Photo: The Banner
Photo by The Banner

Cecil Van Niejenhuis saw the role of the pastor change in significant ways during the 40 years he served in various capacities for the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

This up-close assessment comes from his experiences as a pastor of four churches, his many years as a classical church visitor, and, over the past dozen years, as a leader and then codirector of the CRC’s Pastor Church Resources (PCR) ministry.

“It takes more discipline and intentionality than ever before to be a pastor today,” said Van Niejenhuis, who retired from PCR in late June. “This is not just about pastors being speakers and writers and thinkers in a sound-byte world. This is about being poets who see the surface of things and the currents beneath the surface.”

A Simpler Time

When he first began in parish ministry in 1981 at Ancaster (Ont.) CRC, he said, there was not a church office but a home study; there were no cell phones, voicemail or email; organ music was the standard; and worship committees were very much a new thing.

At that time, Van Niejenhuis said, the job was fairly straightforward. Ministers of the Word were spiritual leaders who saw their job as mainly being a good preacher and teacher as well as a provider of pastoral care.

Back then, he added, the pastor’s role was primarily to be a “story-teller, connecting the stories of individual lives, family lives, life at work, and life in the world — with the story of Scripture.” This is a role he celebrates and would like to see receiving more emphasis again.

But making that shift can be hard, given how the role of pastors has significantly changed as the culture around pastors has changed. As a result, the demands on pastors have become more complex.

“Pastors today function much more in a role of being organizational leaders who must focus on programs and staff management and consequently spend less time and energy in relational pastoring with people,” Van Niejenhuis said.

Setting Priorities

Although preaching and teaching and pastoring the congregation remain important, they are only part of the picture these days.

And across the denomination, said Van Niejenhuis, there is a temptation for pastors, and for councils, to place a priority on pastors being like CEOs — chief executive officers of the church.

“The performance bar for pastors keeps rising,” said Van Niejenhuis. “And this comes as people have increasing online access to resources, and as consumers are often becoming more spectators and less participants in the ministry of the church.”

Facing many demands that vie for one’s time, the pace of life keeps increasing for members of congregations, and church involvement is one of many things that can fall by the wayside.

“The reality is that different worldviews are competing for the attention of church members. Instead of being shaped and informed by the grand narrative of Scripture, we are seduced by the narratives produced by advertisers, social media, and political ideologies,” said Van Niejenhuis.

“So, rather than a focus on waiting, hoping, submission, bearing up under suffering, and trusting the good news of the kingdom of Jesus in our present day as well as for our future, we focus on what we can achieve and purchase, the pursuit of happiness and pleasure, and the illusion of controlling our own destiny.”

Clash of cultures

Van Niejenhuis said individual pastors and the churches they serve have found themselves facing a head-on clash of cultures — popular culture and its demands in contrast with the culture revealed and instituted by Christ.

Over the past several years, Van Niejenhuis said, he has been called in to connect with churches facing a crisis of one kind or another. The reasons for a church to ask PCR for help vary. Often, however, a crisis develops from a tussle over expectations, which in itself mirrors a clash of cultures.

For example, what does the church want from the pastor — and, similarly, what does the pastor want from the congregation?

“You never know what you’ll walk into and what kind of help PCR can offer,” said Van Niejenhuis. “When I meet with a church, I’m not someone with all of the answers.”

Simply put, what Van Niejenhuis learned as a church visitor helped to shape his role at PCR as “someone who came in with a listening ear.” Rather than dictate a solution, he said, “I would come to encourage conversations. You want to give people a chance to be heard.”

Being a listening ear

And he did this very well, said Lis Van Harten, who served with Van Niejenhuis as codirector of PCR and will now continue as director following Van Niejenhuis’s retirement.

What has always impressed her, Van Harten added, is how deeply Van Niejenhuis cared about the health of congregations and their ministry leaders.

With a mixture of wisdom that comes from being a pastor who has a poet’s sensibilities, Van Niejenhuis brought a kind and loving approach to his work with PCR. He was well aware of the pain that rifts can cause in a church. As a result he worked to help ease the pain and give churches a chance to share that with him and with one another.

“I've watched him go the extra mile when coming alongside congregational leaders as they engage in challenging situations. He's a nonanxious presence who listens well, asks good questions, and is able to speak the truth in grace. . . . His expertise and passion will be missed in the CRC,” said Van Harten.

“The PCR staff will especially miss his puns, playfulness, and wisdom,” said Van Harten. “And I will miss him in many ways. We've served as codirectors for PCR for several years now — making a good team with complimentary gifts. Cec and I met every Tuesday at 4 p.m. for a check-in — a time I looked forward to and will miss.”

In a time of pandemic

Asked for his thoughts on how the church and its pastors will fare as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Van Niejenhuis reiterated that it is that narrative of Scripture — and the faith it engenders — that can play an important role in coping with the pandemic crisis. The narrative of Scripture offers a long view and shows that, even in the toughest circumstances, God is there and will provide.

“Things like the spread of disease have happened before. And now, as then, this can become an opportunity for us to ask ourselves what we really believe,” said Van Niejenhuis. “What do we do during this time? How do we love our neighbors?”

As for his time with PCR, he added that he wasn’t always able to help a church come to terms with and to reconcile their differences. “I wish I had seen more happy endings,” he said.

But he did make an impact, even if changes have come slowly. Always important, he said, was to be realistic about what any one person can do in really tough situations.

Sometimes this meant helping to guide a church from a hard place to a better place. And, hopefully, he said, he helped churches become more aware of who they were and who they could be.

“I think I was often able to help churches ask better questions,” said Van Nienjenhuis. “The hope was to help provide a good process to help sort out their challenges.”

The hope, he could have said as he enters retirement, is that he assisted pastors and churches to become poets who were better able to see beyond the surface of their struggles and begin to deal with the bigger issues — those painful crosscurrents — roiling underneath.