“God Is Here”: How to Provide Pastoral Encouragement for the Frontlines (Alison Gerber)

“God Is Here”: How to Provide Pastoral Encouragement for the Frontlines (Alison Gerber)

Each Sunday, Alison Gerber remembers that many people are coming to her church extremely tired. It’s one of the challenges of life on the frontline in her New England context, where productivity is put on a pedestal. It’s also a reality that points to the need for encouragement from the church community for everyday faithfulness.

With this in mind, one of the ways that she encourages her congregation for their everyday Kingdom work is an awareness of people’s time. “I don’t ever want to overload my congregation with church responsibilities or activities. I limit how many meetings we have and only put special events on the schedule that will be really valuable. I do this because that will create time for them to have relationships in the community.”

Alison also combats this culture of exhaustion through setting boundaries on her own time and rest. She is strict about ending meetings by 9:30 p.m., she always takes her vacation, and she turns her work phone off on Mondays for a day of rest. “As pastors,” she says, “we have to model Sabbath rest and taking time off instead of ultra productivity.”

In her role, Alison recognizes that she has a responsibility to communicate what God cares about in people’s lives. She has found that “only talking about pastor-y, Bible-y stuff makes it feel like everything else going on in their lives is not spiritual or not a God-topic. I’ve found there’s this sense that whatever you talk to your pastor about is what you feel like you can pray about.” She has found providing the space for people to talk about everyday issues and a wide range of topics invites them to consider everything in their lives as a spiritual issue and something God cares about.

To do this well, Alison has adopted a pastoral model for herself: fifty-five minutes of listening to five minutes of advice. “Part of my job as a pastor is pointing at things when God is at work,” she says. “That time of listening allows me to reflect back to them where they’ve already told me God is working when they can’t see it.”

Conversation isn’t the only way she thinks pastors can shape people’s vision of what God cares about, though. It’s also done in the places pastors take time to visit. She once heard a writer describe the pastor as a “parable of Jesus.” She explains, “The reason you go visit people is because you are a visual representation of the presence of Jesus. There’s a collision that happens when your pastor shows up, and you realize there isn’t a division of these things [we usually divide into sacred and secular]. There’s a message that Christ is present in this space.” This is true of someone’s work place, their play performance or sports event, or their court case. “It’s not just about pastoral support,” Alison says. “You are showing people that God is interested in this.”

Alison also sees preaching as a key opportunity to disciple her congregation for the whole of life. At the beginning of each year, she sets aside time to pray and reflect on the ways her congregation needs to be challenged, grow, and learn. Then, she considers what Scriptures will speak to those issues. She likes to work through biblical books, but she’s intentional about choosing ones with themes connected to where her church needs to be discipled.*

But the topics of her sermons aren’t the only point of consideration. “It’s really important that a preaching pastor uses regular working people’s lives in their illustrations.” One of the roles of illustrations, she says, is giving concrete examples of how God is present and working in the world. “If you only use illustrations from your life as a pastor or seminarian or inside the church, people will start thinking all the spiritual things happen to pastors and inside church and they don’t happen on the job or while you’re parenting. You need to tell other people’s stories too.”

One of the key factors in valuing her congregation’s work on the frontline has been keeping her understanding of her role as a pastor in check. She says, “I live beside the water treatment plant, and two people from my church work there. I remember one day I was sitting in the side room of my house, working on my sermon, and I looked out my window and saw these guys hammering away and carrying stuff. And I thought, ‘I get to do this…for them. And I better do a good job because they’re trusting me to do this while they build pipes so I can have water.’ What I get to do as a pastor is a huge privilege, but that doesn’t mean I’m the most important. It means I serve one function, and they serve all these other functions so that we can do this together as a community.”

Alison Gerber no longer pastors Second Congregational Church in Peabody because she is attending Baylor to get her PhD in preaching. You can read more of her works at Preachly.org or contact her on LinkedIn.

Diana Gruver (MA, Gordon-Conwell) writes about discipleship and spiritual formation in the every day. She is the author of Companions in the Darkness: Seven Saints who Struggled with Depression and Doubt. You can find her online at www.dianagruver.com or on Facebook or Twitter. Diana originally published this work with the Vere Institute (Oct 2014 – May 2021), which was founded to empower Christians to integrate their faith into everyday life. The Vere Institute’s legacy lives on through our Vere Library.

*One book that has influenced the way Alison approaches preaching in this way is Preaching with a Plan: Sermon Strategies for Growing Mature Believers, by Scott Gibson.