Dearest Students in the Gospel Ministry,
What is the ground of your call as a minister?
I want to write to you about ways of approaching your ministry. Here’s a question for you: Is it a “practical theology” that is primarily aimed at “how to” or is it a “pastoral theology” grounded in the Biblical-theological truths of the Reformation? I want to caution you to think about this carefully. Your perspective will determine the character and lasting impact (or temporary impression) of your whole ministerial career. I would say that the answer to this question will also determine whether you are a candidate for burn out in the ministry, whether you have the strength to run the race of faith in the ministry, and how you deal with both success and disappointment in the pastoral ministry. In short, the answer to the question will provide the over-arching and all encompassing way you conduct your ministry.
Martin Bucer (1491-1551) is helpful in answering this question. This pastor-scholar, a “reformer in the wings” as Andres Purves refers to him, said that all pastoral ministries must be “rooted directly in biblical and Reformational faith and …oriented to the practical care of souls” (Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition, 1st ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001, pg. 76). Bucer was a great churchman, pastor at Strasbourg, a teacher of Calvin, a framer of Reformed worship, a contributor to the Book of Common Prayer (1552) and an esteemed professor of theology at Cambridge. (His body was exhumed by Queen Mary four years after his death to be burned in public only later to be “restored to full honor” five years after that by Elizabeth I.) Bucer teaches us that the warrant, the calling and the work of the pastor, must be grounded in the Word of God and in the theological commitments of the Reformation and must be embraced personally by the pastor. In other words, the pastoral ministry is not just a Biblical idea, though it must be that, it is also a Spirit-shaped reality in the soul of the one called to be a pastor.
After I came to the end of my wrestling, or so I thought, to follow the call to the ordained ministry, I visited my dear Aunt Eva who had reared me. While in Kansas the chaplain of her nursing home came up to me. Dr. Eckley was a man of about 90-years-old himself. But he ministered to the residents there with the energy and seriousness and pastoral care that had marked his long career as a Nazarene pastor, district superintendant, and missionary. “Mike,” he began with a kindly smile, “I heard you are going to seminary.” I told him that I was. He drew closer to me, eyeball to eyeball. “Son, I have one question for you: Are you really called by God to shepherd His flock?” I paused. I drew back a little and gathered myself together before I answered. I was careful in my words. “Well, Dr. Eckley, I think so.” His eyes became like flames at my answer. “Well, Son, then you are not ready to follow the Lord.” I was dumbstruck. “Boy, if you only think that you are called, then you will fall. You’d better know that God has laid His hand upon you. You’d better know His holy call in your soul. You need to know what God says about pastors in His Word and the great burden of souls that a minister will bear all of the days of his life. I tell you this, Son, because when the winds of hardship blow your way you only have one thing. Do you know what that is?”
I hesitated to break up this private sermon he was giving me but I felt I better answer. “The call?” “Yes! You only have your call from God! When they give you a Christmas raise and then run you out on a rumor, when the devil stirs up opposition against you for the sake of Jesus, and when you are hurt like our Lord was hurt, you will only have one thing to help you pick up your things and move on to the next field of service. Do you know what that is?” I decided not to answer. “You know what it is? It is your calling from God.” We both stood there looking at each other without talking. This eternity lasted for about a minute. Then he laid down the hammer for the final time. “Son, are you called by God to be a pastor according to the Word of God?” I whispered that I thought I should go home and pray about that. Brothers, that is just what I did.
I reviewed again what God’s Word said. I came face to face with the weight of the ministry as well as the unbelievable joy that must also be in it. I believed that God was calling even me to preach the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ our Lord. That calling has never left me to this day. I went back and told Dr. Eckley that I could answer his question. “By God’s grace, I am called and am ready to take up the cross if He will help me.” “Good,” the old Wesleyan said to this Calvinist. “Good, Mike. Go and preach the Gospel. Go to seminary and learn what it is that will ground you in the ministry of the Gospel for the rest of your life.”
I write to encourage you to see that in every class you take at this seminary you are tethering your life to the Biblical and theological rock that will guide you in every area of ministry for the rest of your life. Do not neglect your Greek. You will have to exegete and exposit the words of Paul and Luke and Peter for the blood-bought lambs of Jesus. Do not learn your Hebrew verb forms just to pass a test, but to stand the test, the test of pastoral ministry. You have been called to stand between God and men and women and boys and girls with God’s Word. From the prophets give the Gospel bread of life to your people living in your city in your generation.
Don’t skim over the readings of your church history. Identify your life with Bucer and Luther and Baxter and Machen. Prayerfully study the providential ways of God in the Patristic period as well as the Reformational period. How will that shape your leadership of God’s people today? As you listen to Dr. Kelly teach on perichoresis and Holy Trinity and God’s immanence and His transcendence, do not think that this is far from how you will minister God’s love in the midst of the community of God’s people. In short, my dearest ones in Christ, you must embrace every opportunity here to prepare your heart and mind to minster the glorious Gospel of God’s Son to a dying world and to shepherd the saints of Christ.
The “how to” of ministry must begin with the God of Scripture. The pastoral ministry finds its warrant and its vocational vision from God’s Word. You will never truly be vocationally and spiritually satisfied with anything short of a Christ-centered ministry because it is God who calls you. Burnout and pride and apostasy will lurk in the shadows of your ministry like hungry wolves, or more Scripturally put, like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. But a pastoral theology grounded in the Word and the ordinary means of grace — Word, Sacrament, and Prayer — will surround you and protect you and lead you forward to the crown that God has prepared for those who serve Him to the end.
I am thinking on these things this morning. I am asking God to give you a ministry of the Word that will endure and bring about transformation of hearts and minds, of cultures and entire generations so that a multitude will be “safe in the arms of Jesus” when He comes again (1 Thess. 2:29-20). And so I write these words to encourage you.
Yours in Christ,