A few months ago, I spoke at a vigil in downtown Chapel Hill, N.C., put on by the N.C, Justice Network where we mourned the deaths of those in our state that couldn’t get the health care they needed. We mourned but also brought attention to the fact that our state could expand Medicaid coverage and, in doing so, save people’s lives. I said we’d know just how much we loved our neighbors by how courageously we took on the pharmaceutical and insurance companies that prioritize their profits over our well-being. When the wind blew out the candles we’d lit, I reminded everyone that sometimes God shines light in the world to give us hope, but other times God moves like the wind.
In various Christian settings, I’ve heard more experienced ministers talk about the need of balancing “prophetic” work with “pastoral” work in ministry. As best I can tell, this means balancing public, politically challenging speech and action with that which is intimate and comforting. A pastor ought to counter a sermon that brings up the injustices of X with a coffee hour with congregants to discuss contemplative spirituality. They should balance showing up at a protest for Black Lives Matter with time spent in one-on-one conversations with people. Sometimes it’s one pastor that has to split these roles, other times it’s divided up among a church staff with one minister playing the role of the firebrand prophet and another playing the role of kind-hearted shepherd.
But why do we do this? Why split public and societal critique from personal care and comfort? Whose ends does this split serve? One way I’ve heard this justified is in terms of challenge and comfort. “You can’t just beat people over the head with how bad things are all the time.” “People need to know that you care about them.”
A few months after the vigil, I talked with a new congregant over coffee about what drew her to the church and we got to know each other a bit better. This is typical “pastoral” work in my experience. I slowly turned the conversation to finances as I hoped she’d apply for our church’s ministry in which we pay off one another’s debts. As we talked about the anxiety that she and her family felt living paycheck to paycheck, I assured her that it was OK, that many in our church saw their paychecks evaporate each month, myself included. We talked about her family, and at one point she told me how nervous they all were for when her diabetic daughter turns 18 and ages off of Medicaid. She’s worried about being unable to afford supplies. I assured her that our church wouldn’t let that happen. I told her that a world in which a few people can make absurd amounts of money off her daughter’s worry is not the world God desires for us. It wasn’t far off from what I said that evening at the vigil in Chapel Hill.
In an age of such drastic income and wealth inequality, what makes something “prophetic” or “pastoral” often boils down to how rich people feel about it.
Pastors might have plenty of good reasons for this. Our churches need the gifts of our congregants to do the work of ministry. But we should probably think about the fact that when we make our definitions of “pastoral” and “prophetic” dependent on the challenge or comfort that wealthy people feel and then base our ministries on that definition, we tell the world and the people in the pews that we prioritize the feelings and status of the rich over everyone else.
Ultimately, I worry about what this balance communicates about the nature of the gospel. The gospel says that God’s love radically upends and drives out every instance of unloving not only within us personally, but throughout the systems we create to maintain our world. For some, that upending offers a good deal of comfort in the knowledge that the pains of this present world need not last forever. For others, it’s a direct attack on their status and the unjust means that have propped it up and given them their sense of security.
Perhaps we’d do well to start talking more about prophetic comfort and pastoral challenge. Maybe instead of worrying about who will get angry at a sermon lamenting our for-profit health care system, we should think about who needs to hear that word in the face of their economic anxiety. Instead of thinking about getting a cup of coffee with a wealthy congregant to assure them about the direction of the church, we should consider how to gently tell them that their wealth endangers their soul. The fact that each of these sounds odd says a good deal about how many of us think about who the church exists for.
The demand that a better, different world is possible and that God might desire it, can serve as both prophetic critique and pastoral comfort. Whether or not someone has ears to hear that as a challenge or comfort likely depends, as it did in Jesus’ day, on how they relate to material wealth in the present.