The pastoral memoir allows us to overhear the sounds of the gospel reverberating through the life of another minister. It clarifies or challenges our own reckonings of ministry and provides clues to where in our lives God may be found, or better yet, where God may find us. This is what makes the pastoral memoir so engaging.
But, at the level of Christian practice, what do pastoral memoirs offer to the busy pastor and active layperson in Christian ministry? How can this particular expression inform the life and work of those who minister in the name of Jesus Christ? How does the pastoral memoir help shape the way a pastor sees the world and everything he or she does?
While very few of us can tell our stories as deftly as Nora Gallagher (Things Seen and Unseen; Practicing Resurrection) or Barbara Brown Taylor (Leaving Church), or as insightfully as Richard Lischer (Open Secrets), their gifts can enrich our own. Their stories can amplify the ways that we imagine ministry. Sifted through theology, scripture, and church tradition, their memories of ministry can help us to more fully understand our own. By lending us their vision, perhaps we can more fully see below the tedious surface of ministry into the depths where shining insights flash and dart away into the future. Maybe we can come closer to saying what is true about our own callings by listening to their voices.
So how can the working pastor cultivate an imagination that helps him or her see ministry with greater creativity? If it is true, as Garrett Greene says, that “to save sinners, God seizes them by the imagination,” how does the pastor remain open to such “God-seizures.”1 Here are several ways that the pastoral memoir can stir the narrative imagination of the pastor.
Listen to Your Life
Toward the end of his memoir Now and Then, Presbyterian minister and writer Frederick Buechner says, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”2 It is an invitation and reminder to “see grace” in the comings and goings of our lives as pastors. Something about ministry obscures vision, occludes hearing. We slowly lose the ability to see the subtle signs of God’s presence in our own lives and in the lives of those around us. Perhaps it is the relentless routine of a regular weekly cycle that dims the senses. Too many sermons, too little time. Maybe it is the disheartening discovery that every congregation has its “nay-sayers,” those who wouldn’t believe God is moving if the ark washed up on their doorsteps. Whatever the cause, pastors can grow deaf to the sounds of grace—so deaf we stop listening altogether. Here is where the memoir provides aid.
The memoir enchants theologically; it helps us to “name grace.”3 The pastoral memoir points us to where and how grace appears in the life of the pastor. Like Barbara Brown Taylor, who thinks, upon hearing the honking sounds of wild geese flying overhead, “I could not have asked for more blessed assurance that my life had really changed.”4 Or, as Heidi Neumark says, when seeing how the love between a severely burned father and his children gives the father hope to endure, “Connection is everything. Relationship to God and each other is life itself.”5 The grace that sustains ministry happens right where pastors and laity live. The pastoral memoir points us to the sacraments, to the rowdiest of church meetings, to the hospital room and the parking lot. All are sites of God’s presence if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Imagine that.
The Thread of Revelation
The pastoral memoir looks back at a season or lifetime of ministry and watches how the story unfolds. With a long backward look, the pastor takes her bearings for the present and future. This careful look at one’s own story deepens the imagination of the pastor, especially the pastor who has been floating listlessly upon the surface of a ministry that was once flowing with life. The memoir can spark the imagination of the pastor by helping her discover what Eudora Welty called the “continuous thread of revelation”6 that courses through the forgotten and neglected channels of one’s life. As Taylor recalls, after being pushed into a swimming pool full of other lost and found human beings, “Bobbing in that healing pool with all those other flawed beings of light, I looked around and saw them as I had never seen them before, while some of them looked at me the same way. The long wait had come to an end. I was in the water at last.”7 Through the imagination, the pastor sees her calling not so much as a lonely, sluggish drift through time but as a continuous, life-giving thread of meaning that joins her together with all the rest of humanity.
As the pastor scans whole chapters of ministry and life, redemptive themes emerge for both the minister and the congregation. As Garrett Keizer says, “I have tried to listen, as I believe Jesus did, for the stories that can become parables.”8 Pastoral memoirs help us imagine or re-imagine our own ministry as story-shaped, parable-like, and pregnant with meaning. Christian ministry is not a random series of events that we tack upon the pegboard of life or work. Ministry occurs within a story about God and us. If we listen well to that story, we will hear the sounds of a continuous thread of revelation, like familiar voices drifting from a darkened porch at nightfall.
Narrated by Scripture
The turn to narrative has been one of the most fruitful avenues in biblical study over the past 40 years. Without completely rejecting historical-critical approaches to scripture, many have begun to understand the biblical text as a living story with God as the central character. As believers who live (and die) by this story, the aim is to allow scripture to “read us,” to find where and how the Bible draws us into its story and inscribes our lives with gospel sense, usually understood in some way as an alternative story to the dominate stories—economic, social, political—of contemporary culture. The approach is appealing.
