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Associate Professor of Pastoral Ministry

May 2010

Volume 2

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What sustains men and women who serve in pastoral ministry? Various traits come to mind: a sense of divine calling, a passion for Christ and his gospel, a love for people and a desire to help them flourish spiritually, honest and healthy relationships, a clear set of boundaries. These and other qualities all contribute to a strong sense of pastoral vocation.  

I was therefore taken by surprise when, in the mid-life of my pastoral ministry, I discovered that I had became bored. Bored with ministry. Bored with my life. Bored even with God! As I observed and spoke with fellow clergy, I discovered I was not alone. Boredom, in the form of spiritual numbness, can descend upon us like a thick fog or a heavy blanket. In these moments it is easy and tempting to abandon the ministry of leading God’s people with energy and enthusiasm to settle instead for a dull, predictable management of the status quo. 

The English Baptist minister and theologian Derek Tidball describes how even well-intentioned leaders can become victims of the routine nature of pastoral ministry. He writes: 

There are thousands of ministers today who continue to function more or less in a traditional way and who gain much job satisfaction in doing so…. Maybe some of that contentment is due to the fact that they do not have very great ambitions… Some of the satisfied try to bury themselves in the frantic life of the flock. And since they are adored by their flocks they derive warmth from them and a degree of insulation which protects them from harsh winds of the outside world. In this way [however] they actually cease to be shepherds.  Instead of leading the flock to richer pastures, they become caretakers, befriended, and pastored, by the flock. (Tidball, Skilful Shepherds, 314-315).

Managing to get by and surviving may seem like a less-costly alternative than accepting the pain of taking up the reins of spiritual leadership and the inevitable conflict that comes with it. When we, however, compromise our calling like this, our hearts shrink and we become lukewarm caretakers of the status-quo rather than stewards of the gospel. 

Centuries ago the Desert Fathers observed a malady common to monks who lived in the desert. They called it acedia and described it as “spiritual sun-stroke” or the “devil of the noonday sun”, an affliction that led to a loss of passion, spiritual boredom and a listless wandering around with no goal in mind. (Holmes, Spirituality for Ministry, 42-3). Acedia is a laziness or indifference in matters of the spirit which still afflicts many religious leaders, manifesting as a loss of zeal for ministry. Norman Shawchuck and Roger Heuser describe what it feels like:

No longer does the ‘fire burn in the belly.’ With hardly more than a whimper, such pastors settle down to get by until a better appointment or call comes along, or until their pension kicks in. Acedia is an old word for an old sin widespread. Leaders in their middle years are especially vulnerable when life has been daily for a long time and promises to be exceedingly daily for a long time into the future… A person in the grip of acedia has drifted so far out of the current of things that from where he [or she] lies motionless by the shore he [or she] hardly bothers to watch life go by. (Shawchuck and Heuser, Leading the Congregation, 20)

C. S. Lewis too discerned the possibility of losing delight in the Lord on account of the work of ministry. He described this danger to a recently converted man who was pondering the possibility of studying theology in order to become an ordained minister. Lewis wrote: 

I think there is a great deal to be said for having one’s deepest spiritual interest distinct from one’s ordinary duty as a student or professional [person]. St Paul’s job was tent-making. When the two coincide I should have thought there was a danger… that what is boring and repellent in the job may alienate one from the spiritual life…. Someone has said ‘None are so unholy as those whose hands are cauterized with holy things’; sacred things may become profane by becoming matters of the job. You now want spiritual truth for her own sake; how will it be when the same truth is also needed for an effective footnote in your thesis? (Vanauken, A Severe Mercy, 105-106)

 

These words from C.S. Lewis and the Desert Fathers warn us that we can become numb to God and his work in our lives. Our hands, and worse, our hearts can become cauterized by the repeated handling of holy things until we become insensitive to God and as useless to him as lukewarm water and salt that has lost its savour. 

In order to prevent this spiritual apathy from sneaking up on us we need to cultivate a strong awareness of our life in Christ. Knowledge of who we are in Christ is made possible by honest self-reflection, allowing the deep insights into the hidden inner world of our thoughts, emotions and motives to direct us anew to God. Calvin said it best when he wrote that: 

We cannot ardently desire God before we have begun to be completely dissatisfied with ourselves. For what person does not choose to depend on himself? Who does not rely on himself so long as (since he does not know himself) he is happy with his own abilities and does not see his calamity? That is why each of us is not only prompted to seek God by the knowledge of himself, but also guided and practically led by the hand to find him. On the other hand, it is well known that a person never comes to the clear knowledge of himself unless he has first contemplated the face of the Lord and afterward descended to consider himself. (Calvin, Institutes, 23-24)

 

In light of Calvin’s statement it is no surprise that for some of us this process is profoundly troubling, awkward and even painful. We are exploring realms that we have consciously or unconsciously kept hidden from others and perhaps even from ourselves. This trek is, however, worth the risk if we want to grow into who Christ calls us to be. Unless we face these truths about ourselves we will be hindered from growing in our knowledge of God and will be of little use in serving God’s people. 

