Shepherding the Suffering

visittothehospitalWhen I was a pastor I thought it was my job to make suffering people feel better. I was dismayed at how unsuccessful I was at it. I counseled the hurting and prayed for the dying, Yet people seemed no better when I left than they were when I arrived. Their condition had not significantly improved, at least as far as I could tell.

In time I came to see that it was not my job to make suffering people feel better. That is God’s job. My job was to remind people of God’s presence. Most of the time pastoral ministry in the context of suffering is the ministry of presence not the ministry of repair. We may sit in silence or we may speak words of promise but we do not fix. We cannot. The problems are too great. They call for a remedies that are far beyond the scope of our skill or ability.

In the moment of suffering this ministry of presence seems terribly inadequate. We leave the hospital bedside confounded. Or we feel a mounting sense of panic as the counseling session progresses and we realize that we have no simple solution to recommend.

Days, months or even years later, when some someone reminds us of the crisis and thanks us for being such a help, we are astonished. “What did I do?” we ask in honest wonder. With a gentle smile they answer in kind, offering truth for truth: “You were there!”

Like Most of the Pastors I Know

I spent this past weekend in Montana with a bunch of pastors. I only got to see the mountains from a distance (except for the one we were on) but I saw the pastors close-up. I found them to be like most of the pastors I know. They are true shepherds with a deep affection for their flock. They are skilled in what they do but do not consider themselves to be remarkable. They are humble. They do not boast about their accomplishments. They are often a little disappointed with themselves–convinced that they could be doing better. They come hoping that I will be able to provide some insight that will help them to be more effective (which is why I am certain they must leave disappointed). They are perennial students of their craft.

 I am sure that there are bad pastors. Every so often I hear a horror story about one from some alienated church member. But none of the pastors I know falls into that category. Not the ones that I know personally. All the pastors I know are like these men: regular, reliable and yes–sometimes unremarkable (at least as far as their gifts are concerned). Faithful is the best word I can think of to describe them. Unfortunately, it is not a word that most pastors would be excited to hear used of them. Not in our day.

 God places great stock in faithfulness. We do not. We would prefer that pastors be described by other words. Dynamic. Transformational. Missional. Especially if the pastor being described is us. To the modern ear “faithful” sounds just a little too dull. It is like being labeled Most Congenial in your senior year when you would rather be crowned Homecoming King. It is like learning that you have been described to your blind date as someone who has “a nice personality.” Faithful is code for boring.

 Unless, of course, Jesus is the one who is doing the describing. Place the same word on the lips of Christ and there is no higher compliment. According to Jesus, “faithful” is exactly the right the word to characterize what the master wants from his servants (Matt. 25:23). It is the word that Scripture uses to describe Jesus’ own priestly ministry (Heb. 2:17; 3:6). Faithful is a word that contains the promise of great reward and is itself the reward.

 I can’t think of a better word to use to describe the pastors I spent time with this past weekend. I am deeply grateful that I know so many to whom the word applies.

 One of the questions I asked the pastors during my visit was this: “What kind of books would be of most help to you in your ministry?” If you are a pastor, I would like to know how you would answer this question. If you know a pastor, why not ask him for me and let me know what he says?

John’s latest book is coming in September. You can find out more about it at follygraceandpower.com.

Read John’s article on “the trajectory of worship” in the March issue of Christianity Today.

Working for God: Part II

When Scripture declares that those who “direct the affairs of the church well” are worthy of “double” honor (1 Timothy 5:17), it implies a standard of recompense which is correlated with performance. Paul’s reasoning seems to be something like this: All those who direct the affairs of the church are worthy of “honor.” The “good ones” deserve double honor. Those who labor in preaching and teaching especially deserve this reward (the Greek term could be translated “most of all”).

 Such language not only implies a comparison of effort between those engaged in the same ministry context, it implies that the nature of the work and the degree of effort should be taken into account when the church considers how to reward its servants in a monetary way. All who labor deserve a “wage” or reward. Some are more deserving than others. In view of this, an equitable return for one’s labor does not mean that everyone who labors should get the same amount but that the return should be equal to the effort. Those who work harder deserve more.

