What's wrong with being a pastor?

If Jesus had spent His earthly ministry in our church, we probably wouldn't think He amounted to much. He never became a conference president, and when He "retired" He was still pastor of a small church.

J.R. Spangler is editor of Ministry.

The obvious answer is "Nothing!" There's nothing wrong with being a pastor! In fact, it's great! Unfortunately, our system of church organization has not always assigned the pastor the place of foremost value and recognition. In fact, pastors have not always viewed themselves in the proper light. I don't believe for a moment that we have knowingly done this. But like the second law of thermodynamics that tells us that time causes decay and disorganization, we have allowed time and events to erode the pastoral image from that of the highest calling God can give to something that is less than all-important.

At the same time, the importance of the individual member has eluded us as well. Let me illustrate: On an elevator in the General Conference North Building, I introduced myself to a stranger and asked his name. His immediate response was to remark timidly, "I am only a layman."

I blurted back, "Brother, don't ever say you are only a layman! If it weren't for you, and others like you, we wouldn't have this elevator, much less this building or any other building in this complex!"

I have heard similar responses from workers who when asked about their duties reply, "I am only a pastor!" This answer makes me feel sick, and I ask, "What has leadership done to create such an attitude on the part of those who are absolutely indispensable to our church?" Administrators, departmental leaders, teachers, editors, et cetera, may not be absolutely essential, but the pastor and his congregation are!

What has caused this despicable system of false values? Why is it that we unconsciously question a man's success as a minister if after forty years he retires from a pastorate without ever having done any thing except be a pastor? Why is our usual attitude, "I wonder why he never succeeded?" Succeeded in what? "Well, I mean he never was a departmental man or an administrator, or whatever. Evidently, he didn't have what it took to rise above a pastorate!"

Why can't we somehow place the proper valuation on the skills and dedication necessary to be a truly good, effective pastor? If we properly understood this matter, I am convinced our attitude would be something like this: "Yes, some have to settle for being administrators, depart mental directors, teachers, editors, et cetera. These positions are necessary, and someone must fill them. Not everyone has the ability and calling to be a pastor; some must serve in less-demanding positions!"

Simple logic dictates that the existence and maintenance of a healthy church depend more upon the individual pastor than upon any other church employee, including the president of a local, union, or division conference or mission. The smallest, but most important, unit in our denominational system (aside from the individual member) is the church—the local congregation with its pastor. A church with its pastor can exist and function without presidents, secretaries, treasurers, departmental personnel, et cetera. But these individuals cannot exist apart from the local congregation! 

This is not to say that any structure other than the local church is useless and unnecessary. On the contrary! The purpose of our organization is to bring strength to the churches. Furthermore, an organization such as ours can accomplish far more, in terms of a world outreach, than if each church were left on its own.

A strictly congregational form of church government has serious limitations, and had Seventh-day Adventists followed this plan, the scope of our world mission would have been seriously hampered. Small as we are numerically, we have a far-flung empire of churches, schools, hospitals, clinics, and institutions, made possible primarily because of our system. Without our God-given, unique organization, we would have a haphazard sprinkling of independent church units scattered here and there, united by fragile ties of impulse. Those few among us who are lobbying for Congregationalism need to consider the consequences in terms of our ability to do anything really significant that demands the cooperation of our whole sisterhood of churches.

Still, the suprastructure of the church cannot exist without the support of the individual churches. What is a local conference? It is an organized group of churches with pastors within certain geographical boundaries. The union is simply an expansion of the territory, and so with the division—but the basic, irreducible element in our entire structure is the pastor and his congregation. Eliminate him and his church, and our structure topples into oblivion. All, including myself, would be plunged into idleness, except pastors. (I fear some of us already are in a state of busy idleness.)

When I consider the low estimate often placed on the pastorate, I wonder how we would have classified Jesus had He come to earth as a man in our day. No office, no secretary, no position, no title, no budget, no equipment. Someone has said, "He had no credentials but Himself." Could it be that our present-day Adventist system of values would categorize Jesus as a total failure? After all, here was a Man who was always saying or doing something to cause problems. He did not identify Himself with the people who were influential in the church, but of all things associated with thieves, whores, lepers, and the handicapped. He even conversed and ate with those who were detested because of their racial background. When all is said and done, this Jesus can be classified only as an itinerant pastor—a circuit rider without a horse. Palestine was His territory. He worked hard as a shepherd of souls for several years before being killed. The strange thing about it all is that He aspired to no higher position than being a pas tor—even unto death. No doubt Peter had in mind the Saviour's example in pastoral work when he wrote: "Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly . . . neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away" (1 Peter 5:2-4).

Certainly, Christ's work falls in a pastoral category more than anything else. True, He was the chief administrator of the twelve, but He led these men in a far different way than men are being led today. I do not mean to be critical, a perhaps it is impossible to perform our function as administrators in any other way. But Christ constantly led men by showing them personally how to seek, save, nurture, and uplift precious souls. He never sat down and wrote letters of instruction to the disciples; He gave them on-the-job training.

