The Pastor: Burning Bush or Just Plain Bushed?

Last night we launched a Wednesday Night series called, "Who Do You Say That I Am?: Discovering your voice in the Presbyterian Church."  Here is our first session on The Pastor...
Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers.
-Ephesians 4:11
You might be a preacher if…
You’ve ever dreamed you were preaching only to awaken and discover you really were.

As we search for the voice of the Presbyterian Church, we begin with the most often and readily identified voice in most churches, the pastor.

Is the pastor of your church leading with enthusiasm and passion?  Most pastors I know are holding on by their fingernails to whatever ministry the church might be attempting.

They might have once answered their call like Moses to the burning bush, but have discovered that in more ways than one, they are just plain bushed!

Gather together a room full of preachers and pastors, no matter what denomination or Christian affiliation, and you will quickly discover they all have one thing in common; they are a room full of very tired people.

Having only been a pastor for just a short time compared to many in my own denomination, I must admit I still haven’t quite been able to adjust to the routine.  What routine, you might ask?  Are you one of those people who believe preachers only work late on Saturday night and early on Sunday?  What kind of routine could we possibly have? Don’t we only have to be at work one day a week?

Well, the routine I am speaking of is… trying to be all things to all people.  For many pastors this is the job description or the job routine we seem to be working so hard to adjust to.  Hence the question answered, you might be a preacher if you’ve ever dreamed you were preaching only to awaken and discover you really were.  Pastors in our communities, no matter what kind of church they are leading, are just plain tired people.

The problem, in addition to the very boring sermons that ministers who preach like they are asleep, offer, is also that the pastor is supposed to be the one waking the rest of us up.  Without the strong voice of the pastor, he and his church continue to slumber along into the future.

Where does this routine of overwork come from?  Why do so many pastors seem to be trying to compensate for the inadequacies of the congregations they serve?  How can a church ensure its pastor doesn’t become one of the sleep-walking members of the clergy?

First, it’s important to identify who the pastor is and what voice the pastor is called to offer.  Let us start with who the pastor is not.

The pastor is not the caretaker of the church.  Though he or she may have a key to all the buildings, it’s possible in most neighborhood hardware stores, to duplicate those keys and give them to others who know how to operate a locked door or an unlocked one.

The pastor is not the designated visitor of the church.  Though he or she may make hospital and home visits, there is no limit on who or how many of these visits can be made.  In fact, there are probably people other than the pastor who are better at making visits and comforting people in need.

The pastor is not the decision maker for the church.  Though he or she may have a voice on Session, there are lots of other voices not only there but throughout the church that can analyze information, weigh the options and make a decision.  Again, there is no quota as to how many people in a church discern what the church might be called to do.

The pastor is not the church caterer.  Though he or she may occasionally serve a meal or take their place along the serving line with others, most pastors are generally better at eating than they are at cooking. I know I am.  There are others who would be glad to know that the pastor is not in charge of feeding the masses. Again I know I am.

The pastor is not the church repair person.  Though some pastors may know a lot about construction, air conditioning, lighting, plumbing, sound systems, and even carpet cleaning, they are not the only ones in the church who know these things.  In fact, it’s a good bet there are probably other people who know even more.

The pastor is not the missionary of the church.  Though he or she may sometimes lead mission trips, it is possible for a mission trip in a Presbyterian Church to occur without any clergy participation at all. 

The pastor is not the bus driver of the church.  Though he or she may take their turn on the schedule of bus drivers, there are lots of people with valid drivers licenses in the congregation, some who probably have SUV’s that make the church bus look like a compact.

In short, the pastor is not the only minister of the church.  He or she is not the only one called and commissioned to serve Christ and the community.  All people are ministers.

There are lots of other things the pastor is not, but I think you get the general idea.  The point is that the ministry of the church, with all the many facets it includes, is not the sole responsibility of the pastor,  even if you are a member of a church with enough pastors to field a softball team with just clergy.
The fact is, however, that in too many churches people think the pastor’s job description includes the exclusive rights to all the above duties.  Since many of those same Presbyterians are evaluating the job performance of my clergy colleagues, you can easily see the challenge for many pastors.

As the saying goes, it is sometimes easier to go along in order to get along.  So many pastors fall right in step with the expectations of their congregations.  They try their hardest to become all things to all people.  They make every effort imaginable to be the “jack-of-all-trades.”  That’s if the pastor, and I think most are, is a decent man or woman who is just trying to do what is right for the church and for harmony in their churches.

A more ugly reality is the pastor who is not decent and does not have the best interest of all involved.  In those cases, the end result of over-functioning is even worse.  Pastors on power trips find the desire of so many for them to be involved in every aspect of the church, very convenient.  They are able to control everything that goes on, most of the time in their favor.      

These are the churches that find themselves with Administrative Commissions finding fault with a pastor who has done wrong either to themselves or to the congregation.  In many cases, it is as much the false expectations of a congregation that has caused the issue as the ego of the pastor involved.

Said more simply, the over expectations of many congregations regarding their pastors is creating problems for too many of our churches.  How many times, in my short time in ministry, have I seen lives and careers ruined by a whole series of events that could have been prevented had the pastor not been given all the keys to the church, literally and figuratively.

