The perilous work of the pastor

I read an immense amount these days about clergy burn out. My brothers and sisters serving churches are well aware of the many pressures that have come with leading a congregation during a pandemic.

When I find myself feeling such burdens or stress, I often find it helpful to ask myself what lies at the core of what I’m doing. Finding my focus often helps me better cope when days get difficult. It may not help you. It does help me to ask questions about who we are and what we are about.

What is the work of a pastor?

Here is one of the ways John Wesley described it:

It is, indeed, a very great thing to speak in the name of God; it might make him that is the stoutest of heart tremble, if he considered that every time he speaks to others, his own soul is at stake. But great, inexpressibly great, as this is, it is but the least part of our work. To “seek and save that which is lost;” to bring souls from Satan to God; to instruct the ignorant; to reclaim the wicked; to convince the gainsayer; to direct their feet into the way of peace, and then keep them therein; to follow them step by step, lest they turn out of the way, and advise them in their doubts and temptations; and to comfort the weak-hearted; to administer various helps, as the variety of occasions requires, according to their several necessities: These are parts of our office; all this we have undertaken at the peril of our own soul. (from “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion”)

Having been a recent sojourner in the ordination process of the United Methodist Church, I am struck as I read these words by the sense of danger Wesley infuses into his description of the pastor’s work. In case you missed it, he writes that as we preach and shepherd the portion of the Lord’s flock that has  been placed in our care, we must be aware that our own souls are on the line. If we lead people astray or speak falsely of the things of God, we are responsible for the harm we cause. Christ will hold us to account if we betray this trust.

We don’t talk about that in seminary. It does not come up in our interviews. No one ever says to those navigating the hoops and hurdles of ordination: “Consider this carefully. Make sure you are really called to this work. If you screw this up, it is your soul that is on the line.”

Okay, so perhaps this does not feel like the best way to ease the burden of pastors in days like these, but I want to explain why it helps me.

I think the biggest challenge that pastors face in the church today is mission creep. Since there is no job description for pastors, you can come up with a reason why we should do literally anything. It might take a little work to get there, but since most people see the primary job of pastor as “helping” people, you can talk yourself into just about anything as long as it helps someone.

As the American church has become much more reticent to talk about sin, judgment, hell, and eternity, the notion that the church and the pastor exist to “do good” has become not just the external evaluation of churches but often our internal justification as well. In Methodism, we even pretend that John Wesley told us “do all the good we can” was the definition of what it means to be a Methodist.

In such an environment, it is no wonder pastors are burning out and breaking down. There is literally no end to the things pastors should be doing right now if you think our primary job is to “help people.”

For me, the words of Wesley help me clarify why I am here and what I am called to do in the church. They put the focus on the particular “good” I am called to do. They do not simplify this work in the least, but they do help me to keep my eyes on the target. They do not eliminate the questions about how to be the church in a pandemic, but they do help me think a bit more clearly about what “the church” is and what it is meant to be doing.

Reading Wesley’s words above, I find myself a bit intimidated by the importance and the size of the task I have been given to do. I am immediately aware that the only way I can hope to do this work is by spending a lot of time asking God to help me. Thank God, he does.

The work we still have to do

When I started blogging in the early 2000s, blogging was a fairly new thing. I was a United Methodist lay member beginning to wrestle with a sense of call to ministry. One of the big things I was wrestling with was the question “What is a Methodist?” This question led me to John Wesley, and exploring his writings has been the major emphasis of this blog.

This summer, I was ordained as an elder in full connection with the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church. In one sense, the journey that began with this blog has come to an end.

And yet, the initial question remains. Indeed, in some ways it is even more pressing now than it was nearly 20 years ago. As our denomination approaches a split, the question “What is a Methodist?” will be answered in concrete ways as new denominations come into existence and millions of individual United Methodists have to choose a vision of Methodism with which they will journey forward.

For many people, the question “What is a Methodist?” can only be answered by looking at present reality. It is an empirical question. To answer it, we do a survey or study of self-identified Methodists, and from that data construct a portrait of Methodism.

I think such an approach leaves much to be desired. It mistakes the current form of Methodism for the thing God intended it to be. When I want to know what Methodism is, I always go back to the beginning. I want to hear again the words — and sing the songs — that shaped this movement that became a church.

In “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists,” John Wesley describes the convictions that were preached at the very start of Methodism. He lists the following four, which I have paraphrased out of 18th century English to make them easier to discuss.

  1. True Christianity is nothing less than the full restoration of God’s original intention for our lives. It is living in peace, joy, and love as God intended us to do when we were created. We do not get there merely by having the right opinions about doctrine or being nice or doing good deeds or being eager for religious activities.
  2. We get there by repenting of our sins and having faith in Jesus Christ.
  3. This faith comes freely to anyone who relies solely on the grace of Jesus Christ.
  4. And once we have come to this faith will have right now — not some date in the future after we die — a taste of the joy, peace, and happiness of heaven. The Holy Spirit gives us the power to conquer sin and all the fear and misery it brings with it.