Neither did Christ follow the role of a departmental leader. We have no record of His sending out bulletins on various phases of the work. He never projected statistical goals or printed comparison lists to show where each disciple stood in terms of performance. Jesus was a Shepherd. He had a true pastor's heart. He was concerned over the welfare of the sheep, and He conveyed that concern to His associates who learned so well at His feet, His side, in the marketplace, in the homes, on the hillside. Wherever Jesus went was a training center. He was a seminary on legs. He carried the library with Him in trees and sky, bird and animal, and, of course, the Scriptures.

Could it be that specialization has become so attractive to us because we desire to escape the heavy responsibility of being a pastor? Pastoring is not easy, especially today, with so many complex problems to deal with—divorce, adultery, abortion, drugs, rebellion, and a spirit of independence. Pastoring is a hard and hazardous duty. It demands courage, and challenges the very best in the minister. Paul worked tirelessly as a soul-winning pastor. At the same time he was a persuasive orator, a matchless theologian, and met every hazard possible, including his final one—execution. Yet he was ever a pastor, with "the care of all the churches" on his shoulders. He was a true pattern for today's pastors.

It might seem easier to join the ranks of the administrators, but, believe me, the faithful administrator today does not walk a smooth, rose-strewn path of ease! Too often he is the punching bag for the rebellious and insolent.

Then there is departmental work, and in a sense it is easier than being in the pastorate. A departmental leader can skip and bound over the field, leaving church problems behind for the pastor to worry about. But he pays a price for this type of activity. Usually he forms no long-lasting relationships. He lives like a man without a country. 1 know whereof I speak, for I sense my own need of staying with a group on a long-term basis, where I can form deep relationships. Another problem the departmental leader faces is that it can be much more difficult to maintain mental and even spiritual growth in such a situation than it is in a pastorate where one is forced to feed the sheep a well-balanced diet on a weekly basis over a long period of time. The departmental person can get away with a few sermons a year, since his congregation changes every Sabbath. So if you are a pastor looking for greener pastures instead of staying with the sheep on a permanent basis, be careful lest you end up in a rather lonely desert of isolation.

Why, then, do we count it such a horrendous calamity if a person in an elected position becomes a church pastor again, either by choice or by not being reelected when the constituency feels that a change is needed? How often I have heard of nominating committees that were loath to replace a particular leader because no other elected position was available, and it was quite unthinkable for him to lose face and become a pastor again! This was regarded as a step down. Interestingly enough, the individual who had to "step down" to the pastorate was probably proclaiming a few days earlier how important and sacred the work of the pastor is! Nothing equaled in meaning and significance the exalted position of the pastor until the speaker "stepped down" to the pastorate. How I wish this situation did not exist! But I would be less than honest if I tried to deny it.

One of the results of our failure as a church to build the pastor and to help him sense the importance of his work is the lack of strong men in pastoral positions. This is not to say that we do not have strong pastors, but frankly there is a shortage of them. Too many times I have been called to recommend someone to fill the pulpit of a large church. Sometimes these larger churches are open for months at a time before a strong, organized, powerfully preaching, soul-winning pastor can be found. Could it be that we have allowed some of our strongest men to go into other types of work? Important as these may be, nothing is as important as shepherding the sheep. We cannot deny the fact that we do need qualified leadership for administrative posts, but can't we do something that will create a better image of the pastor? I think we can. I am going to list only a few items, but I invite our readers, especially pastors, to send me additional points that you feel will help enhance your position and ministry as a faithful pastor in the eyes of the church and your sheep. I do not list these necessarily in the order of importance:

1. Wage scale imbalances. Some years ago our present General Conference leader, Elder N. C. Wilson, who at the time was the North American Division president, attempted to introduce wage parity. Our wage-scale system has a rather subtle, insidious status symbolism in it. Sometimes committees labor long and loud to increase the remuneration package of a particular job by one or two points to show its importance. The small amounts involved in these additional points indicate that it surely cannot be the money that is the major factor, but rather it is the status that is involved. A quick look at the wage scale indicates that there are literally dozens of positions in this church that exceed in pay what the top ordained pastor can reach. I believe that a qualified pastor should be able to reach the highest wage level this church offers ordained ministers. If this means wage parity, so let it be.

2. Greater representation on committees and boards. Let the pastor's voice be heard. Let him know that he has a brain to think and a mind to conceive ideas that may bring solutions to the problems we face. After all, the man in the field should have a grasp of the reality of life, and should be the best judge of any program conceived by those in the office.

3. Pastoral budgets to be cut last. When financial reverses come to a conference, do not swing the ax of budget reductions at pastoral budgets first, but eliminate office jobs before eliminating a pastor's job. Let the pastorate budgets be the last to be cut.

4. Give priority to the pastor's work. Put into practice the various elements that relate to the pastor and his work as listed in "The Finishing of the Work" document voted at the 1976 Annual Council. These include: clarifying the pastor's role and freeing him from peripheral matters so that he can concentrate on his major duties of spiritual nurture and evangelism.

Finally, a word to pastors. The church does not always demonstrate practically the high regard she professes for the pastor and his sacred work. Yet, you know, as no others can, that the delights and rewards of the parish pastor are truly unequaled. May God help you to look upon your work as the work that is most similar to that performed by Jesus Himself. Carry out your work in such a way that if you could borrow another life to spend again, you would spend it ministering in the pastorate.— J.R.S.


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J.R. Spangler is editor of Ministry.

June 1982

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