Is that job already taken?

What is the better metaphor for the role of elders in the United Methodist Church: Watchman/woman or Shepherd?

John Wesley most often made reference to the way Ezekiel speaks about watchmen. He spoke often of being clear of the blood of those who did not listen to his preaching. He had Ezekiel 3 and/or Ezekiel 33 in mind.

“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself.” (Ezekiel 3:17-19, NIV)

But Ezekiel also speaks of shepherds.

“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.” (Ezekiel 34:2-6, NIV)

Yes, I know these are not the only two metaphors for the work of an elder, but today this is where I am looking.

On the one hand, I am drawn toward the metaphor of the shepherd because it plays toward my gentle and nurturing side. But, of course, in Ezekiel 34, God seems pretty set on assuming the title and role of shepherd for himself.

Could it be that it is God’s task to gather up the lost, bind up their wounds, and provide them with food?

Could it be that the task of the elder is more to be a watcher on the wall than to be a shepherd in the field, to study and speak the word of the Lord? Is that perhaps what Paul is saying to Timothy?

These are honest questions. And I know the answer is probably more both/and than either/or, but I do wonder if we run the risk of usurping the role of Jesus when we see ourselves primarily as shepherds.

Putting faith in two inches of humus

In some ways, I want to be a pastor the way Wendell Berry is a farmer.

I wrote that sentence so I could decide whether it is true. Reading it now, I think it is. At least no part of me rises up to resist that statement as my own.

I admire the way brother Wendell found a place and worked it and let it work him. I admire the way he writes. I admire the way he says standing by our words is the test of who we are. I admire so much about him that I can forgive him for being from Kentucky.

All these thoughts came up today as I was reading his mad farmer manifesto.

These thoughts probably come up because I am at seminary, and being here with so many other students from so many different places and traditions always shakes up what I think I know and sends me back to the places that feel solid and true. This also happens because I’m contemplating commissioning as an elder next year and the always on the move, never setting down roots kind of ministry we do. How do you love and cultivate the land when you are barely there long enough to break up the soil once or twice?

I’ve been writing this week about national headlines and denominational politics and the thoughts of our best and most glittering pastors. It makes me long for some small, good work to do, a few acres in God’s kingdom and the confidence of knowing that spring will follow winter and the apple blossoms are hidden there waiting for rain.

What the Bible says about female clergy

Ben Witherington III from Asbury seminary shares an old post he wrote aimed at all the common arguments why women should not be clergy or leaders in churches.

The post goes into a fair amount of detail and exegesis. It serves as a caution against assuming we understand everything in the Bible. If you find the post too dense, I suggest you pick up some of Witherington’s books. I’ve found them to to be excellent and his insights into the New Testament always valuable.

Of course, there are people who disagree with Witherington’s argument on the issue of women in leadership. I am persuaded by his case, though. And I am grateful that it is made without declaring the Bible — or Paul — simply wrong or outdated.

Here’s how he ends this blog post:

As I have learned over many years…. the problem in the church is not strong and gifted women. We need all those we can get, and were it not for them, many churches would have closed long ago. I remember so vividly meeting the babooshkas– the grandmothers in the Moscow Baptist Church, who had stopped Stalin from closing the church by standing in the door and not letting his troops enter and close it down. Thank God for strong, gifted women in the church. No, the problem in the church is not strong women, but rather weak men who feel threatened by strong women, and have tried various means, even by dubious exegesis to prohibit them from exercising their gifts and graces in the church.

What it means to save souls

So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. (Romans 14:12)

John Wesley famously told his preachers that they have nothing to do but to save souls.

If we are not listening carefully to him, we might fall into the trap of thinking he is aiming at mere conversion. This might sound like an appeal for a kind of altar-rail salvation that takes a much too narrow view of the meaning of salvation but packages well in American culture.

Conversion is important, crucial even. But it is just a step in the process of salvation. It is salvation begun but not salvation completed. Salvation is not complete until the second coming when the book of life is opened and read.

If that is true, then the work of the pastor is not conversion but fruit. Each one of us will stand one day before the Lord who will judge us. And so the work of the pastor is to help people get ready to have their lives laid bear before the judgement seat of God.

Saving faith in Jesus Christ is absolutely necessary for this work. It is the power to destroy sin and remove guilt and shame, but it is not everything. We can’t be saved without coming to faith in Christ, but coming to faith is the beginning rather than the end of the journey.

Passing the test

Aside

How can the work of a pastor be thought of as getting people ready to pass their final exam? (Rev. 20:11-14)

It is the Presbyterian who speaks to me

Two contemporary books define between them nearly all the tensions I feel in pastoral ministry.

The first is Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. The second is Adam Hamilton’s Selling Swimsuits in the Arctic.

Hamilton is an extroverted and visionary mega-church pastor who in his book tells the story about how selling shoes taught him a lot about what it takes to be a good pastor. Peterson is a Presbyterian church planter, best known for his biblical paraphrase The Message, who recoils at the idea of a church having anything in common with a shoe store.

By temperament, I am much more inclined toward Peterson. He once told his congregational leaders that what he most wanted to do among them was pray, study Scripture and the world, get to know them, and lead them in worship. He wanted to stop all the projects and work of running a church. He also tells the story about the denominational official who told him to respond to a decline in worship attendance by launching a new building program. Americans, the official told him, only respond to projects. Peterson said he left the meeting knowing he was not going to take that advice, but not knowing what to do.

I understand that feeling.

Hamilton, in contrast, is energetic and extremely skillful at casting visions and getting things done. He understands how to communicate and is brilliant at organization. His church has without any doubt had a huge impact on its community and the entire United Methodist denomination. I’m not sure if Hamilton ever had a talk with his congregational leadership about the things that he most wants to do among them, but I have no doubt that he has a list of items that would be quite persuasive as an outline of what a church pastor should do.

I admire Hamilton, but I know I am not him nor will be any time soon. And yet, I still feel the tug of his example. It is duplicated by so many pastors who bring a set of practical gifts for helping other people encounter Jesus and grow in their faith. They are people of action and vision. They get things done. It feels like the United Methodist Church needs people who get things done.

As many people who know me will testify, getting things done is not one of my defining traits. I worry that makes me a poor fit for the needs of the church right now, but at my age I am not likely to become a different person than I am.

And so my copy of Five Smooth Stones is dog-eared and underlined heavily. My copy of Selling Swimsuits is in a box with my other books. It is from Peterson’s book that I find the most encouragement. I don’t think that is because Hamilton is wrong, but he simply is not very much in tune with my gifts and faults. Thank God for pastors like Hamilton. Thank God for pastors like Peterson.