The Most Important Pastoral Practice For Our Time

A few months ago, I started over: a new church community in a new place. I went from familiar to unfamiliar – from years of developing social capital to being the new guy. People are, understandably, graciously suspicious of everything I say and do. Disorientation has been the predominant theme for me these days.

During this season of disorientation, I have been hovering around the question, “What is going on?”

In asking this question, I’m seeking understanding of the histories, experiences, and emotions flowing through the root system of the community – the kinds of things that have shaped and are presently shaping the community’s ethos and self-understanding.

I’m in the thick of the trees, and will always remain on the ground among the trees (because I am a tree, after all). But I’m finding it necessary and helpful to ask the kind of questions of the trees that help me discern what kind of forest this is.

In a world where the conditions that supported long-held assumptions about church and leadership are shifting, I’m convinced that asking “what is going on?” is not only necessary for finding your bearings in the midst of disorientation, it is a fundamental pastoral practice.

So, it’s not just a question. It’s a question that encapsulates a way of being present among a community – a posture of non-coercive leadership – a practice that makes space for discerning how God is working in Christ by the Spirit on the corporate scale. Asking 'what is going on?' is a fundamental pastoral practice. Click To Tweet

A New Way of Pastoral Listening

I say, “on the corporate scale,” because most pastoral training in listening for spiritual formation is limited to individual encounters or small group enclaves. Habits of individually-oriented pastoral listening are crucial to spiritual formation, of course. But this practice alone, because it happens in discrete instances, does not get at the larger socio-cultural forces shaping a community.

Without the ability to name and critically engage the larger stories, histories, and social forces shaping a community, spiritual awareness can be limited by the echo chambers of individual experience, and communal discernment can be short-circuited by the personal whims and pathologies of a solitary leader or dominated by the loudest voices.

In other words, it’s possible to dig into personal issues yet remain unaware of the most significant dynamics shaping us. It’s possible to have visionary leadership yet remain lodged in unhealthy, de-formative habits. We can dig into personal issues yet remain unaware of significant dynamics shaping us. Click To Tweet

What Happens When We Don’t Listen?

Two oft-cited examples of corporate-scale forces that shape communities are technology and capitalism. Both technology and capitalism are embedded in the dynamics of our daily lives – features of the kind of “forest” we are – informing how we make our way through the world and relate one to another. Both form an inextricable part of the story we tell ourselves (and the story told to us) about who we are.

And this is important because we often move along impervious to their formative influence on us, uncritically embracing or rejecting them.

Even more to the point, noticing these and other forces at work discretely in our personal life is one thing (an important step, for sure). But it’s another thing to notice how those forces are shaping our community’s self-understanding and activity, and then to make space for discerning ways of faithful response that are unexpected and disruptive to the status quo.

The danger is that we would remain ignorant of the systemic idolatries that hold us captive and thus have no vision for inhabiting the Gospel in ways that are meaningful in our lived reality. (For instance, notice the difference, for example, between individuals eschewing racist ideas and a community repenting of how it nurtured an environment that privileges some ethnic groups over others.)

I’m also learning that this pastoral practice goes beyond talking about corporate-scale forces (e.g. preaching a persuasive sermon on the evils of consumerism) because I can talk about those things at a distance, in a posture over the community.

I might be right, but how would I know? And even if I am, how would I know what a meaningful response ought to be?

Helpful Questions

Instead of simply talking about things, the pastoral practice of asking, “what is going on?” looks like…


…curiosity grounded in compassion and presence.

My first move as a pastor is not to make declarations, but rather to be among people in the community asking pointed, non-leading, compassionate questions that open space to explore the histories, hopes, and hurts that a community carries in its body. The goal of this process is discerning what forces are at work and seeking meaningful ways to embody the Gospel.

This often looks like holding in tension the official, public narratives the community rehearses about itself (e.g. “We are a bible-based, inclusive church”) with the way people actually narrate their experience and the actual practices that characterize the community’s habits. In this listening process, the “outlier” voices help expose those previously unnamed forces at work, and integrating typically marginalized voices as part of the “normative” narrative can generate new, unexpected ways to embody the Gospel.

Self Understanding

In this process, I must also cultivate self-understanding and an awareness of my subjectivity.

By asking myself the question “what is going on?” I’m learning to name and own the narratives, expectations, and power dynamics that I bring to the community. I don’t pretend to be a neutral observer, and I don’t feign the ability to bring “objective” theological analysis. I come with my own baggage, and my listening and observing is filtered through particular theological assumptions. More than that, I recognize that my very presence among people affects the dynamic in the community.

The goal is not to avoid or transcend these things, but rather to nurture the skill of naming and submitting these realities as part of the discernment process. That means discerning meaningful responses is neither a top-down endeavor, nor a lowest-common-denominator-consensus endeavor, but a thoroughly reflexive process between the community and me under the Spirit.


And even when I do this well, I must also keep in mind that this is not another tool for me to (re)gain control over a community or manage predetermined outcomes. Rather, it is a way of tending to the Spirit’s (often unexpected and spontaneous) formation. It’s possible to be intentionally directed and purposed in this pastoral practice – i.e. seeking a faithful embodiment of the Gospel – without presuming to know what will be uncovered and what form that will take. Pastors: be formed by the question 'what's going on?' Click To Tweet

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