I’m picking out cereal at Stop 'n Shop -- trying to decide whether to indulge the kids and get them that box of Fruity Pebbles -- and a parishioner who hasn’t been to church in a long time sees me and is suddenly stricken with guilt. If he or she can't duck into the frozen food section fast enough, I'm greeted with an embarrassed look and peppered with excuses that would make an elementary-school teacher blush.
Most clergy have this experience in the communities they serve. These less-than-satisfying encounters take place at the town pool or the gas station or the coffee shop. Basically anywhere people interact with one another. It's awkward, it's uncomfortable, it's annoying.
I can't speak for other clergy but I do like to make it clear that I'm not the church's CGO -- Chief Guilt Officer. Despite any outward appearances to the contrary (like that collar I often, but not always, wear), that's not my job.
I don't take attendance at worship. I don't cruise around town hiding in shadows like a private eye seeking to expose and guilt wayward parishioners back into the fold. I don't haunt local sports fields on the rare Sunday off while I'm in town to glare at people watching their kids play soccer rather than coming to church.
So you don’t have to explain your absences or make excuses about your life's priorities. I’d love it if you were here more often. The community is diminished when you’re not present at worship. But I'm not Big Brother, or even Big Father as the case may be.
People are adults (well, unless they're children) and can make their own choices. I explain the importance of communal worship and am passionate about our responsibility as Christians. But I'm not an ecclesiastical bounty hunter.
My role is one of invitation. I'm more fling open the gates than gatekeeper. And there's personal and vocational freedom in this. So I will always encourage and invite but the rest is above my pay grade.
Know this, however: Jesus, is patiently and diligently seeking you out. Calling you by name; lovingly beckoning you home. Reminding you that the door is always open.
And Jesus doesn’t just sit around twiddling his thumbs waiting for your return. Jesus goes out to find you. He goes to the unsavory places of your soul and calls you back. He enters your sometimes apathetic heart and calls you back. He chases you down wherever you may be and whatever trouble you may have found and calls you back. Lovingly and persistently.