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.

Churches are limited by their leaders

As a leader, you must understand your enterprise will never outgrow you.

— Dave Ramsey

Pastors are leaders, right?

I have to put that question mark on there because I think there are people who would argue against that. Church people often get itchy when words and ideas used in business are spoken in the sanctuary.

But, let’s be honest. Pastor are leaders. We are called and appointed to lead congregations.

This may be obvious to you, but it is weighing on me these days. A few months into my first appointment in the United Methodist Church, I am aware of the truth of Ramsey’s quote. This church I serve was here long before me. It is doing many good things and has many good Christians trying to be better Christians, but its ability to rise above what it is and to do the things it needs to grow and fulfill its mission depends to a great extent on the kind of leadership I offer will it.

That does not mean I am “the boss.” Ramsey makes a great point that people who just try to throw power around are bosses not leaders. As leaders in the church, pastors rarely have that kind of raw power and if they did and used it, they would undermine their own leadership.

To reject bad leadership, though, is not to reject the need for leadership. And it is wrong of pastors to say “I don’t lead the church. Jesus does.” It is wrong because it is an escape from responsibility. Jesus took Peter aside and told him to feed his sheep. Of course, Jesus is the head of the church, but he appoints people to lead within it. I am one of those people.

So, I’m coming to terms with what it means to be a leader of a local church, not just a guy who can write a fairly good sermon, think deep thoughts about Wesleyan theology, and teach a good Bible study. I can do all those things. But what my church needs me to do is to become a leader, a Christian leader, a servant leader, but a leader.

I have few deep thoughts about this to share with you today, but as this blog has been a journal of my progress in faith and into the clergy, I am checking in to share this thought. Pray for your pastor, and pastors pray for each other. I’ll close with a second Ramsey quote that I will carry with me for some time.

Organizations are never limited by their opportunity; they are limited by their leader.

The missing parts of the story

I had a curious exchange recently with a man who got me thinking about being a pastor.

Talking to this man, who professes faith in Jesus Christ, I realized that the story he tells himself about his own life includes neither Genesis 3 nor Revelation. If he wrote a private version of the Nicene Creed, it would not include the line about Jesus being crucified for our sake or coming to judge the living and the dead. The article on the Holy Spirit would not include mention of forgiveness of sins or the life of the world to come.

He is living now and for today and — so far as he can see it — the only point of Christianity is to help improve the material and social conditions of people living right now. The only sin he could see in the world was “institutional” or “systematic.” It was all out there and not in him.

I understand that Christianity can easily become so “other worldly” that it fails to live out the call to love our neighbor. It is pretty easy, however, for me to point out where and how the Bible instructs us on this point and corrects this mistake. Someone who acts as if Christianity is purely about getting a personal, eternal fire-insurance policy has missed some important parts of the Bible.

And it seems to me that the man I was talking to did so as well. Talk of his own sin, his need for a Savior, and his own eternal status before the Lord were dismissed as if the Bible never spoke a word about such things.

I struggled to draw his attention to this in a way that he could hear. I’m sure he left our encounter convinced that I was the one missing the point.

I am reflecting on the conversation, in part, because I know that man is not the only one in my community who thinks that way. I wonder how I am called to witness to our faith in his presence. As a pastor, how do I best feed this lamb of Christ?

There is a model in our Wesleyan heritage that says the correct response is to lay out in clear terms his mistakes. Like John Wesley himself, we might dust off our copy of “Almost Christian” and walk through point-by-point where he has gotten the whole thing wrong.

That is a model, and Wesley would chide me at my hesitation to embrace it. He would tell me to pick up my cross and bear it for the sake of this lost soul. He would remind me that if this fellow — clearly still in the slumbers of his fallen nature — would not hear the message, I would at least be clear of the guilt of refusing to deliver it. His blood would not be on my hands.

I can feel Wesley’s firm but loving stare as I write these things, but I must confess that I feel ill-equipped for such a response.

Nearly every person we encounter — and I don’t exclude myself here — is getting something wrong and failing to live the faith we profess in full. How as pastors do we respond? The answer, of course, depends on the particulars of the person and the situation before us. There are blanket principles but not blanket answers. Each person requires different things. This is also something Wesley would say.

Discerning when to lead with the rod and when to offer milk is a skill learned over many years. I am aware that I have much to learn in this area. I know myself well enough to know I am apt to err too much toward gentleness when firmness is often required. I pray that the Lord will give me grace to do this thing I have been called to do, to feed and care for his flock.