Why are you a pastor? #LukeActs2014

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.

If Peyton Manning were a pastor

I was reading this story about Peyton Manning being the most respected player in the NFL. The story included this quote by another players:

“A guy like Peyton, you watch how he does things, how he works, even now when he works like a guy just trying to make it, not a guy who’s done what he has, you always have hope. And that’s rare.”

The quote made me wonder what it would mean to be a pastor who prepares and works like a guy or gal who is “just trying to make it.”

Or, perhaps to be a little less worldly about things, what does it mean to be a pastor who pursues his or her vocation in a way that leads to God saying “Well done, by good and faithful servant”?

Eugene, me, and extroverted churches

The one thing I think is at the root of a lot of pastors’ restlessness and dissatisfaction is impatience. They think if they get the right system, the right programs, the right place, the right location, the right demographics, it’ll be a snap. And for some people it is: if you’re a good actor, if you have a big smile, if you are an extrovert. In some ways, a religious crowd is the easiest crowd to gather in the world. Our country’s full of examples of that. But for most, pastoring is a very ordinary way to live. And it is difficult in many ways because your time is not your own, for the most part, and the whole culture is against you. This consumer culture, people grow up determining what they want to do by what they can consume. And the Christian gospel is just quite the opposite of that. And people don’t know that. And pastors don’t know that when they start out. We’ve got a whole culture that is programmed to please people, telling them what they want.  And if you do that, you might end up with a big church, but you won’t be a pastor.

Whenever I read words like these form Eugene Peterson, I want to know how much time he has spent around “big churches.”

On the one hand, something rings true in what he says. I went to a satellite church of one of our big United Methodist mega-churches earlier this year. In the sermon, the campus pastor was going on for a few minutes about “our leader.” I thought he was talking about Jesus. Turns out he was talking about the senior pastor at the main campus. We do fall into cults of personality rather easily. So, I understand the worry there.

On the other hand, it seems rather convenient to dismiss extroverted church as not real church. I am an introvert, like Peterson, so I suspect I’ll never lead a big, big church. Indeed, the thought of doing so makes me shudder a bit. Not only am I introverted, but I’m also not much of an administrator. These are not my gifts. And yet, I do not see why we would dismiss those gifts as not useful to God’s purposes. By some accounts, 75% of people in the United States are extroverts. They need church, too.

Leo McGarry on being a pastor

Something Chad Holtz wrote a few days ago got me thinking of this West Wing scene.

Like Holtz, the 17th century British priest Richard Baxter believed that one problem facing many clergy was that they had never actually experienced salvation themselves. To use Leo McGarry’s terms, they’d never been down in that hole and found their way out.

Here’s how Baxter put it:

Alas! it is the common danger and calamity of the Church, to have unregenerate and inexperienced pastors, and to have so many men become preachers before they are Christians; who are sanctified by dedication to the altar as the priests of God, before they are sanctified by hearty dedication as the disciples of Christ; and so to worship an unknown God, and to preach an unknown Christ, to pray through an unknown Holy Spirit, to recommend a state of holiness and communion with God, and a glory and a happiness which are all unknown, and like to be unknown to them forever. He is like to be but a heartless preacher, that hath not the Christ and grace that he preacheth, in his heart.

These words of Baxter get, I think, at what the United Methodist Church means — or used to mean — when it asked after the gifts and graces of candidates for ordination. We wanted to know if candidates knew Christ as savior and had evidence of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

If I press this line too far, I suspect someone will raise the specter of Donatism to accuse me. And yet I find Leo McGarry quite persuasive on this point. The best person to help another person out of a hole is one whose been down there before and knows the way out.

Do we know the way out?