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 big C Church

I’ve been reading City of God by Augustine recently. A couple of passages about the nature of the church have grabbed my attention and won’t let me rest.

Normally, I would write a post about these kinds of passages and try to make some point or argue for some conclusion arising from them. But for the last couple of days I’ve been trying to land on a conclusion without success. So, I’m going to share these quotations and some questions they are stirring up for me.

Here are the passages:

[W]hile the City of God is on pilgrimage in this world, she has in her midst some who are united with her in participation in the sacraments, but who will not join with her in the eternal destiny of the saints. Some of these are hidden; some are well known, for they do not hesitate to murmur against God, whose sacramental sign they bear, even in the company of his acknowledged enemies. (Book I, Chapter 35)

And later:

In this wicked world, and in these evil times, the Church through her present humiliation is preparing for future exaltation. She is being trained by the stings of fear, the tortures of sorrow, the distresses of hardship, and the dangers of temptation; and she rejoices only in expectation, when her joy is wholesome. In this situation, many reprobates are mingled in the Church with the good and both sorts are collected as it were in the dragnet of the gospel, and in this world, as in a sea, both kinds swim without separation, enclosed in nets until the shore is reached. There the evil are to be divided from the good … (Book XVIII, Chapter 49)

I love that phrase “in the dragnet of the gospel.”

Here are some questions and thoughts that arise for me from reading these words.

I experience a tension here between Augustine’s realism about the church as it is and John Wesley’s passion for a movement that strives for a robust sense of lived holiness. Perhaps this is at its heart the difference between a church and a movement. If so, I wonder how United Methodism — or whatever forms come next — learns to live with that tension.

I wonder what Augustine sees as the role of the clergy in shepherding those in the church who are known to “murmur against God”? What, I wonder, did the bishop do in the face of members of the church who did not keep their baptismal vows? Wesley did not hesitate to eject “disorderly walkers” from Methodist class meetings. What would Augustine say about that?

Finally, I’m struck by the Augustine’s language about the church here. Just as his book speaks of the church as the city of God, he writes in these passages in a sense of the church as a collective. The church is being prepared for its final exaltation and glory. The language is a contrast to the way I often think and often hear others speak about the church. We often see the church as a collection of individuals, and we usually talk about salvation in terms of this or that individual. Augustine has a different point of focus. Clearly, he is attentive to the fact that the church has individual people in it, but his vision of the church and salvation seems to come — for lack of a better phrase — from the top down rather than the bottom up.

Again, I feel a tension between our emphasis on local, contextual, and congregationalist impulses and the idea that the Church (capital C this time on purpose) is a body that as a whole is on a pilgrimage toward glory. I don’t know exactly how to describe this tension much less discuss ways to navigate it, but I wonder if we United Methodists have let our distrust of our broken polity erode our ability to perceive or speak about the Church in the way an Augustine would.

As I warned you at the start of this post, I don’t have any conclusions to argue here. I am sharing these passages from Augustine and some of the thoughts in my head because I need to get give those thoughts another place to live for a while until I can give them more attention. I don’t have the leisure right now to wrestle with them like Jacob.

I’d be interested in any thoughts or questions these words stir up for you.

Can we kindle less of that dreadful light?

In my previous two posts (1, 2), I looked at some of the motivations for John Wesley’s preaching and his goals in that preaching. In this post, I turn to look at the closing words from the preface to his first series of sermons. Here we find his words to those who believe his theology to be wrong headed and his actions misguided.

Wesley addresses such people with a request.

Are you persuaded you see more clearly than me? It is not unlikely that you may. Then treat me as you would desire to be treated yourself upon a change of circumstance. Point me out a better way than I have yet known. Show me it is so, by plain proof in Scripture. And if I linger in the path I have been accustomed to tread, and am therefore unwilling to leave it, labour with me a little; take me by the hand, and lead me as I am able to bear. But be not displeased if I entreat you not to beat me down in order to quicken my pace.

Wesley had an extraordinary quality that I struggle to imitate in its fullness. He was capable of preaching and teaching out of a rock solid conviction that souls were hanging on the line. He did not waffle at all about the importance of the things he preached or the stakes for those who heard him. Eternity was at risk and there was no place in his preaching for “well some people say this but others say that.” He believed God had revealed the truth and the truth needed to be preached.

That got him excluded from a lot of pulpits. It caused people to throw rocks at him while he preached. He was not trying to please people. He was trying to please God in the only way he could see how.

And yet, along side this he held just as fiercely to the notion that he could be wrong and that we should not rip each other to shreds over our differences. We did not have to agree, but we should never fail to love each other.

No, this did not mean he ignored doctrinal error or sin. He tossed hundreds of people out of society meetings for their failure to abide by the covenants they made when joining. But he never aimed to do so in a spirit of wrath. (He was human so surely failed at times.)

As he wrote in his preface:

For God’s sake, if it be possible to avoid it, let us not provoke on another to wrath. Let us not kindle in each other this fire of hell; much less blow it up into a flame. If we could discern truth by that dreadful light, would it not be loss, rather than gain? For, how far is love, even with many wrong opinions, to be preferred before truth itself without love! We may die without the knowledge of many truths, and yet be carried into Abraham’s bosom. But if we die without love, what will knowledge avail? Just as much as it avails the devil and his angels!

These are really quite remarkable words.

The United Methodist Church right now is coming apart. As it does, I am seeing more and more that “dreadful light” flaring up among us. I hear people attributing evil motives to each other and assuming the worst of their fellow Christians. Less and less charity seems to remain for those whose understanding of doctrine differs.

As we acknowledge the reality that our church is broken and divided, can we have as much charity toward one another as Wesley had for his critics and opponents? Having labored for more than 40 years to convince each other of our errors, could we give the devil a little less reason to smile about the way we treat each other as we conclude that we must walk different roads in the days ahead?