How do we undertake this process? I am assuming, of course, that persons engaged in pastoral leadership are availing themselves of the ordinary means of grace such as praying, taking time for worship and Sabbath rest, regularly receiving the Lord’s Supper and searching the Scriptures, not just for sermon ideas, but to hear the Lord speaking to them. In addition to these practices I would like to draw attention to two daily habits that have deepened my awareness of God’s abiding presence and have become especially meaningful to me.  

I learned the first habit from John Stott, the renowned preacher and author from All Souls Anglican Church in London, England. Stott would begin his day by kneeling and saying the following prayer the moment he rose from bed every morning:    

Good morning heavenly Father,
good morning Lord Jesus,
good morning Holy Spirit.
Heavenly Father, I worship you as the creator and sustainer of the universe.
Lord Jesus, I worship you as the Savior and Lord of the world.
Holy Spirit, I worship you as the sanctifier of the people of God.
Glory be to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit;as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. 
Heavenly Father, I pray that I may live this day in your presence and please you more and more.
Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I may take up my cross and follow you.
Holy Spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself and cause your fruit to ripen in my life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Holy, blessed and glorious Trinity, three persons in one God, have mercy upon me. Amen. (Steer, Basic Christian)

 

This prayer says it all. It reminds me who I am and whose I am. It puts my life in perspective and sets the tone for my day. It serves as my spiritual morning coffee, getting me back in gear around the ultimate priorities of my life. It reminds me that my purpose is not merely to please people but to please my heavenly Father. It calls me to daily give up my rights and shoulder the cross, following Jesus. When I ask the Spirit to fill me and use me as he sees fit, it brings to mind the kind of character God is forming in me. I have memorized this prayer and try to pray it as soon as I get up (usually while I’m taking a shower or getting dressed) to reaffirm the covenant relationship I have with God in Christ. 

The second practice I found to be immensely liberating is the discipline of daily prayer, or as it is called in various traditions, the ‘daily or divine office’ or ‘liturgy of the hours.’ Daily prayer is rooted in the Jewish tradition of praying at regular times every morning, evening and night. Countless Christians have, through the centuries, followed some variation on this basic pattern. The practice continues today, although regrettably it has been largely lost among evangelical Protestants.  

Daily prayer is set in the larger context of the church year, recalling the great events of our salvation in Christ: his advent and birth, his ministry and death, his resurrection and ascension. The offices consist of an invitation to prayer, numerous readings from Scripture, particularly the Psalms and a focused time to dedicate the coming day to the Lord. They conclude with the Lord’s Prayer and a benediction. 

I find these daily practices so compelling partly because they put some order and structure into the chaos of my daily life! They reawaken me to God’s presence at fixed times throughout the day and give me a structured way to fulfill the apostle’s admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes. 5:17). Spiritual routines like these eventually become second nature and their value comes back to us at the most surprising moments. I love the way my Tyndale colleague Arthur Boers explains it in his helpful book The Rhythm of God’s Grace:

Fixed hour prayer keeps calling and inviting me to praise God: here, now, always, and everywhere … [The Psalms] confirm that we can know God’s presence at all times only if we set aside certain times for prayer. The Jews did not buy into a more current notion that since God is present everywhere and in all times we can pray whenever we feel like it. Rather, they believed that praying regularly at set and specific times helps focus and reorient one to God at all other times. (Boers, The Rhythm of God’s Grace, 33)

The pressures of ministry often leave me feeling hectic and fragmented, as if I am caught in a centrifuge, with my energy being scattered in all directions! These daily disciplines reconnect me to God and sustain me for the long obedience that is required for faithful pastoral work. I commend them to you.

Bibliography

 

  • Boers, Arthur. The Rhythm of God’s Grace: Uncovering Morning and Evening Hours. Brewster, Mass.: Paraclete Press, 2003.
  • Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition. Translated by Elsie McKee.Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.
  • Holmes, Urban. Spirituality for Ministry. New York: Seabury, 1982.
  • Shawchuck, Norman and Roger Heuser. Leading the Congregation. Nashville: Abingdon, 1993.
  • Steer, Roger. Basic Christian: The Inside Story of John Stott. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010.
  • Tidball, Derek. Skilful Shepherds: An Introduction to Pastoral Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986.
  • Vanauken, Sheldon. A Severe Mercy. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

One Comment

  1. Somie
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    Dear Brother/Sister,

    Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ.

    I am Somie, from Pakistan. Urdu and Punjabi are the biggest languages of this country. I visited your website (http://www.tyndale.ca/) and impressed by your work. I have one suggestion regarding booklets, sermon, tracks, and Bible studies and recording, it would be good, if these will be available in our native languages in Urdu and Punjabi. Reaching out to the people in their own languages is very helpful, affective and fruitful. If your ministry is interested and keen to reach the unreached and untold in Pakistan with the materials in native languages, I can arrange to translate for messages, bible studies, biblical tracks, books and also Urdu page on your ministry website. Our all services will be provided with reasonable rates and whatever we get we use it to spread the word of God.

    Would please to hear from you,

    With prayers,
    Somie
    Pakistan

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