Before I entered the ministry I worked for the General Motors Corporation trudging up and down the floors of the company’s world headquarters in downtown Detroit delivering telegrams. Every floor seemed to have its own culture. There were the computer technicians in their white lab coats in the basement who always seemed glad to see me. A few floors up the sales managers greeted one another in the hallway and talked about their golf game. I could feel the competitive tension between them when I stepped out of the elevator.
High above us all, like the gods of Olympus, the president and vice–presidents were housed on the fourteenth floor. Visitors gained access to their wing by passing through a large glass door that served as a kind of veil into the holy of holies of the corporation. All who entered underwent the scrutiny of a stern looking security guard. This floor was a place of dark wood and dim light. The air was heavy with important decisions. Intimidated, I passed through those offices like a ghost, rarely speaking and barely noticed.
Although I liked my job, I spent much of my time wishing I could be doing something more “meaningful.” Eventually, I got my wish. I quit working for the automobile company and entered the realm of “vocational ministry.” I soon discovered that “full–time–ministry” had much in common with the world of work I thought I was leaving behind. It is tedious at times. It too has its share of mind numbing meetings that seem to go on forever and produce little result. I found that those in the Christian workplace could be driven by the same goals and beset by the same problems as their secular counterparts. I should not have been surprised. While I consider my chosen vocation to be more than a job, it is still work. This is not a bad thing. “Work,” Eugene Peterson has observed, “is the primary context for our spirituality.”
Ministry is my vocation. It is also my career. This is both a blessing and a curse. Its curse is that it means I am tempted to approach my vocation with the mentality of the hireling. One who is merely a hired hand will do the work but will not take responsibility for the outcome. The hireling does only what must be done and will do no more. When the task demands more than expected, one who is merely hireling does not possess the degree of commitment required to meet the challenge (cf. John 10:12–13).
Yet despite this threat, it should be noted that Jesus Himself introduced the metaphor of the “worker” into Christian ministry. It was Jesus who sent the disciples out and told them that “the worker deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7). The apostle Paul used this standard as the basis for his guidelines to those who provide for the church’s elders (1 Tim. 5:17–18). Because my vocation and my career are the same, I enjoy the privileged of devoting myself without distraction to the calling that I love. I don’t have to try to fit it in around my regular job.
Those who direct the affairs of the church are worthy of “honor.” Those who labor in preaching and teaching are especially deserving. Ministry is our work. It is good work, worthy of our time and energy. Hard as it sometimes is, it is work that is well worth the reward which is yet to come.
Anyone who has seriously considered all the challenges a pastor must face cannot help feeling inadequate. The task is immense. The stakes are high and the things which are most important to us in our ministry are usually things over which we have little or no control. Like the apostle Paul we ask, “Who is equal to such a task?” (2 Cor. 2:16).
The answer to this question is that we are equal to the task. Not because of the strength of our personality, our native intelligence or even because of our spirituality. Instead, “our competence comes from God” (2 Cor. 3:5). Despite this biblical assurance, feelings of inadequacy do not magically disappear once we enter the ministry. They may even increase the longer we serve, as we discover just how dependent upon God we are for success. Nevertheless, God has promised to make us “competent ministers of the new covenant.”
This demands an important caveat. The competence that the Bible promises is mission specific. It is a competence related to the gospel. Contrary to popular dogma, you cannot do “anything you set your mind to.” In the body of Christ the eye is not meant to function like the hand. God supplies ability to each according to their gifts and calling. John Newton warns, “If you had the talents of an angel, you could do no good with them till his hour is come, and till he leads you to the people whom he has determined to bless by your means.”
I first felt a calling to preach when I was in my teens. To my surprise my mother, who was not a church going woman, beamed with pride when I told her about my intention. “Oh, Johnny,” she gushed, “you’d make a darling minister.” I did not want to mouth poetry in a clergyman’s tame frock. Camel’s hair and thundering declamation were more my style. I aspired to the prophet’s mantle.
The parallel between the preacher and the prophet is obvious. But prophet is not the only metaphor that should shape our pulpit ministry. There is also a priestly dimension. Priests, like prophets, exercised a ministry of God’s word (Lev. 10:11). The priest, however, differed from the prophet because he shouldered an additional burden, serving as the people’s advocate. Priests were not only “selected from among men” but were “appointed to represent them” (Heb. 5:1).
Like the priest, the preacher does not stand apart from those who hear but is called from among them in order to sympathize with them. Whenever we take our place before God’s people to declare his word, we also take upon ourselves this responsibility advocacy. We may stand above or before the congregation in order to be seen or for the sake of acoustics, but our true location is in their midst. We speak to the people but we are also for them.
The key to priestly advocacy is identification. This means that the priest/preacher functions as a kind of mediator, standing between the text and the congregation and listening to the word of God on their behalf. The prophetic nature of preaching gives us authority to make demands of the listener. But it is the priestly nature of preaching obligates us to make demands of the text. It compels us to take our cue from the patriarchs, the psalms and the apostles, as well as from the prophets, and ask God to justify himself: Will not the judge of the earth do right? How long, O Lord? Why have you afflicted us?
