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The Difference that Theology Makes for Pastoral Ministry

by John P. Burgess
Assoc. Professor of Theology
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

The Challenges of Pastoral Ministry

The Reformed tradition has insisted on a theologically educated ministry. Theology is good stuff, not only because it offers us intellectual stimulation, but more especially because "truth is in order to goodness . . . There is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty" (Book of Order, G-1.0304). The church's theology does nothing less than help to sustain pastoral identity and excellence in pastoral ministry.

Pastoral ministry faces new challenges today. Many of us find pastoral ministry extraordinarily trying and demanding, and are deeply concerned about the general health of the church and of the congregations that we serve.

The work of a pastor has always been difficult. Athanasius was the great defender of Nicene Orthodoxy. In 328 A.D., he became the bishop of Alexandria, a position of great power and influence. But Athanasius never found peace. Despite his great abilities as a pastor, politician, and theologian, his daily fortunes rested on whether a defender or opponent of Nicea was on the throne in Rome. Athanasius would lead his church for a few years, then flee into exile when a new ruler came to power. A few years later, rulers would change again, and he could return home. No fewer than five times Athanasius went in and out of exile, hardly our idea of a happy, stable ministry.

Fast-forward to the 16th century and John Calvin, our spiritual forbear in the Reformed tradition. Historians have concluded that Calvin was ill much of his life. He suffered from various physical ailments, including insomnia, stomach disorders, and the gout. He pushed himself relentlessly and lived in a perpetual state of physical and mental exhaustion. He also experienced terrible personal tragedies. His only child died shortly after birth, and his wife died seven years later.

In the more recent past, we might think of Martin Luther King, Jr., who endured beatings, imprisonments, and ultimately assassination, as a result of his ministry. Like Athanasius and Calvin, King lived each day of his life under great stress, never quite sure what the future would bring.

Ministry has never been easy, and our difficulties as pastors pale, by comparison, to those that confronted such people as these. But difficulties we have, difficulties that may in the end be even more troubling and perplexing than theirs. Whatever hardships they endured, Athanasius, Calvin, and King had a profound confidence that they were serving God. In contrast, many pastors today in North America are haunted by basic questions of pastoral identity. We are deeply confused about who and what God has called us to be.

Questions of Identity

Pastors today are unclear about their identity because the church is unclear about its identity. Fifty years ago, it appeared that the church would have to learn to minister in the secular city (see Harvey Cox's book of 1965). A modern, technological society would inevitably grow more atheistic. But at the beginning of a new millennium, we can see that Americans remain a highly religious people (in name, if not always in practice).

Our problem is not a secular atheism, but the dynamics of a pluralistic, consumer society, a world of the "spiritual marketplace" (see sociologist Wade Clark Roof's book of 1999). The church suffers not under too little religion, but under too much. People have many options to choose from, also in their "spiritual life." The church is just one more consumer choice among many.

In such a time, the church is constantly tempted to define itself in terms of market niches. We are a black church, or a white church, or a Presbyterian church, or a Methodist church, or a church for the rich, or a church for the poor, or a church with contemporary worship, or a church with traditional worship-a church for every taste, but also a church that has forgotten what it means to be the body of Christ.

Pastors almost inevitably begin to think of themselves as mere providers of religious services. They are supposed to respond effectively to every need that comes down the pike. They are supposed to guarantee that their congregation will be an attractive, consumer choice, where more and more people will invest their time and give their money. Pastors easily feel that they must be all things to all people.

As Joseph Small, director of the denomination's Office of Theology and Worship (and one of the seminary's graduates), has written:

[Pastors] are presented with a bewildering and unstable bundle of images depicting the essence of ministry . . . preacher . . . teacher . . . community builder . . . programmer . . . marketer . . . therapist . . . change agent . . . caregiver . . . manager . . . the list goes on! . . . [There] is an absence of a coherent, cohesive pastoral identity. (from the Company of Pastors Day Book)

The problem of pastoral identity is further complicated by the fact that most pastors are genuinely nice people. They like the people they serve, and they themselves want to be liked. They care about others' problems and needs, and want others to turn to them in times of trouble and joy.

The problem is that there is literally no end to other people's needs. We will never be able to keep up with them all, let alone satisfy them all. Pastors, like all of us, are profoundly limited human beings. They can't be all things to all people, and they can't keep everyone happy all the time.

Perhaps you have seen the cartoon drawing of a pastor sitting at his desk, looking at a sign on the wall: "There is a God. You are not God." If we have no clear sense of pastoral identity and let others constantly define who we are and what we do, we will sooner or later grow angry or cynical — or even experience burnout. We are not God, and we can't do it all.

