The Pastor as a Servant of the Word

Most historians, it seems to me, value the lessons and experiences of the past as a tutor for the present. That assumption explains my fascination with John Nevin. I am a purpose-driven pastor who needs a reason for being. When I began pastoral ministry thirty-five years ago, I discovered that neither I, nor my congregation, had a clear idea of my role. This confusion peaked when a deacon insisted that I was responsible for cutting the lawn surrounding the church building. I countered with a firm “No,” but agreed to shovel the snow. Looking back, it must have been while shoveling snow one cold winter Sunday morning in Wisconsin that I decided to begin a search for a pastoral theology to support my ministry. That search led me to John Nevin.

I don’t particularly resonate with Nevin’s German Idealistic moorings or his liturgical convictions. I appreciate Nevin because he asked the right questions, insisted on continuity between practice and theology, and wrestled long and hard with the person and function of the pastor. I especially appreciate his pastoral theology because, with it, I finally discovered a model of ministry that makes sense both theologically and practically.

For Nevin, the pastor is, first and foremost, a servant of the Word! The pastor serves the Word as a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word. The pastor serves the Word each Lord’s Day from his pulpit through preaching, which is the Proclaimed Word. The pastor serves the Word by administrating the sacraments, the Visible Word of God.

Nevin’s model of ministry helps modern pastors working within a climate of specialization and purpose-driven ministry. For Nevin, the pastor is a specialist whose purpose is to live as a servant of the Word! From the perspective of heaven, the pastor is that person called by God as an ambassador for the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. From the perspective of earth, the pastor is that person called by the church to represent Christ, the head of the Church, by preaching and teaching the written Word of God, the Bible.

The pastor is a specialist who both knows the incarnate Word and understands the written Word. On one hand for Nevin, a pastor cannot serve the Word if he does not know the Word! For this reason, Nevin, echoing the sentiments of Puritans like Richard Baxter, emphasizes the development of the pastor’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In one lecture, Nevin even warns his students that there are more preachers in hell than in heaven! On the other hand for Nevin, a pastor cannot serve the Word if he doesn’t understand the Word. For this reason, Nevin, countering the anti-intellectual trends of his era, promoted the need for properly trained pastors.

In summary then, for Nevin, the pastor is, first and foremost, a servant of the Word.

I have discovered that viewing myself as a servant of the Word provides clarity and direction for pastoral ministry. First, Nevin’s model embraces my Reformed heritage. Since John Calvin, a steady stream of his adherents has insisted on a theologically-trained clergy equipped to preach and teach the Word. Those who call themselves Calvinists have historically viewed the primary role of the pastor as that of preacher and teacher. Through the rite of ordination, they view pastors as under-shepherds to Jesus Christ, called by the people to represent Christ. While the pastor may be called upon to serve in a variety of capacities, he or she is, first and foremost, a servant of the Word.

That conviction is affirmed by the calling practices of the Reformed community. While a pastor may accept a call to serve another congregation, the congregation usually does not have the right to sever its relationship with the pastor. The congregation understands that Christ, the chief shepherd, finally calls each pastor to serve each congregation. She understands that the pastor is finally responsible to Christ and should not be subjected to the whims of the congregation.

Second, Nevin’s model promotes specialization in an age of specialization. In this respect, Nevin was ahead of his time. While he understood that, in some respects, the pastor serves as a general practitioner, he essentially developed pastors who specialized in the Word. Such an emphasis plays well in our current context, one that includes an information explosion that has, in turn, created the need for specialists who focus on limited bodies of information. The day of the general practitioner has left us. Now, nearly every field promotes specialization, including the professional ministry. Seminaries, for example, produce graduates prepared for world missions, church education, youth ministry, counseling, liturgics, and more. Right or wrong, specialization seems here to stay. Consequently, Nevin’s model fits well in our culture for it encourages pastors to specialize as servants of the Word. Of course, as a specialist they may employ additional God-given gifts and, thereby, serve a variety of functions. Some pastors have the gift of leadership, for example, and may be given the opportunity to lead a local congregation. However, the pastor’s fundamental role is not leader, but servant of the Word. One who does not serve the Word, may be a minister of one type or another, but he or she is not a pastor.

Third, Nevin’s model anchors the pastor when the winds of faddish trends sweep through the church. Several fads have come and gone, including the pastor as evangelist, the pastor as counselor, the pastor as physician of the soul, the pastor as servant leader, and the pastor as CEO. Each fad, it seems to me, represents more the influence of culture than that of the Spirit in a church that is always reforming.

I am especially concerned about the most recent fad, which has deeply influenced the life of the American Protestant church: the pastor as political leader. I distinguish that kind of leadership from the spiritual leadership pastors naturally bring to their ministries as representatives of Christ and models of Christian devotion. A personal survey of recent works on pastoral ministry reveals disturbing consensus regarding the role of the pastor. Several authors, without scriptural or theological rationale, propose that pastors are necessarily political leaders. This fad has confused many pastors and hindered the ministries of many congregations. Some pastors without the gift of leadership despairingly question their fitness for ministry as servants of the Word. Other pastors without the gift of leadership exercise what they think is leadership to the demise of their congregations.

I write as a pastor with the gift of political leadership. God has placed me in settings where that gift has been desired by the congregations I have served and, from their vantage point, been used by God. However, there are many congregations that do not require pastors with the gift of leadership; God has equipped them with leadership through other gifted individuals. These congregations are faithfully and admirably served by pastors without the gift of political leadership. These same pastors bring a different gift-mix to their ministries, but remain fundamentally servants of the Word. In that capacity, they provide spiritual leadership as they represent Christ and model Christian discipleship.

Fourth, Nevin’s model provides direction for pastors questioning the application of ordination. Living before the days of specialized ministry, Nevin did not imagine a time when theologically-trained individuals would serve in a capacity outside of the pastorate. In his day, only seminary trained individuals, called by God to serve as pastors, received the rite of ordination as Ministers of the Word and Sacraments. Times have changed. Specialization has arrived. Specialized ministry has benefited local congregations and the ministry of Christ throughout the world. However, as a result of specialized ministry, and its correlate specialized educational training, local congregations often face difficult decisions about who to ordain as Ministers of the Word and Sacraments.

In my circle, the current practice, though not officially articulated, suggests that the church ordain any person with a Master of Divinity degree from a seminary serving in some kind of people-helping or educational position. My denominational directory of ordained ministers includes school principals, social workers, therapists, professors, administrators, fund-raisers, and pastors. I suggest that Nevin’s model offers an excellent guideline for the church as it seeks to determine appropriate candidates for ordination. I believe that those who serve the incarnate and living Word, Jesus Christ, and serve the written Word through study and proclamation, should be ordained. I encourage the church to ordain, as it has in the past, pastors of local congregations whose primary responsibilities include the proclamation of the Word. I also encourage the ordination as Ministers of the Word and Sacraments for professors of theology and chaplains. However, I discourage ordination or the retention of ordination for those called to important vocations within which their primary responsibilities do not include studying and proclaiming the Word. I include in this group therapists, school administrators, denominational bureaucrats, para-church administrators, and social workers. I would hope that ordination as a Minister of the Word and Sacraments would say to the church and to the world, “This person is a servant of the Word.”

If you would like to dig in a little deeper into this subject, check out Nevin’s Lectures on Pastoral Theology.

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