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Anamchara: A New Vision for Pastoral Ministry

Into what is Christianity evolving? That is the question that haunts me. I’ve been interested in postmodernity (yeah, I know, it’s no longer the hip way to describe our world, but I like it) and its implications for the Christian religion for well more than a decade. I have not done many articles one it, but I have explored what I consider a key issue with the postmodern family romance. I haven’t, however, written much publicly on the pragmatic implications of that shift for ministry. It’s time to start doing that. And we need to begin by transfiguring the primary Christian social symbol: the pastor. There are two main hurdles that we need to overcome. First, there is the hierarchical institutional model itself. Second, there is the financial issue that results from it.

I argue that one of the main reasons for the decline of Christianity is the very modern model of church itself that is embodied in the pastoral office. The pastor is the leader of the community, because the pastor sits behind the pastor’s desk. It is an official position. The pastor has paid the price to attain that position through seminary expense and jumping through expected hoops. The power invested in the pastor as the leader of the congregation is often symbolized by her or his special place in the pulpit, from whence she or he can look down upon the people and proclaim the Word of God. This entire system has been engineered around a certain expectation of general deference on the part of the people. After all, who are they–the lesser educated ones in the ways of God–to assume any other position than that of being under the pastor spiritually?

While modernity assumed a certain hierarchical nature to power and authority, postmodernity does not. No longer does a seminary education imply a superior education when it comes to the Bible, history, or spirituality. No longer does training on how to run a community as a business imply the ability to make wise decisions. People expect power structures to align with their experience of “authority.” The modern Christian power structures have been judged and found wanting when it comes to channelling spiritual authority. (For more about this, see my article on “A Postmodern Family Romance.”) The very form that the pastoral office takes within the community, especially as a paid position, embodies this very disconnect. Rejection of the paid pastoral office leads to the rejection of “church”

The result is that official, communal Christianity is in decline. Fewer members means fewer dollars. So, one of the more significant changes that needs to happen is a move away from paid ministry. The issue here is that such a move also necessary means a move away from certain expectations. Currently, the pastoral office requires a jack-of-all-trades. The pastor has to wear the hats of worship leader, CEO, counselor, community organizer, marketing director, and any other duty that happens to arise. As a generalist, they are spread out to attend a variety of responsibilities. For this, they receive a full-time salary. As the church transitions from supporting this full-time office, pastors will have to get part-time or full-time jobs to pay the bills. Without full-time pay, they will not be able to function as full-time pastors. Without being able to dedicate themselves full time, they will have to decide where their strengths are and focus their energies into them, leaving the rest for others. This kind of shift now seems inevitable to me. As participation in churches continues to decline, finances will continue to do the same, and something has to give.

As people continue to turn away from the church, it would be a mistake to interpret this as a turn away from anything spiritual. For some, this is the case. But overall, the growth of the “spiritual, but not religious” category says otherwise. But if people are turning away from religion, what are they turning toward?

Years back, I saw part of One Punk Under God with Jay Bakker (or at least I believe that’s what I was watching). In the episode, he talked with his former youth minister, who seems to have become a agnostic (if not atheist). The former minister described his time at the church as being one of powerful spiritual experience, like that of others. But as he grew, that “God-sized hole” that was in him was filled by his friends. He didn’t need God to fulfill that need for love anymore.

If that former minister’s story is indicative of the stories of the “spiritual, but not religious,” then it says a lot about where we’re going. Quality relationships are more important than belonging to a communal identity. Quality relationships are based on trust. Trust is the foundation of authority. Trust flows from really getting to know someone. The people who know you best are your friends. Those whom you trust most–your closest friends–are the ones who speak with the most authority in your life. I believe the “spiritual but not religious” segment of society has turned away from institutional pastoral models and toward something more culturally relevant to them: spiritual friends.

Esther de Waal, The Celtic Way
of Prayer

Spiritual friends are those with whom you can have honest conversations about those deep things of life without feeling guilt or shame. This kind of relationship is what we need to encourage as the primary relationship within Christian community. Esther de Waal, in The Celtic Way of Prayer: The Recovery of the Religious Imagination, presents an old model of something similar. We can start with an understanding of her “soul-friend,” or “anamchara” and build from there. (See pages 133-138.)

For de Waal, a soul-friend is akin to an official confessor. This person is a physician of the soul who meets with a person, listens deeply to the completely uninhibited story of that one’s inner life, and guides that person into a more divine way through encouragement and penance. There are certain elements that make this relationship work. Complete honesty on the part of the one meeting with the anamchara is indispensable. Regularity (at least once per year, and more if possible) keeps the process moving. Obedience when it comes to penance leads to growth. And monogamy in the relationship keeps out confusion from alternative perspectives.

There are obvious issues with the relevance of de Waal’s presentation of anamchara. It is still hierarchical, with expectations of deference. It’s still an official position, with scheduled appointments. It still implies that the anamchara has an implicit “right” to unthrottled information regarding the inner life an apprentice (if that’s the right word). So the structure of the relationship itself is much like the problematic structure that we’re moving away from.

The reason why I like anamchara as a metaphor for where we are going is because the word itself (“soul-friend” or, as I prefer, “spiritual-friend”) describes well the relationship that is actually already taking the place of official pastoral ministry in real life. When we see this happen, then we have the opportunity to reclaim a word in such a way that it can speak to the needs of our world. When I say anamchara, I don’t mean “soul-friend” as it used to mean in the long-gone world de Waal portrays. Rather, I mean it as it is actually manifesting today.

In seminary, I was told that you couldn’t be friends with your parishioners. There are real dangers when you allow parishioners into your real life. So the pastor has to maintain a certain distance. The institutional, pastoral model relies on the pastor being an approved spiritual authority above the fray. That’s part of why a congregation pays the pastor. The pastor has been hired to provide the service of spiritual guidance, as identified by her or his credentials.

Postmodern anamchara, on the other hand, can’t be an arranged relationship. It’s something that happens as it emerges out of a true friendship. As two human beings truly connect and share the depths of who they are, complete with their questions, doubts, and concerns, their souls weave together. They embark upon a mutual journey. It isn’t a matter of one being authoritative and the other somehow a lesser. It’s about mutuality. The relationship is marked by a deep listening to the life of the other, a deep attentiveness to ever-emerging love. In the postmodern setting, the very friendship that is rejected by the institutional pastoral office becomes the basis of the relationship that leads to quality pastoral ministry.

The standard congregational model isn’t conducive to the practice of anamchara. A pastor simply cannot function as an anamchara for an entire congregation of one hundred, or fifty, or even fifteen. Anamchara is a special relationship that one can only maintain with a handful of people at most. Spiritually, these are ones closest friends, for only those people can have access to our truest depths.

Pastors hear in seminary that they can’t take care of the entire world. This is true. While their hearts might be in the right place, there isn’t enough time in the week to tend to everyone. Unfortunately, as the paid pastorates disappear, time will become even more scarce. Quality has to take precedence over quantity. Institutional authority has to give way to intimate mutuality. Emerging culture has already started replacing official pastoral ministry with spiritual friendships. So, while it is undermining and dismantling the structures that exist, it is also simultaneously pointing the way to new vitality, if we would but pay attention.