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The Most Rewarded Occupational Hazard of Pastoral Ministry

The Most Rewarded Occupational Hazard of Pastoral Ministry

Every vocation has its occupational hazards. When I worked construction there was a danger of cutting of a finger or falling off a lift. As a sales representative at a cell phone company, I had to navigate potentially volatile and unreasonable customers. As a pastor... well, there's plenty of potential pitfalls - false teaching, culture shifts, moral failures, infighting among congregations members, ridiculous church politics, budget anxieties, etc., etc. Thankfully the Lord has spared me many of these. The congregation I serve is beyond gracious to me despite the fact that I am the dictionary definition of scatter-brained, and our congregation is at a peace with on another. But over and over the Lord has gently warned me about that one, single occupational hazard of ministry that is the most dangerous because it is the most accepted and praised by our culture - perhaps even our churches and ourselves. That hazard goes by numerous names - busyness, anxiety, stress, hype, distraction... the feeling that we are accomplishing much when in fact we are accomplishing very little, or even trying to build the kingdom with cheap kindling - flammable stuff like wood, hay, and stubble (1 Cor. 3:10-15).

Eating Before Serving

Lately I've been stressed out about the amount of things I want to get done. Ideas come easy to me. Implementing those ideas... not so much. Very often my list of "to dos" grows larger, and all along I invent an ideal version of myself - a version of myself that is incredibly efficient, productive, focused, and successful. We're incredible at deceiving ourselves, aren't we? That version of myself, if it's ever existed, has had a half-life of about a half an hour.

This morning my devotions took me to Luke 10:38-42, which, if you're part of a liturgical church, will likely be showing up in your lectionary soon. It's the story of Jesus, Martha, and Mary. Jesus is teaching, Mary is sitting at his feet soaking up the teaching, and Martha is fuming in the background because she's left to do all the serving (lit. "ministering").

I've always felt kind of sorry for Martha. I mean, come on Jesus?! She's a hard worker! In fact, she has all the marks of successful ministry - the kind of servant any church would want! She reminds me of the lyrics to an old Pedro the Lion Song called The Longer I Lay Here:

You're up with the sunrise
And down when the work's been done
With excellence industry
Diligence naturally

The surprising part of the text is that Jesus is more interested in serving Martha than he's interested in Martha serving him. It's not that her desire to serve a meal to her teacher was out of place, it's just that her serving is not of first importance. "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve" (Mark 10:45). Christ insists on first serving us before we ever serve him. In fact, it's only in being served by him that we serve in the right way. Service from any other vantage point is a sure recipe for pride, burnout, frustration, self-hatred, and fear. Looking around at many American churches (and sometimes myself), this seems to be the norm.

I Worked Harder Than Them All

The practically-minded Marthas among us will respond, "Right. Sitting at the feet of Jesus is great. But what about the work?! The work still needs to get done!" This is true. But here enters the Apostle Paul.

I've been studying the Apostle Paul for a long time, but I still don't have him figured out. He's humble enough to call himself "the chief of sinners" (1 Tim. 1:15), and yet still confident enough to tell the churches to "imitate me" (1 Cor. 4:16). I can identify well with the "chief of sinners" part. I've got that down. I would swallow hard before telling my congregation to "imitate me" in every sense.

Here's another example of St. Paul the paradox - an example that is pertinent to the matter at hand. After listing the witnesses to the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, with the names of heavy hitters like Peter and James, and after acknowledging that he's not even worthy of the name "apostle," Paul throws in this little gem of humility:

I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.

Wow. That's a tall claim there Paul! You worked harder than Peter, James, and the others? Harder than Martha?! Paul must not have been dilly-dallying around at the feet of Jesus like Mary. He was out working up a sweat for the kingdom.

But when we take a closer look at Paul, we find quite the contrary to be true. Paul's first aim in life was not to work hard for the kingdom of God. He says very clearly in Philippians 3 that his first and highest aim in life is to know Jesus Christ. Everything else - service included - flows from this first priority.

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord... that I may know him and the power of his resurrection...

Paul's highest aim in life was not to serve, but rather, like Mary, to sit at the feet of Jesus and soak in his richness. Did Paul work hard? Yes. Harder than the others. He wrote a third of the New Testament, lectured in the hall of Tyrannus, planted churches, took the Gospel to the ends of the Roman Empire, bore witness before kings, and died a martyr's death. But he did all of this from the feet of Jesus rather than from the rushed confusion and pressure that so often characterize modern ministry.

Back to Basics

I hear some pastors proudly talk about how busy they are. I've been there too. I was there this morning before the Word intervened, and will no doubt need to be redirected tomorrow. I also see congregations that are very busy - a loud commotion of productivity - but lacking in signs of spiritual life. Jesus calls us to a better way. Like he gently rebuked Martha, Jesus gently redirects us with his kindness that leads us to his feet. We must be served by him before we serve. We must seek the kingdom before working for the kingdom. "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matt. 4:6).

Eugene Peterson gets to the heart of the matter in his perceptive book Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity.  He begins by offering a critique of the ministry trends among his peers:

American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries. Their names remain on the church stationary and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling. They have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn't the remotest connection with what the church's pastors have done for most of twenty centuries - Working the Angles, pg. 1

Peterson goes on to describe how his colleagues, once ordained into a ministry of Word and Sacrament, have wandered off into the anxiety and busyness of activism, endless committee meetings, marketing ploys, dog and pony show schemes... in short, the worried work of Martha. His remedy is not to abandon work, but to do the right kind of work from the right place - at the feet of Jesus with Mary.

Three pastoral acts are so basic, so critical, that they determine the shape of everything else. These acts are praying, reading Scripture, and giving spiritual direction. Besides being basic, these three acts are quiet. They do not call attention to themselves and so are often not attended to - Working the Angles, pg.3

The first two pastoral priorities - conversation with God and hearing his Word - involve sitting at the feet of Jesus. The third - spiritual direction - involves making space for God's people to sit at your feet and hear the counsel of Jesus. The crisis in the American church today is that congregations very rarely encourage or recognize these acts as foundational. Peterson continues:

In the clamorous world of pastoral work nobody yells at us to engage in these acts. It is possible to do pastoral work to the satisfaction of the people who judge our competence and pay our salaries without being diligent or skilled in them. Since almost never does anyone notice whether we do these things or not, and only occasionally does someone ask that we do them, these three aspects of ministry suffer widespread neglect - Working the Angles, pg. 3

The fact that pastors neglect these priorities is an occupational hazard in itself. The added fact that many congregations reward Martha behavior as "productive" and question Mary behavior as peripheral at best serves as a recipe for anxious, back-peddling churches and burnt out pastors. 

If you are a pastor - remember that you are called to know Christ before you proclaim him. It's only as you savor his sweetness that you can share him with others. I speak first to myself, and only then to you in humility. I know the workload is heavy, and the to-do list is never done. But I also know that we can't survive as branches without a union with the Vine.

If you are part of a church - especially part of its leadership or call committee - encourage your pastor(s) to take time in God's word as their first priority! Agree to schedule retreat time for him each year or quarter, with no other expected agenda than that he soak in God's word and reflection in prayer. Very often pastors are desperate for such times of refreshment, but reluctant to ask. In between these times, encourage him to guard the first hour of his schedule as sacred - free from the anxiety of Martha so that he might rest with Mary at the feet of Jesus. Doing so will avoid an occupational hazard, and contrary to our expectations, will place in his hands better building materials for the kingdom - silver, gold, and precious stones (1 Cor. 3:1-15).

Pastor John Rasmussen

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