Creech: To Those Pastoring

pexels-photo-449015
Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

Dr. Robert Creech serves as Hubert H. & Gladys S. Raborn Professor of Pastoral Leadership and as Director of Pastoral Ministries at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary. There are several things I like about Dr. Creech. He’s always been friendly to me. He encourages his students to read Wendell Berry and Dallas Willard. He and his wife, Melinda, are restoring an eighty-eight acre portion of their family farm in Floresville, Texas to native prairie. He’s a Master Naturalist. He and his wife also serve as Faculty-in-Residence at Baylor in the North Village Residential Community, and I very much like it that my university has people like Dr. Creech living alongside students. I find this to be a really neat aspect of campus life.

Several weeks ago Dr. Creech published an open letter on his blog addressing those who are pastoring. His exhortations and encouragements are apt, grounded in the witness of Scripture. To summarize, he urges pastors to preach, connect, adjust, practice self-care, share the work, face reality, and to serve in hope (which is distinct from optimism or despair).

He closes with these words:

Pastors, what you men and women are doing has never been more important. Your people need your love, your leadership, and your faithful ministry. The church will need to think carefully about how we do our work in such days as this. How do we preach Christ? How do we demonstrate love for neighbor? How do we serve with compassion? How do we bear witness to a frightened, lonely, world? You, pastors, are called to this. You have been prepared for this. You, with the Spirit’s power, can do this. Be encouraged.

Indeed. Be encouraged.

Communion Online?

pexels-photo-3826126
Photo by Jonas Ferlin on Pexels.com

For Religion News Service, Jack Jenkins writes, “with churchgoers still holed up in their homes to avoid infection for weeks and even months to come, Christian leaders are starting to ask: Is Communion appropriate for cyberspace?”

Jenkins’ report includes quotations from Christian leaders from a diversity of denominations, and I’ll summarize several of his findings. For Catholics, the doctrine of transubstantiation presents a substantial hurdle. The ELCA discouraged online communion, and is viewing this as a teaching moment about the Lord’s Meal. The PCUSA said no to online communion, and then reversed course, saying yes, since we’re in an “emergency” situation. The United Methodist Church is citing conclusions reached by a 2014 task force who studied this question and recommended communion be observed among a physical, gathered assembly, while now making allowances for regional conferences and their Bishops to observe communion online. Bishop Ken Carter of Florida called this “an extreme situation,” and granted the clergy in his region latitude in meeting pastoral needs.

This weekend my local fellowship, First Methodist Church Waco, is observing communion Sunday. We’ve encouraged our people to prepare, to think forward to Sunday and to gather bread and juice, so that in our homes we might observe the Lord’s Meal together while physically dispersed. As crises tend to do, theological convictions are laid bare. And yet, there is a great deal of framing left. There is a grammar that is yet to be established. We have to explain what we are doing, and why it isn’t ideal, even though it might be the right idea.

When we observe the Lord’s Supper, we do so as the gathered communion of Jesus Christ, remembering the first observance of this ritual on the night that Jesus was betrayed. In that room, there was sorrow and grief and confusion, there was closeness and love and fellowship, there was adoration and reverence and, sadly, betrayal and misunderstanding. There was, we might observe, a crisis. The immediate crisis was that of Jesus’ impending betrayal and death. But the greater crisis, the one preceding the immediate crisis, was that of broken fellowship between God and humanity. God, using a surprising and unconventional means, took on the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, and bridged the gap in the breaking of his body and in the pouring out of his blood, all in fulfillment of the Scriptures.

I argue strongly in favor of the Lord’s Supper as an observance that is to be conducted with persons gathered physically as a local fellowship. This belief is grounded in convictions concerning the nature of the church, embodiment, and the importance of public witness. But I also recognize that each time a local fellowship celebrates the meal that Jesus gave us, we also recall that we are gathered as part of a wider fellowship–the company of the called that gives praise and glory to our king across the boundaries of time and space–the church universal.

In “normal times,” whatever those are, I think churches should celebrate the Supper as a gathered local fellowship. That is the ideal. But seeing that the gap between the real and the ideal has widened, we’ll do the best we can with what we have. It should not be lost on us that the fact that many churches are seeking ways to observe communion online is an expression of the reality that we are together seeking God. Perhaps this crisis is revealing to us that the world isn’t quite as disenchanted as we thought, and that God can still be encountered in the breaking of bread and in the sharing of a common cup.

