I’m a pastor. It’s the calling on my life and, while it’s not always the easiest path to walk, it’s path on which I’m supposed to be walking 1. Pastors minister, which is why some folks call us “ministers.” Among pastors our calling is often described as “pastoral ministry.”
But what the heck is it?
There’s a crap ton 2 of bad examples of pastoral ministry out in the public eye nowadays. Pastoral scandals like the Roman Catholic Sexual Abuse Scandal or the #MeToo scandals which have confronted megachurches come to mind, along with the greed of televangelists, but these are far from the only bad examples. Nowadays it’s not hard to find examples of moralistic screamers, with serious personal ethical deficits, demanding the world conform to them. Nor it is difficult to come across stories of cynical manipulators, who destroy relationships in order to better weave themselves into the center of their relational web.
These bad examples have led to a lot of blanket statements being made about both pastors and churches, which are often based on the misunderstanding that the vast wealth of megachurches is what all churches enjoy 3. When I come across comments like these, they hurt. I think of the wonderful folks who make up Central Baptist and I become sad that people would equate them with the absolute worst abuses religious folks have committed. When I think of how these blanket statements are based on actual abuses done in the name of the faith I proclaim, I confess I become a bit furious. Not with the folks who are making the blanket statements, I’m GenX so I get a mistrust of institutional authority. I get furious with the people who are causing the abuse in the first place. People using faith to benefit themselves first and foremost sicken me. And what they do is not pastoral ministry. To be honest, there are way too many of these people out there.
So, if the bad examples aren’t what pastoral ministry, what is it?
I think of pastoral ministry is breathing the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection into people’s lives. How this is accomplished is as varied as humanity itself. Some pastors create formal mentorships, identifying people with gifts and training them to life lives of care, compassion, and service. Some pastors become involved in various justice movements, and invite their congregations to join them. Some pastors are excellent teachers, and invite people to spiritual development along a more academic path. Some invest themselves into people so much that they seem to be always present for life events–happy and sad. However we pursue the call, and the reality is all pastors are a mix of multiple pursuits, good pastors always try to nudge people along the path marked by Jesus’ own story. It’s who we are, and helping people grow is how we best lead.
I tend to see myself as a subtle nudger. I don’t find browbeating to ennoble people, nor do I find it a great motivation to follow after Jesus. I do, however, love to make suggestions on how folks may want to pursue their next step or two. Folks can ponder the suggestion, or not, that’s up to them and God 4. What matters is me being present enough to make the suggestion, and invested enough in someone’s life that I can help them do a bit of life-navigation when asked. To do this I need to learn to be present with folks and see both what gives them joy and hope and what causes them fear or anger 5. These are the spaces, positive and negative, in which we often need to grow. I order to develop this presence I’ll grab coffee with someone, chat on the phone 6, stop by someone’s residence for in-person visits 7, drop in on folks who find themselves in the hospital, interact with people on social media, or just take someone who needs a ride out on an errand. These are important moments for me, because making myself available in these ways is how I build relationships. This isn’t easy, as I’m a natural introvert who often wants people to go away 8, but I make this a priority.
I’m also a wannabe academic, so I enjoy helping people delve into the story of the Bible. This allows me to study ancient history, dabble in sociology, appreciate archaeology, and do a bit of cultural anthropology. Pondering all these things, and how they impact a given Biblical passage, is how I strive to make connections btween the Biblical story and our own day. These connections become short reflection papers, which I call “sermons.” I adore learning, so preparing a sermon or series is a great personal joy for me. Seeing people grasp what I’m trying to communicate from all my study is even better.
Pastoral ministry also isn’t limited to the “official members” of a pastor’s congregation, or even regular attenders. A lot of my pastoral ministry is done through random conversations “out an about,” or on social media. I try to treat the people I encounter with dignity, because I see them as created in God’s image. It’s not easy. I’m impatient by nature, and growl at folks who drive under the speed limit 9. I also have to train myself to not snap back as someone who comes on a social platform just to troll. They way I treat people comes down to a question I force myself to ask, “Do I care if this person is living well before God?” I can’t answer that question with a positive and then proceed to wish them ill. The truth is, I’m not just a pastor to Central Baptist Church, I’m a pastor to the town of Palmyra–and I need to find ways to breathe into this area the grace I’ve been called to proclaim. It’s not easy, but it can be good. That’s the call.
- At least, I hope. Otherwise I’m wasting a ton of time. ↩
- I believe this is the technical term. ↩
- Statements about pastors and private jets come to mind. ↩
- And, frankly, a lot of times I could be speaking from the remnants of last night’s pizza instead of any real spiritual wisdom. ↩
- I also need to know that about myself, but that’s another story. ↩
- Not my favorite. ↩
- Always with prior permission. This also isn’t my favorite, because so many people have cats. I’m allergic. ↩
- I don’t even find photographing people all that interesting, to be honest. Yes, that’s a strange personality trait for a pastor. I’ve never claimed to be normal, that would be boring. ↩
- I mean, really. ↩