 The fact that those Paul has in view are engaged in what might be described as “kingdom work” is significant. How should the perspective of grace affect one’s approach to evaluation and reward in the workplace? Two of Jesus’ parables may shed light on this question. The parable of the workers in the vineyard and the parable of the talents both have employment and evaluation as a backdrop. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard God is portrayed as one who generously rewards those who labor (Matthew 20:1–16). Certainly the parable is intended as a warning against the kind of bargaining spirit which approaches the labor of the kingdom with a hireling’s mentality. It describes a shocking grace by which those who have invested less labor (because they came to the field later) receive the same reward as those who have had to endure the heat of the entire day. To suggest that employers ought to pay every employee the same wage goes beyond the scope of this parable. Yet it would not be too much to say that a grace informed ethic in the workplace would be an ethic that has generosity and kindness as its dominant features.

 The theme of expectation is further emphasized in Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30; Luke 19:12–27). Here Jesus tells the story of a man who entrusts his property to four stewards before setting out on a journey. Upon returning from his trip, the man calls his servants to “settle accounts” with them. In Luke’s version the man is described as a “king” and those who are entrusted with talents as “servants.” Such details provide another reminder that these parables were not meant to provide detailed guidance to employers in how to handle their employees. The parable of the talents, like the parable of the laborers, is a parable of the “kingdom.” Yet it is just here that the parable provides important insight for “Christian work.” Evaluation and reward are consistent with kingdom values. When Christ returns He will assess the performance of those who have served Him. This evaluation of what has been done will be based on a standard of expectation. The master tells the “wicked, lazy servant” what he should have done.

All legitimate labor deserves its own reward. The worker deserves his wages. But the one for whom we labor is also owed something. God expects us to do our work well. We are not merely laborers. We are artisans and craftsmen for the Kingdom.

Working For God: Part I

Before I entered the ministry I worked for the General Motors Corporation trudging up and down the floors of the company’s world headquarters in downtown Detroit delivering telegrams. Every floor seemed to have its own culture. There were the computer technicians in their white lab coats in the basement who always seemed glad to see me. A few floors up the sales managers greeted one another in the hallway and talked about their golf game. I could feel the competitive tension between them when I stepped out of the elevator. 

High above us all, like the gods of Olympus, the president and vice–presidents were housed on the fourteenth floor. Visitors gained access to their wing by passing through a large glass door that served as a kind of veil into the holy of holies of the corporation. All who entered underwent the scrutiny of a stern looking security guard. This floor was a place of dark wood and dim light. The air was heavy with important decisions. Intimidated, I passed through those offices like a ghost, rarely speaking and barely noticed.

Although I liked my job, I spent much of my time wishing I could be doing something more “meaningful.” Eventually, I got my wish. I quit working for the automobile company and entered the realm of “vocational ministry.” I soon discovered that “full–time–ministry” had much in common with the world of work I thought I was leaving behind. It is tedious at times. It too has its share of mind numbing meetings that seem to go on forever and produce little result. I found that those in the Christian workplace could be driven by the same goals and beset by the same problems as their secular counterparts. I should not have been surprised. While I consider my chosen vocation to be more than a job, it is still work. This is not a bad thing. “Work,” Eugene Peterson has observed, “is the primary context for our spirituality.”

Ministry is my vocation. It is also my career. This is both a blessing and a curse. Its curse is that it means I am tempted to approach my vocation with the mentality of the hireling. One who is merely a hired hand will do the work but will not take responsibility for the outcome. The hireling does only what must be done and will do no more. When the task demands more than expected, one who is merely hireling does not possess the degree of commitment required to meet the challenge (cf. John 10:12–13).

Yet despite this threat, it should be noted that Jesus Himself introduced the metaphor of the “worker” into Christian ministry. It was Jesus who sent the disciples out and told them that “the worker deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7). The apostle Paul used this standard as the basis for his guidelines to those who provide for the church’s elders (1 Tim. 5:17–18). Because my vocation and my career are the same, I enjoy the privileged of devoting myself without distraction to the calling that I love. I don’t have to try to fit it in around my regular job.

Those who direct the affairs of the church are worthy of “honor.” Those who labor in preaching and teaching are especially deserving.  Ministry is our work. It is good work, worthy of our time and energy. Hard as it sometimes is, it is work that is well worth the reward which is yet to come.

