Through Perils Unknown: Thoughts of a Seasoned Pastor in a New Call

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Lori Cornell, longtime editor of our Crossings text studies, reflects today on her opening months of service as Lead Pastor of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Spokane, Washington. She took a call there last summer. We thank her for the abundance of insight, both theological and pastoral, that she shares with us here.

Peace and Joy,

The Crossings Community

Through Perils Unknown

by Lori Cornell

When it comes to uncomfortable pastoral situations, my first impulse is to fix the problem rather than sit in the discomfort of emotions. Given the opportunity, I’d much rather scotch-tape together people’s broken plans and dreams with kind (but weak) words, than observe where the tear began or explore what life is like now that it no longer can be pieced back together easily.

Lori Cornell

That’s why I surprised myself this past November, in the third month of a new call, when I asked church members to sit with me for coffee or tea and tell me about their lives. The sign-up list filled immediately, with others lining up for time to talk. 

I told my congregants I was eager to know them and, evidently, they want to be known.

In the past month, I have heard multiple stories of tragic, sudden widowhood; affairs that became long-time marriages; church politics that left no room for loving pastoral care; divorce; the generational anguish of parents visiting mental health issues on their children; infertility; grandparents longing but reluctant to share their faith but afraid to alienate their children; career-oriented empty nesters who jettisoned or lost their jobs when the pandemic hit; and so much more.

I could never have imagined entertaining such substantial conversations early in my ministry. For one thing, I despise small talk, and I cringe at the thought of sitting silent with a stranger. And then there is my persistent fear that people’s problems will be more than I can handle. They regularly are.

So why did I ask? As the newest clergy member on staff, I didn’t want to be on the outside looking in at my members’ lives. And, as the new lead pastor, I didn’t want people perceive me as the church’s CEO. I also knew that I couldn’t allow my colleagues’ assessment of our members influence my experience. And, most important, I wanted to have the courage to meet my members in their place of pain or confusion or resolve, but with a different proper word of true healing.

In other words, I’ve come to the conclusion that scotch-taping people’s fragmented lives back together—and calling it true pastoral care—is not only ineffective and misguided, it is unfaithful.

Before I was called to St. Mark’s, the congregation received a Lilly Foundation Grant to explore the theme of vocation. In the past two years (pandemic-time mostly), parishioners have been pondering—in small groups, retreats, and video interviews—what it means to live out their faith in Christ in the various arenas of life. To emphasize that theme, they have chosen a familiar collect from Evening Prayer with which to close weekly worship: O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This prayer has become the congregations summons to vocation in the world: a sending prayer for people headed down untrodden paths. For me, this prayer has also become a template for law-gospel analysis of our life together as church. 

As I listen to my parishioners recount the alien work of God in their lives—their grief, shame, burdened consciences—I begin to see the crucible of their lives in which new vocations may be forged. If I’ve discovered one common thread in all our conversations, it has been people’s sense that they are in some new, liminal space where they can’t stay. They need to redefine themselves because of death or divorce or job change. They need to anticipate curves in the road because of an adoption, or an impending an empty nest, or retirement. 

Luther might call this experience—that “something’s gotta give”—the spiritual work of the law. These people know that they can’t recapture the past, but they are not quite sure of where to turn or how to walk into the future.

On the one hand, their challenges make them long for a tidier, more predictable, less vulnerable life. On the other hand, God’s left-hand kingdom has taught them to dismiss such fantasies. In our conversations awkward, emotionally-raw recollections have erupted time and again, exposing loss or humiliation that is so fresh—no matter how ancient the experience—that it needs to be recounted, if I am willing to listen. 

These are the moments in which I have learned to fall silent and recognize how foolish, impractical, and unhelpful my Pollyanna, fix-it impulses have been. These are also the moments in which I’ve found opportunity to apply the balm of the gospel: It’s in these “perils unknown” that Christ shows up, like he showed up in the Upper Room, and at Emmaus, and by the sea when the fish weren’t biting. On these perilous, untrodden paths, Christ is meeting them: his hand ready to lead them, and his love supporting them.

Of course, my parishioners aren’t the only ones who are experiencing ventures of which they cannot see the ending. I too find myself being called down untrodden paths in this moment. I have packed up a home, crossed mountains, unpacked boxes, and found a new hairstylist. God may know what perils lie ahead, but I don’t. 

Still, I find myself grateful that Christ has led me to these people, and I am confident that his love supports me. Because that same love gives me good courage to commit myself to this new community of believers—perils and all. And while I know that no tape will hold these people’s lives together, I trust that the glue of Christ’s gospel can. 

So, for now, I will encourage my new flock to step out with good courage—not knowing where they go but assuring them that Christ’s right hand is leading them, and his love supporting them.

Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
A publication of the Crossings Community