Toni Belin Ingram 04T 07T almost failed Luther Smith's "Church and Community" class. Now she considers that bad grade vital to her work.   

"It made me really rethink the urban ministry work that I wanted to do," she says. "In reading his feedback, my heart opened and I realized that this ministry can't be an afterthought or a casual 'until something better comes along' activity. It had to come from a compassionate heart. Only then would people's lives be positively changed."

Since 2008, Ingram has been pastor at Greater Smith Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Atlanta, where community ministries include running summer camps and food banks and working with a nearby elementary school. Ingram also serves, alongside Smith, on the board of the Interfaith Children's Movement, which works to improve the lives and well-being of children.

Smith, Candler's professor of church and community, has invited his former student back to his classes to lecture on her ministry. "She's a source of wisdom, insight, and activism," he says.

Toni Belin Ingram: You have a very pastoral spirit. How did you decide that teaching was a better choice for you than pastoring?

Luther Smith: It came from the experience of teaching and the satisfaction of the give-and-take of the classroom. For me, teaching has always been the opportunity to not only dispense information to students but an opportunity for my own growth. I’m always looking for student insights that stretch my own understanding of what’s occurring in communities. There are times I read papers and find myself really inspired by what students are saying about a particular subject.

I deeply appreciate pastoral work. I was an assistant pastor for a couple of years, and I enjoyed those responsibilities. There are rhythms of pastoral life that are not my rhythms. Pastoral life is not only related to people in the congregation, but also to denominational structures and politics. That’s not where I was eager for my energies to go.

I truly believe in the sense of God’s calling in each of our lives. It was my intent to pursue community organizing after seminary. The more time I spent discerning the possibilities, the more I saw that in teaching, I would still have an impact on the community, while also nourishing a hunger for more academic work. This effort to really pay attention to this sense of calling led to teaching.

Ingram: How do you advise pastors now, in the midst of things like denominational politics, to be true to the call of community?

Smith: I think every position has its traps. That’s true for teaching, where there are institutional expectations for publishing and service on committees. And it’s true for a pastor. You can be caught up in denominational politics or local church politics. You might only do pastoral tasks you feel comfortable doing, such as calling on people in the congregation or preaching, which are wonderful responsibilities.

But I feel that the church, by definition, is a community institution, so for a pastor, a calling to a church is also a calling to a community. We have biblical and theological warrants to understand pastoring as concern for what’s happening in the realities of your neighbors. And if you only see your role in relation to people who walk through your doors and are a part of your congregational life, I think that’s a very narrow understanding of pastoral ministry. I think you are actually failing in the meaning of pastoral ministry. This is what I try to communicate to students, that this work is what it means to be the church. I also insist that it’s a sense of calling they must have even if no one else has it; if the congregation or their denominational authorities don’t have that expectation for them, they must have it for themselves, especially since it’s God’s expectation for ministry in the life of the church and the community.

Ingram: In any institution, there are things that have to be done that have nothing to do with loving your neighbor. But you need to do those things in order for the institution to function. So how do you stay true?

Smith: I frame it as spiritual issue. It’s not simply an option of how one is doing ministry; it’s a matter of one’s spiritual core. There is no excuse for being indifferent to what’s happening in your spiritual formation. I think it’s easy for pastors and students to assume this is optional activism: We can choose to do it, it’d be nice to do, but we’re still fundamentally the church if we avoid this kind of work.

I tell students, your commitment to the larger community occurs even before you’re assigned. Wherever you end up, there are opportunities to be responsive to the people in a community. Be it in a poor community or in an affluent community, be it in a community where the church is alienated from its neighbors or one where the congregation is already involved. There are ways for you to be responsive, and you must find those ways. It’s a question of, what kind of neighbor is your church, but also, what sort of neighbor are you? And there are no excuses. This is it.

Another thing I do is give students examples of how this is not just what we’re called to do, but it’s energizing. This can be joyful! The work itself is spiritual. It leads you to places you cannot go if you are sequestered within the congregational walls.

This is why I invited you to my class! The sermon I heard you give about your community ministry—I was just so taken with it, Toni. I found myself not just delighted to know you were doing all those things, but I was truly inspired. I wanted the class to experience that kind of energy, and they did. Students, in the weeks after you came, and even now, more than a year later, said your presentation inspired something they’d like to have in their own ministry. We are a people of testimony, and yours was a testimony about experiencing God’s presence in the midst of this work.

Ingram: You have a lot to do with that, because when I was taking “Church and Community,” I thought I’d get a nice, easy A. And then you flunked me.

Smith: Not true, not true! It was a pastoral challenge.

Ingram: In your class, you inspire people to think about their integrity and how to be honest in how they live their lives. How they can make an impact that matters. I thought I always did that, but until you flunked me, I realized I hadn’t.

