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Pastor, You Have One Job

Ministry is, first and foremost, about being a caretaker of a message.
Pastor, You Have One Job
Image: Illustration by Lucy Naland | Source Images: Pearl / Lightstock | Oscar Wong | Lane Oatey / Blue Jean Images / Getty | Gift Habeshaw / Unsplash

Designer Frank Chimero has a recommendation for artists: Create “text playlists,” akin to Spotify song lineups but for favorite snippets of writing—poems you want to revisit, bits of advice or wisdom you need to be regularly reminded of, stories you know will kickstart your creativity on days when you need inspiration, and so on. “It’s almost a pep talk in text form,” Chimero explains. “I visit it when I’m down, when I’m lazy, when I’m feeling the inertia take over.” This idea isn’t original to Chimero—older generations would have called their text playlists “commonplace books”—but that makes it all the more worth embracing. Revisiting memorable texts is a way of ensuring they’ll be formative in our lives. It’s a practice that allows them to do their work of shaping our patterns of thought and action.

Recently I’ve begun compiling a text playlist for pastoral ministry. I was ordained last September, and now, in addition to teaching at a theological seminary, I work part-time at my local parish church. As I prepare sermons, visit parishioners in the hospital, lead Bible studies, and administer Communion, I find myself returning to some basic questions: What is the main thing I’m called to do? What is pastoral care, really? What does it mean to be a minister of the Good News?

In the months leading up to my ordination, as I prayed and pondered what I was about to embark on, I started collecting quotations that seemed to articulate with unique and striking clarity the answer to these questions.

News Agents for God

Consider this one, from the late Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson. When Jenson wrote these words (in his book on the sacraments, Visible Words), he was teaching future pastors at a seminary in Pennsylvania:

Ordination is God’s permission to speak and act for that gospel which invented the church and is not invented by the church, to speak and act for the gospel over against the community as a whole, if need be, in defiance of the community as a whole. … From the minister’s side, ordination is a sort of liberating oath: to preach and teach the gospel in accord with nothing but the gospel. The church rightly worries also about how much truth the world can stand, or about what will best motivate folk to the many works that need doing in the world, or about how not to offend the marginal with too much gospel; but ordination is permission to certain persons to worry in the opposite direction.

Many readers have remarked over the years about Jenson’s penchant for writing arresting sentences, and these are excellent examples. Where it might seem natural to think of our work as a form of public service in which we’re accountable to our customers (in this case, our congregants), Jenson says that being a pastor is more like a hall pass from God. We’re authorized to focus on one task above all others and to refuse other directives and expectations—even those from our most insistent parishioners—as distractions. Pastoral ministry is, first and foremost, about being a caretaker of a message. We are freed to be news agents for God, broadcasters of the same announcement that the women at the empty tomb were entrusted to deliver to the apostles on the first Easter Sunday morning. Jesus is risen!

The next track on my playlist sounds the same note, and it’s equally vivid in its idiom and imagery. It comes from Robert Farrar Capon, the late chef and food writer, Episcopal priest, and theological provocateur. In his feisty book The Mystery of Christ … and Why We Don’t Get It, Capon writes:

People come [to ministers] to ask for advice or to hear sermons for more reasons than there are dandelions in my lawn. Some of them come to learn, some to have their egos massaged, some to have their prejudices confirmed, and some to get the church to take over responsibility for their lives. But those reasons are all irrelevant to me as a counselor or a preacher. What I have to deal with is persons, not motives. It’s the warm bodies sitting in front of me that I’m called to minister to. And with whatever skills or disabilities I possess, my job is only to preach the Gospel, the Good News, to them.

The cultural ideal of pastor as professional CEO has conspired with individual dreams of self-fulfillment to dupe many of us into thinking our job description as ministers is to be omnicompetent managers, therapists, fundraisers, motivational speakers, and spiritual gurus rolled into one. But as Capon says elsewhere in the same book, in a paragraph that’s next on my text playlist, “[As a priest, I’m] not a psychologist, or a magician, or even a healer. Those are jobs for other professionals. Of course, if I can manage to get in a few amateurish licks at such crafts, well and good. But they’re not my profession: my job is inviting people to believe the Good News.”

In pastoral care, in particular, we do well to remember that we do not need to be experts in a million different fields to be faithful to our calling. We do not need to know how to handle every difficulty, hurt, or need presented to us. But we need to be faithful in this: proclaiming the news that Christ is risen.

Now that I’m in the business of the care of souls, reading through my text playlist feels something like putting on a favorite calming album: It centers me, draws me back to what matters, and allows me to forget, at least for a while, the other competitors for my attention.

