Learning to Minister: John Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood

The past year has been an interesting one for pastors in North America. A series of colossal moral failures from famous pastors is matched only by the rash of recent pastoral suicides. The heartbreak on one side and the outrage on the other leaves many pastors simultaneously sympathetic and disappointed. In that dark valley, pastors, too, search for answers to pressing questions. Why has this happened in our day and time? Is something devastatingly wrong with our models of ministry or conception of the church? At the most basic level, what is ministry really all about?  More personally, how can I make it as a pastor in this day and age?

In the midst of questions like these, we need sane guides for pastoral ministry in our current milieu. We need voices that can speak about the pastoral vocation with a clarity and sensibility that is hard to find. I confess that it is hard to find because there are not many pastors writing about pastoral ministry today. Don’t misunderstand me. There are pastors writing today, but, valuable as some of their writing is, most of it has very little to do with the ministry of the pastor.

To find sane guides for pastoral ministry, we will need to look elsewhere, to other times and places. For the last year or so I have been searching out those voices. One of those I recently listened to was St. John Chrysostom through his brief work entitled On the Priesthood. John Chrysostom, whose life stretched from 349-407, was the renowned Patriarch of Constantinople, dubbed “the golden mouth” for his power as a preacher. His writings take up six volumes of the first series of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (outmatched only by St. Augustine of Hippo’s eight volumes), mostly due to his extensive homilies on the Scripture.

His small work On the Priesthood is an apology for the serious nature of pastoral (or priestly) ministry, particularly elevation to the calling of the bishop. The book is structured around a dialogue between Chrysostom and his friend, Basil, based around an event centering on Basil and John’s election and forced ordination to the bishopric. While foreign to us, such a situation was more common in their time. John eludes elevation while Basil, thinking that John had given in to ordination, submits and becomes a bishop, only to find out later that John had avoided it entirely. Some scholars debate whether the dialogue structure and situation are historically true or a fictitious creation or literary device to discuss the heart of the book, which is all about “the pre-eminent dignity, and sanctity of the priestly officer and the peculiar difficulties and perils which beset it.”

While I have no desire to summarize it, one particularly interesting aspect of the book is just how much effort Chrysostom gives to describing reasons why someone might want to avoid pastoral ministry. Since the situation giving rise to the book is a justification for Chrysostom’s avoidance of forced ordination to the bishopric, he makes a strong case for how one might avoid the calling to ministry due to the difficulty and dangers of ministry, significant pressures of caring for the flock, the requirement of a excellence of spirit, and even love for Christ. If only we had more frequent mention of these warnings before entry to ministry today, we may have warded off some who entered ministry more for the sake of their own reputation or personal gain than for the sake of Christ.

When discussing the temptations that come upon the pastor, Chrysostom does not hold back. The minister is to be a person of high character with “a healthy, robust soul” (83). The minister must always be alert and attentive. “A priest must be sober and clear-sighted and possess a thousand eyes looking in every direction, for he lives, not for himself alone, but for a great multitude” (82). It is not merely the activities of ministry that are required of the minister, but deep attention to their own soul, for ministry will reveal all that we are  not just what we can do. “The priest’s shortcomings simply cannot be concealed. On the contrary, even the most trivial soon get known” (85).

Again, it is to the character of the pastor that Chrysostom returns again and again, even when discussing the necessary tasks of ministry, such as visiting widows or the sick, enforcing church discipline, and preaching. What sort of character should the pastor have?

Consider, then, what qualities a man needs if he is to withstand such a tempest and deal successfully with these obstacles to the common good. He must be dignified yet modest, impressive yet kindly, masterful yet approachable, impartial yet courteous, humble but not servile, vehement yet gentle, in order that he may be able calmly to resist all these dangers and to promote a suitable man with full authority, even though everyone opposes him, and reject an unsuitable man with equal authority, even though everyone favours him. One thing alone he must consider: the edification of the Church. (93)

Chrysostom holds up a weighty list that may feel overwhelming to pastors. But he does not stop there. He also holds up the eternal rewards and punishments for the pastor who does or does not undertake his ministry well, referencing more than once the words of the Apostle James: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).

