In just about every age Christ’s ministers have their crises – unpredictable in advance, devastating when the strike. Let me sweep swiftly through seven areas that specify today’s crisis of the ordained ministry.
1. Criticism. In our immigrant congregations the pastor was the expert in all areas from pulpit to politics. In mid-twentieth century the pastoral ministry was a respected profession, like medicine and law. Today our people are critical – critical of us as pastors and people, theologians and preachers, activists and administrators. Who needs all this flak?
2. Crossfire. Today pastors are caught in the crossfire. We are trapped in the middle, in a no man’s land, between liberal and conservative, between denomination and congregants, between God’s will and the congregation’s will. We make a clear, close, motionless target: in the pulpit, at the table, in the parsonage, by a postcard, phone call, letter to the editor, email.
3. Ineffectiveness. I mean the suspicion that my ministry has little influence on the lives of my people, that all too often my words are wasted on the wind.
4. Declining and Closing Congregations. Stress, disappointment, resentment, anger – especially when you have given your lifeblood to a place and a people.
5. Inadequate Theology of the Ministry. I mean an undue emphasis on functions and roles, on authority proper to pastors, authorities that distinguish us from our congregants. When we find that preaching and leading worship take so little of our time, of our lives; and the rest of our activity is livened in the suspicion that some man or woman in the pews could do it better.
6. Burnout. Fewer pastors, greater obligations on those who remain in the ministry, higher expectations from the congregants, louder outcries when the expectations are not met. Less if any privacy, less time to pray, to relax, to prepare sermons; less time to “fill the cup.”
7. Fear. In this day and age, we experience the same insecurities as our congregants: how to find and keep a job, how to retire without bitterness, how to age gracefully and usefully, how to die believing, hoping, loving.
So much for crisis. Where do we go from here? Is there hope for a renewed pastoral ministry? If so, where do we look? In just about every age Christ’s ministers have their crises – unpredictable in advance, devastating when the strike. Let me sweep swiftly through seven areas that specify today’s crisis of the ordained ministry. The apostle Paul who catalogued his own crises contributed his own formulas, not for sheer survival but for a fruitful, joyful ministry. Not outside the crisis; rather making the crisis serve the gospel.
Formula 1: Paul’s declaration to the Christians of Colossae in Asia Minor: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Colossians 1:24). It is our Christian calling: follow the Crucified. Not slavish imitation: wearing his sandals, walking his Palestinian paths, eating his lox and bagels. No, sharing his cross through the whole of our lives. Not only physical pain – sinusitis, ileitis, hemorrhoids – but the agonies that are rather psychological and spiritual. Concretely, the agonies that nail you to your pastoral crosses today: criticism, crossfire, ineffectiveness, closures, burnout, fear. Why? “For the sake of Christ’s body,” for the salvation of your people. But salvation does not stem from your successes. Salvation stems from the grace created by the crucifixion – first on Calvary, ever since in large measure on the calvaries that dot the crossroads of our world, of our congregations. Your calvaries, too, and mine.
Formula 2: Paul’s confession to the Christians of Corinth: “A thorn was given me in the flesh… Three times I besought the Lord about this, that is should leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace if sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:7-10).
How difficult it is for me to believe this, to live it, to see therein the Christian hope, the pastor’s hope! And yet, there it is, Christianity at its most radical, the saving work of Christ reduced to its core, pastoral ministry summed up in his consecration and mine: “This is my body, and it is given for you” (Luke 22:19). Given most grace-fully, most fruit-fully, the weaker we are of ourselves, our strength only the risen Christ within us with the glorified wounds of his passion.
Do you believe this? Is it not here that your hope for pastoral ministry should rest? Is it not thus that you and I love as Jesus loved?
This blog represents a paraphrase and slight redaction of a homily by Walter J. Burghardt entitled “Power Made Perfect In Weakness” in Christ in Ten Thousand Places (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1999), 112-115. The homily was first given on June 16, 1997 at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California.