These are the ideas that gave rise to Methodism. It was at its heart a movement convinced that true Christianity had become diluted into a bland churchmanship. Show up, be nice, do good works, hold to the proper doctrines, and you were a good Christian. The brothers Wesley had drunk from this well and found it poisonous.

Here is how Wesley described the situation he saw in the church of his day.

We see, on every side, either men of no religion at all, or men of a lifeless, formal religion. We are grieved at the sight; and should greatly rejoice, if by any means we might convince some that there is a better religion to be attained — a religion worthy of the God that gave it. (“An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion”)

Wesley himself had been a practitioner and teacher of this lifeless religion until God’s grace got a hold of him. No one in England had a higher view of God or more desire to serve Jesus Christ than John Wesley. No one spent more of his time devoted to good works and spiritual growth than Wesley, but until God warmed his heart with the assurance of his forgiveness, Wesley never knew peace with God. Until the Holy Spirit filled his heart, Wesley never felt the power to overcome sin and never experienced the love that it would take a thousand tongues to sing about.

After encountering the free grace of God, Wesley’s life would be spent trying to inform the world that God has so much more to offer than what the church in his day had settled on as Christianity. God does not just want us to muddle through. He does not want us to be merely nice people who do nice things. He desires for us to be the creatures he created us to be, and he has shown us the way to become what he desires.

These are the things the Holy Spirit brought Methodism into the world to teach and live.

And here is the thing I’ve learned a pastor of small churches in Indiana for the last 15 years. Not many of our people know what it means to be a Methodist. Indeed, a large portion of the people in our pews don’t have a very firm grasp on what it means to have a vital and life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ. It is not that they do not want that. They simply do not know Jesus. They do not know themselves to be saved. They are like John Wesley before his heart was strangely warmed.

I have spent too many hours at the hospital or death bed of men and women who had built their faith upon the sand of good churchmanship. When the crisis came, they discovered that being good church members and going on mission trips did not actually give them the assurance of salvation they needed to weather the storms of cancer and heart disease. Learning about Jesus was no substitute for knowing Jesus. Contributing proudly to UMCOR every year did not give them the love, joy, and peace of the Holy Spirit.

I certainly do not have all the answers, but the longer I serve as a pastor, the more I realize that the best thing I can do is help people actually learn what it means to be a Christian and help them to actually — often finally — meet Jesus. This is not glamorous work, and certainly not work that the secular world will find useful, but I believe it is the work God has appointed us to do. Wherever Methodism goes in the next two years, I hope we never lose sight of where we came from and the work God called forth the Methodists to do.

The quest for healthier and smarter churches

I am in that curious time in the life of a United Methodist pastor. I’ve left my previous church and not yet started work at my new church. It is a time of anticipation and enforced patience.

For me, it is a time to think about my first year in this new place. As part of that, I’m reading again Patrick Lencioni’s book The Advantage.

In the opening pages of the book, Lencioni writes about the fact that there is a crucial difference between the value of being a smart organization and a healthy organization. You need both. Lencioni writes that in all his years working as a consultant, he has never spent time with a business and thought the problem was that the executives needed to work on getting smarter about their business or fundamental business activities such as marketing, technology, and finance. The problem he sees that organizations are not healthy.

A healthy organization is marked by these qualities: Minimal politics, minimal confusion, high morale, high productivity, and low turnover.

Most businesses are smart enough to succeed. Lots of them are unhealthy and don’t know how to get healthy.

What does this have to do with churches?

I’m not expert. I’ve been a pastor for 14 years at small to very small churches. I have no book to write about church growth, and if I wrote one, no one would buy it. But I do have a few thoughts on this question.

First, a lot of churches have a double-sided problem. They struggle with being healthy organizations. Sadly, churches are often places with lots of politics, lots of confusion, low morale and the other markers of unhealthy organizations. This is nothing new. Read the New Testament and you see it from the beginning. But being healthy is not the only challenge many churches face. They also often struggle with the fundamentals. They can be quite muddled about strategy, confused about how to reach and communicate with insiders and outsiders, and challenged by technology and sound and basic financial management. Not every church has these problems, but many do.

Second, I think Lencioni is fundamentally correct when he says that healthy organizations get smarter. Healthy organizations see problems and deal with them instead of avoiding them. As a result they develop the skills they need. I’ve seen businesses and churches that exemplify this. They are exciting places to be.

So the question then becomes: How do churches become healthy?

That is the rest of the book, which I’ve only started reading again. Stay tuned. Please feel free to share your experiences with healthy and unhealthy churches.