Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Soul of a Pastor, part 1

I begin, or continue, a project of reflection on pastoral identity. The pastoral vocation has gone from being the most healthy vocation in the US in the 1950s, to being one of the most unhealthy vocations today. Burnout rates are high, pastors are leaving the ministry in droves, addictions to alcohol, work, or pornography are rampant among pastors, as are boundary violations like adultery, etc. In this context, serious reflection on pastoral identity is a must.

Let me start with the much debated, not often read document of the ELCA, Visions and Expectations: Ordained Ministers in the ELCA (VE). Actually, there is just one sentence that is debated, the one about abstinence for homosexual pastors. Since that one doesn’t apply to me, I’ll overlook it for my current purpose (as unjust as it is).

Now, I subscribed to Visions and Expectations during the ordination process (while voicing opposition to the sentence mentioned above), as have all pastors ordained since 1990, and all others, I think, are bound by it as well. But how often do we read it? How much of a guide to daily practice is it? I confess that, for me, I have not referred back to it much in the past seven years of ordained ministry. So, this is just a quick reflection on the document.

Vision and Expectations lifts up the four questions we are asked in the rite of ordination:

I. THE CALL TO ORDAINED MINISTRY

Before almighty God, to whom you must give account, and in the presence of this congregation, I ask: Will you assume this office, believing that the Church's call is God's call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament?

I will, and I ask God to help me.

I have been called to this ministry by God through the Church, called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. I did not call myself. I am accountable to the Church as an ordained pastor, first and foremost to my local congregation, but also to my local colleagues in ministry, to our synod, and to our national and international manifestations of the Church. I am also “accountable to the Word of God for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” I am not free to preach and teach my own personal vision, but I am captive to the Word of God, which I am called to proclaim in word and deed in our local context.

II. FAITHFULNESS TO THE CHURCH'S CONFESSION

The church in which you are to be ordained confesses that the Holy Scriptures are the Word of God and are the norm of its faith and life. We accept, teach, and confess the Apostles', the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds. We also acknowledge that the Lutheran Confessions are true witnesses and faithful expositions of the Holy Scriptures. Will you therefore preach and teach in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and these creeds and confessions?

I will, and I ask God to help me.

This is perhaps the question that convicts me the most, in terms of the Lutheran Confessions. Not that I do not uphold or affirm them – but how often do I read them? Not just the Small and Large Catechisms and the Augsburg Confession, but the Formula of Concord, the Apology, etc. I have been a pastor in both synods of Northern Minnesota for 7 years, and I can’t recall a single meeting of our assemblies or pastor retreats that focused on the Confessions. If you did a survey of ELCA pastors, asking how many had read the Formula of Concord in the past year, what percent would answer ‘yes’? I bet it’d be low. And yet, we are called to “acknowledge that the Lutheran Confessions are true witnesses and faithful expositions of the Holy Scriptures.” I admit that my knowledge of a good part of the Confessions is growing dim. So, I have some work to do. Perhaps I need to teach them to adults – I think Tim Wengert has developed some resources for that. I also have Luther’s Works on my computer, and I have hardly read them in years. I do read Lutheran Quarterly, but I am a few issues behind. It is a great resource on Lutheran history and theology. According to VE, we express the Lutheran tradition faithfully when we are evangelical, faithful, reforming, pastoral, ecumenical, and ethical.

In terms of Scripture and the Creeds, I am on firmer footing, and have really been getting ‘back to the Bible’ lately. So, the major challenge for me now in that area is to get back to regular reading of Scripture in Hebrew and Greek. Now, Luther read the whole Bible through twice each year. How many of weLutheran pastors do that?

III. THE ORDAINED MINISTER AS PERSON AND EXAMPLE

Will you be diligent in your study of the Holy Scriptures and in your use of the means of grace? Will you pray for God's people, nourish them with the Word and Holy Sacraments, and lead them by your own example in faithful service and holy living?

I will, and I ask God to help me.

I already wrote about Scripture study. Especially in my early years of ministry, I tended to get so wrapped up in the urgent tasks of ministry that the non-urgent, but essential tasks of prayer and reflection on Scripture went by the wayside. When your well is dry, how can you refresh your flock? This is still a challenge for me. Would that I could say with Luther, “When I rise in the morning, I pray for one hour. If I have a really challenging day ahead of me, I pray for two hours.”

Under this question is highlighted the whole question of pastoral identity – which I will explore more fully in the days ahead. It is a question of spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional health and maturity. I have begun reading Jaco Hamman’s Becoming a Pastor: Forming Self and Soul for Ministry. It is a wonderful guide for our continuing journey of becoming a pastor, and avoiding being ‘unbecoming’ as a pastor. I will reflect on the book in the days ahead, so that is all I will write on the subject of the person and example of the pastor for now.

IV. FAITHFUL WITNESS

Will you give faithful witness to the world, that God's love may be known in all that you do?

I will, and I ask God to help me.

The call is to be a faithful witness to the Gospel, the good news of God’s love and grace to the world. The following characteristics are lifted up: evangelism, compassion, confession, hospitality, peacemaking, justice, stewardship of the earth, and trustworthiness.

This is enough for now, food for thought, reflection, and action. You pastors and non-pastors (for we all have similar, though not identical, calls as children of God, do we not?): What do you think?

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for convicting me. I have to admit that I have not read VE since my ordination. As for the question -- have I read the Formula of Concord this year -- my answer is no. I haven't read it since seminary. Now...I have some work to do...and rightly so.

    Thanks for this post and I look forward to reading more on pastoral identity.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I hear you - I have work to do too! But it's more a question of balance - I also wouldn't want to be a pastor who spent all my time immersed in the Solid Declaration or other 16th century documents - although a few pages a day would be a healthy dose of classical Lutheranism!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I hear you there...balance is key.

    By the way...I just finished reading VE. Thanks again for the reminder.

    ReplyDelete