Those of us who work in the church know how trivial, vain and self-serving the “institutional” church (as we used to call it in seminary—as if there were any other kind) can be. But we also wonder what we would do without the church. How could you celebrate Christmas without the church? How could you wake up in the dark of Easter morning without the church?
A church I pastored in Portland, Oregon, ran an after-school children’s program. One afternoon someone came to tell me that twin brothers, aged six, had pushed a little girl during a play period. Although she recovered quickly, we had some anxious moments. She had hit her head hard on a concrete floor and needed a CAT scan to make sure that there was no serious damage.
Recently I celebrated 15 years as pastor of a congregation in East Texas of under 200 members with about half of them present for Sunday worship. At denominational meetings and around town I’m asked, “When are you going to a bigger church? Why do you stay?” Sometimes I give a long, rambling explanation, but often I respond with, “Because I read too much Wendell Berry.”
While wrestling with me and my hesitations, down along the riverbank, God whispered in my ear, “Barb: If you are going to tell a story, tell my story.” Ever since that day, honoring that stipulation has been part of the privilege and part of the burden in this vocation called ministry.
Seminarians preparing to serve as pastors are increasingly taking out low-interest government loans to pay educational costs, but researchers say that trend is dangerously compounding the struggles of fledgling ministers and small churches.
Pastors often experience an uncomfortable tension between trying to be both a truth-telling prophet and a caring pastor. That’s the case these days as I, like most pastors, take in the news of ghastly terrorist violence in the Middle East, the ongoing violence in Iraq, and the regular reports of civilians and U.S. soldiers killed.
According to new findings in the Pulpit & Pew National Clergy Survey, a solid majority of clergy is deeply satisfied with the pastoral ministry. Seven out of ten of those surveyed report they have never considered abandoning their vocation. In other words, most pastors claim to have found happiness in the ministry.
Ray was tired, worn down to the nub. It was the year he was turning 60, celebrating the 40th anniversary of his ordination and marking 15 years as pastor of his congregation. Ray knew that every pastor goes through dry periods. What shook his foundations was suddenly coming face-to-face with his mortality, or at least the mortality of his ministry.
Isaiah knew his congregation. His word from the Lord spoke into the chaos and confusion of a people who had suffered not only a disruption of life, but also a disrupted understanding of God. Their cherished expectations of what it meant to be the covenant people had crumbled along with the destroyed Jerusalem. God had allowed this destruction of their naïve theology, and now they were exiled from both the land and the notion that God would protect them. It was this befuddled congregation that assembled to hear Isaiah’s sermons.