Crisis: It Reveals Theology

I like this analogy by Cory Wilson:

A theologically uninformed pastor seeking to navigate these choppy waters is comparable to a first-year medical student being placed in charge of the COVID-19 response for Cleveland Clinic. Theological training and formation for pastoral ministry matters. Especially in days like these. There is a wealth of truth reaped among the disciplines of pastoral training that provide strength as pastors hold their hands to the helm.

Wilson explains ways biblical theology, systematic theology, church history, global theology, and missiology all have importance for pastoral ministry in a time of crisis. I would add spiritual theology as well. Wilson states (in the quote I pulled) that formation for pastoral ministry matters. Yes it does. Formation in congregational ministry matters, too.

The best time to prepare for a crisis is when there isn’t one. How well has the church  been prepared? Equipped? How mature are we? That point of reflection is vital not only for congregants, but for pastors. There is a virtuous circle here, I think: healthy churches are shepherded by healthy pastors, and healthy pastors are fostered by healthy churches, with all dependent on the Lord, foremost, as the Great Physician and healer of all. Richard Baxter, in The Reformed Pastor, writes:

See that the work of saving grace be thoroughly wrought in your own souls. Take heed to yourselves, lest you be void of that saving grace of God which you offer to others, and be strangers to the effectual working of that gospel which you preach; and lest, while you proclaim to the world the necessity of a Savior, your own hearts should neglect him, and you should miss of an interest in him and his saving benefits. Take heed to yourselves, lest you perish, while you call upon others to take heed of perishing; and lest you famish yourselves while you prepare food for them. Though there is a promise of shining as the stars, to those ‘who turn many to  righteousness,’ that is but on supposition that they are first turned to it themselves. Their own sincerity in the faith is the condition of their glory, simply considered, though their great ministerial labors may be a condition of the promise of their greater glory. Many have warned others that they come not to that place of torment, while yet they hastened to it themselves: many a preacher is now in hell, who hath a hundred times called upon his hearers to use the utmost care and diligence to escape it. Can any reasonable man imagine that God should save men for offering salvation to others, while they refuse it themselves; and for telling others those truths which they themselves neglect and abuse? Many a tailor goes in rags, that maketh costly clothes for others; and many a cook scarcely licks his fingers, when he hath dressed for others the most costly dishes. Believe it, brethren, God never saved any man for being a preacher, nor because he was an able preacher; but because he was a justified, sanctified man, and consequently faithful in his Master’s work. Take heed, therefore, to ourselves first, that you be that which you persuade your hearers to be, and believe that which you persuade them to believe, and heartily entertain that Savior whom you offer to them. He that bade you love your neighbors as yourselves, did imply that you should love yourselves, and not hate and destroy yourselves and them.

Bad theology does harm. Good theology gives life. Pastors must not only be theologically informed, but spiritually formed, taking “heed…that you be that which you persuade your hearers to be, and believe that which you persuade them to believe, and heartily entertain that Savior whom you offer to them. He that bade you love your neighbors as yourselves, did imply that you should love yourselves, and not hate and destroy yourselves and them.”

Cory Wilson writes, “How you shepherd during these days will force reveal your theology. As the curtain is pulled back, may you not be caught standing naked.” Let us take heed, then, first of ourselves.

Resolutions for Each Day

isaac-smith-1224592-unsplash
Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

Jonathan Edwards is one of the greatest minds in American history. He is most well known as a Puritan minister, particularly for his role in the First Great Awakening, and is still read in literature and history courses for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Though known as “America’s Greatest Theologian,” his theological work also has significance for philosophy, particularly metaphysics, epistemology, and value theory.

Edwards is someone I have read, but not as closely and carefully to this point as I one day aspire to. But one document I have read is his “Resolutions,” which begins, “Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him by his grace to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake.” He sets a guideline for himself, “Remember to read over these Resolutions once a week.”

