Monday, November 30, 2015

Three Tasks of Pastoral Ministry Hashed Out in a Honda Accord

I worked on my magnum opus for pastoral ministry from the back seat of an '97 Honda Accord. On the return trip from Atlanta with two fellow pastors, conversation lulled after ten hours. And since the custom CD, replete with Nineties alternative music and heavy metal only pulled me back to my teenage years of angst, self-loathing, and female-induced depression, I focused my thoughts in a healthier direction: my vocation.

For eight years I've vacillated between considering my work in pastoral ministry as a special calling and a specialized career. Public speaking and wedding ceremonies are not for everyone. Marriage counseling and event planning take a unusual skill set. And yet, prayer, Bible study, and conversations about God are not the pastor's exclusive right.

Indeed, every Christ-follower can do the work of the evangelist (2 Tim 4:5) with the aid of the same Holy Spirit dwelling in the pastor and informed by the same Holy Bible read by the pastor. Moreover, many a Christ-follower in a given congregation may do the evangelist's work more naturally and with greater results than the pastor himself.

So what's so special about pastoral ministry?

(Before describing three essential tasks of pastoral ministry, I should note that leadership in the church is not restricted to pastors. Ephesians 4:11-16 describes a variety of gifts (five or four depending on how one parses "pastors and teachers") given by Jesus to the church for the "equipping of the saints for the work of service for the building up of the body of Christ" (4:12). My magnum opus does not hold a candle to the apostle Paul's, which he outlined in this critical text.)

The pastor does three essential tasks to help conform others to the image of Jesus. These are not simply public or pulpit ministrations; his work is part of an ongoing and informal conversation "that leads to godliness" (Titus 1:1).

First, the pastor does theological reflection. In the sermon he speaks of the wonders of God. In the hallway he affirms God's beauty and sovereignty. At mealtime he returns thanks, noting God provides daily bread. When a conversation arises about a challenge or worry, the pastor fights the cultural pressure to say, "You'll make it through. You'll be fine. You got this." Rather, he reinforces a theological worldview and, without sounding campy, says: "God will provide. He will take care of you. He will get you through." Surely, every believer has the responsibility of theological reflection, but good pastoral ministry sets the tone (e.g., Phil. 4:8-9; 1 Tim. 4:15-16; 2 Tim. 3:10-17).

Second, the pastor provides  empathetic connection. He should model the care and patience of Jesus (1 Pet. 5: 1-4). He should take time to listen to people without a cell phone in hand or glances at the watch. Pastors show empathy when they remember previous conversations, family names, and personal struggles. Writing notes of encouragement or sending texts that force a laugh or show concern can communicate empathy. While the incarnation of Jesus was a one-time event (John 1:14), the Lord's nearness is reinforced through the empathy of church leaders (1 John 1:1-4). Again, every believer is called to empathetic connection, emulating the selfless Savior (Phil. 2:5-11), but the pastor is often invited into the most grave and joyous moments (e.g., funerals and weddings) of a believer's life, as well as the daily grind.

Third, the pastor inspires missional exhortation. He helps everyone see the value of his or her life. He ascribes meaning to work in the factory or volunteer service in the public school. He helps people recognize opportunities for ministry within the church and outside of it. He celebrates the way people show Jesus' love in their various spheres of influence. And he identifies ways the church can corporately impact their neighbors, both locally and globally. All believers are co-laborers with Christ and may give missional exhortation to one another, but the pastor gives public attention to God's great commission (Matt. 28:18-20; 1 Cor. 15:58).

As I pondered these tasks in the backseat of the Honda Accord, I took comfort in how well they aligned with the mission of my church: Every Christ-follower becoming full in Christ, united in love, and strong in service. When I shared my reflections with the other two pastors in the car, they seemed less than impressed. I can't blame them: Bohemian Rhapsody was playing at the time. Again, my magnum opus was no rival.

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