All You Need Is the Spirit of Jesus

I recently had a chance to commend my text playlist to a group of graduating seminarians who had been students in my classroom for the past several years. I stood in the pulpit at their baccalaureate chapel service and looked out at their expectant faces, knowing they were about to be told—in various corners of the church and from multiple voices, many of whom they trust and admire—that they weren’t fully equipped for the pastoral care they were about to embark on. They would hear that they didn’t yet know the secret formula of being an effective minister. And the people telling them would promise that they have what you really need to succeed.

Over 20 years ago, in his book No Place for Truth, the evangelical theologian David Wells diagnosed this situation among pastors:

The yearning for wisdom [has been] transformed into a yearning to look more like a skilled lawyer, psychologist, or business executive than an ordained minister of the gospel. ... [Ministers now] feel they must present themselves as having a desired competence, and that competence, as it turns out, is largely managerial.

And yet the catch-22 is that we are told over and over again that we don’t yet have that competence, so we need to engage the latest new game plan, conference, book, retreat, or website to get it.

In light of this relentless effort to convince pastors of their incompetence, I recommended to my seminary students that they add Paul’s letter to the Galatians—the entire thing, all six chapters—to their text playlists as counterprogramming.

After the apostle Paul founded the churches in the region of Galatia, he left, moving on to other mission fields. In the meantime, some other Christian missionaries, claiming the authority of the Jerusalem church, showed up in Galatia and tried to convince Paul’s converts that they were severely underequipped to live a fully Christian life. Yes, Paul had told them about Jesus, but he hadn’t told them the full story. He left out the part about how the Galatian Christians, or the males anyway, needed to get circumcised. He omitted the part about how everyone needed to start observing Jewish holidays and food regulations. He’d left his converts exposed to the evil impulse of the flesh and primed for inevitable moral failure. The Galatians, these missionaries claimed, were in trouble. They didn’t have what they needed to live the Christian life.

When Paul heard about this, he was incensed, and he fired off the letter we now know as Galatians. Surprisingly, his primary response wasn’t to scold the Galatians for their gullibility.
Rather, he focused on offering them reassurance: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. … If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (5:16, 25, ESV throughout).

When I was growing up, I thought Paul was issuing a command here, and I felt guilty for failing to live up to it. Why did I always seem to be lagging behind the Spirit rather than keeping up with him? But in context Paul’s words amount to a promise. He says, in effect, “You Galatians are being told that I didn’t give you enough to protect you from the assaults of the flesh, that you need circumcision as a safeguard to keep you from the wiles of sin. But I’m here to tell you I did give you everything you need! You already have the Spirit. I preached Jesus Christ to you, and you received his personal presence. Just stay with the Spirit—walk alongside him—and you’ll have all the protection you need.”

The Spirit that Paul is talking about, as the rest of Galatians makes clear, is the Spirit of Jesus. The Spirit is the one who enables believers to join Jesus the Son in crying out “Abba!” to his Father and now, also, their Father (see 4:4–7). The Spirit is the seal of the union the Galatians have with God the Father through his Son, Jesus.

Earlier in the epistle, Paul reminds the Galatians how they first received this Spirit: “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”(3:1–3).

The Galatians received the Spirit of Jesus Christ when they heard Paul publicly proclaiming Christ crucified and risen from the dead and they believed in him. Paul told the Galatians that Jesus loved them and gave himself for them. He told them that the cross of Jesus delivered them from this present evil age. He told them that Jesus bore the curse of hanging on a tree on their behalf.

And they heard this message with faith and received Jesus’ own Spirit. They needed nothing more. If you have Jesus and his Spirit, what more could there possibly be to need?

Paul’s counsel is, in this way, refreshingly uncomplicated—for his initial recipients and also for us as we minister to those in our care: “Stick with what you already have and know. Keep in step with the Spirit you’ve already received. Don’t give in to the lie that you’re ill equipped.” And here’s the result: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (5:22–23).

You do not need to have some elusive “more”—some expertise or skill set or secret formula—to succeed in ministry. The Spirit is sufficient. Christ is enough. You have everything you need.

And that is why we ministers need Galatians on our text playlists. When we pastors find ourselves wondering if we have what it takes to minister to the sick, the needy, the brokenhearted, the rebellious, the young, the old, the lost, or anyone else, the answer to our worry is, We have Jesus. Jesus is what we need—he is all we need—going forward.

The American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once criticized historical Christianity for how it dwells “with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus.” I’d like to see us reclaim that slur as a goal. And as we set our sights there—on Jesus and his gospel—I hope we experience it as the sweet relief that it is.

Wesley Hill will join the faculty at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan this summer. He is alo an assistant priest at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Pittsburgh. His most recent book is The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Praying to Our Father.

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