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • 1. Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure, in the whole of my duration, without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many and how great soever.
  • 5. Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.
  • 9. Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.
  • 13. Resolved, to be endeavoring to find out fit objects of charity and liberality.
  • 17. Resolved, that I will live so as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.
  • 24. Resolved, whenever I do any conspicuously evil action, to trace it back, till I come to the original cause; and then both carefully endeavor to do so no more, and to fight and pray with all my might against the original of it.
  • 25. Resolved, to examine carefully, and constantly, what that one thing in me is, which causes me in the least to doubt of the love of God; and to direct all my forces against it.
  • 28. Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.
  • 34. Resolved, in narrations never to speak anything but the pure and simple verity.
  • 37. Resolved, to inquire every night, as I am going to bed, wherein I have been negligent, what sin I have committed, and wherein I have denied myself: also at the end of every week, month and year.
  • 42. Resolved, frequently to renew the dedication of myself to God,
    which was made at my baptism; which I solemnly renewed, when I was received into the communion of the church; and which I have solemnly re-made this 12th day of January, 1722—23.
  • 47. Resolved, to endeavor to my utmost to deny whatever is not most agreeable to a good, and universally sweet and benevolent, quiet, peaceable, contented, easy, compassionate, generous, humble, meek, modest, submissive, obliging, diligent and industrious, charitable, even, patient, moderate, forgiving, sincere temper; and to do at all times what such a temper would lead me to. Examine strictly every week, whether I have done so.
  • 52. I frequently hear persons in old age say how they would live, if they were to live their lives over again: resolved, that I will live just so as I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age.
  • 56. Resolved, never to give over, nor in the least to slacken my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.
  • 67. Resolved, after afflictions, to inquire, what I am the better for them, what good I have got by them, and what I might have got by them.
  • 70. Let there be something of benevolence, in all that I speak.

A close examination of the document shows that Edwards added to his list over time. His first list of resolutions was not his final list. He found room to grow, new resolutions, new matters of focus for his life with God.

Such a list clarifies convictions. It offers a helpful guide, a standard, and a rule for living.

These are not resolutions for a year, but for a lifetime.

Do you have such a list?

In Plain English

A free confession is a condition of full remission and when the sin is public the confession must be public. If the minsters of England had sinned only in Latin, I would have made shift here to admonish them in Latin, or else have said nothing to them. But if they sin in English, they must hear of it in English.

– Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, 15

Richard Baxter was an Englishman, churchman, and minister who lived from 1615 to 1691. The Reformed Pastor, an instructive treatise on the ministerial vocation, was written in 1655.

In it, Baxter advocated for clerical reform. He believed ministers should be faithful and diligent in service. He believed many were not and should be called to account. He felt it was his responsibility to rebuke his fellow clergymen and to call for change.

In Baxter’s preface, we discover that other ministers objected to his instructions, particularly when he named their failings in the common tongue–English. His opponents preferred Latin so that only the clergy could read it. But Baxter thought publishing in English was necessary and of the greatest possible help. By writing in English, congregants would remember their clergy were like them and find assurance that their pastors would lead the way in repentance.

Clergy and congregation were together in the same boat.

Baxter writes:

If thousands of you were in a leaking ship, and those that should pump out the water and stop the leaks should be sporting or asleep, yea, or but favour themselves in their labours, to the hazarding of you all, would you not awake them to their work, and call out on them to labour as for your life? And if you used some sharpness and importunity with the slothful, would you think that man were well in his wits that would take it ill of you, and accuse you of pride, self-conceitedness, or unmannerliness to talk so saucily to your fellow workmen? or should tell you that you wrong them by diminishing their reputation? Would you not say: ‘The work must be done, or we are all dead men : is the ship ready to sink and do you talk of reputation? : or had you rather hazard yourself and us, than hear of your slothfulness?’ This is our case, brethren. The work of God must needs be done : souls must not perish while you mind your worldly business, and take your ease, or quarrel with your brethren : nor must we be silent while men are hastened by you to perdition, and the Church to greater danger and confusion.

– Baxter, 16

Baxter calls on his fellow pastors to get to work, for it was not only their lives that depended on it but the lives of all those in their care. He wanted other ministers to hear his message and also wanted congregants to be aware so that they too could see the need for the whole church to enter a season of repentance and a time of dedicated prayer for renewal.

He adds, “I speak all this to none but the guilty; and thus I have given you those reasons which forced me, even in plain English, to publish so much of the sins of the ministry, as in the following treatise I have done.”

It has been said the church is more of a hospital for sinners than a mausoleum for saints, though it is in fact a place of formation, care, exhortation, and responsibility for both. All, in this respect, will be accountable for their fervor, dedication, and obedience to the calling of Christ. Imperfect clergy are part of an imperfect church; both are counting on a perfect salvation offered by a perfect Messiah. And we need one another in order to be faithful.

Yet the pastoral vocation does bring with it the responsibility to direct the hearts and minds of the people toward God and to walk with the people in holiness. Ministers should bear that weight and own that facet of their calling.

Baxter understood that if the church is in trouble, the first people called to repent are her ministers. This demonstrates the clergy have understood several essential and related truths: that salvation is by grace, that the power of God transforms, that forgiveness is ours in abundance, and that service in the kingdom of God is a great privilege. These truths are for the whole church, not the minsters only. But by leading the way in repentance, there is greater possibility for new direction and new life for the body as a whole.