It is understandable that the book ends with significant attention to the ministry of the Word. This is a primary responsibility of the pastor, but also a primary interest for John Chrysostom himself, whose renown is largely linked with his powerful ministry of preaching. In another place on my blog, I shared a passage from Chrysostom’s call for the preacher to seek to please God more than pleasing humans, which is one example of his dual attention to the craft of preaching and the character of the preacher.

If you read this short work you will feel at times like it has arrived from another planet, whether due to the situation that gave rise to writing it, comments on women in the church, or other cultural uniquenesses. However, other passages come across just as relevant to our own day as if they were written by an astute pastor observing the struggles of the twenty-first century North American church in its crisis of ministry. As contemporary pastors, may God give us ears to hear the old voices, like that of St. John Chrysostom, echoing strong and sturdy with time-tested truths about pastoral ministry. And may we not only hear it, but heed it as we live out our calling in a confused time.

A Crash Course in Church Growth (Ephesians 4:1-16)

Ephesians

This past weekend at Eastbrook Church, I continued our series “Ephesians: A Crash Course in Basic Christianity,” by looking at Ephesians 4:1-16 with the message: “A Crash Course in Church Growth.” The message aims to recalibrate our understanding of what church growth is all about by focusing on the direction of growth outlined by the Apostle Paul in this chapter. Along the way, I spend some time discussing what it means to walk worthy of our calling, what is the fivefold ministry and what does it mean now, and a little bit around the topic of individual versus community spiritual growth.

You can watch my message from this past weekend and follow along with the message outline below. You can also engage with the entire series here or download the Eastbrook mobile app for even more opportunities for involvement.

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Exemplary Lives of Renewed Pastors

Richard Baxter.jpgIn reading J. I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness some time ago, I came across this moving quotation from Richard Baxter about the need for pastors to attend to their own lives in ministry. Baxter was an interesting figure, best known for his writing of that classic of pastoral practice, The Reformed Pastor.

Just a quick note that the term ‘reformed’ for Baxter does not merely refer to the reformed theological tradition, but also to the pursuit of a thoroughly reformed life before God. A more easily understood title for that book today might be “The Renewed Pastor.” I am confident that more than a few readers might agree with me that what we need today, no less than in Baxter’s day, is renewed pastors whose lives are exemplary and saturated with the character of Christ.

Take heed to yourselves, lest you be void of that saving grace of God which you offer to others….be also careful that your graces are kept in vigorous and lively exercise, and that you preach to yourselves the sermons which you study, before you preach them to others….watch therefore over your own hearts: keep out lusts and passions, and worldly inclinations; keep up the life of faith, and love, and zeal; be much at home, and much with God…take heed to yourselves, lest your example contradict your doctrine…lest you unsay with your lives, what you say with your tongues….we must study as hard how to live well, as how to preach well.

This is a challenging and good word to those of us who serve the Lord and His church in pastoral ministry. Baxter draws attention to the key topics: the steadiness in our exercise of faith, the personal response to the message we preach to others, dealing with the desires and longings within our own hearts, our zeal in ministry, and our everyday living for God. There is hardly any part of our lives to which Baxter fails to call attention. God forbid that we should take lightly our call and the example which we must set as servants of Christ in His body!

With confidence, Paul could say these words to one of his congregations: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Pastor, I ask myself and invite you to join me in considering whether we can we offer the same confident statement to our people from our own lives. With a tip of my hat to E. M. Bounds, I must say that what we need today as pastors is not primarily more activity in the church, or more impact in the social arena, or better programs, or more-updated models of ministry. No. For all the good that those things can offer, they are not the primary necessity in pastoral ministry today or in any other era. Our primary need for pastoral ministry in today’s church is that humble servants of Christ will lay down their lives daily in order to be made completely new and alive to God in Christ. May God transform us as pastors into examples others can follow for His glory.

