“What are you going to do after seminary?” A seemingly harmless question, one I get often. It should be easy to answer, and it is: pastor. I want to be a pastor. Nothing more, nothing less. At this point in my life, it seems fairly clear that I am called to serve as a pastor in a local parish.
But, as I am usually met with a blank stare, or one that seems to say, “Go on,” it becomes clear that this answer, while simple, is far from easy. “What kind of pastor?” is a common follow-up question. A senior pastor? A teaching pastor? A pastoral care minister? A youth minister, young adults and singles, senior adults? What kind of pastor do you want to be?
It seems to me that we have lost any shared understanding of the role of the pastor in the congregation.
This is evident from the vastly different approaches to pastoral education taken by seminaries in the United States. Some “specialize” in theology, church history, biblical languages—the “heady” stuff. This is the kind of seminary I go to. Others focus on counseling, spiritual formation, missions—the “practical studies.” As a result, our churches have adjusted to this specialized form of ministry. We have pastors who only teach or preach, and pastors who only conduct counseling sessions or organize meal and greeting card ministries. We have pastors who only minister to singles, and some who deal with the administrative needs of the church. It is my belief that this sort of “pastoral assembly line” isn’t as indicative of the biblical model of ministry as it is of American corporate culture. Henry Ford, it seems, has influenced the Church just as much as he has the business world.
Now, I do understand that every pastor excels in some areas and is weak in others. And I agree with Paul that there are a variety of gifts, and that not every person has every gift. I myself am in a tradition with different strata of ordained ministries: deacons, priests, and bishops. But this is not exactly what I’m talking about. My primary concern is the belief common in American evangelicalism that there is only one part of a parishioner that a pastor needs to concern himself (or herself) with at any given time. Teaching pastors only need to worry about teaching, pastoral care pastors only need to walk through tough times with people, etc.
It is true that some pastors are not great teachers, while others could use some help with their “bedside manner.” But to do pastoral work with a sole focus on either a parishioner’s intellect or emotions is to act as if people can be reduced to their different “compartments”—that what we think about God has nothing to do with how we experience God, or to put it another way, that theology has nothing to do with practical life.
I see the effects of this most clearly in spiritual formation curricula made for Sunday school classes or small groups. There are countless books on “discovering your spiritual identity” and fostering “spiritual disciplines” that do not depend in any meaningful way on essential Christian truths—the triune identity of God, the resurrection of Jesus, etc. We have forgotten that, as Marilynne Robinson has put it in her novel Gilead, “the right worship of God is essential because it forms the mind to a right understanding of God”—and the reverse is certainly true as well. This is one of the many reasons I have gone to a liturgical tradition; theologically rich worship forms the mind and the heart. It recognizes that human beings interact with God with the whole of their being.
Robinson’s novel actually provides a wonderful example of a pastor in the Congregationalist minister John Ames. He is a man deeply in touch with his place and his people. He wandered the roads of his small Iowa town, looking in on his parishioners when he thought he might be of use. He met with them one on one to talk through their relational and occupational troubles. He prayed for them, fervently and often. And, yes, he preached to them. He did his best to form them theologically and spiritually.
But it was only this intimate connection with his congregation that allowed him to teach them in any meaningful way, and I think that this is where the crux of my argument lies: the pastor teaches people that he knows. He knows what to teach them because he knows what they need to learn, what will help them in their daily walk with the Lord. She knows how to counsel them because she knows where their theological, spiritual, and moral deficiencies lie. Pastoral ministry deals with persons, not with isolated minds and hearts. Let the professors and motivational speakers do their own work; we are concerned with forming whole people. We preach the good news to our parishioners, and we sit with them in waiting rooms. We walk them through tough passages of Scripture, and we bring them meals after a new baby comes. We go fishing with them, and we give them the body and blood of Christ. We treat them, to put it simply, like Jesus does. A pastor is much more than a teacher or a counselor; a pastor helps people see God in every square inch of their lives.
I don’t know that this vision is possible in our current climate of big-city, social media Christianity. Perhaps my fellow Contrarian, Tom, could help me flesh this out more, as he has already begun to do so in two posts on his vision of a local seminary. But this is the best definition I can come up with for the role of a pastor, and it is what I hope to be to a congregation one day, if they will have me.