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Even Superman Has Limits: On Being Servants, Not Saviors

prayforpastors

Are pastors servants or saviors? Lately the quote on the left has been floating around, and it has irked me to no end.

Of course the sentiment is sweet, and God knows (literally) how much pastors and other caregivers need prayer, support, and a kind word on occasion.  The intent is beautiful.  But something about this particular quote has stuck in my craw ever since I first saw it posted.

I couldn’t name it until Batman v. Superman came out.

As you might have heard, BvS received mixed reviews. Fans sort of liked it, critics largely did not.  In its third week at the box office, it was beaten by a Melissa McCarthy movie that had little hype behind it and received even worse reviews!

[Warning: big spoilers follow!]

In lieu of this, BvS director Zack Snyder has already started to talk up the R-rated Director’s Cut that will be released, arguing that scenes cut for time and content will flesh out the characters and fill in some of the narrative gaps, both of which were complaints by many critics and fans alike.  In response to a specific question, about why Superman doesn’t save Martha himself at the end, he details one of those deleted scenes:

We had a scene that we cut from the movie where he tries to look for her when he finds out that Lex has got her…It was a slightly dark scene that we cut out because it sort of represented this dark side. Because when he was looking for his mom he heard all the cries of all the potential crimes going on in the city, you know when you look.

I kind of like the idea that he’s taught himself not to look because if he looks it’s just neverending, right? You have to know when, as Superman, when to intervene and when not to. Or not when not to, you can’t be everywhere at once, literally you can’t be everywhere at once, so he has to be really selective in a weird way about where he chooses to interfere.

Even Superman can’t be everywhere at once. Even Superman can’t be on duty all the time.  Even Superman needs a nap every now and then.

This pervasive mythology about pastors and other caring professions – that we are “on” all the time, that wenot how any of this works never get to take time off, that we are “never off duty” – is not only wrong, it is sinful.

Sabbath is not a command for all of those who are not professional religious types.

We do not cease to be creatures dependent on the Creator because part our vocation includes caring for others.

This lie has much to do with issues see related to clergy (and let’s also add counselors, nurses, and other caregivers).  It is a recipe for burnout and frustration.  Moreover, it is functionally agnostic, because it tells us we don’t really need time with God if we are doing stuff for God.

“Never” get to be off duty? “Never” get to have a normal schedule or punch out at 5?

This is evil.  And it is evil for us to live into these inhumane expectations and not challenge them among those we serve.  We are not Superman. Even Superman has a Fortress of Solitude where he is “off duty” and takes time away.

We are servants, not saviors.  Or, as a prayer attributed to the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero says, we are ministers and not messiahs:

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

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What My Wife’s Job Taught Me About Ministry

by Drew 4 Comments

betterI used to think my job was hard, and then I got married.  My wife is a physician, and I’ve been blessed to be her partner through MCATs, interviews, medical school, match day, and (most of) residency.  United Methodist clergy go through a period of formation called “residency” before we are ordained, but trust me, it’s nothing like medical residency.  I am constantly in awe of what my wife and her colleagues do: not just the technical mastery needed, not just the massive amounts of knowledge one is expected to hold or the crazy hours doctors work – but the fact lives are in their hands day in and day out, and at risk in decisions great and small.

The work of clergy is in some ways similar.  If we believe that spiritual health matters at all, or that it somehow intersects with physical, mental, and emotional health, then the care of souls is critically important as well.  In our democratized age of religion, many of us try to “go it alone.”  But I’m here to tell you: the self-guided information about physical health available on the internet is of the same dismal quality that one finds in the spiritual realm.  The care of those called to these ministries thus has some things in common, not least in the importance of formation for doctors and clergy, but also in the challenges they face.  I resonate with Atul Gawande’s description of medicine in Better:

“But success in medicine has dimensions that cannot be found on a playing field. For one, lives or on the line. Our decisions and omissions are therefore moral in nature. We also face daunting expectations. In medicine, our task is to cope with illness…the steps are often uncertain. The knowledge to be mastered is both vast and incomplete. Yet we are expected to act with swiftness and consistency, even when the task requires marshaling hundreds of people…for the care of a single person. We are also expected to do our work humanely, with gentleness and concern. It’s not only the stakes but also the complexity of performance in medicine that makes it so interesting and at the same time, so unsettling.” (4)

I contend that one could replace “medicine” with “ministry” in the above, and the description would still ring true.  As a friend of mine says, the work of a pastor or priest is full of both “blessings and bedevilments,” which is of course true for most, if not all, vocations.

