Wednesday, July 31, 2013

On Being an Overweight(ed) Pastor

Scott Wesley Brown’s song says, “If He carried the weight of the world upon His shoulders, I know my brother that He will carry you.” I believe that to be true. I believe He will also carry me, and the burdens I am choosing to carry as well. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t be crushed down into nothingness between the load I’m carrying and the shoulders carrying me.

One symptom of the current crushing circumstances is that even my attempts to list the issues I’m facing keeps failing. Not because I can’t make the list. I just can’t bring myself to include the list here. And yet, if I don’t list them, my friends, family, congregation, colleagues, and community members will all assume that they are among the burdens I’m carrying. They’re probably right. If you’re reading this, and I know your circumstances, and those needs are not among the ones I’m feeling crushed by at this particular moment, it’s only because they’ve temporarily slipped my mind.

But those needs are not the problem that is crushing me. The primary problem crushing me is me. My hope in posting this somewhat personal introspection is that it might be helpful to you. Among all of those described above there are some who will also, from time to time (if they’re serving Christ and others authentically, or simply being perceptive of the world in which we live) will feel the weight, the pressure, the strain, the fatigue, and the folding-breaking-crushing that would seem to grind them down until they were indistinguishable from the dust on which they stand…were it not for the shoulders of Jesus beneath them. (And if you do not have the shoulders of Jesus beneath you, get there as soon as possible. He’s open 24/7, and is personally taking your calls.) Therefore, I am offering this self-diagnosis and prescription to those who may find themselves in similarly overwhelming circumstances.

There are two primary challenges I am facing in each particular need; and two considerations that lead me to the course of treatment I am trying to apply.

The two challenges relate to the ministry calling I accepted on September 11, 1983, my first Sunday in my first posting as pastor. In Acts 6, it’s called “prayer and the ministry of the word,” and it includes the realities of the practical as well as spiritual needs facing the community there. In that passage, specific tasks  were delegated to certain groups and individuals. But every area of ministry appears to have been encompassed in the focus of “prayer and the ministry of the word.” It could hardly be simpler. But I manage to mess it up, and that results in carrying what threatens to be a crushing load. “Prayer?” I pray, claiming to trust Christ to intervene on behalf of those in need, and then anxiously seek to imagine what I can do to alleviate their pain, improve their finances, comfort them in their losses, and bring them healing and wholeness (as well as retributive justice against those who tried to break them). “Ministry of the word?” I carry the word (written, but Living, too, I hope) to each one, and yet neglect to gather them together so that what they have learned might be shared with others in need (as though it can only be accurately applied through this one mind-mouth conglomerate).

The apparent simplicity of those two challenges would seem to lead to an equally simple solution. But two considerations complicate it a bit. First, there are the various ways in which time management, delegation, and simply-saying-no are recommended (rarely with subtlety). Delegation is a part of the calling, in that others need to be equipped for the work of ministry, which includes actually allowing them to do something. But I believe that when God presents us with needs, He is setting up divine appointments for us, and we are called to take every ministry opportunity the Lord provides. Thus, I can’t support the time management/delegation/“just-say-no” model scripturally.

Second, then, further complicating my desire not to be overly burdened, are the ministry models of Christ and His earliest disciples. Even the Apostle Paul, advantaged as he was by being estranged from his family of origin as well as, presumably, unmarried, noted that ministry was a crushing experience. And yet he also points out that despite the afflictions, perplexities, and even persecutions he experienced, “we are…not crushed…not despairing…not forsaken…not destroyed.” (II Corinthians 4:8-9) Why not?

Part of the reason Paul can confidently assert that the burdens won’t grind him to dust is that he believes he will maintain the proper focus in ministry: the power of the resurrected Christ through the leading and ministry of the Holy Spirit. In short, if I have to come up with solutions for all the circumstances encountered by everyone I care for…I will always come up short, end up running on empty, and rob them of the real resources available to them in Christ alone. Not that I don’t get to apply wise counsel, or deliver some groceries, or do any of the other practical things God has equipped me to do. But my primary focus is supposed to be prayer and the ministry of the word. By that, I understand my job to include not only praying and preaching, but to teach others to develop their own conversation with God (to Him in prayer, from Him in His written word, as well as in the lessons learned by following His Living Word, Jesus Christ, in fellowship with His body, the Church, in a local congregation of others with many of the same needs we each experience).

So, in whatever circumstance others may be facing, in addition to whatever other resources I may be able to apply as part of my calling, I need to do two things. First, pray with them, and not just for them. This means they get to hear what God has taught me about prayer, and they get to hear what God is teaching them in prayer. Second, beyond applying the word as I know it to their circumstances, rushing from one to another in order to be the conduit for God’s word and Word in their lives, I need to more authentically apply my belief that God works in and through the entire body of Christ. This means inviting them to participate together with others in study, fellowship, worship, and service, so that, in place of the brokenness that may be perpetuated by their need of “me” and what I can provide, they may experience together with others the process of wholeness Christ is seeking to restore in each of us.

All that being said, however, the list is still long. And the needs are not only acute, but severe and profound in many cases. And while my ministry needs to be more authentic to the scriptural model, I acknowledge that the Apostle Paul understood what it was to be under a far heavier load, and rejoiced that we are “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.” (II Corinthians 4:10-11) Self-preservation, self-protection, self-provision: these aren’t concerns in a truly cruciform, sacrificial servanthood. But self-destruction is merely a by-product of failing to do the job He’s given in the way He’s prescribed. I can’t shorten the list. But I can realize that it’s the list He’s given in expectation that I address each circumstance in the way He’s called me to.

That’s the diagnosis and prescription I’ve come to. If I survive the course of treatment, I’ll try to remember to let you know how it works out.

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