The Practice of the Shepherd

In our examples of Christian leadership, we too often emphasize getting others merely to do as they are told. In this way the church largely conforms to the leadership structures of the world. Indeed, leadership is normally an empty euphemism when applied to our standard communal efforts, whether in a church or outside it.

To manipulate, drive or manage people is not the same thing as to lead them. The sheepdog forcibly maneuvers the sheep, whereas the biblical shepherd simply calls as he calmly walks ahead of the sheep. This distinction between sheepdog and the shepherd is profoundly significant for how leaders of Christ’s people think of their work. We must ask ourselves frequently which role we are fulfilling and constantly return ourselves, if necessary, to the practice of the shepherd.

– Dallas Willard, Hearing God, 107

This passage from Willard has long been one of my favorites because he captures the essential nature of the pastoral task, which is to lead others in the “manner and spirit” demonstrated by Jesus, described here as the practice of the shepherd.

Too often, pastors think they are responsible for enforcing behavioral conformity, minimizing conflict by correctly navigating congregational power dynamics, or for successfully executing a strategic plan or vision. And while faithful shepherding may involve correcting and rebuking those who err, protecting the flock from danger, creating an environment where all brothers and sisters in the fellowship relate peaceably with one another, and discerning God’s leading for the congregation and leading all to walk according to God’s prescribed path, the manner and spirit in which these things are done, when they are done in the way of Jesus, differs markedly from the ways of leadership we commonly find in the world.

Jesus claimed he was the Good Shepherd (John 10:11). In doing so, Christ pulled together threads found across the Old Testament that speak of God as the true and loving shepherd of a people God has claimed as his own. Christ remains our Good Shepherd. Those who serve him, both men and women, are called to lead in a way that reflects his person and character. Willard writes, “When we lead as shepherds, our confidence is in only one thing: the word of the Great Shepherd, coming through us or, otherwise, to his sheep.”

How is this possible? We are reminded that Jesus knows his sheep, and they know him, and they know and listen to his voice (John 10:1-16). This is the way we should want it. Willard says, “We do not want them to follow another, even if we ourselves are that ‘other.'” We trust that God has called the congregation together, that the Spirit has been given to them, that we have limited responsibilities as servants and shepherds, and that Christ is the head of the church.

This understanding of the pastoral task, of course, is congregational. That is another reason I think it is so helpful, and so needed. It is a way of leading not only for pastors, but for the body, who respond together to the leading of Christ. Willard states, “Following the practice of the shepherd, we would never stoop to drive, manipulate or manage, relying only on the powers inherent in unassisted human nature (see 1 Peter 4:11). Not only that but the undershepherds (pastors of God) count on their flock to minister the word of God…to them. Ministry of the word is never a one-way street when it is functioning rightly in any group.”

Leading in this manner requires a quiet confidence in the power of God, a steady commitment to teaching the congregation the Scriptures, and demonstration of holiness in heart and life.

This also requires the rejection of all other ways of leadership and a form of servitude that can only be learned by putting aside oneself and putting on Jesus Christ. Paradoxically, that is both the hardest part, and, in the end, the easiest way, for while trusting in Jesus requires the abandonment of all that we are and all that we have, it brings to us the return of eternal and abundant life.

The Principle Agent

Let spiritual directors of this kind remember that the Holy Ghost is the principal agent here, and the real guide of souls; that he never ceases to take care of them and never neglects any means by which they may profit and draw near unto God as quickly as possible, and in the best way. Let them remember that they are not the agents, but instruments only to guide souls by the rule of faith and the law of God, according to the spirit which God gives to everyone. Their aim therefore should be not to guide souls by a way of their own suitable to themselves, but to ascertain, if they can, the way by which God himself is guiding them. If they cannot ascertain it, let them leave these souls alone and not disquiet them. Let them adapt their instruction to the direction of God, and endeavor to lead their penitents into greater solitude, liberty and tranquility, and not fetter them when God is leading them on.
– John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love (1585)

God has called us to shepherd and care for others,
But God remains the principle and primary shepherd,
The one to whom those who mind flocks and fields must ultimately give account.

Therefore, remember to always point others to God and to listen with a discerning ear, Paying mind to ways God may be leading the other,
Redirecting attention hither and yon to the coming kingdom,
Setting aside preferences suitable to yourself,
And instead seeking the calling and guidance of the Holy Spirit,
Who knows the hearts of women and men and works out God’s ways
Which are higher than our own.