What’s Love Got to Do with It?

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, August 4, 2022

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

 Many of you know I like to use popular songs as sermon titles. Last Sunday my sermon was entitled “The Long Run,” with apologies to the Eagles. I decided I’d do the same with this week’s pastoral letter, with apologies to Tina Turner.

I often visit pastors and sessions where the pastoral relationship has become strained. I know first-hand how challenging it can be to maintain an enduring positive relationship between a pastor and a congregation. Over my years as a pastor I learned that the most important ingredient of a strong abiding relationship between pastors and their congregations is love.

This love goes both ways, of course. Today I’d like to focus on the pastor’s obligation to love the flock of God well. If the pastor loves the flock well, they will usually respond in kind.

Not just any kind of love will do.

Charm dies out quickly. It can make us infatuated, but it doesn’t get us through challenging times. To tell the truth, I am immediately on alert when I see a pastoral candidate who leads with charm. When a pastor nominating committee “falls in love” with a candidate, warning bells ring for me. Too often, a charm offensive signals a lack of capacity to do the hard work of building and sustaining strong relationships for the long haul.

The kind of love that sustains a pastoral relationship over time has nothing to do with “being in love,” as we most often construe it. It is far more ordinary and grueling than romance.

When I taught seminarians, I told them that the most important thing a pastor can do is to love the flock of God in such a way that they know their pastor loves them. It’s not enough that the pastor loves them – they must know it. When a pastor loves the flock of God just for who they are, they have a fighting chance to believe the same is true for their Heavenly Shepherd.

How do I know someone truly loves me? The very first thing is that they accept me for who I am. The venerable theologian Billy Joel captures this well, “Don’t go changing to try and please me … I love you just the way you are.” A pastor needs to love the congregation just as it is, and its members just as they are, otherwise they will doubt the sincerity of the pastor’s love.

This is why I always counseled seminarians not to change a thing in the church for a year after they arrive. I now think that counsel was flawed – they should change nothing for two years if the congregation is to be fully assured that the pastor loves them just as they are.

Only then can transformation take solid root, without it being misinterpreted as the pastor’s rejection of the congregation’s integrity.

The Gospel writer observes of Jesus, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1) He expected great transformation in them, but he began his relationship with them simply by gathering them “to be with him.” (Mark 3:14) The first expression of his love for them was simple companionship.

The church I’d been called to serve followed a Sunday morning liturgy that I didn’t like. I taught liturgy in seminary, so I fancied myself quite knowledgeable on the topic. But I knew I had to “put up” with their liturgy for a while if I were to gain their trust. And so I did, and began taking the Worship Committee on a study through the Directory for Worship in our Book of Order. After nearly three years of study, I asked if they were ready to adopt its liturgy, and they agreed to do so.

I was thrilled! Real progress was finally being made in the church’s worship life! I patted myself on the back for waiting long enough that they were willing to make the change without feeling pressured into it. We followed the new liturgy for a year, then I made the “mistake” of asking that we evaluate it. I discovered that they were sticking with it because they loved and respected me, but they still preferred their old liturgy. So I swallowed my pride and we switched back to the way they used to do it.

Just because we love someone doesn’t mean that they will ultimately change to suit us. Love doesn’t work like that, by some sort of calculus of ultimate desired result. It opens up pathways for change, but it is as ready for the change to founder as it is for it to soar.

Church leaders, our calling is first and always to love those we are called to serve. That means yielding before directing, laying down our lives before standing strong for our convictions. To milk the song title metaphor one more time, this time with old jazz standards: Being a pastor is more “It Had to be You” than “I Gotta Be Me” (with apologies to Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.).

Yours in love,

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