My son is a Boy Scout, and we recently attended a scouting event that helps the boys earn their environmental merit badges. While listening to the geology merit badge instructor, I learned a word that I had never heard. I love learning new words and their meanings. Being trained to think systemically, I’m always looking for ideas, concepts and theories from other scientific disciplines that enhance or contribute to family systems theory. The word is uniformitarianism (a geological term) that suggests the present is the key to the past.
Systems therapists and theorists have historically accentuated just the opposite — that the past is the key to the present. For example, in crafting a genogram, one tracks past generations of one’s family of origin to understand one’s present family system. What a fascinating, paradoxical idea — that thoughtfully pondering what is going on in our present provides a window into our unknown past! Astute geologists can assess current rock structures and deduce what had to happen in the past in order to form them in their current state.
I have long argued that ecclesial leaders must become “ecclesial archaeologists” — thoughtful, scientific observers who carefully dig around in congregations’ historical past in search of old artifacts that explain our congregation’s present language, culture, behaviors and salient narratives.
Uniformitarianism offers a kind of systemic reverse engineering; by looking at what currently exists, we can potentially surmise what must have happened in the past to create our current beliefs, practices, behaviors and narratives. Employing such a fresh and creative lens to view our own families, faith communities and current polarized religious and political climate offers a most valuable tool.
Pastoral geology: A case study
I knew a pastor who grew up in the Northeast but served churches in the South for over 15 years. She eventually returned “home” and accepted a call to a church back in her native New England. She had grown fondly accustomed to the Southern hospitality of her former parishioners who routinely either asked her to Sunday dinner in their homes or invited her family out to lunch after church.
She was both disappointed and flummoxed that her New England congregation seemed completely uninterested in breaking bread with her family and her. Week after week, she wondered if this might be the week that some members would invite her into their homes for fellowship. She would occasionally hint that she was interested in sharing a meal, but no one ever picked up on her innuendoes. When she invited members to her home, she sensed their reluctance and reticence. Eventually, she just gave up, writing it off to a private, standoffish New England culture.
Several years later, she accepted a call to a congregation back in the South. She was cleaning out her desk in the church office when one of her members stopped by to say her last goodbyes. The member asked if, in her leaving, she had any regrets. The pastor paused thoughtfully, and eventually replied, “Yes, I regret that this congregation never invited me into their homes to share fellowship around their tables.”
What happened next the pastor never could have envisioned or predicted. The member replied: “Oh! Didn’t anyone ever tell you?”
Taken completely aback and wondering what she had done to offend so many members, she inquired, “Tell me what?”
The member shared: “Well, when your predecessor first arrived, we routinely invited him into our homes or out to dinner after worship. We had done this with all of our pastors. But every time we asked him he replied, ‘I do not mix business with pleasure.’ He rebuffed our invitations for so many years that we eventually gave up inviting him — believing that it must be some kind of new pastoral boundary thing.”
The pastor sat silently stunned. “Are you serious?” she asked. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
“Well, a number of us just thought that we were not supposed to try to befriend our pastor — that it was viewed as some kind of favoritism thing or something. So we just gave up.”
Can you imagine?
The present is the key to the past.
The pastor did not sleep well that night. She had wrongly assumed all those years that either she had done something to offend her flock or that the culture was just intractably cold. She so missed the warmth of her previous Southern congregations, that she eventually left this church and trekked back South.
She confessed to me that she felt deeply guilty that she never did enough digging to uncover the story behind her flock’s curious behavior. On some level, she intuitively knew that her Northeast cultural excuse never felt completely right because the congregation in which she was raised (the very same culture) routinely invited their pastors over for dinner. Further, other churches she served in the Northeast never behaved this way either.
Had she understood that the present is the key to the past and become a pastoral geologist, she might have been able to uncover this curious narrative and address its unfortunate consequences. She related to me that she believed she actually had the pastoral skills to “uncover the story underneath the curious behavior,” but she never took the initiative to “dig around a little more.” She realized that through appropriate creative curiosity, playful humor and pastoral devilishness she probably could have exposed the mystery and forged new and warmer relationships with her congregation. In fact, she may not have had to seek a different call. The present is the key to the past.
