The Changing Face of Ministry

There’s a decline in respect for pastoral ministry, it seems to me, even among pastors. And by “pastoral ministry” I mean the visiting and care for members. I’ve seen it in pastors who give excuses for not visiting members in the hospital, even when they were told in advance and specifically asked. “That’s the job of the elders,” some say; what they are doing is more “important.”

I can’t imagine anything more important in pastoral ministry than caring for your members. So why then do some fight it? I think for some it’s a symptom of burnout from the doing of ministry–burnout results in isolating yourself. I’ve been there.

For others, it has to do more with the theology of ministry. Some pastors seem to think that pastoral care is beneath them. It’s for the elders or deacons, they say. Or it is for “chaplains” (said with a sneer).

Some pastors get the idea that visiting is for someone else as a result of their seminary formation. Pastors who focus on being pastors are accused of “hovering” (which is elevated to the highest of pastoral sins). I have seen a cartoon reflecting this attitude depicting a pastor as a nursemaid, feeding bottles of milk to crying babies who surround him, while there is a harvest of wheat to be gleaned in a field in the background.

In Adventist circles, those advocates of this view will point to the early days of the Adventist church, when ministers were not “settled pastors” but were engaged in full-time evangelism, visiting established churches rarely. These were left to the care of elders and deacons. This is lifted up as “the” Adventist theology of ministry.

I disagree. I think that practice just reflected a developmental phase that all churches go through.

We can see it in the early church. In Paul’s early epistles and in Acts we see the apostles traveling the world starting churches, which are in the care of individuals with various spiritual gifts. In later books, the Pastoral Epistles, we hear less of charismatic leaders and more of local offices like “presbyter” and “episkopos.” These are set apart by laying on of hands and prayer. By the time of Ignatius of Antioch, a contemporary of John the apostle, the church of Antioch has formalized this structure with a bishop (episkopos) who “oversees” the ministry in the city, assisted by the “presbyters” and the “deacons.” The days of apostles and charismatic leaders are over, and this three-fold ministry becomes the pattern for the next 1500 years.

We see a similar pattern in the spread of historic Protestant denominations to mission territories. In Lutheranism, existing churches sent trained pastors to America; one important example being Henry Melchior
 Muhlenberg. He was called formally to a three church district, but traveled far and wide. Each congregation had elders and deacons who took care of things in his absence. Muhlenberg and other European-sent pastors organized themselves into a ministerium. As the churches grew,  they no longer relied upon missionaries from Europe, but started to provide further mentoring and training for the local elders and catechists to formally set them apart as pastors. Later, local ministeriums and synods came together to form national “churches,” which established colleges and seminaries.

Adventism inherited its first pastors from other denominations, especially the “Christian Connexion” and the Baptists. In the wake of the “Great Disappointment,” they traveled the country visiting “the Little Flock” of disappointed believers, teaching them Sabbatarian distinctives, uniting them into congregations, then conferences, and finally into a General Conference.  For the first decades the pattern of traveling ministers continued. To become a minister, you became an apprentice to an evangelist, going off on your own when you had proved yourself in evangelism. Local churches were organized by these ministers who left them in the care of elders and deacons. These traveling ministers were also the conference officers, and oversaw the whole work of the church at the local conference and General Conference levels. This was a sure path to burnout, and to producing devastating effects upon the families of these peripatetic ministers. As the denomination grew, the different levels of administration came to have full-time dedicated officers; ministers became “settled” in a particular district, and evangelists and missionaries became specialized callings. Instead of learning ministry as an apprentice, colleges developed ministerial programs, and then, finally, a seminary was established.

To say that an early form of ministry at a certain time of a denomination’s development is the only way, or the “true” way, is to lose sight of the history of how churches have developed.

What kind of pastors do we need today? We have to start with the example of Jesus, El Buen Pastor. They must first be pastors, shepherds of the sheep, called to care for, love, and feed the sheep of God’s flock. Look at Jesus’ ministry, and how he conducted it, and what he called and instructed his apostles to do.  Then, look at how they talked about ministry in their own writings. How did they set up churches? What counsel did they give to the leaders of those churches? I’ve discussed these points in another post.