Our church recently hosted a leadership immersion class for Concordia Seminary, St Louis. For a week, Professor Ben Haupt brought 30 young seminary students "in residence" with us for hands-on learning about congregational dynamics and the pastoral vocation. During this intensive course, two things struck me.
1.) I’m not a young pastor.
2.) These young, soon-to-be pastors will enter a turbulent time in the history of the church. They will enter ministry during the the great decay of Christendom in our country. The challenges of a changing relationship between church and society will serve as a furnace. Churches and pastors will be tested and refined.
For pastors, church decline is a gut check. Gone is the societal prestige and admiration for clergy. Increasingly, the pastoral vocation is perceived as irrelevant. A decent paycheck and benefits are no longer assumed. More and more pastors are bi-vocational (our ethnic friends are leading us in this venture).
It was relatively easy to be a pastor when church life was prominent and stable, when budgets were growing and people “went to church.” Will you be a pastor when the church is smaller and poorer? Will you be a pastor when ministry is a dog fight?
American denominations are panicking at the decline. Yet, God has always used exile and wilderness to his advantage. I would assert that the irrelevance of the pastoral vocation is good news.
In his book, The Pastor, Eugene Peterson writes about his conviction that,
“the most effective strategy for change, for revolution – at least on the large scale that the kingdom of God involves – comes from a minority working from the margins.”
The pastoral vocation is necessarily a minority position, marginalized in society. We must be less the Sanhedrin and more the lonely school of the prophets. We must be less the priestly class and more the “voice in the wilderness,” John, who said of Jesus, “He must increase, I must decrease.”
Peterson goes on to say,
“You are at your pastoral best when you are not noticed. To keep this vocation healthy requires constant self-negation, getting out of the way.”
There is a Christian sub-culture in our country that obsesses over pastoral celebrity. By contrast, you wouldn't know the names of the pastors I admire the most. The best pastors are laboring under the radar, submerged in their local context.
The pastors we need are known by their fruit, not their name. They are working a quiet revolution in their particular places. They love their people, even when people are hard to love. They labor long and hard. They are well-practiced in forbearance, humility, and selflessness.
It’s better to have 1,000 nameless pastors preaching the gospel than one rock star preaching to a thousand people.
One of my prayers is that I would be a faceless and nameless man, that many would know the name and see the face of Christ. May they say, "I don't remember the pastor's name, but I know Jesus."
This kind of pastoral vocation requires constant confession. Daily repentance. And the admission that I often don’t know what I’m doing. Here I am left only to follow the lead of the Head Bishop, the Good Shepherd, THE Senior Pastor, Jesus Christ.