This post is part of a blog series on Pomomusings, discussing pastoral identity. To read about the series, as well as get a full schedule of participants, click here.
Being and Doing the Work of God
Let me begin by saying how honored I am to be contributing to Pomomusings. I am thankful for Adam Walker Cleaveland for his friendship, his faithful witness, and his commitment to sharing his many insights with the world through this blog.
For me, pastoral identity necessarily entwines two connected yet distinct facets of one’s being-in-the-world: one’s relationship to God and self, and one’s relationship to God and community. The healthy pastor leans into her calling on both fronts. Having responded to God’s call, she employs her gifts and abilities in the service of God’s mission in the world. At the same time, pastors respond to a particular congregation’s call, striving to lead them faithfully along the undulating path of Christian discipleship.
The pastor is always both Christ-follower and Christian leader. Problems arise when these identities collapse in on each other. Thus, I treat them each in turn.
Pastoral Identity: One Called to Be a Disciple
To be a pastor is first and foremost to be one called of God. The pastoral vocation is a calling to a way of being with God in the world. The calling to pastoral ministry is always secondary to a more fundamental calling, and pastors hear me closely on this one: you are first and foremost beloved by God. As the inimitable Henri Nouwen puts it, “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.” Pastoral identity that is not grounded on the pastor’s originary status as one beloved by God will lead to disastrous consequences in ministry. To put it colloquy: You do you, beloved; and don’t let the hater’s get you down.
Pastoral Identity: One Called to Disciple
The Christian pastor is also called by a community of people to disciple them in the way of God through Jesus Christ. I like to think of this aspect of pastoral identity as a dialectic between the many wants of the congregation and their greatest need. In 1928, the famed Baptist preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick published an article poignantly titled, “What’s the Matter with Preaching?” Fosdick diagnosed the preaching of his day as being irrelevant insofar as it missed the true concerns of congregants and parishioners. Fosdick’s advice rings with truth: pastors must attend prayerfully and directly to the real-world problems congregants face.
At the same time, pastors are called to be compass needles, not weathervanes.
In an essay entitled, “The Word of God and the Task of the Ministry,” theologian Karl Barth characterized the minister’s problem as that of finding a way between the dilemmas of human life on the one hand and the content of the Bible on the other. For Barth, our genuine problem is our radical separation from God in light of the depravity of the human condition; our genuine need was that God should find us. Pastoral ministry, at its best, bears witness to the “need and promise” that God is decidedly for us in Jesus Christ.
Pastoral identity is like the fluid-filled cavities in the inner ear. It functions according to a precarious balance between one’s originary status as a beloved child of God and one’s vocation to lead others in the way of God. When these dual callings fall out of equilibrium the pastor experiences vertigo, or worse, infection. My hope and prayer for all of you reading this is that God would grant you the wisdom to find balance amidst the many and varied pleasures of pastoral ministry and the courage to seek it.
Jake Myers recently completed his Ph.D. from Emory University. He works at the intersection of homiletical theory, constructive theology, poststructural philosophy, and emerging Christianity. Currently, he serves as Adjunct Professor of Homiletics at Columbia Theological Seminary and as Director of the Summer Institute of Teaching and Lifelong Learning at Candler School of Theology. A frequent contributor to the Huffington Post Religion Page, Working Preacher, and ON Scripture, he blogs at poiesisjakemyers.com. You can find him on twitter @poiesisjmyers.