Ten Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #10: Feeling Inadquate

Anyone who has seriously considered all the challenges a pastor must face cannot help feeling inadequate. The task is immense. The stakes are high and the things which are most important to us in our ministry are usually things over which we have little or no control. Like the apostle Paul we ask, “Who is equal to such a task?” (2 Cor. 2:16).

 The answer to this question is that we are equal to the task. Not because of the strength of our personality, our native intelligence or even because of our spirituality. Instead, “our competence comes from God” (2 Cor. 3:5). Despite this biblical assurance, feelings of inadequacy do not magically disappear once we enter the ministry. They may even increase the longer we serve, as we discover just how dependent upon God we are for success. Nevertheless, God has promised to make us “competent ministers of the new covenant.”  

 This demands an important caveat. The competence that the Bible promises is mission specific. It is a competence related to the gospel. Contrary to popular dogma, you cannot do “anything you set your mind to.” In the body of Christ the eye is not meant to function like the hand. God supplies ability to each according to their gifts and calling. John Newton warns, “If you had the talents of an angel, you could do no good with them till his hour is come, and till he leads you to the people whom he has determined to bless by your means.”

Ten Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #9: Preaching Beyond Our Experience

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I once heard a pastor lament, “My prayer is better than my preaching and my preaching is better than my life.” One of the great challenges of the pulpit is that of preaching beyond our experience. We are the first to feel the sting of the sermon’s reproach. In preaching against the sins of others, we censure ourselves. This is not hypocrisy. Those preach to others must preach to themselves first (Ro. 2:21; 1 Cor. 9:27).  

Preaching also takes me beyond my own experience because by it I offer hope for those whose sin or suffering may exceed my own. I do not have to have personally experienced all that those who hear me have experienced in order to speak with authority about their situation. I do not need to become an alcoholic to offer hope to the alcoholic or an adulterer to speak with authority to the adulterer. Jesus has already “been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). The word of hope that I have to offer is based on his experience not my own.  

 One obvious implication of this challenge is that those who preach must do so with humility. We do not speak as those who have mastered all the disciplines of grace. There may be many in the congregation who are further along in their walk with God than we are. But we need to be just as wary of exaggerating our sins for the sake of credibility as we are of exaggerating our victories. We do not preach ourselves but Christ. It is God’s word not our personal experience that is the standard by which others should measure themselves.  

Ten Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #8: Prophet or Priest?

I first felt a calling to preach when I was in my teens. To my surprise my mother, who was not a church going woman, beamed with pride when I told her about my intention. “Oh, Johnny,” she gushed, “you’d make a darling minister.” I did not want to mouth poetry in a clergyman’s tame frock. Camel’s hair and thundering declamation were more my style. I aspired to the prophet’s mantle.

 The parallel between the preacher and the prophet is obvious. But prophet is not the only metaphor that should shape our pulpit ministry. There is also a priestly dimension. Priests, like prophets, exercised a ministry of God’s word (Lev. 10:11).  The priest, however, differed from the prophet because he shouldered an additional burden, serving as the people’s advocate. Priests were not only “selected from among men” but were “appointed to represent them” (Heb. 5:1).

 Like the priest, the preacher does not stand apart from those who hear but is called from among them in order to sympathize with them.  Whenever we take our place before God’s people to declare his word, we also take upon ourselves this responsibility advocacy. We may stand above or before the congregation in order to be seen or for the sake of acoustics, but our true location is in their midst. We speak to the people but we are also for them.

 The key to priestly advocacy is identification. This means that the priest/preacher functions as a kind of mediator, standing between the text and the congregation and listening to the word of God on their behalf. The prophetic nature of preaching gives us authority to make demands of the listener. But it is the priestly nature of preaching obligates us to make demands of the text. It compels us to take our cue from the patriarchs, the psalms and the apostles, as well as from the prophets, and ask God to justify himself: Will not the judge of the earth do right? How long, O Lord? Why have you afflicted us?

Our priestly responsiblity compels us to give voice to the silent questions that plague our listeners. Our prophetic obligation means that we will refuse to smooth out the sharp edges of the text. These two dimensions work in harmony.