by George Clifford
Roughly four decades ago, I did something that I had never done before or again. I conducted an altar call, i.e., invited members of the congregation to commit their lives to Jesus publicly by stepping to the front of the worship space. It occurred in a Nashville, TN, rescue mission’s nightly service.
I was an intern at a downtown parish, tasked to discover ways in which the congregation could expand its ministry to the needy and the homeless. One of the first homeless men with whom I began to develop a relationship had arranged, without consulting me, for the rescue mission’s director to invite me to preach there. Everything about the mission – its clientele, its services, its theology, even its very existence – was alien to me.
Not wanting to damage the nascent relationship I was forming with the man who had arranged the invitation, knowing that he had sought the invitation as a way to help me, and having already learned that trustworthiness is a sine qua non in ministering to people living on the streets, I warily accepted the invitation.
All went well until I finished my sermon. Then the mission’s director sidled up to me and told me that I had to conduct an altar call. I replied that this was foreign to my religious tradition. He answered that without an altar call, none of the men would eat dinner. His manipulative aggressiveness angered me. Still, I quickly evaluated my options. I could refuse, leaving the premises if necessary to avoid a pointless argument and a no-win confrontation. If so, would the director conduct an altar call himself, perhaps inflicting another sermon on hungry, restless men? Or, would he follow through on his threat and cancel dinner? Alternatively, I could accede to his demand, invite those present to commit their lives to Jesus, and hope that the service ended quickly and with no further harm to anyone present. Apparently, most of the congregation knew that sitting through the service, with an altar call, was the price of dinner, a cot for the night, and breakfast. So I capitulated to the director’s coercion.
When I studied marketing as part of an MBA program, I learned that the most common reason a salesperson loses a potential sale is that the salesperson never directly asked the potential buyer to make the purchase. Reflecting on my experiences and observations of ministry, I repeatedly saw opportunities to nurture commitment missed and abused.
On the one hand, I suspect that a key factor in the growth of evangelical churches is their clear and frequent emphasis on giving people an opportunity to make a commitment to Christ and/or a religious institution. Unlike what happened in Nashville’s rescue mission and too often occurs elsewhere, I’ve occasionally witnessed this done in genuine, caring, and non-coercive ways by clergy from other faith traditions with whom I was honored to serve in the Navy Chaplain Corps. This is pastoral ministry as selling.
Similarly, valued chaplain colleagues from faith groups more akin to the Episcopal Church and I regularly afforded people in the military, a secular institution in which the average age is about 21, genuine, caring, and non-coercive but explicit opportunities to commit to Christ and the Church through Holy Baptism, Confirmation, receiving Holy Communion, and volunteering. This, too, is pastoral ministry as selling.
A correspondent sent me the following thought-provoking comment in response to my last contribution to the Daily Episcopalian, “Pastoral leadership as selling:”
Leadership, charisma, etc. are very important, but very difficult to teach. And the church needs to acknowledge that fact, especially in a modern world with so much else to do/choose. But, do you tell people who are looking at ordination they just don’t have the right stuff? Or do you send them to training classes for car sales representatives? What’s the solution?
Also, is it a lack of leaders capable of selling the product or is it a problem with the “product”? Does TEC know what it sells? Are the “via media,” Big Tent, or Anglican Fudge still sellable? After a lifetime of infomercials, how many believe anything that “… Does … It … All!” really does, or does anything other than empty your wallet.
I’m deferring ruminations about inspirational leadership for a future post. In prior Daily Episcopalian posts, other contributors and I have frequently emphasized that the Episcopal Church is not theologically or liturgically bankrupt. People continue to want be part of an intentional community focused on cultivating the spiritual life (loving God) and cooperating in developing ethical lifestyles (loving others and caring for creation). They come, attracted by good liturgy, enriching aesthetics, welcoming inclusivity, and pastoral sensitivities.
Visitors whom nobody asks to come again, and, as appropriate, to become part of the community, integrated into its ministries and missions, slip away. I observed many chaplains from a wide spectrum of religious traditions whose ministries were less effective than they might have been because the chaplain failed to ask people – both visitors to religious services and people encountered in other settings – to make appropriate religious commitments in a caring, genuine, and respectful manner.
As Jim and Jennifer Cowart in Reach More Volunteers insightfully remark, “Recruiting sounds like work; inviting is a privilege. People want to be needed. Even more than that, they want to spend their lives doing something significant. So don’t ask people to do a job; instead invite them to join you in changing the world.” This is the essence of pastoral ministry as selling.
George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.