Sunday, December 17, 2006

Stories From a Week of Ministry

I was invited to a parishioner's company Christmas party yesterday. We met at his house and caravanned: him, his wife, his sister-in-law, his wife's cousin and her family, me and Mrs. Jeff, and another family friend. This party had been built up for us beforehand as something much bigger than standing around an office drinking punch, so after a morning of tidying up before Sunday, I gave myself permission to head off and join in the festivities.

It was held in one of the convention centers of downtown Akron, with an entire large conference room dedicated to the proceedings: tables upon tables of food, air hockey and foosball tables, inflated bounce-around-bungee-game-things, a caricature artist, and Santa Claus. They weren't kidding. This was a huge deal. The company can afford it, and they need to with their amount of employees and loved ones.

I ate a whole bunch of the wrong things: a cheesesteak sandwich, chicken wings, ice cream, and Mountain Dew. And it was fantastic.

There was a chocolate fountain. A freaking chocolate fountain! It made Mrs. Jeff all giddy. After beginning to digest the greasy selection, she announced, "I am now going to get a chocolate-covered strawberry!" And she single chocolate-covered strawberry. It was so cute.

Most of the afternoon otherwise was spent camping out at one of the tables in this huge hall, relaxing and talking. The two youngest members of our party came and went, dividing their time between eating more food and then jumping on things.

We've become fairly close with this extended family, and at one point I had to muse silently about what the Pastoral Boundary Police would think about all this. I can't believe that even the most staunch book-following proponent of healthy boundaries would prefer that I pass on this opportunity to spend time with church members, so long as when the time comes I am still able to function in the role of their pastor later on.

Avoiding church-related topics is the hardest for me. It comes up. People figure that the pastor is there, so it's okay (or especially desirable). In such a social context I try to avoid it or drop out of the conversation. It basically works. Sometimes I can't help myself.

This type of situation makes me think about just how much pastors learn once out of seminary. Sure, you're told to keep your church and friends separate. You're told to maintain a clear line between Pastor and Regular Guy in terms of identity and function. You've been called to a special role in these people's lives, so you must remember that whenever you're around any of them. So when the time comes and you're invited to a Christmas party with lots of unhealthy food and a chance to sit around and share fellowship with them, the answer becomes not "Don't go," but "How can I maintain my role and function in this place?" AND "What is really wrong with me being friends with these people, and how can I be both friend and pastor?"

The night before, we went to see one of the church's kids in the stage version of "A Christmas Story." He'd landed the lead role as Ralphie, so after some string-pulling by his parents we were able to get two tickets to a sold-out show. We couldn't sit together, mind you. Mrs. Jeff was four or five rows up from the stage on the left side, and I was in the very last seat up by the lighting booth on the right. There really was no bad seat, so that was okay.

I hadn't seen the movie in so long (I'm talking 20 years or so), but I'd somehow remembered all the best scenes: the tongue on the light post, "Oooooh fuuuuuuuudge," beating up Scott Farkas, the leg lamp, the decoder ring, the bunny suit, sliding down after seeing Santa. Afterwards we got to go up and greet the cast, and I asked for my kid's autograph. He asked me which scene was my favorite, and I responded with the "Ooooooh fuuuuuuuudge" scene. Later on I wondered if that was the best answer for a pastor to give an 11-year-old. Just before that, his dad had commented that he'd bought his son a t-shirt with that saying on it, and afterwards they'd realized he'd never be able to wear it to school because of the implication. So in light of that, I figured it was okay.

So it really seems like my most memorable moments as a pastor this week occurred outside the church walls. To a certain extent, that's actually where they should happen. In anticipation of Christmas, that's where they're bound to happen. I say that because, aside from the kids' program and special services, people tend to be more occupied with things other than committee meetings or other institutional hallmarks. I've found that they want you to include the candlelighting and "Silent Night" on Christmas Eve, and other than that, just don't screw it up, Pastor. It's a season where ministry is done out with people, because you won't get them to the building other than for that handful of traditions that the church is expected to contribute to such a "magical" season. So I go see kids in plays and I go eat chicken wings at convention centers and am thankful that I can be a presence for them in less traditional but equally, if not more, important ways.