She often wondered: “How did this congregation get this way? I’ve never experienced a congregation this resistant to and insulated against pastoral closeness.” Unfortunately, however, she never acted on her intuitive hermeneutic of suspicion.
Ecclesial geological excavation
So, how might this fascinating geological concept help us become better shepherds of the flocks that God has entrusted to our good care? Freud once said, “All behavior is purposeful.” In other words, all human behavior has a story — a past. The concept of uniformitarianism provides fresh insights and practical strategies into helping us realize and discover that our families’ and congregations’ most salient and embedded traditions, narratives, beliefs, theologies, jargon, language, behaviors and rhythms have a story — a past. Rather than updating our résumés every time we encounter difficult members, rigid church boards, congregational obstacles, religious antagonists and uncompromising ecclesial structures or traditions, what if we could get so curious about how the present is the key to the past that we might get out our pastoral pickaxe and do some ecclesial geological digging?
My first hunch is that if my pastor friend had listened more carefully to her spiritual intuition and took the prophetic risk to do some careful and thoughtful pastoral geology, she would have discovered a congregation that would have warmly welcomed her permission to return to their former tradition of inviting their pastors into their homes. My second hunch is even more profound: She probably would not have sought another call when she did.
How often do we see Jesus not take people at their initial word? How many times does he find his way into his followers’ homes and hearts — even recalcitrant tax collectors and sinners? How many times do we see him pass through some kind of wall and find a way to break bread with difficult persons who desperately need his love and friendship? How many times do we see him even coax persons out of trees and wind up dining with them later that night? How many times are persons’ eyes opened in the breaking of the bread?
Years ago, I was serving a large church as an interim pastor and during my first morning in the former senior pastor’s office, an older gentleman briskly entered and barked with an edge in his voice: “This is an awful big office for just an interim minister! How come you college boys get such nice digs?” I was taken aback, but not rattled. In fact, the depth of his abrasiveness stirred my clinical curiosity. With a twinkle in my eye I said, “Wow nice to meet you too!” He was not amused; his brow only furrowed more.
“Hi, I’m David, the new interim minister.”
“I know who you are!” he said acerbically.
He then began pulling up his pants by his belt — a curious custom of men of his generation when they are annoyed or about to say something abrasive. I decided to head him off at the pass. “What’s your name?”
“Bill,” he said (not his real name).
“Bill, I have to ask you something.”
“Are you hurting?”
His arms fell disarmed by his side. His eyes opened wide, his mouth slightly ajar in disbelief. “Why the hell would you ask me such a thing?”
“Oh just a hunch,” I replied. “Do you have any plans for lunch today? I’d like to break bread with you and get to know you.” His countenance immediately changed. “You want to treat me to lunch after how I just talked to you?”
“Yes, I really do.”
At lunch he asked again why I asked him if he was hurting. I replied, “Oh I saw something in your eyes and heard something in your voice — just a pastoral hunch.” Bill then broke down and cried as he told me about his abusive father and the years of abusive beatings. He left home at 16 and worked blue-collar jobs all his life, deserting his dream of attending college. The “you college boys” line now made perfect sense. That lunch opened a window for new beginnings, and Bill and I became close friends. He hugged me and cried the day I left.
I did not know it at the time, but I was employing pastoral uniformitarianism — I intuitively understood that Bill’s present was saying volumes about his past.
To sum it up: If we really love ourselves, our congregations and our parishioners, we must develop the skills to become ecclesial geologists —observant and loving pastors who truly understand that, in their pastoral work, the present is the key to the past.
DAVID LEE JONES is director of the doctor of ministry program at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Nashotah, Wisconsin.
Note: The case stories in all of Jones’ articles are written in such a way as to disguise the identities of the persons and places they depict according to the guidelines of pastoral ethnography.