Thoughts on Ministry

The Seventh-day Adventist Church is perplexed.  It doesn’t know what to do about women in ministry.  It allows for women elders and deacons (ordained for both roles).  It allows for women to be pastors, chaplains, and administrators (other than President). It allows for women to preach in evangelistic series the world over.  These women can preach, can baptize, can celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Adventist women in full time ministry will be set apart for these roles by laying on of hands and prayers, but this laying on of hands will be called “commissioning” rather than “ordination”–and this semantic dispute is causing great consternation.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church is perplexed even about the pastoral office.  I have heard pastors say that it’s not their responsibility to visit people in the hospital or nursing homes.  Some scorn those pastors who “hover” over their churches, doing basic pastoral care.  They want to be entrepreneurs.  They want to start churches.  They don’t want to have mere members, they want to create “disciples,” who will create other “disciples.”

I wonder, then, why so much energy is spent arguing about who can be a pastor, and whether they are “ordained” or “commissioned,” when the pastoral office itself (as traditionally understood) is held in disdain by so many.

I don’t think ministry is that complicated.  I think the pastoral office is pretty simple, and Biblically based.

Let’s start at the beginning.  Jesus called the twelve, according to Matthew 10, and sent them out to preach and to heal in his name.  According to Luke, he called 70 disciples (or 72, in some translations), sending them out two by two in advance of him. Before his ascension, he sent the 11 out to the whole world (Matthew 28).  These were called “disciples” (μαθητής). They were told to “make disciples” or “teach” (μαθητεύσατε).

Then came a natural point of leadership transition.  That first generation had to pass the task on to others. They did so through laying on of hands and prayer by the apostles or the “council of elders,” and this imparted the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6). This laying on of hands and setting apart was later called “ordination” (ordinatio in Latin, but Orthodox Christians use the Greek term, χειροτονία, which means simply, “laying on of hands”).

There are different titles and offices used for church ministries in the New Testament.  Interestingly, the term “disciple” appears only in the Gospels and Acts.  Paul says in Ephesians 4 that he gave gifts when he ascended (and that list is different whenever he gives it).  In that passage, he says (verses 11 and 12),  And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers.”  Why? The next phrase can go in a couple of different directions.  Some versions say, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ …”  The KJV says, “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” Paul says there are different gifts, but all have the same purpose, for building up the church in unity and maturity, and to equip it for its mission.

Let’s look at that one word, ποιμένας.  It is translated either “shepherd” or “pastor” (the one an Anglo-Saxon word, the other the Latin synonym).  Jesus said (John 10:11), εἰμι ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλός (“I am the good Shepherd”).  He passed this responsibility on to Peter, saying in John 21:6, Ποίμαινε τὰ πρόβατά (“Shepherd my sheep”).  In Acts 20:28, Paul says to the elders (πρεσβυτέρους) in Ephesus, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (ἐπισκόπους), to care for (ποιμαίνειν) the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”

So as Jesus was the shepherd, the apostles, and the elders after them, are entrusting with shepherding the flock.  They are pastors.  They take care of the flock, they feed it, teach it, defend it.

Peter picks this up in 1 Peter 5, a charge read to many pastors at ordination: “So I exhort the elders  (πρεσβυτέρους) among you, as a fellow elder (συμπρεσβύτερος) and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed:  shepherd (ποιμάνατε) the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight (ἐπισκοποῦντες), not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly ….”

Three words go together there:  elder, shepherd (v), oversee (v).  The two verbs also have noun forms, Shepherd/Pastor and Overseer/Bishop. All refer to the care of churches.  And the terms are interchangeable.  Paul tells Titus (Titus 1:5) to appoint elders who are overseers (v. 7).  This passage echoes what he said to Timothy about overseers (1 Timothy 3:1-7) and elders (1 Timothy 5:17ff), commending the elders who “rule” well (also translated, “lead,” or “manage”).  It’s clear that these pastors/elders/overseers have responsibility for care of the Christian community.

In the next generation, Antioch took the lead in separating the roles of elders (presbyters) and overseers (bishops), as we read in the epistles of Ignatius (d. 108).  One bishop oversaw the ministry of the presbyters in the city.  All still exercised pastoral care.  They were assisted by the deacons (appointed in Acts 6 to care for temporal needs of the members so that the apostles could focus on preaching).

What was the job description of those appointed by Jesus for pastoral ministry? The list of tasks isn’t long, and it isn’t complicated. And it can still be a job description for ministers today:

Luke 9:2, 6. Preach the Gospel, that is, proclaim the kingdom of God, and heal.

Luke 10:5, Bless with God’s peace.

Matthew 28:18-20, Teach and baptize.

Luke 22:17-20, Celebrate the Lord’s Supper

John 20:23 Forgive sins.

John 21:ff Feed the sheep.

These are the basic tasks of ministry, which has been said in the Protestant tradition to be a “Ministry of Word and Sacrament” (unlike the diaconate, which is a ministry of service).

