You gotta love a good metaphor.
The other day, I was sitting with some clergy colleagues and we were talking about the role of the pastor. What, we wondered, is the pastor’s real job? Sure, they are supposed to preach, to teach, to visit the sick, to shepherd the flock,
to die on the cross demonstrate self-sacrifice, and to model discipleship. But how?
For some of us, the answer was simple–you do all of that by casting a vision. One colleague offered that when he serves a church, he sees his role as providing the church with a vision that is God-centered and faithful to the gospel. A faithful ministry, he said, is one where you have succeeded in convincing your church to follow you where you believe God would have the congregation go.
But not all of us agreed. As we sat in the room debating, I found myself thinking about dinosaur bones. Specifically, about the process by which archeologists carefully and meticulously unearth these ancient treasures from below the ground, and then painstakingly assemble them together to show us something of what dinosaurs (or ancient pottery, homes, synagogues, you name it) may have looked like.
In that moment, I was compelled by the notion that successful pastors don’t cast a vision–they unearth the vision that was there all along. They tend to the soil of their congregation, listening for clues that might help them discover what is lying below the surface, waiting to be revealed. Good pastoral ministry knows that the congregation has a vision, they just may have forgotten it, or buried it beneath anxiety about change or finances or anything else that has a tendency to get in the way of the gospel.
Of course, I was feeling pretty profound when I finally had the courage to share my metaphor with the group, but it turns out I had still more to learn, because no sooner were the words out of my mouth than a colleague blurted out:
“Of Course! It’s like the Hadrosaurus!”
If you are like me, then you were probably utterly confused, so I will explain what my colleague was so excited about. Apparently, we have been finding dinosaur bones for centuries, but that doesn’t mean we always knew what to do with them. In fact, , scientists were often baffled by the bones, and sometimeswould put them together in all kinds of shapes using what seemed to be educated guesses.
Until they found the Hadrosaurus. In 1858, scientists in Haddonfield New Jersey uncovered the first largely intact dinosaur skeleton. It was the first time they had enough pieces to know what a dinosaur actually looked like, and what it revealed is that, up until that moment, we had it all wrong.
Before the Hadrosaurus, paleontologists had assumed that most dinosaurs were
quadrupedal; Hadrosaurus revealed that they were not. It turned out that dinosaurs like the Brontosaurus were completely fictional–they never existed, we just imagined them because we didn’t know what we were looking at. It took seeing a complete, intact dinosaur to realize that we had it all wrong.
In our group, we found ourselves on the precipice of something important. We were realizing that the role of the pastor may have more to do with paleontology than we realized. Yes, a good pastoral leader pays attention to her congregation and helps uncover what is already there. But they also need to know how to faithfully fit it all together. In order to help the church be faithful, they must endeavor to fit those pieces together so that they make something that is real and honest and true.
There are plenty of instances where we uncover a bunch of different passions and visions, but if we don’t have a blueprint, we cannot fit them together in a faithful way. And that is what Scripture is for. It is our Hadrosaurus, our guide to what the church should look like. And thanks be to God that, like the dinosaurs, there are countless models of faithful churches to look at. But they all follow certain rules. They are faithful to the message of Christ, devoted to works of mercy and compassion, to worship and prayer, hospitality and healing, justice and reconciliation, generosity of spirit and with resources.
These building blocks make us who we are. And when we are attentive to them, when we put them together correctly, they reveal something about who God is. More than that, they leave something for future generations, a blueprint for those who come after to follow as they, too, learn what it means to worship the one we know as God.