Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Time for That Stuff
distributed 8/6/04 & 8/1/08 - ©2004, 2008

"I'm the pastor of a small church. I don't have time to deal with that stuff." That's the gist of a comment that I heard over breakfast last week.

I was sharing in the leadership of a wide-ranging course at the Presbyterian's Ghost Ranch conference center, dealing with environmental issues, civil liberties, globalization and war. At breakfast, I was talking with Betty -- one of our students -- about some of the themes that we had discussed the day before. "Bob," the pastor sharing our table and our conversation, was taking a different course on relevant local church ministry.

As he listened to our concern about a long list of challenging environmental, social and political issues, Bob gave voice to a frustrated cry, essentially saying, "I can't do it!"

As we continued our conversation over a second cup of coffee, I told Bob that I understood his dilemma -- and that I rejected his position. As we talked, I think I helped him see a different and more wholistic way of ministering to his congregation.

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I do understand Bob's feeling of being overwhelmed. Parish ministry, in any size church, is a demanding vocation, with an unending list of tasks and expectations. Getting through the weekly obligations of worship, church administration, pastoral care, denominational and community involvement -- and hopefully personal prayer and study -- leaves little time or energy for new projects.

So I can understand Bob's early morning panic as he heard us talking about the need for churches to address the distorted economic systems of globalization, or the crisis of global fisheries, or the Patriot Act. When he goes back to his small church, how is he supposed to learn about one of these complex and controversial issues, gather together a group of people to address it, and oversee yet another program emphasis?

Having spent 12 years as a parish minister, and working now in a church-related agency with a parallel set of overwhelming demands, I understand and respect Bob's feelings.

What I rejected in Bob's comment is the notion that "that stuff" is an optional part of ministry. There are many different ways to address those issues, but we can't -- in faithfulness -- decide to skip over matters of caring for all of God's creation.

Bob's mental categories have some tasks and topics that are essential to ministry, and others that can be set aside. When life is frantic, when the schedule is busy, those optional things, those issues beyond the local church, get shifted to the back burner. Or perhaps they just get tossed out, because there will never be enough time.

In one of the sermons that I often give, I lift up the biblical principle of "shalom" as central to the Christian faith. If "the Gospel in a word is love," then shalom calls us to take seriously the widest possible expressions of that love. When God's redeeming and transforming love breaks into the world, it is not just a matter of personal bliss for believers. God's shalom brings wholeness and healing to all of our social and institutional relationships, and to all of Creation.

So, in the unspoken depths of Bob's comment, I heard the statement, "I don't have time to talk about the fullness of God's love." If that is the case, for Bob and for other clergy, then the Christian church is in serious trouble.

I described to Bob my perspective on "three layers" of addressing eco-justice in pastoral ministry. (There's an article about that on the Eco-Justice Ministries website.) Sometimes we take prophetic stands on specific social issues. Sometimes we speak to general ethical and theological perspectives. And often we deal with the pastoral concerns that emerge from being in this broken and hurting world. All three layers can connect us with God's shalom, and all three layers keep us connected with what Bob considered "optional."

When we see our relationship with the whole of God's creation as central to the message of our faith, we will always have time for "that stuff" at some level of our ministry.

  • Not every congregation will stand up as passionate advocates for nuclear disarmament, but every congregation should proclaim the Gospel message of peace.

  • Not every congregation will take on the labor abuses of sweatshops in the US and abroad, but every congregation should be clear about Christianity's demands for economic justice and human rights.

  • Not every congregation will be engaged with issues of clean water or endangered species, but every congregation should be guiding its members into a new awareness of humanity's participation in the web of life, and of our role as stewards of creation.
It is true -- for Bob, and for every one of us -- that we don't have the time and energy to take on every issue that crops up in the news, or that is brought to our attention in an action alert. Being selective and focused in addressing some specific issues is essential if we are going to be effective in our ministry and activism.

But in our busyness, we must never turn away from all the difficult demands of our world, and pretend that those themes are optional "add-ons" to ministry and faithfulness. The proclamation of faith that comes in sermons, newsletters, classes and pastoral care should always be rooted in God's shalom -- the worldly, practical expression of God's love, justice and peace.

May we never see justice, peace, and God's creation as optional add-ons to our ministry and message. Whether in general terms or specifics, may we always hold to the faithful relevance of "that stuff" beyond the immediate life of our local congregations.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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