First, don’t read what I didn’t say. I didn’t say, “Don’t take the office of the ministry too seriously.” The pastoral ministry is the highest calling in the church. The Lord Himself has called you there on express orders to deliver the life and salvation which He purchased with His blood into the ears and hearts of His bride. Nothing matters more than this. You, however, are a different story. I’m sure you’re great. But, the church’s existence and her salvation do not depend on you. The church needs you there to pray for her, preach the Bridegroom’s promises to her, and to give her His body and blood. You are not there to build a ministry around yourself. How do you know if you’re taking yourself too seriously? Simple. Ask: How often do I pray and play? Eugene Peterson (whose book “Under the Unpredictable Plant” I require you to read) reminds us of WH Auden’s line that we’ve forgotten the art of prayer and play. It’s because we think too highly of ourselves. If you aren’t praying, you are forgetting Who has called you and the immensity of that call. You wrongly, foolishly, recklessly think you can handle it on your own. It is His ministry, not yours. A lack of prayer will make you lose sight of this. If you aren’t playing, you think the church will fall apart if you aren’t around and you are working too much. You wrongly, foolishly, suicidally think this ministry depends on you and your skill. Work hard, do you job, and have some fun!
4. Go to Your Circuit Meetings.
You are not alone. For some of us, this is good news. For some of us, this is bad news. Regardless, you need to go to your circuit meetings. And, your circuit needs you there. I know that there is a lot of dissension and disagreement in our beloved Synod. I know that many of us don’t see eye-to-eye. I also know that the best way to handle such tragedies is not by avoiding our brothers in the ministry, slamming them in a blog discussion, and having a self-congratulatory sense of superiority. Maybe your circuit will want to talk about the Confessions more than you’d like. Perhaps they are too church-growthy for you. Well, go to your circuit meeting, open up the Word together, and let the scriptures form and shape the mutual conversation and consolation that you will desperately need as a pastor. Let that conversation continue over a cold drink at the local pub. At least get to know the guys in your circuit and begin praying for them. NOTE: Some circuits commune together. If that is not something you can take part in, fine. I don’t understand, but fine. Just make sure you are honest and kind when explaining your reasons to the other pastors. Make every effort to be reunited at the altar. Honestly, if we can’t commune together in our circuits, should that not be the first order of business every time we meet?
3. Don’t Be “Blame the Seminary” Guy.
Honestly, if I hear one more of my brothers say, “The seminary just never taught us X or Y” I am going to lose my hair. Well, okay, too late for that…but I will lose something. Look, as pastors in the LCMS we have received the crème de al crème of seminary educations. Both seminaries have faculties stocked not just with exceptional scholars, but scholars with pastoral hearts (not an easy combination). These men have equipped you with more than enough to be a good pastor. But, of course they haven’t given you everything you will need in your church because, and here’s the rub, they have not been called to pastor your congregation. If there is something you don’t feel equipped to do because you didn’t learn it at the sem, well, either you needed to pay closer attention or you are dealing with something they couldn’t have seen coming and you now need to go learn it. You have received an incredible gift to have studied at a Concordia, in my opinion. But now you have a new teacher to study under: the congregation. She is your teacher now. So, with great confidence, take your seminary education with you into your new school: the parish.
2. Avoid Ecclesiastical Pornography.
Actually, avoid all pornography (and if it becomes a problem, get a confessor). But, for our purposes on this blog, let’s stick with what Eugene Peterson (there he is again!) calls “ecclesiastical pornography.” The longer you are in your congregation, the more mundane it will become. You will start to notice her warts, she will demand more time from you, she won’t grow the way you think she should, she won’t bear fruit according to your “sanctified” view of discipleship. The organist won’t sound like the one you had at seminary. Sweet old LaVerne will still sound like a Zwinglian no matter how many times you open the catechism with her. Your eyes will be tempted to wander. Soon, you’ll find yourself looking at other congregations on the internet. You’ll see all sorts of programs that offer success and glory and growth. You’ll see bigger churches and wish you had their numbers. You’ll see smaller churches and wish you had their numbers. One consultant after another will sell you a program that will change the sanctification/evangelization trajectory of your church and they’ll have the numbers to prove it. And it will all be a ploy by the devil to take you away from the dear, messy saints the Lord has called you to pray for and preach to. No matter the size, make-up, location, etc. of the congregation you are called to, the Lord loves those saints, comes into their presence with His Word and sacraments, opens heaven to their praises, bends his ears to their prayers, and has called restless you to serve as their pastor. Don’t let your eyes wander from them, for the Lord’s eyes certainly don’t. Instead, every Sunday, join the heavenly chorus right where God placed you.
1. Be Absolved.
As it turns out, you will not cease to be a sinner once you are ordained. The simul lives! The pastor who forgets this about himself will ruin his congregation. Before I was a pastor, I found all kinds of ways to sin. When I became a pastor, I found newer, more sanctified ways to sin. I lose sleep over members who have left, calls I forgot to make, shut-ins I’ve missed, words I’ve heartlessly spoken, time I’ve missed with my family, time I’ve missed from my church. Oh, the list goes on. And that is only the stuff that will keep me from losing my job! I’ve lived as if God did not matter in this ministry and as if I mattered most. As pastors, though we do a good job of hiding it behind our clerical collars, we are the lowest sinners in the room on Sunday morning. You need to hear Jesus’ words from someone’s mouth forgiving your sins. You will be in the business of absolving sinners, but you will not cease to be one. Find a brother you can trust and confess to him. If you are not able to find that man, I will do it. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Lord is gracious, His blood was shed even for sinful pastors, even for you. Never forget the simul.
Oh, there is so much more. What advice would you give to these soon-to-be pastors? I’ve required them to read Peterson’s book. What books would you recommend for them? That would be a nice gift to give them, by the way, a list of books they can buy! Another list for another day, I suppose…