The problem is that many pastors and preachers don’t quite know what to do with narrative, whether in preaching, spiritual direction, pastoral care, or administration. Some of us have been preaching “about” scripture for so long and so unimaginatively that we no longer hear scripture preaching about us. We approach the scriptural text as if it is an object to be dissected and explained rather than as a Spirit-moving story that invites us to walk around among its characters and scenes and find our surprising place.
Here the pastoral memoirs provide direction. Neumark and Lischer’s stories are especially helpful. Their memoirs show us pastors and congregations who allow themselves to be read by scripture. For example, Neumark relates how the story of the widow of Zarephath (I Kings 17) gave shape to the stories of single mothers within her own congregation—mothers struggling to find enough food to feed their children while remaining faithful. From Zarephath to the South Bronx, scripture weaves its world of meaning. The pastor, as Neumark says, is sometimes carried along reluctantly in the belly of a whale. But if she is willing to trust scripture and the Spirit who breathes life upon it, she may find herself beached upon new, imaginative shores of pastoral and biblical understanding that will enrich her entire ministry.
Seasons of the Gospel
Many of the writers of contemporary pastoral memoirs delight in the seasons of the Christian year. Nora Gallagher, an Episcopal lay m
inister and writer, structures her memoir, Things Seen and Unseen, around the entire Christian calendar, beginning with Advent and ending with Ordinary Time.9 Similarly, Diana Butler Bass’s Strength for the Journey gives sustained attention to the Christian seasons, especially worship services during the holy days of Lent and Easter. At one Easter vigil service at Christ Church in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, she sensed a “moment when the boundaries between heaven and earth thinned,” where the congregation that gathered on Easter eve knew themselves to “be God’s pilgrim people, wanderers following God’s way justice.”10 Worship can do that. Following the liturgical calendar through the seasons of the gospel, worship draws us into the entire drama of salvation where we move with Christ and the historic church through birth, life, death, and resurrection.
Such liturgical immersion, so finely described in many of the pastoral memoirs, can deepen the narrative imagination of the pastor. This may be especially true for the Protestant pastors who come from less liturgically oriented traditions, but it can also renew the imagination of all those pastors for whom the liturgical seasons have become repetitive and dull. The seasons of the Christian year and the particular biblical stories that are associated with them can soak our imaginations with symbols and images that flow refreshingly through our preaching, worship leadership, and Christian education. The challenge is to imaginatively locate ourselves and the congregation within the larger story of God, and to allow the seasons within that story to carry us along into the fullness of time.
To Do Justice, Love Kindness
Imagination thieves stalk the halls of many churches. One of the most lethal of these bandits demands institutional maintenance so persistently that it leeches away the minister’s passion for biblical justice. For many clergy, especially in mainline Protestant traditions, where middle- and upper-middle-class economic concerns predominate, God’s desire for humanity voiced by the biblical prophet, Amos—to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God—becomes almost inaudible amid the cacophonous (and frequently desperate) shouts to “raise the budget” and “build more parking spaces.” Whether you pastor a small church trying to stay alive or a large church trying to grow bigger, a lot of time and money is spent on physical plants and bottom lines, while the imagination for ministry is held hostage. Meanwhile, the poor continue to work for less than living wage, if they work at all, and those without any health care multiply daily. All this happens in a country that spends billions of dollars a year to fund an ill-advised war in a country torn apart by civil strife. Yet the church’s call for biblical justice is muted throughout the land. It’s almost enough to make the downhearted pastor agree with the iconoclastic Will Campbell when he says, especially with the church in mind, “All institutions, and I mean all of ’em, are fundamentally inimical to what Christ was about on this earth.”11
Yet allowing oneself to be robbed of hope, conceding to despair, has always been one of the greatest temptations of the faithful. What is needed is a new imagination, a renewal of the mind (Romans 12: 2) that helps the pastor and congregation to see their mission in a new light. Here, surprisingly, the pastoral memoir can help.
There is no telling how many times Dorothy Day’s plainly written memoir The Long Loneliness has strengthened hope and passion for biblical justice. Henri Nouwen’s confession-like journals of his sojourns in Latin America, Gracias, and his reflections upon servant leadership among the L’Arche community in Toronto, In the Name of Jesus, have helped ground many Christians in practices that wed justice with mercy.12
We discover similar sources for renewal in the pastoral memoirs of Neumark and Keizer. These memoirs are not so much exercises in personal introspection as they are reflections upon the challenges of living out a faithful ministry amid the complexities and injustices of the late 20th and 21st centuries, whether in rural Vermont or the bustling Bronx. They do not offer a prescription for how pastors and congregations can remain focused upon mission and worship, but they do provide moving accounts of how their particular congregations have attempted to do so. When hearing one of Neumark’s many stories about how she and her congregation began to take the ministry of Transfiguration into the rough-and-tumble streets of the South Bronx, if we listen carefully we can hear a gentle summons saying, “So what would that look like around our church? Who needs Holy Communion outside the walls of this building, and how do we come along beside them?” That’s how imagination works. That’s how the streams of new life start flowing.
