Saturday, February 21, 2009

Veteran Wisdom for New Pastors (and some not so new ...)

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Letters to New Pastors
Michael Jinkins
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, MI 2006

Pastoral ministry is not a career, Mal, it's a vocation, and if you chose it for yourself, you're in the wrong place. You're only going to do yourself and others a great deal of damage if you stay.
If God did not call you to ordained ministry, you really are on your own. And that's not really where you want to be, because you can't do this on your own!
The best pastors encourage deliberation among the people. The best pastors respect the movement of God's Spirit in the community. The best pastors help people discover the gifts God has given them. The best pastors help people sharpen their perceptions, deepen their understandings, and exercise the leadership to which God calls them--even (maybe especially) when they don't agree with the pastor.

A pastor who insists on getting his contractual "days off" is only setting professional boundaries. While thinking about professional boundaries may be important at some level, talk like this may squander a vital pastoral and teaching opportunity. The pastor who by example reminds us of our need for Sabbath rest, by contrast, invites us deeper into God's covenant of life with all creation.

If the church didn't have politics, it wouldn't be a group of people trying to work out how to live together. Because that's what politics is: people working out their common life, people negotiating their values, beliefs, and aspirations and the varying degrees of influence necessary to promote the values and beliefs they hold precious and aspirations they think are worth the work. Granted, the church is more than just a group of people trying to work out how to live together, but it is certainly no less than that.
Isn't it politics to work with others, including people of influence, to create a more livable community? Isn't it politics to seek the goals that are achievable now while not forgetting what we want to achieve in the long run? Isn't it politics to try to build bridges between people who may be able to agree on essentials though they would never agree on certain other things? Isn't it politics to shape our words diplomatically so that we can be heard even when tempers run high? Isn't it politics to pay attention to the interests and perspectives of the congregation, even when we don't personally share all their interests and every aspect of their perspective?
Jim Wallis recently mourned the fact that "politics has been reduced to the selfish struggle for power among competing interests and groups, instead of a process of searching for the common good." He says, "We can find common ground only by moving to higher ground." [Jim Wallis, The Soul of Politics: Beyond "Religious Right" and "Secular Left" (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, Harvest Books, 1995)] I hope you're willing to do all you can to redeem the church politics of our time, because if politics is left only to those of few scruples, we can hardly be surprised when it is unscrupulous.

Every year I make the mistake of thinking that life will be slower around the church in the summer months. But we don't slow down; we just shift gears. In some ways it's even busier than during the rest of the year, especially when you factor in youth camps, vacation church school, conferences, and the way we share duties when various staff members take their vacations.

I had a terrible argument with a member of my church. I cannot imagine now how in the world I let things get so heated. It just so happened that I left town the day after our argument. I was driving that next day, a Sunday morning, and as the usual time for worship approached (the holy hour of 11:00 A.M.), I found myself in a small town. I literally pulled into the first church parking lot I came to, walked into the church and sat down. I had never been in this church before, and in fact had never even been in a church of this denomination before. The preacher was preaching on the topic "Is Toleration a Christian Virtue?" You may be interested in his answer. He said, "I don't know if toleration is a Christian virtue. But I do know that humility is, and I know forgiveness is. Whether or not we are willing to tolerate the differences of others isn't really the question. We are called to discipleship by a God who guaranteed us only that if we follow him, we will receive a cross. That's it! Next to what the cross demands of us, tolerance is small potatoes."
As soon as worship was over, I found a phone and I called the church member I had argued with. I swallowed my pride, and asked for forgiveness.

Marjory Bankson has said, "The concept of call assumes we are spiritually linked with others and with creation, whether we like it or not...We separate in order to recognize that we are related--not only to each other but to God." [Marjory Zoet Bankson, The Call to the Soul: Six Stages Spiritual Development (Philadelphia: Innisfree Press, 1999)] I think this idea flows naturally from the idea that God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, created humanity to reflect God's own trinitarian community. We are created to be in relationship, and if we short-circuit this relatedness, we burn out.

Helmut Thielicke, in a book entitled A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, tells beginning seminary students that all real theology is prayed theology, reminding them that Saint Anselm's famous ontological argument for the existence of God is actually written as a prayer. [Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, introduction by Martin E. Marty (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962)] I really don't find it hard to think of academic theology as an act of prayer. What I sometimes find very hard, though, is to really, consistently think of pastoral ministry as prayer. Why? Because ministry requires a continual engagement with people, that's why. I find it infinitely easier to extend Christian charity and generosity of spirit to Kant than to the church organist, and no matter how frustrating I may find Barth's statement on the vestigia trinitatis, it's nothing like the frustration I feel when the nursery worker calls at the last minute --again--to say that she is running late. If ministry is an act of prayer, then all matters great and small are put in a whole new frame, and life (all of life) is a lot more complicated than it appears.

