August 10, 2011

Charge to a New Pastor

On this, the day of your ordination to the pastoral office,
the Presbytery offers you this binary charge:

Firstly, remember these moments: the latticework of hands applied to your head, the nine rash and quixotic vows you have just made, and this wonderfully impossible summons to a particular, peculiar ministry among Jesus’ people. Remember this moment, because everything is different for you now. You are a Teaching Elder. And this new nomenclature calls for a fresh focus -- a myopia, even -- as, after today, you carve up your time and choose your tasks.

In the words of our new Form of Government, may you now be “committed [above all other tasks] to teaching the faith and equipping the saints for the work of ministry.” That may be new wording, but it honors a venerable Presbyterian tradition about how the pastor should spend her God-given time: Teaching the faith. Equipping the saints. In your pastorate, some will want you to become a generalist, to be many things to many people, to spread yourself out thinly and evenly, like some manner of ecclesiastical jelly—what one critic of mainline clerical ministry has called “a quivering mass of availability.”

But by your vows today, we pray you will instead preserve the best of your time and talent for these most crucial tasks: Teaching the faith. Equipping for ministry. Says Stanley Hauerwas: “Pastors would do well to examine their schedules and ruthlessly delete any activity that doesn't help people do that which they do in worship.” 1. Hear God 2. Respond to God.

Hear us well: Others can organize Pandamania. Others can surf for hats and pencils. Many can redecorate the bulletin board, defrag the Sunday School computers, reattach eyes to the puppets, stock the goodie boxes for servicewomen.

It is not that you are now above these tasks, it is rather that you are now below them —- not in personhood, but in function. You are now the lowly steward of that undergirding word of God that God’s people urgently need —- that foundational news, that calls forth fresh faith, illicits new dreams, make saints out of sinners, raises the dead.

You are now to a First Church of Samuels, an Eli (without the age lines, of course). Whatever else you do, with and for your Samuels, mine the depths of scripture, eavesdrop for God’s word, keep an ear cocked for the shocking Easter news, and listen for the Spirit’s movement. Listen well, and speak well what you hear -— whether it takes 5 or 45 minutes, whether it wins you supporters or scoffers -— be the Eli we have now set you to be. Be a minister of the word for Jesus’ people in the world.

Know that you will have many hats put upon you, now that R-E-V precedes your name. Organizer, therapist, guru, motivational speaker, public relations officer, boiler superintendent, seasonal chaplain, replacement parent, replacement spouse, CEO, CFO, CIA (that’s a long story). Don’t dismiss these hats, or those who bring them, as if you cannot be bothered. Instead, stay connected to all who come and go with their real or felt needs. But we ask you to quietly, doggedly, protect that one fundamental work God is now giving you —- word and sacraments -- so that by these, your people will be built up and nourished as the people of God.

And so we charge you to remember your ordination to this peculiar post.

Never forget that everything is different for you now.

Secondly, I charge you to forget everything I just said.

Nothing changes today; not one thing that matters. You were yesterday, and will remain tomorrow, first and foremost, ontologically, a child of God and a simple student of Jesus. Nothing more. Nothing less. Never forget this. Show me a preacher who is no longer a mere Christian and I will show you a fire without heat or flame or light. Preachers like me crackle and pop and sputter, but in the end, God always uses mere believers, not unionized clerics, to light up the world.

We’ve ordained you, yes indeed, but that has no eternal effect on your status with God, and neither is it the reason you can now say you are “in the ministry.” You’ve been in the ministry most of your life—the ministry that matters, Jesus’ ministry—loving the Lord, loving neighbor. Baptism is the mark most holy; not ordination. Don’t ever forget this.

We suspect you won’t. The vision of church as including all of God’s people in service, what Romans calls “one body with many members,” that vision is floating around in your DNA. You saw it in your parents, you’ve taught it your kids, you’ve known it in the churches you have served, you believe it in your bones. Remarkable vision: “We who are many are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” No one is more important than another; only Christ is absolute.

But know that many will come wanting to make it about you; wanting, needing, you to be absolute. Some will tell you are indispensible. You are not. Some will insist you are needed in every meeting. You are not. Others will say you are the face of the church in the community (better yours than mine), but you are not. If they tell you, you are the boss, the leader, the head, the honcho, the alpha/omega … quietly remind them: that would be Jesus.

In the words of the poet Dawna Markova, “choose to risk your significance.” Work to keep yourself and the church you serve out of the absolute position. Work to keep God in it.
Lead worship in such a way that they leave saying, not “R. did a lovely job,” but “God be praised.” Preach in such a way that they respond, not to you “That was good sermon, R.,” but more to God: “Take my life and let it be …” Give counsel in such a manner that one says, not “I could not do this without you,” but “I know now how I can follow the Lord!”

And when others drive by on East B., instead of “Hey, isn’t that R.’s church?” let it be said, in large measure by the mere Christianity you practice within your ministry, “Hey, I think that’s Jesus’ church.”

Risk your significance, because the best thing we can say about you -- the best that can be said about any of us -- is that in life and in death, in our falling or in our rising, we belong to God.

Dear friend, now colleague, remember this truth:
Everything has changed. Nothing has changed.

You are a Teaching elder. You are a child of God.