The Apostle James’ words come to mind:

Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly (James 3:1).

Notes on the Crisis of Pastoral Leadership in the North American Church

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I have been a Senior Pastor of a large, non-denominational, evangelical church for the past ten years, and been in pastoral ministry for nearly twenty years now. Maybe, like me, you realize there is something happening in the life of the North American Church that could best be described as a crisis of pastoral leadership. We see it around us and we feel it in our souls. There is something wrong and we cannot turn our eyes away. We must wrestle with the deeper issues of this crisis for our own soul’s sake, but also for the sake of the church. What follows is my fumbling attempt at reflection on this crisis, my wrestling with the challenges and questions, and also my invitation for you to engage with me in this. May God guide us and make something redemptively beautiful in His church and of His pastors.

 

The pastor who uses preaching or other forms of ministry as a means to platform himself or herself is doing disservice to themselves, shaming their calling, abusing their church, and turning their back on Messiah Jesus. Ministry is not about platforming ourselves, but about directing attention to Jesus and serving others in love.

*   *   *

The pastor who aims merely to write books and speak at conferences has confused after-effects with goals. We should not seek these things, but, after serving faithfully and fruitfully, agree to some of these things also, although we know they threaten to damage our souls and distract us in ministry.

*   *   *

A wise pastor once told me that God is more interested in having all of us than He is in having us do things for Him. Yet we are often more interested in having people recognize us for what we have done than for the degree to which we reflect Christ in our whole lives.

*   *   *

The crisis of pastoral leadership in the evangelical church is a crisis of discipleship, ecclesiology, and authority. It is a crisis of discipleship because our shepherds cannot lead us to the deep places with God because they do not regularly go there themselves. It is a crisis of ecclesiology because we have misunderstood what it means to be the church at nearly every level, from foundations to expressions. It is a crisis of authority because we have set celebrity pastors in positions of nearly unbounded power without appropriate personal or institutional accountability to Christian formation.

*   *   *

Ministry arises from the overflow of our own life with God. Failure to understand this and live by it will not only hinder our vibrant ministry, but also ruin us in the process. It will ruin us because the outward appearances of ministry activity will increasingly be at odds with our personal lack of discipleship.

*   *   *

To step away from celebrity and into obscurity can be a gift to the soul that strives for recognition and hungers for approval. At the same time, such a move toward obscurity can also become an attempt at escape from responsibility or another bent impulse toward recognition through reverse optics.

*   *   *

Toxic leaders and toxic environments often overlap and feed one another, but are not the same thing. Health will not come merely by addressing one but not the other. Health comes in the church when we address the personal issues of spiritual malformation, while also addressing the systemic issues of spiritual malformation in the environment.

*   *   *

The one who appoints himself or herself as a prophet is likely not a pastor, and is more likely someone with an axe to grind. The true impulse of the prophetic comes only from the Holy Spirit, not from the self. In Hebrew Scripture, the self-proclaimed prophet was to be killed by stoning.

*   *   *

To resist sin and temptation we must name it for what it is superficially but also subterraneanly. Every weed has a root, and many times the root is stronger and deeper than what is seen at the surface. The initial longings interlaced with temptation are not necessarily evil in themselves. It is the response to the longing that makes the difference. Naming the longing correctly often leads to an appropriate embrace of our weakness in relation to that desire that may lead us toward God. Giving in to temptation most often is connected with an inappropriate suppression or denial of desire, leading toward a whiplash of activity that will neither satiate our impulsive passion nor fully satisfy our desires because the true longing is ignored. Many pastors’ lives are like gardens whose weeds are plucked from the surface, but whose roots are still strong and just waiting to burst through the surface.

*   *   *

Is the vision before us the glory of God in Christ or is it something else? Is it the glory of ourselves in earthly exaltation? Is it the glory of liberated pursuits of our fleshly desire? The vision before us shapes our pursuit and the path of the road by which we travel our life’s journey. Pastor are ironically capable of seeing this in others, but often blind to the vision before us in our own lives.