So if we now know all that the pastor should not be doing, what should the pastor be doing?  The answer is that the pastor should be doing the same thing as every other person in the congregation. They should be answering the burning bush using their gifts and skills to serve the church in the unique way that their voice calls them.

How many people in a congregation have had the blessing of years of theological education?  How many have shown aptitude for study and the gifts for communicating in both written and spoken word the results of that study?  The reality is that not everyone in a congregation brings these gifts.

Perhaps that’s why our system provides for at least one, sometimes more than one, man or woman to use these gifts and to do theology.  The pastor is the one called to go to the Holy Scriptures, live with them long enough to hear their message to the congregation, and then bring that message with power and conviction.  Said more simple, with great voice!

The truth is no one else will preach regularly to the congregation.  Others may be able to carry out other functions on Sunday, but there is no other who can preach with the same vitality and theological grounding than the one called to the congregation to be the preacher.  Imagine how our churches might change, how they might rediscover their passion and power if the entire congregation understood the preacher as the one empowered by God to bring the Word into their midst.  One of my seminary professors taught us, “Preaching is the manifestation of Jesus Christ into the assembly of God’s people.”  Preachers, you are bringing the power and grace of Jesus Christ into the midst of your people.  No one else is charged to do that; it’s up to you. 

But there is more to it than that.  The pastor is also the one called to bring theology to the daily routine of the congregation.  In some traditions, like the Roman Catholic Church, the pastor is the representative of the church.  It’s the reason priests wear a collar when they are in public.  They are representing the church in society. When the community sees them in a clerical collar, they know the church is alive and present in the situation.

However, Presbyterians have a different understanding.  When a pastor visits a member of the congregation, they are not just there because no one else in the congregation has the authority to make such a visit.  In our system, the pastor has another voice.  He or she is there to bring a theological “word” to the situation.  In much the same way that preaching is manifesting Jesus Christ into Sunday worship, the pastor, more than any other person, is the one who asks the question, “Where is God in all this?”  Through the reading of scripture (yes, some pastors still carry a Bible into the hospital), and in the prayers offered hand in hand with the family, the pastor is making sure a member of the congregation is aware of God’s presence with them.

In fact, the pastor is charged with bringing a theological word to every situation of life.  It’s not only in death or medical emergenciesThe pastor is called to visit in divorce, loss of work, loneliness, depression, natural disaster and virtually any other ailment a congregation must face.  It’s the pastor who invites God’s presence into the situation.

If that were all the pastor filled his or her days with, we might have a lot of very distressed ministers.  However, pastors also fill their days with the joys of the congregation as well.  God is present in bad times, but more than that in the good times of life.  Marriages, new birth, graduation, baptism, a new home, a new career, and in every other joy of life, the pastor too is called to be present.  Especially in these times, it is the pastor with word and prayer who reminds us of God’s presence.  Through it all the pastor is present with the congregation.

In our Presbyterian system, the pastor also has another key function that he/she alone can perform.  Our Book of Order lists the pastor’s title as Minister of Word and Sacrament.  The Word is clearly manifested into the congregation in all the ways we have already discussed.

What about the Sacraments?  Most Presbyterians know the pastor is the only one who can perform such acts on behalf of the churchDid you know that the pastor alone cannot celebrate such a Sacrament?  The reason goes back to the original duty of the pastor; to bring the word into the assembly of God’s people.

It is not up to the pastor to control who receives a Sacrament.  In our polity, a governing body of elders must instigate the celebration and then look to the one in the community qualified to celebrate it in a manner that is theologically sound.  Again, the pastor is the resident theologian, so the pastor is the voice.

As Presbyterians we understand the Sacraments as those acts instituted by Jesus himself promising to invoke his presence among us.  Over the centuries the ways that happens have been debated, but one thing never has.  The Sacraments are a visible sign of Jesus’ invisible presence with us.  One might say that the sacrament is the audible word about the inaudible word in our midst.  Therefore, it makes total sense that the pastor is the one who is called from the community to supervise such an event.

In Baptism, the pastor speaks, out loud, the claim of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit on a person’s life.  In Holy Communion, the pastor reminds us of all that the meal represents in our time until we all experience the fullness of time in eternity with our Lord.  In each case, the “word” comes alive in the voice and actions of the pastor.

Most pastors understand their role in the church as chief theologian and preacher.  Unfortunately, in the day to day duties of keeping up with a congregation sometimes their vocation gets pulled under the business of church life.  Too many pastors are trying to be everything their churches need them to be.  They do all the preaching, visiting, writing, administrating, billing and collecting, cleaning, locking and unlocking, and even all the cooking and eating.  Because they are the “paid staff” amongst volunteers, they mistakenly take on a role that is not theirs.  Because it’s not getting done, doesn’t mean it’s the job of the pastor to do.  It’s no wonder instead of being bushed as Moses was in the conviction of God’s presence, most pastors are just bushed.

Pastors, reclaim your voice with your congregations.  There is no other person who can do what you do.  Congregations, give them the authority and the respect they need to do their job.  You might just be amazed at how the fires begin to burn in your church again!

Pastor Chris+


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