I’m a big fan of the TV show Doctor Who. I saw my first episodes of the British science fiction show when I was in elementary school, have enjoyed the newer seasons that began airing in 2005, and have been working my way through previous seasons as I’ve been able. In the parlance of fan culture, you could call me a “Whovian.”
The notable thing about the show’s title character is that The Doctor is from an alien species — the Time Lords — who don’t actually die. Instead, they regenerate, meaning that whenever their bodies suffer life-ending injury, they go through a process where they take on a new form. This was the creators’ solution to the all-too-human problem of actors moving onto new jobs.
Over the course of the show’s 50+ year history, 13 actors have played The Doctor. They have all been men, and each has put his own spin on The Doctor — his personality quirks and how he relates to others. The show’s loyal fanbase routinely engages in debate about which version of The Doctor is best, with people picking their own favorites for different reasons.
A few weeks ago, the BBC announced the newest person to play The Doctor beginning next season: Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to take on the role. When the show returns for its annual Christmas episode this December, we will see the current Doctor played by Peter Capaldi transform into Whittaker’s as-yet-unestablished version of the beloved character.
As you might be able to imagine, this has divided the fanbase. And even if you’ve never seen the show, you can probably make some educated guesses as to what those on each side of the debate are saying.
And you might be wondering what any of this has to do with the church.
What Doctor Who fans experience each time The Doctor regenerates is not all that different from what a congregation goes through when it calls a new pastor. Each change in this role comes with a new personality, a new set of gifts, a fresh opportunity for the church to engage in ministry according to the new pastor’s approach combined with the congregation’s preferences and needs.
And just like with each actor who has played The Doctor, people will react differently to each new person called to serve in ministry among them.
Some stints go on for years while others are relatively brief, for many reasons.
Some people in the role become so beloved or stay so long that people decide their way of doing things is the only acceptable way, for better or worse.
Some pastorates seem to go a season too long and others could have lasted longer.
Some pastors’ approaches seem too radical a departure from what came before, but maybe they end up working because people realize that’s what they needed.
Some are beloved parental figures. Others are desirable romantically (please remember and observe healthy boundaries, fellow clergy).
And, more often than not, hiring a woman for the first time freaks everyone out. The reasons for this could be covered in multiple blog posts in their own right.
Whether it’s the actor playing the title character on your favorite science fiction TV show or the pastor entrusted to lead your congregation in ministry, it’s important to remember that the newest person stepping into that position won’t be like who came before. They’ll have new gifts to bring, new perspectives to share, new habits to become accustomed to.
They won’t be like what came before, and they won’t much resemble that one person you still remember and love from an era passing further away. But they’ll nevertheless bring a passion for and commitment to what they’re doing, along with an appreciation for what preceded them. And yes, they’ll end up doing things in a different way.
And often, that difference is one of the best gifts they can share.
Jeff Nelson is pastor of Grace United Church of Christ in Uniontown, Ohio, as well as a spiritual director and writer. He regularly blogs about ministry, spirituality, and pop culture at http://www.coffeehousecontemplative.com.