 

The Weekend Wanderer: 5 January 2019

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

View More: http://thejoesphotos.pass.us/anyabwilefamily“Diverse Theologians to Read in 2019”Thabiti Anyabwile, pastor at Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC, and a Council member of The Gospel Coalition, offers a great resource for those trying to broaden the voices of their theological conversation partners. “Recently a brother on Twitter asked if I could recommend some orthodox theologians from around the world that he could read in 2019. It’s not the first time I’ve gotten such a request. So I thought I’d put together a short list of theologians and leaders from differing ethnic backgrounds for those who may be interested to diversify their reading lists.”

 

Screen Shot 2019-01-02 at 1.14.18 PMThe Tech-Wise Family Challenge – Without a doubt, the best book that I have read related to living a healthy life as a family in the digital age is The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch. If you have not read it, I would strongly encourage you to do so. Because of this, I was thrilled to hear about Barna Group partnering with Crouch to offer a 21-day Tech-Wise Family Challenge that begins this coming Monday, January 7. Find out more about it here.

 

uganda peace“Risking Peace: How Religious Leaders Ended Uganda’s Civil War” – At Commonweal, David Hoekema writes about the influence of religious leaders in shaping peace for the end of the conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government. “Far less known—scarcely mentioned in news reports—was the formation of an alliance of religious leaders in the darkest period of the conflict. Overcoming centuries of mistrust and disagreement, the Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim communities of the Acholi region joined forces to help relieve suffering caused by the violence and to bring government and rebel leaders to the negotiating table. Their work bears witness to the transforming power of interfaith collaboration and to the ability of local communities in Africa to resolve a seemingly intractable conflict.”

 

Jerry Falwell Jr“Jerry Falwell Jr. can’t imagine Trump ‘doing anything that’s not good for the country’ – In an interview with Joe Heim in The Washington Post, Jerry Falwell, Jr., speaks out in favor of Donald Trump in a way that is worth paying attention to because his justification is theologically questionable. Falwell credits his ongoing support for President Trump as based on Trump’s success in business and that we need a President “to run the country like a business.” While that could be true, Falwell  goes on to dismiss the importance of character in public leaders and downgrades the importance of caring for the poor. Citing a simplistic approach to two kingdoms theology, Falwell says: “In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country.” Alan Cross, a Southern Baptist Pastor, offered a scathing critique of Falwell’s statement that is worth pondering.

 

85735“Building on the Black Church’s Bible Legacy” – “African Americans have held tight to their Bibles over the years. Amid cultural shifts in beliefs and reading habits, their demographic consistently outranks other racial groups for their reliance on the Word. Last year, the American Bible Society (ABS) once again named African Americans ‘the most Bible engaged in the US.'”

 

dante inferno online“An Illustrated and Interactive Dante’s Inferno: Explore a New Digital Companion to the Great 14th-Century Epic Poem” – I guess you could be wasting your time playing Fortnite, so why not explore Dante’s Inferno? “The online, interactive companion to the Inferno you see screen-shotted here does not attempt to join their ranks. Its charming, children’s-book-graphic visual presentation takes a G-rated approach, ditching accurate human anatomy and horrific violence for a cartoonish video game romp through hell that makes it seem like a super fun, if super weird, place to visit. Created by Alpaca, an Italian design cooperative, and design studio Molotro, the tool aims to be ‘a synsemic access point to Dante’s literature, aiding its study.'”

 

Thomas Merton“Thomas Merton, the Monk Who Became a Prophet” – In The New Yorker, Alan Jacobs offers a wonderful reflection on the life of Thomas Merton, that quirky, most-popular monk of the twentieth-century. “Merton lived the public world, the world of words and politics, but knew that living in it had killed him. (‘Thomas Merton is dead.’) He sought the peace of pure and silent contemplation, but came to believe that the value of that experience is to send us back into the world that killed us. He is perhaps the proper patron saint of our information-saturated age, of we who live and move and have our being in social media, and then, desperate for peace and rest, withdraw into privacy and silence, only to return. As we always will.”