Our priestly responsiblity compels us to give voice to the silent questions that plague our listeners. Our prophetic obligation means that we will refuse to smooth out the sharp edges of the text. These two dimensions work in harmony.
Every pastor feels the pressure of living under scrutiny. It is not the pressure of living in a “glass house” that creates difficulties so much as it is the burden of expectation. Often church members hold the pastor to a double standard, expecting far more of him than they do of themselves.
Some expectations are warranted. James warns those who teach that they will be “judged more strictly” (James 3:1). Does he mean that they are held to a higher standard? Or simply that those who prove to be hypocrites will be condemned more severely? He is at least implying that teachers will be held to their word.
Unfortunately, congregations do not always limit their expectation to the pastor. Sometimes the entire family feels pressured to live by a standard that church members do not always apply to themselves. The embittered pastors’ child is so common it is almost a cliché. The factors that contribute to this are complex and not always easily addressed. But a basic starting point is our recognition that no matter what some church members (and a few pastoral parents) may think, God does not hold the children of clergy to a higher standard. They are not more holy than other children. Though there are certainly some benefits to growing up in a pastor’s home, this “privilege” also has its drawback.
The children of pastors are exposed to the inconsistencies of the church more than other children in the congregation. They hear the criticisms leveled against the pastor and feel the pain when he is mistreated.
You cannot avoid the scrutiny of the congregation. Nor can you keep others from having unrealistic expectations. But you don’t have to live up to a double standard. Nor are you required to enforce their expectations upon your family.
Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God. 1 Cor. 4:1-5
Trouble is Heaven’s goad. God applies it to good purpose in the life of the believer and unbeliever alike. For the unbeliever suffering often serves as God’s rude awakening, a sharp slap intended to bring the sinner to his senses. It is a measure of the deceitfulness of sin that this aim cannot be achieved unless suffering is also accompanied by the grace of God. When suffering enters the believer’s life, it functions like the potter’s hand that shapes the clay. Distress is the discipline which proves that God is treating us as his children.
This means that those who seek the pastor are usually hurting. Alexandre Vinet notes: “the principle occasion of religion and the ministry is suffering.” The pastor is exposed to the difficulties of the church more than anyone else. Many who come to him are suffering from self inflicted wounds. Often they expect the pastor to repair in a few minutes what has taken years to tear down. The nature of the difficulties the pastor must deal with run the entire gamut from physical to emotional to moral problems. The pastor sees people at their worst and is aware of the church’s deepest flaws, exposure that can lead to depression or disillusionment. There is no “magic bullet” that will eliminate distress from the lives of those to whom we minister. More often than not our place is not to offer a quick fix but to exercise the ministry of presence. It is enough to be with people in their distress and serve as a reminder of God’s presence with them. Even if we could make the trouble disappear, we might not be doing them a favor.
But the natural discomfort we feel over their discomfort makes us especially vulnerable to what Jeremy Begbie has called “the pathology of sentimentality.” The sentimentalist, Begbie points out, cannot engage in another’s pain as pain or face up to another’s negative features. Those who sentimentalize the distress of the congregation are compelled to “keep on the sunny side of life.” Begbie is writing about the effect of this pathology on worship and notes how music in the contemporary church has sometimes been “deployed as a narcotic, blurring the jagged memories of the day-to-day world, rather than as a means by which the Holy Spirit can engage those memories and begin to heal them.” In the same way, the pastor is tempted to speak when he ought to be silent, offering up platitudes in the face of distress. Such words, though well meant, can blunt the sharp edged lesson God intends to teach through distress. In such cases it would be better if we were silent.
Perhaps it is time that we crossed over from the sunny side and joined God in the shadows.
See Jeremy Begbie’s excellent essay entitled “Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts” in The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts, edited by Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands and Roger Lundin (InterVarsity): http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/code=2843
Not long after he started attending our church, Ed asked me about something that had been bothering him. It was a question that took me by surprise. It had nothing to do with election or the fate of the heathen. It didn’t concern some obscure point in the Bible. Ed wanted to know what I did all week. “What exactly does a pastor do?” he asked. When I described a typical work week, it was his turn to be amazed. He thought that my duties were limited to the thirty minute sermon I delivered each Sunday, something he assumed I did without preparation.
Ed is not the only one to think this. Nearly every pastor I know has been asked this question, sometimes by the church board! This should not surprise us. The sermon is the only exposure most people have to the pastor’s work. The pastor’s other responsibilities of leadership, planning and pastoral care are hidden from view. Even if they were not, some would wonder if such things actually constitute real work. For them any task that does not produce a callous does not qualify as work.
How should we deal with the pressure we feel to justify ourselves in light of this misunderstanding? The challenge is to inform the congregation without trumpeting our accomplishments or exaggerating our effort. This is something the apostle Paul did with the Corinthian church, making them aware of some of the pressures he faced as an apostle (2 Cor. 11:28). The goal is not to evoke pity or to do your acts of righteousness before men to be seen by them, but to educate God’s people and solicit their prayers.
Try not to be defensive when someone wants to know what you do all week. Those who ask this question are not trying to insult you. They are genuinely mystified. Help them understand the nature of your calling and ask them about their work. You are probably as unaware of all that their job entails as they are of yours.