The Long Bony Finger of Faith

As my colleague at the seminary, Craig Barnes, has been teaching us, the bottom line is that none of us will be able to sustain pastoral ministry without a clear sense of pastoral identity. Reformation theology reminds us that this identity, like the identity of the church itself, is rooted in the one thing alone, the one thing that a person affirms above all when he or she becomes a member of the church and again when he or she is ordained or commissioned as a pastor: trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The one and only thing that holds the church together is Jesus Christ-and the one and only thing that will give us a clear sense of identity as pastors is Jesus Christ.

As the church's confessions insist, this Jesus is not merely an historical ideal, not merely a great teacher out of the past. Rather, to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior is to confess him as the risen, living Christ who "sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty and will come to judge the quick and the dead." Better market research will not hold the church together, even if market research has its place. Trying to keep everybody happy will not hold the church together, even if we can agree that the church should welcome all and be responsive to all. And promising to be all things to all people will not keep a pastor all together, as hard as he or she tries.

The only thing that will hold us together (with other Christians, and within our own lives) is the risen, living Jesus who has claimed us-body and soul, in life and in death-as his own, and who has promised to be with us to the end of the age. The special privilege of a pastor is to point people again and again to this risen, living Christ, to remind them of his grace, and to ask them to attend to his claim on their lives, so that they might live with a new heart.

A special gift to the seminary offers an arresting image for pastoral identity. When Karl Barth died in 1968, his son Markus, professor of New Testament at the seminary, inherited the desk at which his father had labored for more than thirty years over the Church Dogmatics. It is our little shrine, to which every pastor should someday make pilgrimage!

Above the desk, Karl Barth kept a reproduction of Matthias Grünewald's 16th century Isenheim Altarpiece (also on the wall above the desk at the library). In the center of the painting, we see the crucified Christ, his skin brutally pierced lacerated and his body weighted down. To the left, the beloved disciple John holds Mary, the mother of Jesus. They are filled with grief and horror. To the right stands John the Baptist, emaciated and unkempt and clothed in camel's hair. In one hand, John holds a book (the Scriptures). With the other, his arm upraised, he points with his long bony finger to the crucified Christ.

Barth said that the church is called by God to be like John the Baptist. It is called to do one thing above everything else: to point with its long bony finger to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

It is especially the church's pastors who lift the church's bony finger. There is nothing-absolutely nothing!-more important for a pastor than faithfully executing the ministry of Word and sacrament, so that Word and sacrament might point all of us to the crucified Jesus, whom God has now raised to everlasting life. We might extend Barth's metaphor to say: the pastor is the church's long bony finger!

A Disciplined Faith

Just how do pastors stay rooted in their identity in Jesus Christ, so that they do not fall prey to the many other identities that they are tempted to assume, but faithfully serve as the church's long bony finger and point to him, not to their own agenda or somebody else's?

In recent years, North American Christians-pastors too-have become more aware again of the need to practice their faith. We are learning again that we need to exercise ourselves regularly in our identity in Jesus Christ. Disciplines of faith are not a kind of works righteousness. They do not guarantee us a place in heaven. Rather, the Holy Spirit uses these disciplines as a means of shaping us more fully into the image of the living, risen Jesus. These disciplines are a means of discipleship-of guarding the identity that is already ours in baptism and through Jesus' death and resurrection.

Disciplines of faith will not always be easy. They will take effort and will make demands. Because they are disciplines, they will take discipline. Joseph Small and the Office of Theology and Worship have done yeoman's service in encouraging pastors in the Presbyterian denomination to become more serious about this kind of discipline. In establishing a Company of Pastors, a national organization of pastors, the Office has reminded us that Christians in general and pastors in particular will want to:

  1. Pray on a regular basis
  2. Read Scripture on a regular basis
  3. Think about their faith on a regular basis

Each of these disciplines seems self-evident, yet each poses particular challenges to pastors today, beginning with prayer. Pastors pray on a regular basis. They pray all the time! A meeting rarely takes place in the church in which someone doesn't say, "Pastor, won't you say a prayer?" Pastors pray at hospital bedsides, in counseling sessions, and during Lord's Day services. They pray for individuals in distress, and for a world in need. There is probably no day on which a pastor does not pray fervently and expectantly.

Yet, pastors find it more difficult to pray by themselves and for themselves. Prayer so easily becomes a professional responsibility that pastors forget their responsibility to cultivate a personal life of prayer. How will we as pastors make time and space for regular, disciplined prayer? Only as we do, will we remember our true identity in Jesus Christ. If we don't, we will wither on the vine.