Smith: Your word “integrity” is important. It’s difficult to see how one can speak of integrity to members of a congregation, integrity to a sense of calling, integrity to the Bible as a source of authority, integrity to oneself, and then fail this fundamental call to community. How one can dismiss the importance of what’s happening with neighbors is just, in some ways, inconceivable to me. I think when we’re talking about this work, we’re actually talking about the integrity of ministry.

Ingram: You do a lot of work with people who live in poverty. How do you handle it when people say, “the poor will be with you always” [Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:8]?

Smith: There are a lot of ways that people will say that without quoting scripture. They’re saying that whatever we do will not fix the problem of poverty or homelessness. What’s helpful to me is understanding that caring is not about fixing things. Caring is primarily about being in loving relationship where the healing comes through relationship itself. We hopefully have pastoral insights and resources that help, but the purpose of ministry is not to fix things so you never have to address them again or to have some statistic that shows poverty is now less because you’ve done something. If you’re clear about what the nature of your calling is, then you can take joy in the work.

But as you know, for poor people, the matter of joy isn’t simply leaving their impoverished conditions. The matter of joy is feeling that the alienation and isolation they felt before no longer exists. It’s the sense that those who declare love to be what drives them as a religious people see them, relate to them, know them, are willing to enter their lives. That’s a transformation that occurs even if your monthly check doesn’t go up. But it’s not only a transformation for them, it’s a transformation for me, for you, for the people of the church. The ministry of outreach isn’t just a matter of reducing ills, it’s a matter of transformation.

You don’t visit someone in the hospital because your visit is going to make that person better. You visit because it’s an act of care. You’re not involved in your marriage or your friendships to fix something. We wade into relationships where heart connects to heart because it is, I think, our primary calling.

A religious journey is not just about experiencing joy and delight, but also lament. That’s part of our work, too: to be in the places that bring us to tears, that leave us confused, where we don’t have answers, where we’re not going to be able to change anything. But at least there’s a sense in which our hearts have not been found guilty of indifference or distance.

Ingram: With the myriad of things you participate in, how do you do it all?

Smith: There are days when I think, ‘Oh, how much simpler it would be to not have these involvements that aren’t immediately identifiable with what it means to be a faculty member at Candler.’ But I’ve come to an understanding that the teacher I am is because of my involvements. I feel a stronger sense of integrity because of them, rather than communicating with students in a nostalgic way about some experience I had years ago and what happened then.

So it’s not easy for me to find time from teaching, and I know it’s not easy for pastors. In some ways, I’m also working with the same time challenges that pastors have, so when I speak to pastors about how engaging in realities of a larger community is a call to which they must respond, I’m also speaking to myself.

The kind of community work that inspires us isn’t done because other people have more time. It’s a matter of discerning what you do with your time. There are some things you have to say ‘no’ to so you can say ‘yes’ later. Once you’re involved in the community, there’s a pull for you to get involved in more and more and more, and your involvements can become thin rather than deep. And it’s easy to get so overwhelmed that you lose yourself.

The antidote to that isn’t retreat from the community, and the antidote isn’t necessarily doing less. The antidote is a discovery of, ‘Where is the energy in this that is healing and revealing?’ It may be not be, ‘I need to be engaged less,’ but, ‘I need to discover how to be engaged so that I’m truly in the relationships that draw upon my gifts and are challenging in appropriate ways.’ But I try to always be listening to God’s call upon me. If I feel I’ve gotten that part right, I can do a thousand things. If I feel that I’ve chosen to do something for the wrong reasons, I could have just two things to do but they will weigh on me in terrible ways.

The other thing I take seriously is having some rhythm. I don’t know that any of us can be flat-out all the time. I have to be attentive to finding the time and space to catch up with me. This is where the rhythms of school and the ways in which I use my summers are helpful. I’ve tried to use rhythm as a way to not necessarily cut back, but to truly be available.

Ingram: What do you want people to say about you?

Smith: What’s most important for me is for students and for the people with whom I’ve worked to know that I care. It was an early lesson for me, in the first community organizing I did with welfare recipients. We were down at the governor’s office protesting welfare policy. I discovered it was truly important for the people for whom I was protesting to experience me in a relationship of caring, and not just as someone who was strategizing on policy. You can work with people and be angry at these systemic issues they face, but at the same time, they’re dealing with having a child in jail or a sick relative. It’s difficult to square the notion that you deeply care about them by addressing systemic issues when you’re ignoring these issues of the heart that are with them every day. I became attuned to truly caring in the relationships I create in my work. To go back to your first question on pastoral identity—to me, that is being pastoral. That goes to the very heart of it.