Features, Pastorate, Theology

Ministry is Not Mastery

There are myriad temptations in ministry. One persistent temptation is to stop ministering and start mastering. There are many reasons mastering is tempting. All congregations are non-profit organizations. Most are under-funded and understaffed or staffed with volunteers. Often the pastor is the only paid employee. Congregations are not usually very efficient organizations.

Pastors face pressures to be “successful” and efficient. It comes from members, elders, and deacons who implicitly or explicitly add the pressure that many ministers already feel to have a growing church. It comes externally from so-called “church growth experts.” Like those home rehabilitation shows on cable television, the church-growth experts tell “success” stories about pastors who turned (flipped) their average little congregation into a fast-growing “dynamic” congregation. Typically, these narratives include a portion detailing how the pastor put his foot down and exercised strong leadership in chasing off discontent members and even elders. The message is clear: real leaders tell their people to get with the program or get out of Dodge.

Then there is the internal desire to reach the lost. Faithful pastors think about the lost in their neighborhoods, towns, and regions. They long to see the congregation fulfill its mission to bring the gospel to the community and to see many in come to faith and to worship the Savior. The mission is great but typically the resources are limited.

Episcopacy is efficient. Though there are some newer tech businesses that are said to be organized on a more democratic model, most successful organizations have an episcopal structure. There is someone at the top who is in charge and authority flows from the top. There may be a board of directors, but the day-to-day decisions are made by one person. He or she sets the tone, provides the leadership, and has the final say.

In contrast, Presbyterian and Reformed congregations are inefficient by design. The P&R churches confess that, by nature, humans are deeply corrupt in all their faculties. Even believers, who are in a state of grace (favor), who have been regenerated by the Spirit, are still beset with sin. So, by design, P&R churches have built-in impediments to doing things quickly. Few things are as inefficient as committees and P&R churches are run by committees, layers of them. A Presbytery is, in essence, a committee. Before that there are “sessions,” which is local committee of elders and ministers (or ruling and teaching elders). The Reformed also have committees. We call them a consistory (elders and ministers) and council (ministers, elders, and deacons), classis (Presbytery), and synod (elders and ministers).

The tension between the structure of P&R churches and the pressure to “succeed” can tempt pastors to trade in ministry for mastery. By definition ministry is service, it is to put the needs of others before one’s own needs and desires. We may fairly suspect that apostolic churches were not entirely different from ours today, that their ministers and members faced similar temptations, that they too had struggles for control of the churches, that they had competing agendas. In that light we may consider Paul’s words to the Philippians:

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:3–11).

One suspects that this passage has something to do with the difficulties that Euodia and Synteche were having (Philippians 4:2). Whatever the case, it is certain that ministers must think of themselves as servants and not as masters. If this is true, and it is, then we should very much doubt the “church growth experts” who counsel pastors to think of themselves as CEOs. In business, the CEO is the equivalent of the bishop in the episcopal system or perhaps an archbishop. Both are at the top of the organizational chart. The CEO issues directions and they are done or people get fired. This way of thinking is incompatible with Christian ministry. Jesus is the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). He answers to no committee, but he took on a true human nature. He poured himself out like a drink offering.

For these reasons we should also reject the notion that ministers are “ranchers” and not farmers. At least this language is agrarian but it is still a false model. Some pastors say, “I am a rancher, not a farmer.” By this they mean to attribute to their office a kind of CEO like authority. They sit in the big ranch house on the hill and they give orders to the foreman and the ranch hands about how the ranch is to be run. They do not themselves milk the cows or herd the steers. Certainly the rancher (the owner) does not muck out the stables! Again, Philippians 2 tells us that this is exactly wrong. Our Lord Jesus did, as it were, muck out the stables. He clothed himself with a towel and he washed his disciples’ feet. Even though he is God the Son incarnate, even though he spoke creation into existence, even though he thundered from Sinai, he never took the posture of a CEO or a rancher. To continue the analogy: he took the posture of the lowest stable boy.

Those of us who are pastors (shepherds) serve the Chief Shepherd but we also serve the ruling elders. Notice that we do not speak in P&R churches of “ruling pastors.” We are deacons of the Word and sacrament. We serve the congregation. Ruling is not in our job description. This is an important reality of which we pastors must be reminded because there are seemingly endless reasons that tempt us to take off the servant’s towel and put on the CEO’s suit or the rancher’s hat.

Pastors sin. One of our sins is to try to become what we are not, masters, CEOs, or ranchers. We are ranch hands. We work in the mail room not the board room. The great good news for sinful pastors is that Chief Shepherd laid down his life for us and our sins. He redeemed us from the curse of the law and bore the penalty due to our sins. By his Spirit he has also set us free from the power of sin and we now free to take the posture appropriate to our office, that of a servant. This posture is ultimately an act of faith. We must trust that the Chief Shepherd knows best, that he loves his church more than we do. He knows more than we do. He will accomplish his purposes in his time. What a relief! We are not the Spirit. We are not the Savior. We are the saved who serve, not ministers who master.

Filed under: Features, Pastorate, Theology
R. Scott Clark

R. Scott Clark (D.Phil., Oxford University) is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, an ordained minister, and author of several books including, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (P&R, 2008). Follow him on Twitter: @RScottClark.