We read Scripture from a place and with eyes shaped by our lives. While reading Luke 4 this week as part of Bishop Ken Carter’s year-long reading plan, I was also hearing news of appointment season starting in the United Methodist Church. News of pastors moving starts trickling out. Prayers and recriminations are offered. Eventually someone, somewhere starts up another conversation about the merits and virtue of our system of itinerancy.
So, it was that I read the last verses of Luke 4.
At daybreak, Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them. But he said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” And he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea. (Luke 4: 42-44, NIV)
I am not trying to suggest this as a proof-text for itinerancy. I would not argue against wiser and more experienced people who have a heart for the mission of the church who argue that the system has outlived its usefulness. Practical and pragmatic change would be in-keeping with our founding ethos.
But it does get me thinking about the why questions.
Why does the United Methodist Church exist? Why do we have clergy? Why do they preach? Why do they end up in particular places?
It is a particular vice of preachers that we often answer questions about ourselves by looking at Jesus, so reading this text and contemplating the why questions may be nothing more than an invitation to misplaced pride.
But, at the risk of that, I want to ask myself this very simple question: Why are you a pastor?
The pat answer I give and people I know give goes something like: Because God called me to it.
That feels like avoiding the question. It feels like a dodge or even a bit of pride.
Why am I a pastor?
If it feels like I’m avoiding writing my answer, you are correct. You are correct because the answer that forms on my soul as I ask this question undermines a lot of my pastoral practice.
The answer to the question in the Methodist tradition goes like this: Your business as a pastor is to save souls.
John Wesley told his preachers that was their primary task.
It is not your business to preach so many times, and to take care of this or that society; but to save as many souls as you can; to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance, and with all your power to build them up in that holiness without which they cannot see the Lord.
Recently, Bishop Scott Jones of the Great Plains Conference said the same the same thing:
We are a body of clergy—elders, deacons, associate members and local pastors—bound together in a covenant whose purpose is the saving of souls.
The problem with this answer is that a lot of what I do does not reflect that purpose very well.
A lot of what I do reflects institutional concerns. A lot of it reflects the needs of people for a chaplain. A lot has to do with fear of conflict and desire for harmony. (If I am more generous with myself than I am feeling at the moment, I notice that harmony, responding to needs, and even caring for the institution are not bad things in themselves. But I cannot deny I often feel this deep divide within myself over these questions.)
So, while I know the vast majority of Christians will not read Luke 4 with my eyes and questions, I do find Jesus putting me on the spot today.