Okay, I understand that you think it's common courtesy to ask your members whether they'd like you to pray for them when they're in the hospital. And I can understand how a hospital chaplain visiting strangers would want to make doubly sure he or she were not transgressing a professional boundary. Many people in the hospital might resent receiving a spiritual or religious service if they were of another faith or of no faith at all. But, really, for the life of me, I cannot imagine why else you visit members of your congregation when they're sick except to pray for them. I can't tell you how often I have visited with people in the hospital who were puzzled and dismayed because their minister came by to see them, talked to them, listened to them, then left without praying for them. There is a sense in which pastoral ministry is a "helping profession," like nursing and social work. But there's also a sense in which it is something altogether different. Listening is important, and I can't tell you how long it took me to learn the wisdom of the old clinical pastoral education adage, "Don't just do something, stand there!" But I would wager that your people want you to pray for them as much if not more than they want you to listen to them. And what's more, they need you to pray for them.
It's possible you're thinking of prayer as a sort of zipper that closes a pastoral visit, instead of as that event from which everything else in the visit flows.
I can't tell you how often I have prayed at the "end" of a pastoral visit, only to look up at the end of the prayer into the face of the sick person, or into the face of a loved one, and realizing. "Now the pastoral conversation is about to start!"

The practice of faith and ministry is like a dance. Round and round we go, potentially growing wiser as we live and pray and reflect critically on what we are doing.

You need rest right now--spiritual rest, mental rest, and physical rest--and I want you to make sure you take better care of yourself. You haven't taken a vacation in far too long. But don't blame your exhaustion, even your spiritual exhaustion, on the idea that as a pastor you aren't able to get spiritual nourishment the way your laypeople get it. You aren't a layperson. You're a pastor. And, strangely enough, God has woven into our vocation some wonderful means of receiving daily nourishment, means that do not require us to retire to a retreat center. Every day we can and must pray. Every day we can and should read the Bible. The Psalms are at our elbows, the testimonies of the saints stand on our bookshelves and bedside tables ready to encourage us even in the most difficult of days. Every Sunday Christ is raised again to new life on the Lord's Day, and we are raised with him by the power of God's Spirit. There we stand in the midst of it all, preaching, presiding at the Lord's Table, baptizing, welcoming, sending forth, listening throughout the service beneath the cues on the page of the worship bulletin for the whisper of God's eternal Word and Spirit.
In fact, after thirty years of being a pastor, I have to say I worship God much better, much more attentively and actively, when I lead worship than when I attend worship led by others. Week after week I am surprised by how God speaks to me in the midst of the worship I am leading. Though sometimes I leave worship tired, I seldom leave worship empty. As pastor, my spiritual life is grounded here in the worship of the congregation I lead. And all the other spiritual disciplines I am engaged in, somehow point to the gathering of this congregation with whom I listen to God's Word by preaching.

Perhaps the Christian teaching that gives me most comfort is the one that reminds us that Christ, who is a stranger to none of our human weaknesses and who knows us better than we know ourselves, prays for us constantly. I say this because I am more convinced with every passing year that I don't know what I need, nor what I should pray for. At the same time, I'm thankful that God invites us to pray, to join our voices with Christ's through his Holy Spirit. When I pray for you, I offer up intercessions that you will come again to faith. And I believe I can pray this with confidence. But I also recognize that the outcome doesn't rest on the fervency or frequency of my prayer, but on God's own prayers for you. I am convinced that the biggest change wrought in prayer is not the one we pray for, but the change in our own hearts and minds when we offer ourselves and our desires to God whose business is transformation. At any rate, I'm praying for you, as you asked me to do.

Both knowledge and faith are grounded in a reality we try to approximate by using the word "relationship."
God is in control of this relationship and uses it as a tool to transform us into the image of Jesus Christ. For this purpose darkness, the feeling of absence, disappointment, humiliation, loneliness, and the sense of unanswered prayer prove to be tools as effective as light, joy, the sense of God's nearness, serendipity, and the ineffable wonder of fellowship at the heart of God's community of faith.

I had forgotten that pastoral maxim until you mentioned it your last letter: "The interruptions are the ministry."
I know some pastors who are so overwhelmed by interruptions that they never get around to praying, meditating, reflecting, reading the Bible, or attending to their own spiritual lives in any way. It's much wiser to ensure a steady flow of oxygen to our own souls before rushing to attend to the needs of others.


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