My wife has given me newfound appreciation for medicine. Gawande has helped me see some fascinating connections between my wife’s calling and my own.

What other connections do you see? Have I overstated my case? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

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St. Paul and John Wesley as Theologians

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Part of N.T. Wright’s project in Paul and the Faithfulness of God is to show how and why St. Paul invented the discipline of Christian theology through the course of his pastoral ministry. To sum up a complex argument, Wright suggests that Paul had to practice what we now call Christian theology because neither the central worldview symbols of Judaism nor those of the pagan world could bear the intellectual freight needed to sustain his new faith communities. Wright is, of course, no suppercessionist, but he argues that the creative reworking Paul does in light of the Messiah’s revelation means that something new – this thing called theology – was needed (necessity being, of course, the mother of invention). Against many who have attempted to see Paul as primarily an “occasional” or “contingent” writer with no discernible core, Wright suggests there is a recoverable worldview and theology at work in all of his letters. Near the conclusion of Volume 1, he reflects:

So when people say, as they often do, that Paul ‘was not a systematic theologian’, meaning that ‘Paul didn’t write a medieval Summa Theoligica or a book that corresponds to Calvin’s Institutes,’ we want to say: Fair enough. So far as we know, he didn’t. But the statement is often taken to mean that Paul was therefore just a jumbled, rambling sort of thinker, who would grab odd ideas out of the assortment of junk in his mental cupboard and throw them roughly in the direction of the problems presented to him by his beloved and frustrating ekklesiai. And that is simply nonsense. The more time we spend in the careful reading of Paul, and in the study of his worldview, his theology and his aims and intentions, the more he emerges as a coherent thinker. His main themes may well not fit the boxes constructed by later Christian dogmatics of whatever type. They generate their own categories, precisely as they are transforming the ancient Jewish ones, which are often sadly neglected in later Christian dogmatics. They emerge, whole and entire, thought through with a rigour which those who criticize Paul today (and those who claim to follow him, too!) would do well to match. (Paul and the Faithfulness of God [Minneapolis: Fortress 2013], 568.)

The heirs of John Wesley have often faced similar criticism. Sure, he wrote a little commentary and many sermons, and we have some lovely correspondences, but we don’t have the big volumes like those stirring Calvinists do. But, starting with folks like Albert Outler and Thomas Langford, the 20th century saw the rebirth of an attempt to take Wesley seriously as a theologian. Perhaps not a systematic theologian of the academic model, but a practical theologian whose work was indelibly marked by his calling to serve actual Christians on the ground. That kind of work has its own disciplines, unique rigor, and fruitful insights for the renewing of the mind (see Romans 12:2) that Christian theology seeks to make possible.

The best theologians, in my experience, are people who have actually served the Church with all its attendant warts and scars. Bishop Wright is an example of this trend and, if Wright is correct, the first theologian was also a pastor. If his argument holds for Paul, I think there is also something here for heirs of Wesley. He, too, had a coherent theology that emerges as you actually immerse yourself in his work. The Methodist Godfather, also like Paul, has often been dismissed as unsystematic and “occasional.” And finally, Wesley – again like Paul before him – thought through his pastoral-theological work prayerfully,  and with a degree of care that all who seek to do the work of parish ministry (or the work of a theologian) would do well to imitate.

wesley reading

“It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading. A reading people will always be a knowing people. ”
― John Wesley

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What does a pastor look like?

by Drew 0 Comments

A woman came to my church today asking for help to get to a neighboring town to visit a loved one who had just been in a car accident.  It was one of those who-knows-if-this-is-the-truth-but-as-the-church-we-are-supposed-to-help moments.  One of my active members brought her to the door as I was preparing for VBS tonight and introduced us.  Her first comment?