Dorothy Day concludes The Long Loneliness by saying, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.” It is a lovely image of community. Christ breaks and redeems the long loneliness of ministry by the gift of human community in which “We know Him in the breaking of the bread, and we know each other . . . and we are not alone any more.”13
The last and best gift of the pastoral memoir may be companions in ministry who stir our own imaginations. Reading the memoir, we see the kind of human community that nurtures and challenges the writer. These pastoral memoirs are not about isolated clergy but about pastors who are called and shaped by particular communities—like the congregation of Grace-Calvary Church welcoming their new rector, Barbara Brown Taylor, by giving her and her husband two rocking chairs. “I was being invited to sit down and stay a while, which I fully intended to do,” says Taylor.14 Or like Richard Lischer being told by one of the Lutheran elders during his first meeting with the New Cana, Illinois congregation, “I didn’t vote for you, but I know we will have a very good church with you as our pastor.”15 Now that either pushes the pastor toward genuine community or sends him running in the other direction.
Real communities are populated by real characters who accompany the pastor in ministry—characters like the elderly Jeffrey in Keizer’s Dresser of Sycamore Trees, who has cerebral palsy. He says to the unsuspecting Keizer, “If I were cured tomorrow at seven-fifteen, it would be the greatest tragedy of my life. Because knowing my weakness, I know I would forget about God by four.”16 Or characters like Dodie Little in Trinity Church in Santa Barbara, California, who says to Diana Butler Bass in Strength for the Journey that the reason Trinity was transformed was that “we were forced to look at each other, and we really saw each other for the first time.”17
These are the types of characters who walk beside pastors in congregations. They can be found in every sanctuary and fellowship hall where Christians gather. Ministry does not occur in solitude, though solitude can certainly nourish the spiritual and emotional life of the pastor. Ministry occurs among the characters whom we know as the people of God, the communion of saints. The way the pastoral memoir presents them helps us imagine the “characters” of our own congregations as part of the cast of a much larger, divine drama, with each character playing his or her part. The imaginative companions of the memoir give way to the true companions who surround us in ministry. With them we can converse, argue, disagree, pray, and forgive. With them, in true community, we seek to love and serve the risen Lord.
Who can say, in the end, what will seize the narrative imagination of the pastor, the student of ministry, or the Christian layperson? But for all types of leaders in all situations, the pastoral memoir can offer direction. If the narrative imagination is sluggish, the pastoral memoir pumps new zest into ministry. It can help clergy and laity see and hear fresh stories of other congregations that are realistically imaginable. The characters of Lischer’s or Neumark’s memoirs, for example, can “in-spire” (breathe spirit into) the minister and the congregation. On the other hand, if the narrative imagination is already revved up, the memoir can provide additional spark for the race of faith. It offers energized companions and parable-like stories to accompany us along the way.
Either way, the pastoral memoirs available today show and tell how the stories, characters, and settings of ministry all work together—if we watch them closely—to reveal the continuous thread of revelation. In a day where it sometimes seems that the louder we shout the less God is heard, if the pastoral memoir stirs our imagination enough to steadily perceive the tracings of God within ministry, that would be gift enough.
NOTES1. Garrett Green, Imagining God: Theology and the Religious Imagination (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), 149.
2. Frederick Buechner, Now and Then (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), 87.
3. See Mary Catherine Hilkert’s Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination (New York: Continuum, 1997) for an excellent exploration of the sacramental imagination and ministry.
4. Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 63.
5. Heidi B. Neumark, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003)), xvii.
6. Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 68–69.
7. Taylor, Leaving Church,120.
8. Garrett Keizer, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees: The Finding of a Ministry (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 50.
9. Nora Gallagher, Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith (New York: Vintage Books, 1998).
10. Diana Butler Bass, Strength for the Journey: A Pilgrimage of Faith in Community (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002), 79.
11. Will Campbell in Marshall Frady’s Southerners: A Journalist’s Odyssey (New York: New American Library, 1980), 373.
12. Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness: An Autobiography (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1952); Henri J. M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (New York: Crossroad, 1997); and Nouwen, Gracias! A Latin American Journal (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983).
13. Day, The Long Loneliness, 285–286.
14. Taylor, Leaving Church, 90.
15. Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery (New York: Broadway Books, 2001), 20.
16. Keizer, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees, 10.
17. Bass, Strength for the Journey, 202.