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.

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.

Pastor school via Ezekiel & Jeremiah

Let the prophet who has a dream recount the dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?” declares the Lord. “Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:28-29)

I’ve been thinking recently that every seminary and pastor training course should include a lesson on Ezekiel 33 & 34 and Jeremiah 23, not just as part of a general Old Testament class but specifically as part of pastoral formation. There are probably other chapters that should be thrown in there as well. What they all have in common is the stern words of God for shepherds or prophets who do not teach faithfully, who do not warn the people about the utter seriousness of being God’s people, and who do not strengthen them with the pure word of God.

The word is a hammer that break rocks to pieces.

How often is my preaching more like a velvet blanket?

In Ezekiel, God warns of the watchman who fails to warn people from their wickedness. The blood of the wicked will be on the hands of the watcher who holds his or her tongue. Jeremiah lashes out at the prophets who say “peace, peace” to the people when there is no peace.

God’s desire is not to destroy or burn. His desire is to turn people from their wicked ways.

And if I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ but they then turn away from their sin and do what is just and right — if they give back what they took in pledge for a loan, return what they have stolen, follow the decrees that give life, and do no evil — that person will surely live; they will not die. None of the sins that person has committed will be remembered against them. They have done what is just and right; they will surely live. (Ezekiel 33:14-16)

The message is one of grace, in the end, but it is grace on the heels of a word that burns like fire and shatters stone. God does not desire that anyone should perish, but that is what will surely happen if we do not repent of our wicked ways. (And just to be clear, this is not only about sex. It is about oppression and violence and exploitation of the weak; also it is about sex.)

I read these passages today, and I wonder how my ministry has heard them and whether it reflects the heart of God in regard to these things.

I read these words from Ezekiel and Jeremiah and I wonder how my brothers and sisters in the clergy hear them.

What we do that no one else does

On Sunday, I preached at a Sunday night Lenten service about the need for spiritual accountability. The point was that, left to ourselves, we talk ourselves into – or let the devil talk us into – all kinds of bad ideas. The pastor at the host church reached out to me afterward and said he wants to talk about ways we might build on that message. I had a couple of lay members also express some interest in the kind of Wesleyan spiritual accountability groups that I mentioned in the preaching. So, that was a good evening, but one that I need to build upon if it is to bear any fruit. I’m great at beginnings; I’m not so strong on follow through.

The sermon idea arose out of a conviction I’ve been feeling recently that my ministry has provided a fair amount of care to others but not much in the way of growth. I think part of this conviction arises after three funerals in the last month at the two churches I serve. When you put a person in the ground, it gives you pause to reflect on whether you’ve done what you should have done as their pastor, which, of course, gets to issues of pastoral identity.

I’ve been on such a long journey when it comes to pastoral identity, not long in time, perhaps — I’ve been preaching close to 8 years now – but long in theological distance. If you had told me in 2007 that the role of the pastor is to get people ready to meet their maker, I would have wondered where the tent meeting revival was that you’d wandered away from. I am a spiritual child of American university towns and mainline Protestantism. In my world, churches existed to comfort and soothe and perhaps provide an organizing point for good works. The primary message was that God loves you because you are loveable and God loves everyone else even if they are not loveable. I’d never heard in a church I attended any preacher suggest that his or her job was – as John Wesley would put it – to save souls.

And yet, I am persuaded more and more that saving souls is precisely the only thing that the church does – or facilitates – that no other institution can do or cares to do. We have lots of community building groups and political action groups and counseling groups. Many of them do what the church tries to do in these areas much more effectively than the church does. What we do that we alone do is teach, lead, and encourage people on to salvation.

So, on Sunday, I tried to preach a message that would both convict and encourage the Christians who are serious enough about their faith to come out on Sunday night for a second worship service. It was a small fraction of the membership of the six congregations that are hosting these Lenten services. But like the handful of those who expressed interest in accountability groups, I find myself drawn to the thought that these are the ones who most need my attention because they are the ones most earnestly seeking something deeper and more than what passes for Christianity in our culture today.

When I get back from Spring Break, I’m going to follow up with that pastor and with the few individuals who responded to the sermon. Or, at least, that is my goal.

For the love of the game

I’ve often thought that our trust issues in United Methodism would be helped with more public thinking by the men and women charged with leading our denomination.

This is why I have always valued Sky McCraken’s blog.

His latest post is a spot on example: A Pastor By Any Other Name — Revisited

The question that emerges for me after reading his post goes something like this: Would I be a pastor if there was no salary, no insurance, and no retirement plan? Would I do it because I was called and for no other reason?

If the answer is yes, then what would that look like?

The answer to my first two questions is “yes.” But I’m not sure what the answer to the third question would could be.

I wonder how you would answer.

Not a bad gig some days

“How do I get that?”

I had been talking to a woman about God. She was convinced that God could never look on her with love. She had done too much that in her own eyes was wrong and unworthy of God.

In all her talk, she had never uttered the word “Jesus,” even though she had talked over and over about her certainty that God “is there.”

So, I asked her about Jesus. She did not know what to say about him. She was not sure how God was Jesus and Jesus was God. It was all confusing. So, we talked about that for a little bit.

Then I talked to her about the fact that God loves us, loves her. I talked about the fact that all of us — me as much as any — fall short of the glory of God. We all are sinners. We all have a list of the ways we fall short of God’s dreams for our lives.

But the good news is this: While we were yet sinners, Jesus Christ died for us.

And I talked about the cross and forgiveness and new life.

I talked about the sense, the assurance, the knowledge that one can have that Jesus Christ loves me and died for me and forgives me, even me, for all sin.

“How can I get that?” she asked.

And so I talked about faith. I talked about trust in Jesus. I talked about it being something that we receive not something we do. I asked her if she would like to pray with me.

“I was going to ask you if we could,” she said.

And so we prayed. We confessed our sin. We asked to be forgiven. We named Jesus as Lord and Savior. We thanked him for all he has done and will do for us. One after the other. Voice after voice.

As she prayed, she cried.

We said “Amen.”

When I saw her the next day we talked about building on that foundation. We talked about finding a church where others could help her continue what had begun.

She said that before she had been seeking relationship with God. She thought she had it. But what she had was not real. It needed drugs and alcohol to keep her numb.

“I know what it means now. I know what it means to have a relationship with Jesus.”

She smiled.

Some days, being a pastor is not at all a bad way to get along in this world.