I spent part of Monday afternoon reading a book titled The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson -- a retired pastor, professor, and writer. In a chapter dedicated to unpacking the nature and function of ordained pastoral ministry ("Lashed to the Mast"), Peterson describes what it means for a church to call a pastor to serve within a specific congregation. I'm here sharing Peterson's perspective on ordination, because I think it nicely captures the heartbeat of why pastors desire to "do life" with the congregations they feel called to shepherd.
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“The definition that pastors start out with, given to us in our ordination, is that pastoral work is ministry of Word and sacrament.
Word. But in the wreckage, all words sound like ‘mere words.’
Sacrament. But in the wreckage, what difference can water a piece of bread, and a sip of wine [or juice] make?
Yet century after century, Christians continue to take certain persons in their communities, set them apart, and say, ‘You are our shepherd. Lead us to Christlikeness.’
Yes, their actions will often speak of different expectations, but in the deeper regions of the soul, the unspoken desire is for more than someone doing a religious job. If the unspoken were uttered, it would sound like this:
‘We want you to be responsible for saying and acting among us what we believe about God and kingdom and gospel. We believe that the Holy Spirit is among us and within us. We believe that God’s Spirit continues to hover over the chaos of the world’s evil and our sin, shaping a new creation and new creatures. We believe that God is not a spectator, in turn amused and alarmed at the wreckage of world history, but a participant.
‘We believe that the invisible is more important than the visible at any one single moment and in any single event that we choose to examine. We believe that everything, especially everything that looks like wreckage, is material God is using to make a praising life.
‘We believe all this, but we don’t see it. We see, like Ezekiel, dismembered skeletons whitened under a pitiless Babylonian sun. We see lots of bones that once were laughing and dancing children, adults who once aired their doubts and sang their praises in church — and sinned. We don’t see the dancers or the lovers or the singers — or at best only fleeting glimpses of them. What we see are bones. Dry bones. We see sin and judgment on the sin. That is what it looks like. It looked that way to Ezekiel; it looks that way to one with eyes to see and a brain to think; it looks that way to us.
‘But we believe something else. We believe in the coming together of these bones into connected, sinewed, muscled human beings who speak and sing and laugh and work and believe and bless their God. We believe it happened the way Ezekiel preached it, and we believe it sill happens. We believe it happened in Israel and it happens in the church. We believe we are a part of the happening as we sing praises, listen believingly to God’s Word, receive the new life of Christ in the sacraments. We believe the most significant thing that happens or can happen is that we are no longer dismembered but are remembered into the resurrection body of Christ.
‘We need help in keeping our beliefs sharp and accurate and intact. We don’t trust ourselves; our emotions seduce us into infidelities. We know we are launched on a difficult and dangerous act of faith, and there are strong influences intent on diluting or destroying it. We want you to give us help. Be our pastor, a minister of Word and sacrament in the middle of this world’s life. Minister the Word and sacrament in all the different parts and stages of our lives — in our work and play, with our children and our parents, at birth and death, in our celebration and sorrows, on those days when morning breaks over us in a wash of sunshine, and in those days that are all drizzle. This isn’t the only task in the life of faith, but it is your task. We will find someone else to do the other important and essential tasks. This is yours: Word and sacrament.
‘One more thing: We are going to ordain you to this ministry, and we want your vow that you will stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment but a way of life that we need to live out in community. We know you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know your emotions are as fickle as ours, and your mind is as tricky as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to extract a vow from you. We know there will be days and months, maybe even years, when we won’t feel like believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know there will be days and weeks and maybe even months when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it. You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it.
‘There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else than what you are telling us now. Promise right now that you won’t give in to what we demand of you. You are not the minister of our changing desires, our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, or our secularized hopes for something better. With these vows of ordination, we are lashing you to the mast of Word and sacrament so you will be unable to respond to the siren voices.
‘There are many other things to be done in this wrecked world, and we are going to be doing at least some of them, but if we don’t know the foundational realities with which we are dealing — God, kingdom, gospel — we are going to end up living futile, fantasy lives. Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking the biblical words of command and promise and invitation.’
That, or something very much like that, is what I understand the church to say — even when it cannot articulate it — to the individuals it ordains as pastors."