By Peter Dubbelman
Responding to God’s call to the pastorate is not for the faint of heart. To be a pastor, of course, is a great privilege — for it affords a person the opportunity to work intimately with “the great Shepherd of the sheep.” Answering this call is also a risky adventure — for the church is a gathering of sick people getting well. The healing of a soul takes a long time; hurting people often hurt others. Pastors who get discouraged or hurt by this process tend to either be less effective or want to find another job. Then, their solution toward new vitality often is not finding another church to pastor but leaving their vocation.
Paul understood this perspective of the pastorate. To Timothy, his younger apprentice, he wrote, “Keep up the good fight of faith. Take hold of eternal life to which you were called.… Join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life” (1 Tim 6:12; 2 Tim 1:8–9).
Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch, also gave similar advice as Paul did. To the Bishop of Smyrna, who also pastored a church, he wrote these words.
I urge you, by the grace with which you are clothed, to press on in your race and to exhort all people, that they may be saved. Do justice to your office with constant care for both physical and spiritual concerns. Focus on unity, for there is nothing better. Bear with all people, even as the Lord bears with you; endure all in love … Devote yourself to unceasing prayers; ask for greater understanding than you have. Keep on the alert … Bear the diseases of all, as a perfect athlete.… If you love good disciples, it is no credit to you; rather with gentleness bring the more troublesome ones into submission.… The time needs you (as pilots [of a sailing vessel] needs winds and as a storm tossed sailor needs a harbor) in order to reach God. Be sober as God’s athlete … Stand firm, like an anvil being struck with a hammer. It is the mark of a great athlete to be bruised, yet still conquer.… Understand the times. Wait expectantly for God who is above time.… Do not let the widows be neglected. After the Lord, you be their guardian (The Letters of Ignatius, Polycarp, 1–3; emphasis added).
Among other things, Ignatius encourages pastors to:
- Prayerfully step up and make a difference, and especially so within the context of their current time.
- Stand firm, by God’s grace and love, like an anvil being struck with a hammer.
- Demonstrate this same grace and love to those who are physically marginalized by society or spiritually in need of rescue.
- Know that from time-to-time they will get bruised, fall, and even to some degree fail. The great athletes are able to still conquer (i.e., stand firm) while bruised.
- Not only focus on those who have their act together and follow their lead. They should also gently reach out to those who cause them and others trouble and work for what brings about peace and unity to the body of Christ and the soul of an individual. People who are well don’t need a physician, but the sick do.
This advice is easier read than done. How does a pastor “keep up the good fight of faith”?
Pastor, I thank you for your servant leadership to others. Your vocation is unlike most. Your latter years in life can be your most effective ones. Yes, the larger the church the more important it is that she operates with sound business practices. However, the business of the church is not like the business of a corporation; the leaders of the church are also different. If you are a lead pastor you are not foremost called as her CEO. Your priorities are Christ’s, principally; your strength comes from God’s indwelling, empowering Spirit; your joy from the fruit the Spirit produces through you; your reward is primarily heavenly, not earthly. Now 40 years into my pastoral call, I realize a daily prayer of mine has helped me to follow Paul’s and Ignatius’s advice. It goes something like this.
LORD, thank you for this personal time with you in prayer and in the Word. May it help me maintain a healthy, ordered heart of love. I desire that my witness of you to others fundamentally flows from your love to me and them.
Thank you for already working in the lives of everyone I will encounter today. May I not mechanically witness to them of your love for them. Instead, may my witness fit with what you are already doing in their lives. Give me courage to speak the truth in love and to show genuine humility and love to everyone—regardless of their age, ethnicity, lifestyle, or creed.
Today, may I too think they are to die for. May I embrace your perspective that “mercy triumphs over judgment.” May I not treat people like they are projects, nor dispensable objects used to complete my mission and make me feel important. May I not indifferently bypass and neglect the hurting person cast to the side of the road, because of the project in-hand or the goal in sight. I desire to be part of your effort, today, of leading those I encounter in “paths of righteousness for your name’s sake” — whether by a word or deed to them or by my life lived as an example before them.
This is the day you have made! After this quiet time with you, continue to shape my thoughts, my desires, my decisions, my words, and my actions. May they glorify you. This morning, I will meditate on and give thanks for your love; tonight I will remember your faithfulness to me and those I encounter. Your ability to do your perfect work through imperfect people amazes me.
Jesus calls to the pastor, “Do you truly love me more than these?… Feed … take care of my sheep.” Obviously, prayer and the study of God’s Word importantly undergird a person’s response to this call. If pastors don’t make this their personal and highest priority, do they genuinely believe in and efficaciously share their product? They are also unlikely to bear the mark of a great athlete, who “can be bruised, yet still conquer.” They are more likely to rely foremost upon the ways and techniques of the world for success rather than Christ’s. They are less likely to declare with Paul — “I have fought the good fight of faith, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”