On the sixth day, God created humankind in God’s image, according to the Lord’s likeness. Every day since then, humankind has been tirelessly creating, and recreating, images of what a pastor should be, each according to their personal opinion and liking. There’s a great many identity misperceptions surrounding the pastoral office, some quite honestly brought on by ourselves but countless others pressed upon us by others on the outside piously peeping in to offer their self-righteous two-cents. (Forgive me if I sound a bit snotty towards a topic that never seems to grow old, the cedar’s got me congested.) A pastor should be… A pastor should do… And a personal favorite of mine: A pastor CANNOT… Often, the most critical of responses regarding a pastor’s portrayal or function comes from those either most deeply rooted in the congregation or even closest to the individual themselves. Unfortunately, more times than not, people’s ideas of a pastor’s semblance seep out in heated rhetoric when said minister (unknowingly, and perhaps unintentionally) deviates from the elevated [heavenly] image of the clerical role (uncommunicated) in a person’s mind. *cue the sound of fragile ornamental conceptualizations shattering, like that of glass breaking* If only someone could calculate all the wasted time and energy spent in formulating and force-fitting distorted pastoral identities on individuals who are seeking to respond to the Spirit’s call to follow after Jesus in discipleship by means of serving God’s people. No doubt it would surpass what could’ve otherwise been spent solving paramount problems. I doubt I’m the first to say it, but let me join the choir of bursting the bubble, breaking the myth, and setting the score straight, that pastors don’t have everything figured out. At best, we try to practice what we preach—never fully mastering the very mores we seek to help equip and encourage in others. Our lives are not perfect, much less problem-free. We wrestle certainly no less with feelings of disappointment, doubt, and disdain than anyone without a Master of Divinity degree. Pastors are as equally sinful and broken, called and commissioned, forgiven and saved, as every one else.
None of this is to say that pastors are above accountability or exempt from the call of discipleship Christ extends to all followers. A pastor is not the first-string Christian, cream of the proverbial crop, or one whom has been gifted a greater share of the Spirit—extra divine. This misperception is a result of loaded phrases like being a godly person. A pastor is one who has heard, discerned, and is actively seeking to respond with faithfulness the call of the Spirit to follow after Christ Jesus and work alongside others in living likewise, through proclaiming the gospel and administering the sacraments. (I’m sure any of my esteemed colleagues could argue a different, more accurate definition that clearly connotes what is a pastor.) We still share the same baptismal vocation as other members of the body. Our role within God’s work in the world differs in the particular means we are entrusted with in sharing the grace of Christ Jesus, professing the love of God, and building up the communion of the Holy Spirit. Thankfully, we aren’t the head which is responsible for moving the rest of the body—that is reserved for someone far more faithful. If anything, ordained ministry is not an ascension but rather humble lowering of oneself to go and meet people in the depths—shining a light of hope and promise amidst the darkness, assuring them that Christ is present working resurrection life even when he isn’t easily seen or felt. And frankly, we don’t always succeed in our ministry—from time to time we miss the mark and fail miserably at it. The laying on of hands upon a candidate at their ordination is not some mystical transfer, deposit, or multiplication of sacred power. Look! I’ve got magic hands now! No, it is, for us in this tradition, both a symbolic demonstration of conferring authority but also a time of communal prayer for the Spirit’s guidance upon the person taking on this particular call of service to God’s people. Last I checked, my ontology (nature of being) did not change the night I was ordained a minister of word and sacrament. Somedays I might be a little bit more full of myself than I should be; but honestly, I’m no closer to heaven or full-understanding of God’s will—nor should I be—than the man or woman who hasn’t stepped foot in church for whatever reason. I am called and expected to live a life of prayer and study in scripture and community with others—but even this can be a daily struggle. It’s no church cakewalk.
This topic came to mind because, quite frankly, the other day I was faced with a stinging criticism—which has weighed heavily on my heart and mind ever since then—regarding my not fitting another person’s image of a pastor. The word used was hypocrite. In so far as I am a sinful and broken person, daily and desperately in need of God’s grace, love, and forgiveness for me in Christ Jesus—I confess to resemble that remark. In spite of my pastoral role, I hope to never mislead someone, anyone, into believing that I am better than them, much less holier than thou. To fall into that fallacy would be like entering into an inescapable black hole (or perhaps the Quantum Realm for my Marvel friends). Don’t be fooled; my being called and ordained to serve the church neither means I’ve mastered inner peace (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmmrrfJKY7I) nor am without struggling from time to time when it comes to practicing central tenets of the faith such as forgiveness. Have yet to find the vaccination from doubts or distress. If you need witnesses of my wrestlings or wrongdoings, I’m sure there’s a whole host of people that could vouch in corroboration. For me, a big part of being a pastor is being honest and open of my humanity and shortcomings for the sake of meeting others with empathy where they are and embodying the Lutheran belief of simul iustus et peccator (we are at the same time just and sinful) as we seek to journey through this life together. It’s a fine line to walk, but a pathway I hear many say they long for in a leader. No less than anyone else, I need to constantly (and continually) hear and receive Christ. Beneath the fancy vestments, past the hordes of theological books, titles and (mis)perceptions aside, pastors are human. Regardless what you think a pastor should be, do, or otherwise not, I encourage you to ask yourself why you believe what you believe about the office. Is it something you were told by others? Does your image of a pastor have basis in your interactions or reactions to one (or more) whom you admire or despise? Or is it possibly something deeper within ourselves—pointing toward traits we long for personally? Might the image we cast on another be the very one we secretly wish for ourselves? At the end of the day, I pray the abundance of God’s grace, love, and forgiveness through Christ Jesus be poured out through the Holy Spirit upon us all—laity and pastors alike.
– Pastor Andrew