 

85769“Billy Graham, Eugene Peterson, and Other Evangelicals Lost This Year” –  Christianity Today highlights some of the most notable figures in the evangelical world that died in this past year. While most of us probably heard of the deaths of Billy Graham and Eugene Peterson, we may not have known about the passing of James Earl Massey, Bob Buford, George Lindbeck, and others on this list.

 

book open“10 Novels Every Pastor Should Read” – I stumbled upon this article by Kolby Kerr and liked it right away. Here he offers an apologetic for reading fiction for pastors that is winsome and clear, while also offering a very energizing list of suggested reading for pastors. There were a few on this list that I haven’t read, and so I look forward to exploring them. There were some missing that I would have included, but such is the subjectivity of book lists. Some may not know that the reason I studied English Literature as an undergrad was because of my calling toward pastoral ministry. I could not have been more happy for the education that I received and the way it has shaped my life and vocation.

 

PNG.jpegWhich country has the most languages?” – The BBC reports: “Papua New Guinea has about eight million people, but more than 800 languages. The oldest ones, in the Papuan group, date back tens of thousands of years. So why are there so many languages in this mountainous island country?”

 

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

The Pastor as Spiritual Director [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 9]

fullsizeoutput_ae1In his book Working the Angles, Eugene Peterson outlines three essential acts of pastoral ministry: prayer, reading Scripture, and spiritual direction. These three acts are, to use a metaphor from mathematics, a holy trigonometry of three inner angles that shape outer, visible acts of ministry: preaching, teaching, and administration. I turn now, in my journey through this book, to the third of those inner angles: spiritual direction.

Peterson spends most of chapter 7, “Being a Spiritual Director,” defining and clarifying what he means by spiritual direction. Here are a few of his definitions.

Spiritual direction is the aspect of ministry that explores and develops this absorbing and devout attentiveness to “the specific detail of everyday incidents,” “the everyday occurrences of contemporary life” (150).

Spiritual direction is the task of helping a person take seriously what is treated dismissively by the publicity-infatuated and crisis-sated mind, and then to receive this “mixed random material of life”…as the raw material for high holiness (150).

Spiritual direction takes place when two people agree to give their full attention to what God is doing in one (or both) of their lives and seek to respond in faith (150).

Many are unfamiliar with the term and uneasy with its implications….what I call spiritual direction is what they [pastors] are doing when they don’t think they are doing anything important (150-151).

Peterson emphasizes the ordinary sources for spiritual direction and the relational environment in which such guidance takes place. This is a return to one of the essential tasks of pastoral ministry with a terminology that was widely used throughout the history of the church. While Peterson is not the first to encourage a return to this (see Thomas C. Oden’s 4-volume Classical Pastoral Care or John T. McNeill’s now out-of-print A History of the Cure of Souls), he does speak with direct insight into contemporary shortcomings in pastoral practice of spiritual guidance. 

Let me share a few of Peterson’s insights about the contemporary pastor’s role as spiritual director.

Being a spiritual director, which used to loom large at the center of every pastor’s common work, in our times has been pushed to the periphery of ministry. Ironically, this is the work that many people assume that pastors do all the time: teaching people to pray, helping parishioners discern the presence of grace in events and feelings, affirming the presence of God at the very heart of life, sharing a search for light through a dark passage in the pilgrimage, guiding the formation of a self-understanding that is biblically spiritual instead of merely psychological or sociological (151).

Being a spiritual director means a readiness to clear space and arrange time to look at these elements of our life that are not at all peripheral but are central — unobtrusive signals of transcendence. By naming and attending and conversing, we teach our friends to “read the Spirit” and not just the newspapers (152).