“You don’t look like a preacher.”

My reply?  “Thank you.”

What does a preacher look like?  Is there a standard garb I’m unaware of?  Were my jeans and t-shirt (yes, a little more dressed down than normal for me while at the office, but this was right before VBS was about to start) a giveaway?

Was it an age thing?

Maybe the Episcopalians have been right all along, and we should all wear crisp, white collars to aid identification! (If you are in a more contemporary – or even contemporvant! – setting, the uniform of choice would be a soul patch, leather wristband, graphic t and tattered jeans.)

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Translation or Catechesis?

Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry

I’ve been working my way through UMC Bishop Will Willimon’s excellent Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, and came across a very interesting passage, and one that I think I agree with:

Just as it is impossible to learn French by reading French novel in an English translation, so it is also impossible, as Lindbeck notes, truly to learn Christianity by encountering it through the translation of existentialism, or feminism, or the language of self-esteem.  One must learn the vocabulary, inculcate the moves and gestures of this faith, in order to know the faith. (Pastor, 209)

The occasion for this quote is a discussion of George Lindbeck’s excellent but (very!) dense The Nature of Doctrine.  Willimon is part of that postliberal school that went from Yale to Duke, a school I am largely comfortable with as an alternative to either fundamentalist or liberal theologies.  The above quote is explained, to my knowledge, best by William Placher here:

Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation

 

The argument goes something like this: in an increasingly post-Christian society (the West), how do we make disciples?  Some favor “translation” and others favor “catechesis” (my term).  The former would be those who use catch-words like “relevant,” “contemporary,” and “seeker-friendly” when discussing evangelical tactics.  The latter favor a more tradition Catholic/Orthodox model, where people are made Christians by learning Christian doctrine through constant exposure to the liturgy and sacraments, through learning the Scripture (and not The Message), and through (and this is the crux) learning to self-identify as “Christians.”  The latter crowd is not composed of people who want to open a coffee shop that talks about Jesus and call it church.

I am largely sympathetic to the postliberal school and its orthodox/Barthian leanings.  But I have concerns as well, that are exemplified in Willimon’s quote above.  It seems to assume that there is some “pure Christianity” that we can somehow identify and get back to.  Moreover, many in Willimon’s camp would affirm the above but still favor reading Christianity through the lens of, say, Aquinas (Hauerwas and MacIntyre), who was himself heavily influenced by Aristotle.  And of course, he was reading Augustine who was heavily Platonist.    Have these individuals “translated” Christianity through Aristotle or Plato, and thus bastardized it, or used the tools of high culture to better understand God’s revelation in Jesus Christ?  Surely it is the latter.  But how is this different from reading Christianity through the lens of existentialism, feminism, etc.?  Perhaps it is merely less popular.

But it seems a fine line.  I firmly believe in catechesis; and while the term “relevant” has many problems (as does the magazine of the same name), it points out something important: our teaching and enculturing must be accessible to people here and now.  The theology of the cross must be balanced out by the theology of the incarnation.  Our teaching must have flesh that can be recognized by our fellow Americans/Southerners/young people/Democrats/etc.  But we must not let this “incarnational” principle be used to justify wishy-washy theology.  It is a fine line, indeed.

Thoughts?

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Authority for Preaching

I’ve been struck recently by the close relationship between pastoral care and preaching authority.  My previous church responsibilities involved only very limited pastoral functions.  This is the first time I’ve been a “one man show,” so to speak.  And I’m convinced that it matters.  It matters than the pastor who visits you in the hospital also teaches your Bible study, also spends time with your children, also visits your mother at the nursing home, and also attempts to preach the Word each Sunday.  I believe it matters greatly.

