also fairly distinct. (Ever notice how you act differently in your parents’ home than in your own, or how your conversation — idioms you use, jokes you tell — differ from work to church?)

The challenge of professional ministry, therefore, is to keep in mind that the person you see presented to you on Sunday morning, or at Monday’s church council or session meeting, or while visiting someone in their home or the hospital, isn’t their full self. There are other dimensions to who they are, what they are concerned about and hope for, what they dream of and aspire to. One way to get to know more about our parishioners, of course, is to visit them in the various venues — their homes, places or work or volunteer activity, schools, etc.

Another is to read. To read beyond the theological journal and exegetical website (!) and take in what our people are taking in, paying attention to the questions they and the larger culture are asking. Toward that end, I want to point you to a new column written by the editor of the Religion section of the Huffington Post, Paul Raushenbush, called (appropriately) “Ask Pastor Paul.” In this column he answers questions about religion, the life of faith, and spirituality more generally that have been submitted by readers of HP. Often he’ll choose a representative question or two that sums up many of the letters and queries he’s received.

The columns to date are well written, carefully thought out, and all that you’d expect from a capable minister and editor. But they’re also just plain fascinating in the picture of the varied religious and spiritual lives people lead today. And by “people,” I mean our people. A lot of the folks who have written so far — and I suspect they are on the younger end of the age spectrum but haven’t verified that — grew up in the church and are struggling to reconcile the tradition they received and the lives they now lead and experiences they’ve had. This is, of course, precisely the demographic that church leaders have been most concerned about. Because while in previous generations we simply assumed that young people would eventually “come back to church” — typically once they got married and had children — we now know that’s not happening anymore. And when most people leave a congregation, it’s not actually to go to another (we assume more conservative) congregation, but simply because they don’t find their faith particularly meaningful.

For all these reasons I’d suggest checking out Paul’s columns. I suspect that you won’t always agree with his responses. But I can almost guarantee that you’ll find them helpful they challenge some of our assumptions, inform us greatly about the questions people are asking, and help us leap out of — at least for a few minutes — the ecclesial bubbles we find ourselves in. Happy reading!

You can find Paul Raushenbush’s latest column here.

Check here for an index of Paul’s earlier columns and other writing on the Huffington Post, check here.