Reflections on Pastoral Ministry

Can I make a confession?  I’m much more theologically liberal than people in my church realize.  Why?  Because I only share what I feel is safe to disclose.  I reveal what I believe will cause people to consider things from another angle, but not cause too much controversy.  This means that most of the time I don’t divulge everything I would like to share. After all, there are bills to be paid and it’s difficult to pay them without a paycheck.   Perhaps you can sympathize.

There is a fine line between being prophetic, being pastoral and being stupid; yet every day ministers in local congregations must strike a balance between these actions.  Those of us who preach or teach walk this tight-rope on a platform that is only four feet high with plenty of space to walk around; yet we all know that an errant word, phrase or topic could prove just as fatal as falling from a forty foot high guy-wire.

May I make another confession?  This is probably one of the most frustrating parts of a profession in which there are many frustrations.  Members of your congregation come to you with questions, but you cannot tell them everything you would like to tell them.  Or they bring up issues about which you hold opinions contrary to their own, yet they assume that you agree with what they are saying, because, in their minds, the Bible is completely clear on the matter.

In these moments you want to share, but something holds you back.  You want to offer another perspective, but you bite your tongue.  You want to speak, but fear you’ll create a controversy because of your “liberal,” “heretical” or “unbiblical” ideas.  You want to enter into dialogue, but know they likely won’t understand what you’re trying to say anyway.  And it’s not because they aren’t intelligent or because you’re extremely intelligent.  It’s because you’re both wearing glasses, but their lenses cause them to see red when you see blue, cause them to see the world in black and white while you see the world in many shades of grey.

Can I make a final confession?  There are moments when I despair of ever finding a place to minister where I can be fully myself.  There are times when I feel that I have to be dishonest, or at least furtive, about my own faith in order to not harm the faith of others.  There are days when I wish I worked at a coffee shop so that I could talk about my views without worrying that I’ll upset too many people and lose my job.  There are seasons when I wonder whether it’s possible to find or fashion a faith community where everyone can gather around a table to talk freely and openly about anything without fear of repercussions; where people refuse draw lines in the sand over pet doctrines and dare you to step onto the wrong side of the line and see what happens; where people of all faiths and little faith and no faith can come together, not to argue and debate about who is right and who is wrong, but to love God by loving one another.  That is a dream for another day, a vision for the future that keeps me hopeful.  In the meantime, I’m left to wrestle with how I can be a faithful and effective minister even though I hold a drastically different worldview and theological perspective than many members of my congregation.

Jesus’ ministry proves helpful, because it reveals that this requires lots of patience.  To be faithful to Jesus’ model of discipleship often means taking two steps forward and one step back.  It means meeting people where they are, not where you want them to be.  It involves sharing a little bit at a time and trusting that progress is being made, however slow it may be.  And perhaps it necessitates redefining progress—from rapid, visible growth to that of a farmer who sows a seed and nurtures a seemingly empty field for what seems like eternity before something visible emerges.  It means getting frustrated at the sluggish progress and regressions of those you’re leading, but refusing to give up on the project altogether.  It means being bold enough to speak when necessary, even if it proves unpopular.  And it means being humble enough to keep your mouth shut when sharing would be more harmful than helpful to someone’s faith journey.

May God grant us faith to journey on this precarious and exhausting pilgrimage.  May God grant us endurance and agility to walk this long and narrow path.  May God grant us courage to speak when the time is right, and wisdom to remain silent when the time is wrong.  May God grant us friends who will let us express our true selves now and then.  And may God grant us patience to minister to people where they are and not where we want them to be.  Amen.

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3 responses to “Reflections on Pastoral Ministry

  1. Amazingly written and brilliant! I was just passing through the www looking for the oft-repeated quote about essentials vs. non when i stumbled upon your article and then blog. This hit home almost precisely where I’m at! I’m not a pastor but am writing a pastor of a church i’m looking to visit about how much freedom his members enjoy to converse about controversial doctrine. I’m operating on the premise that he’s the shepherd of the flock and as such, has that say. The scenario you described about everyone getting together to discuss things sounds wonderful! Isn’t that a model some churches started? I’m pretty “unchurched” these days.

  2. thanks for your honesty. I hope I’m one of those friends you can be completely open with.
    Just reread your take on health care vs. wars. I’m a pacifist, too, but wonder what we should do in Afghanistan. Heather & Dayna risked their lives there, showing the JESUS film.

  3. I enjoyed this post as well. I just started my own blog at
    http://douglasmcknight.wordpress.com/

    Even though I am not a Christian myself, your arguments are clear and well thought out. Id love to read more, and perhaps start a thorough discussion about the subject involving two people with differing worldviews.

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