This past year has been an incredibly formative process in my life, as I have reflected over the past 13 years of ministry and the journey God has taken me on. It has also caused me to unpack two experiences in my academic training, and consider how formative yet malformative these experience are for most pastors. They result in pastors being suspicious of the two most important things in their ministry:
The Bible and The Congregation
Story 1: In my very first religion course at a “Presbyterian” College, our Professor handed the front row student a paragraph and told her to rewrite the paragraph, while he lectured, on a different piece of paper and pass it back, the next student was to take that copy and repeat…so on and so forth until the end of the hour. At the end of the class the professor snatched the piece of paper and circled all of the transition errors, adaptions and mistakes from the original. Holding up the paragraph, his point was “since scripture was passed through scribes for centuries, clearly these alterations would have also occurred in we call the ‘Bible.”” The class bell rung–30 highly intellectual yet highly formative freshmen walked out of the classroom having their cozy-cultural-Christianity left teetering. As a Harvard Report described:
the purpose of education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to re-orient themselves.
Yet most academies fail at the second aspect of reorientation…because they incubate themselves into a disorienting cycle never allowing reorienting concepts to solidify. For example, my first paper in college was returned with the note that I could never quote 2 Timothy 3:16 in an academic paper in this institution again.
Thus began my introduction to Historical Criticism and progressive liberalism that slowly dismantles people’s faith. The next decade I waded through this stream of thought being taught to approach the Bible with an aura of suspicion.
The starting point for classes, essays, sermons and Bible Studies was “Is this true?” Doubt was promoted as an essential tool.
So as a pastor I was trained to approach Scripture with doubt and suspicion.
Story 2: In my first year of seminary training, they forced 150 students into a classroom to watch a video about sexual boundaries and ethics. The only thing I remember was a video clip where a pastor did a “home visit” where a middle-aged woman opened the door in a bathsuit–a one piece nonetheless. The entire day was spent cramming down our throats a view that pastors are “power figures” and “influencers” and so we should be wary of all personal interactions with the congregation. Subtly, there was imbued a view that we should also hate ourselves for the unique position God has placed us in to be cultural influencers.
With that foundation as a young pastor, I then continue to meet clergy who are bitter and frustrated with their congregation and they allow gossip, anger, aloofness, and resentment to fester under the surface.
So when a young man walks through the door to propose a new men’s-only bible study he is met with strange angst, hostility and delay. As pastors we were taught to exegete everyone’s motivation, to be suspicious of their desires, and to be threatened by them.
Therefore, as a pastor I was trained to guard myself from the congregation.
As I have reflected on these foundations, I have seen the need for all pastors to shed our suspicion and embrace a faith built on trust.
If we cannot cling to the Scriptures as our only source of life, what are we doing? Our job, as one pastor beautifully said, is to know the Bible the best of anyone in our community. We should hungrily devour God’s Word, not wondering “Is this true” but setting aside that thought to consider “since this is true, what does it demand I should do?” Even if you are not there yet, merely ask yourself “if this is true” and then start acting and behaving as if it were…Christ will radically transform your heart, your life and your ministry.
This act of trusting scripture, is paramount, because we cannot come to trust others, and love our congregation, until we trust God. Trusting the Written Word, allows us to trust the Living Word, which introduces us to God. From there, we can then turn our eyes upward from the page to see the world as God sees it.
Because, if we cannot call our congregation our friends (just as Christ did in John 15), if our hearts do not break for what breaks theirs, if our prayers are not pleas that they would awaken to the secure love of Jesus Christ…then pastors, I implore you to consider the words from Caddyshack that “The world needs ditch diggers too.” As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in Life Together:
“A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men.”