I think this is what makes small church ministry simpler in a number of ways than role-related ministries in larger churches.  If your people only see you preach and lead the occassional meeting or funeral, it’s unlikely they will have little personal investment in hearing what Word the Lord has that Sunday.  Let’s face it: it is the rare Christian (relatively speaking) who comes Church with ears to hear.  I believe that is why preaching is in such poor shape: we feel forced to bend our sermons (please don’t dumb them down more and refer to them as “messages”) to hardly creative, culture-oriented and chimerically “practical” advice or storytelling with very little chance of revealing anything of the Divine.

I believe that this pastoral authority also lends itself to preaching authority.  When your people know that you care about them – that you have sat with them in their homes, in the hospital, married and buried their loved ones – then real homiletic freedom is possible.  We are not bound by the need to impress or dazzle because our hearers are already convinced that we are genuinely concerned for them as fellow Christians.  We also do not fear to step on toes and push our people if that is what the text demands, because we are confident that our people trust us enough to speak the truth in love.

There is a strain of Protestant Christianity right now that is, I believe, self-conciously and dangerously “radical.”  It follows, to some extent from a Barthian perspective (I believe Tom Long calls it the “herald” model of preacher) that would prefer to damn the torpedoes and fire away with the percieved “truth” of the Gospel without any thought to how it is heard or the lives of the flesh-and-blood people sitting in the pews.  This has recieved a boost, I believe, from Stanley Hauerwas and others in the ‘radical’ orthodoxy and/or postliberal strain.  Conciously taking up a place that is neither theologically conservative  nor liberal, such preachers are susceptible to believing their word is the Word.

I have heard horror stories of many such pastors who, in their zeal for being radical, forgot to be pastors.  Case in point: the uproar among everyday Americans over the Jeremiah Wright scandal.  Maybe he said what needed to be said, but certainly his manner and his context can be legitimately called into question.

On beginning in the ministry, someone told me the oft-repeated phrase “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”  It is trite, to be sure, but there is wisdom in that phrase.  It is especially important wisdom for people like myself just out of seminary and eager to prove that we do indeed know something worth hearing.  Our authority for preaching in a local church, especially a small congregation, will largely rise and fall with our relationships with the people in the pews.  This can be a great terror, or a great tool.  The choice is ours.

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The Church and Singleness

Churches are generally not great for single people.  Even churches with vibrant singles ministries only construe them as a place to meet other singles with the hopes of making them no longer single.  Protestant churches in particular do not know what to do with single Christians.  We have no vocation of singleness to look at, no imagination for what the Christian life looks like as an unmarried person.

My last semester of seminary, I noticed a mad dash to the altar.  NOBODY wants to be a single pastor, and with good reason.  All of the social events involving my denomination’s structure are geared towards “pastors and their spouses.”  I went to my first such meeting this week, and found that I was not only the youngest person there, I was, as far as I could tell, the only one who was likely single and had never been previously married.

What does holiness look like for the single person?  How the hell does a single pastor date?  My fundamentalist past tell me, “no sex before marriage,” but this is not a positive vision for the single life.

The best I’ve read on the subject is Lauren Winner’s Real Sex.  She re-convinced me that the church’s traditional stance on marriage was correct, by being honest and giving sound theological reasons for believing them.  I have read nothing better on the subject and encourage all committed Christians, single or not, to check it out.

Again, as a Protestant, I don’t have a tradition of saints to look at, or nuns, monks, and priests who model the single life.  What are we to do?  “It is better to marry than to burn with desire,” I suppose.  But how does a pastor date? Who wants to marry a pastor? (Probably no one, if they knew what they were getting into!)  And yet our churches expect married clergy.  Truth be told, they expect the spouse to be a bit of an unpaid co-pastor.

We Protestants desperately need to find ways to affirm singleness.  Not everyone is called to be married, and if indeed it is OK to, as Paul says, “remain as you were,” they deserve better from us.

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