Pastors read the Bible all the time. They read the Bible as they prepare sermons and Sunday School lessons. Nearly every day, they mine the text for new insights. If anyone in the church has a question about Scripture, the pastor is supposed to have the answer. The pastor doesn't have the luxury of saying, "Go read a commentary," or "Go consult a Bible scholar." The pastor is the congregation's commentary and Bible scholar.

Yet, pastors get so busy reading the Bible for professional purposes that they no longer read it slowly and carefully and meditatively by themselves and for themselves. Reading the Bible becomes just another weekly task to be checked off, rather than a daily discipline of opening oneself to God. How will we as pastors make time and space to listen for God's living Word to us in Scripture? Only as we do, will we stay rooted in our pastoral identity in Christ. If we don't, our preaching will soon become stale and dead.

Pastors think theologically all the time. They answer people's questions about God and belief. They know the church's theological traditions better than anyone else in the congregation. Yet, pastors frequently neglect their theological responsibilities. Too often they find themselves using words that they themselves no longer understand-formulations about the faith that are as predictable and safe as they are superficial and empty. Pastors can easily forget that a living faith must struggle to hear God's living Word anew each day.

When will we as pastors make time and space to keep thinking about the big questions of faith? When will we give attention to the great theological insights of the past and present? When will we grapple with the church's confessions and the church's great theologians-that help us to think better thoughts than we could on our own? For the truth is that no matter how bright we are, we are always beginners. We desperately need the help of those who have gone before us and who have thought about the faith more deeply than we.

Pastors may not pray as faithfully as they wish, but most have a discipline of daily prayer. Pastors may not meditate on Scripture as faithfully as they wish, but most have a daily discipline of Bible reading. But the truth is that many pastors quit reading books of theology, once they leave seminary. They settle for easy, popular literature that has an immediate pay-off for a sermon illustration or a new church program, but that does not demand much of them intellectually. Unless we as pastors reform our ways, we will not feed the people in our congregations the risen, living Christ, but just our outdated ideas. We will soon be giving them stones, instead of bread-and we ourselves will become hard-hearted.

The right place for pastors to begin is with careful, sustained study of the church's confessions. Presbyterian pastors take vows to "sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions . . . [and to] be instructed and led by those confessions." The confessions are the church's theology. They lead us out of the narrowness of our own thinking to the wider testimony of the community of faith across time and space. If we take the confessions seriously, they will guide us into a deeper reading of the Bible in its witness to the living Lord.

Common Practice

Who could ever be disciplined enough in prayer, Scripture reading, and theological reflection? All of us will fall short. That is why it is critically important that we have others who accompany us-especially other pastors with whom we will covenant to pray and read Scripture and think theologically on a regular, disciplined basis. We need others who will encourage us and help hold us accountable in living the faith.

Pastors sometimes forget that the great Karl Barth himself began his work as a simple country pastor. For twelve years, he ministered to a small Swiss village in the Alps. We might wonder how this towering intellectual figure could ever connect with the local farmers and village people. But apparently Barth was a very good pastor. He was a good pastor because he cared about people. He made time for them. He let them know that he was on their side.

Above all, Barth wanted people to know the risen, living Jesus. He got tremendously excited about every sermon that he preached. His biographer tells us that Barth would sit down to breakfast Sunday morning, but would be so focused on what he wanted to say that he would forget to eat and would literally run from his house to the pulpit.

As brilliant as Barth was, he knew that he needed a partner in ministry to help keep him rooted in his pastoral identity. He had such a friend in a pastor in a neighboring Swiss village, and every Monday Barth would get up at 4 a.m. and jog 18 miles over the mountains into the next valley to meet him for breakfast and a day of prayer, Scripture reading, and theological reflection. Even Barth needed someone to encourage him and help hold him accountable.

The challenge to us is clear. Who will our partners in ministry be? With whom will we covenant to pray, read Scripture, and reflect theologically on a regular basis-hopefully, daily-basis? How will we become more disciplined in faithful living, both for our own sake  and for the sake of the congregations that we seek to serve?

It is a difficult time to be a pastor, but there is no more important a time to be a pastor. If we can stay firm in our identity as pastors who point to Jesus Christ, we will help the church to claim its true identity in him. If we as pastors stay disciplined in faith, we will make some small, but critical contribution to renewing the church in our time. And in all this, we will perhaps grow in our own joy for this privileged task to which the church has called us.

(These comments were originally made to a group of commissioned lay pastors in Redstone Presbytery, on Sept. 27, 2003.)

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