Now, here are a couple of corollaries.  If you are doing these things, you are “in the ministry” whether you are the settled pastor of a  congregation (which the apostles were not), or an evangelist (which they were), or a chaplain in an institution.

And if you have been set apart by laying on of hands and prayer to do these things in the name of the church, you are “ordained,” whether you use that term or another.

Finally, it is clear that pastoral ministry, which is the care of a congregation, is a Biblical ministry.  It is foundational.  It is not primarily concerned with the raising up of new congregations.  It is stable.  Not all are called to it, but those who are have important responsibilities. They feed the church, they protect it from outsiders, they encourage its unity, they train and mentor new leaders.

And Peter gives us sound guidance for how we should exercise this ministry:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly;not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.

It is to be ministry done in Jesus’ name, in the Spirit of Jesus, on his authority.

That means that the pastor models their ministry on that of the Good Shepherd.  Pastoral ministry is care of a congregation.  It is focused on this congregation.  It is a relationship with the people of this congregation, and the community they are part of.  It is a relationship that is built upon knowing the members, and being known by them.

The pastor feeds the flock through Word and Sacrament.  In proclamation of the Gospel and teaching, the pastor speaks not to entertain, not merely to inform, nor to impress, but to pass on the words of Jesus, the Word of God who is the Christian’s life and joy and hope. To preach is to speak that Word in the midst of a community the pastor knows and loves, addressing the Word to the real life questions and hopes and fears and dreams of this people; comforting them with the Gospel and calling them to follow in the path of the Master.  To minister in Sacrament is to baptize, to break Bread, to share the Cup, to anoint the sick with oil for healing.  It is to be present with those who mourn, with those who rejoice, with those who are scared, with those who are lonely, as representative of the Good Shepherd.

I look back on 30 years of ministry and I see times when I rejoiced in God’s presence and use of me — and times when I fell on my face, and failed miserably.  I see times when I was present at the right time, when I spoke appropriate words of grace, when I brought joy and hope.  I see other times when I was afraid, when I was nervous, when I was angry–when I brought pain and frustration.  I see times when I felt alone, and other times when I rejoiced in being part of a wonderful community of grace.  I remember times when I was supported by members, fellow pastors, and supervisors–and times when I was cut off, tossed aside, stepped upon.

But I got through because I believed the promise that was made when those hands were laid upon me June 11, 1989, that God would be with me through it all.  I believed that God had called me to that time, that place, those people, for a reason, even if I could not see it.  I believed that God called me to ministry, whether in congregations, or on college campuses, or in the military.  I didn’t doubt my call and the promise of ordination even during the years that I was ministering in a community that didn’t recognize my ordination.  I didn’t doubt it when ministering in a community that asked me to “redo it”–it wasn’t a redo, it was for me merely an affirmation.

I feel sorry for those pastors who don’t love their congregation or their call.  I feel sorry for those who dismiss their ordination as unbiblical or unnecessary.  I don’t know how they keep it up.  I don’t know why they keep it up.

I recall a hymn that was sung at my ordination, a prayer for the Holy Spirit to enter in.  I believe he did.  I believe that he has been there even when I stumbled, even when I sinned, even when I failed.  Because we are but tools, and he will use us even in our weakness, to accomplish his own purpose. Ministry isn’t about us.  It is about him.  It’s about being a caretaker of his flock.  And at the end of the day we can only say, “Thanks be to God,”  and “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.”

1. O Holy Spirit, enter in,
And in our hearts Your work begin,
Your dwelling place now make us.
Sun of the soul, O Light divine,
Around and in us brightly shine,
To joy and gladness wake us
That we may be
Truly living,
To You giving
Prayer unceasing,
And in love be still increasing.

2. Left to ourselves, we surely stray;
Oh, lead us on the narrow way,
With wisest counsel guide us;
And give us steadfastness, that we
May follow you forever free,
No matter who derides us.
Gently heal those
Hearts now broken;
Give some token
You are near us,
Whom we trust to light and cheer us.

3. Give to Your Word impressive pow’r,
That in our hearts from this good hour
As fire it may be glowing,
That in true Christian unity
We faithful witnesses may be
Your glory ever showing.
Hear us, cheer us
By Your teaching;
Let our preaching
And our labor
Praise You, Lord, and serve our neighbor.

4. O mighty Rock, O Source of Life,
Let Your dear Word, in doubt and strife,
In us be strongly burning,
That we be faithful unto death
And live in love and holy faith,
From You true wisdom learning.
Your grace and peace
On us shower;
By Your power
Christ confessing,
Let us see our Savior’s blessing.

But, says the critic, you have said nothing about evangelism, or being missional, nothing about involvement in the community, or planting churches. True. Because these are not the work of the pastor. They are the work of the church. The pastor will be involved in these, and will set a vision, and will lead. And the pastor will do so through the means outlined here. This article focuses on the meaning of pastoral ministry–not on the mission of the church.