For most pastors being a spiritual director doesn’t mean introducing a new rule or adding another item to our overextended job descriptions, but simply rearranging our perspective: seeing certain acts as eternal and not ephemeral, as essential and not accidental (153).

Being a spiritual director means noticing the familiar, naming the particular. Being knowledgeable in the large truths of sin, grace, salvation, atonement, and judgment is necessary but not sufficient. A lot of our work takes place in the details of the particular (157).

I love Peterson’s comments about spiritual direction, but I almost wish that I could sit with him to see how a week of his ministry would have played out. Thankfully, he gives some practical insight for those of us looking for it: “For me, at least, formal spiritual direction involves only five or six people with whom I meet at intervals of four to six weeks” (161). This makes what Peterson is suggesting both clear and, although I hesitate to use the word about these matters, manageable. Reading works like this, or perhaps older texts on spiritual direction, we may sometimes tend to idealize the pastoral role as doing nothing but meeting with souls hungry for a word from God. Peterson graciously dashes that idealized picture, while still calling pastors to pay attention, listen, and join in the journey as guides for those God entrusts to us.

Three pithy statements in this chapter are worth holding up here at the end of the post for further reflection:

Any Christian can do this, and many do. Spiritual direction is no prerogative of the ordained ministry….But the fact that anybody can do it and that it can occur at any time and place must not be construed to mean that it can be done casually or indifferently. It needs to be practiced out of a life immersed in the pursuit of holiness (160, emphasis mine).

This is one part of our work that stubbornly resists generalizations. All the same, I will risk one: the “unimportant” parts of ministry might be the most important. The things we do when we don’t think we are doing anything significant might make the most difference (161, emphasis mine).

It would be unwise to forget for a moment that in this business we are sinners dealing with sinners; still, the primary orientation is toward God, looking for grace. It is easier to look for sin (163).

Pastors, let us return to the art of spiritual direction in our ministry, not pushing it aside as unimportant or missing the significant in what we feel is insignificant.

[This post continues my reflections on Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, which began here. You can read all the posts here.]

Real Shepherds: Thomas Oden on pastoral leadership as service

tom odenIn Thomas Oden‘s Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry, he takes one chapter to reflect on the analogy of pastor as shepherd. In the midst of that chapter, he strikes at the heart of what I think is missing within much of pastoral ministry as it is currently practiced in North America: pastoral authority approached as service.

The shepherd is not without authority, but it is of a special sort. The shepherd’s authority is based on competence grounded in mutuality, yet this authority requires accurate empathy to be properly empowered. Pastoral authority is not primarily coercive authority, such as that of a judge or a policeman, but rather authority based on covenant fidelity, caring, mutuality, and the expectation of empathic understanding (Gregory, ACW, vol. 11, Part 2).

This conception of authority has a christological base in the minds of Christian believers. From where else did Christianity learn this unusual view of authority? It is precisely from the servant messiah that we learn of the paradoxical unity of dignity and service. It is from the true God, true man, who though he was rich became poor for our sakes (2 Cor. 8:9), “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8, RSV). The pattern of authority is that of the incarnate Lord, who expressed in a single, unified ministry the holiness of God amid the alienations of the world, the incomparable power of God that was surprisingly made know in an unparalleled way amid crucifixion and resurrection.

Wherever Christians speak of authority or dignity of ministry or headship of the shepherd, those are not properly understood as coercive modes of power, but persuasive, participative modes of benevolent, empathic guidance. This is an extraordinarily complex, subtle, and highly nuanced conception of authority, but it is intimately familiar to those who love Christ and listen for his voice. The proper authority of ministry is not external, manipulative, alien power that distances itself from those “under” it, but rather a legitimized and happily received influence that wishes only good for its recipient, a leadership that boldly guides but only on the basis of a deeply empathic sense of what the flock yearns for and needs. The analogy of shepherd was not promiscuously or thoughtlessly chosen by Jesus as the centerpiece of ministry, but wells up from the heart of God’s own ministry to the world. (p. 53)