You can’t be an expert at everything, so you trust a curator to help you. Typically, a curator is a museum employee – an expert in the museum’s collections, designing the displays, deciding what is shown (and what is not) and how it is presented. A curator, a good one, is such a resource. Beyond museums, we receive curated content all the time. The email I receive from my news outlet of choice with the morning headlines is curated content. The blogs I follow will often curate content for me, helping me find the trusted sources of information I need to receive. All the “end of year lists” you’ll be receiving soon is a form of curated content.
Beyond content, curation can be an experience in many areas of our life. For example, friendships curate the way you present to others, spiritual direction curates what is happening in your soul, and marriage curates how you navigate the world. In a world where expectations often exceed capacity, curation needs to make a comeback. Curators can assist us in many areas of life to be our best self.
I’ve started to wonder if curator could be a new metaphor for me, vocationally speaking. The job I have, being a pastor in the United Methodist Church, has changed drastically over the last 23 years. Living through a pandemic has changed it even more drastically. This is the question that has always directed my efforts, “How am I supposed to love the congregation entrusted to my care?” While the motions of this might change, I believe the underlying motivation and meaning will never change. As a pastor, I am always supposed to love the congregation entrusted to my care.
Curation is a form of love. It requires deep knowledge and appreciation for your subject. And beyond just knowing stuff, you have to live it and love it. You have to experience it as life-giving so you might bring it to life for others. I am becoming more convinced that as a pastor, I am a curator of the spiritual life for those in parish where I am appointed. I also believe that we desperately need curation in this place.
Most folk I connect with have so many questions about the spiritual life. How do I find my calling? How do I know if the internal nudge I have from God? What does it look like when prayer is a way of life, not a list of requests? Will I ever be able to surrender my will and trust God fully? Why doesn’t God come down and fix this mess we’ve made? How do you make sense of the Bible so it truly becomes an authority for my life? Is there more to a life with God than I experience…because this isn’t any different than what I observe from those who don’t believe?
They come to church (or watch online, in this new reality) expectantly. A curator would be of great benefit to them, I believe – someone who has experienced life, learned with God, and is faithful to the process of what we call sanctification (allowing God to perfect us through grace). Looking for parallels in other areas where we trust a curator: someone you trust, who is learning constantly, and can afford to pay deeper attention to detail and nuance than most. As a pastor, perhaps the most value I can bring to my parish (those in the congregation and those in our sphere of influence) is by being the best curator I can be.
With this vision in front of me, I find clarity about where to put my best energies. I can also see the obstacles more clearly. One obstacle is the endless treadmill of meetings and decisions. In our cultural context, most pastors are encouraged to assume the role of CEO. Much of our time and energy is devoted to leadership and management of the organization, keeping track of details so stuff happens (and we can justify our salary), and dealing with the urgent or crisis demands. Put succinctly, we are supposed to be “in charge.” While this provides stability and helps meet expectations so that people return the next week, it is a model with a short shelf life. Our youngest generations are not attracted by the way it has always been (i.e. stability). Even though many grew up under the tutelage of this “system,” they’ve chosen to walk away or drift away because it is not a source of life any longer.
Another obstacle is trust. Membership of local churches, at least in the United Methodist variety, are not readily trusting of their pastor’s direction. Likely, this is because they’ve asked their pastor to be CEO and those giftings are not usually compatible with the role of curator as I’ve defined it. Pastors don’t always make the best management decisions. They usually err on the side of taking a risk in order to reach new people. They typically have a prophetic leaning and speak more clearly about ethical and moral principles than most prefer. Therefore, it makes sense to me that I’ve always felt a wavering sense of trust from the congregation. “We’ll trust you, pastor, as long as you don’t get too far out there.”
Curation, if it works, requires trust. And, what I’m talking about is curation of the spiritual life. My calling, as I am coming to understand it, is not to run a business. It is to offer people the vision for a deep, abiding life with God, and then to teach them how to have it. This will require trust (not blind faith which is altogether different) that I really can help shine a light on this path. It also requires trust that the vision of the curate will generate the most life for the future of the congregation. This is a huge ask, I realize, but offering trust in any part of our life is a huge ask. From my seat, the responsibility of this trust would never be taken for granted.
Finally, if curation is the task, then others have to step up to the task of management and leadership. As a curator, the pastor plays a vital role, but has different priorities than a president or executive director would have. If curation is to bear fruit, time and attention are required. Preaching and teaching have to receive space in a pastor’s life, probably at the expense of other tasks. Pastoral care has to become less about chaplaincy and more about spiritual direction. Raising money has to become less about funding a budget and more about developing mature disciples who understand the discipline of generosity. Managing staff has to become less about supervision and more about helping them curate their own souls. Someone else should do the supervision. And, words of prophecy should be welcomed from the curate – even when they don’t fit long held beliefs. Welcoming doesn’t mean full agreement. But, if the curate isn’t able to open our eyes to a new way to experience the spiritual life, then they won’t be a curator for long.
I’m hopeful for this new vision of what it means to be a pastor. I can imagine the fruit of a congregation that is led by a faithful curator who invites lay leadership from those making the journey of sanctification too. What an amazing gift it would be to make this journey together!