The minister as a human being

Recognizing our humanness warns us of temptation, reveals our potential, frees us from the guilt that unrealistic expectations bring, and uncovers the ground that motivates and enables our mission.

Benjamin D. Schoun, DMin, is president of Adventist World Radio, headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

According to a news item reported some time ago, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a parsonage is not a sacred building. Apparently, a business establishment located next to a parsonage sought a liquor license. The circuit court denied the license because of the proximity of the minister. But the supreme court reversed the circuit court's decision, arguing that except for the "goodness" of its occupant, a parsonage does not differ from any other residence.

This story reflects some of the ambivalence with which people regard ministers. Are ministers in some way different from other people? Does their holy calling exempt them from the common situations of earthbound humanity?

As Paul and Barnabas ministered in the name of God, the people of Lystra attributed deity to them. The apostles, however, did not hesitate to declare who they were. Acts 14:15 says that they rushed out, shouting, "Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you."* Paul and Barnabas understood that they were human.

Truly, among all the things that ministers are, they are first of all human beings. So it seems appropriate to begin a series on the identity and responsibilities of a minister by establishing a clear understanding of this dimension. How does the fact that ministers are human beings affect their self-concepts, their effectiveness, the way they approach their work?

Some may feel that it is unnecessary to spend time on this topic. Is it not obvious that ministers are human? Only a few eccentrics would claim otherwise. Yet some of the pressures that weigh upon those in the ministry push them to act in ways that deny their humanness.

For instance, ministers are expected to maintain high standards of morality and Christian living. This is certainly appropriate. But in trying to live up to this expectation, ministers can come to the point of projecting goodness so constantly that they begin to deceive them selves. Compounding this problem is the mystique surrounding the calling of God and ordination that has led many to presume a wide distinction between clergy and laity. Ministers symbolize the ideals that people seek but have not yet attained. For example, ministers are expected to have the ideal family and to never experience doubt, tension, or discouragement.

As a result, ministers are placed upon a pedestal a position that allows little room for human weaknesses. Baptist pas tor and author Edward B. Bratcher says, "Many laypersons expect ministers to be 10 feet tall and able to walk on water."1

Often ministers accept and even encourage this elevated image. It tends to bring respect and authority, and the distancing from other people it produces offers an element of safety. And, as Bratcher notes, ministers may not be immune from an element of pride. He writes: "The paradox is that although the Bible teaches that pride and the desire to be like God are the sources of man's tragic fall, it is precisely at this point that we as ministers most often succumb. The serpent which entices us to believe that we can be like God is often a member of the pastor search committee, saying, 'You are just the person we are looking for. You have all the qualifications that we need to solve all of our problems.' And like Adam and Eve, we eat this enticing fruit and die die to our humanity and become less than human."2

On the other hand, Bratcher also points out that most ministers are very conscientious and sensitive. These qualities can drive them to attempt more than they are able to accomplish, to assume more responsibility than they should bear. Louis McBurney, a psychiatrist who operates a retreat for the counseling of ministers, says, "In our experience, low self-esteem is the most common problem in Christian workers. They are enslaved by chains of self-doubt and inferiority." 3

In the attempt to be what we are not given to be, we lose authenticity and reality. We raise a facade to maintain the outward appearance, all the while suffering inwardly. Denying our humanity only fuels our feelings of inadequacy. And as these feelings grow, they often produce depression. The mask and the pedestal also create loneliness for ministers and their families.

I certainly struggled with these issues in my own experience in ministry. The drive to supersede my limits resulted in imbalance, neglected priorities, and burnout. The matter came to a crisis and was relieved only when I came to terms with myself as a human being. And I have found that my experience is not unusual.

What does it mean for ministers to accept their humanity? What are the implications for the work of ministry? I would like to share four realities about humanness that I believe arise out of a theological understanding of Scripture.

Ministers are sinners

First of all, being human means sinfulness. That all humans are sinful is an inescapable reality, at least during this part of earth's history. This fact means that even those called of God need repentance, grace, forgiveness, cleansing, and reconciliation. It means that ministers must be penitent before they can become and while they are pillars of strength to others.

Scripture offers many illustrations of this reality. Isaiah the prophet, for in stance, is an example of one who con fessed that he was in the same condition as were his people. "Woe is me!" he ex claimed. "For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips" (Isa. 6:5, RSV). Isaiah needed the coal from the altar for cleansing and atonement.

The Balaams and Demases of Scripture—and the riot infrequent current cases of fallen ministers today—reveal that God's workmen can also fall away. On the brink of the Promised Land Moses disobeyed God, striking the rock to bring water for the people (Num. 20:7- 12). Although God's grace assured him of ultimate salvation, he had to suffer the penalty of his transgression. As workers for God we must not become overconfident in right living or think ourselves immune from the temptations of sin. To minister as a human being means to ac knowledge continually our fallen nature and vulnerability to temptation. The apostle Paul revealed that he sensed the danger when he said, "I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize" (1 Cor. 9:27).

Ministers need to be sensitive to the temptations to immorality that are their lot and to the pricks of healthy guilt that come from marginal dishonesty, manipulation, self-aggrandizement, and the other typical ministerial sins. One of the first steps toward salvation, we tell people, is the acknowledgement of sin. To live with a humble recognition of the ongoing sinful tendencies in our lives and with a total dependence upon God is to recognize the reality of our humanness as ministers. Again we read from Paul, "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us" (2 Cor. 4:7, RSV).

A second reality of being human is godlikeness. Often we so associate being human with being sinful that we disparage our humanness. We want to get away from it, to rise above it. But we need not do that. Being human also has its very noble and elevated aspects. In many ways, to be human is to be like God for humans were created in His image. And despite the problems sin has brought, being human continues to imply aspects of godlikeness.

What does being made in the image of God mean? Theologians have defined the image of God in several ways. Some understand it to be the possession of certain characteristics either in the physical or in the psychological/spiritual being. The ability to reason stands out as one of these characteristics. Others see the image of God as humanity's ability to enter into relationship with God and with fellow human beings. Still others under stand the image of God to be something that people do rather than something that they are or experience. They participate with God in rulership; God has given them dominion over the earthly creation.4 Perhaps there is some truth to each of these perspectives.

It is important for us to understand how our identity as human beings functions in our relationship to God. Especially is this true of ministers, who not only seek soundness of being for them selves but also need to have the strength and insight to minister to others. Besides competency, ministers need a sense of worth, a sense of belonging. So often we are dependent for our affirmation and self-concept upon what people say about us or to us. We may find that we do much of our ministering to build up ourselves rather than for the sake of those to whom we are ministering.

But as we seek for a sense of adequacy we need not depend solely on the mercy of the winds of human approbation. Our need to belong is met as we relate to God as our Father we are part of His family. Our need for worth is met in Jesus Christ, who takes our sin and gives us value. Our need for a sense of competence is met as we receive the Holy Spirit, who gives us the gifts that enable us to fulfill our responsibilities. Though we live with the effects of sin, we can cultivate godlikeness. We can reflect the image of God in being and in relationships.

Such godlikeness enables us to minister to others with greater freedom. We will be less likely to allow our needs for self-acceptance to influence our ministerial actions. We will be able to be more sensitive to others. We will have greater courage to stand for our convictions in spite of social pressure. We will find it easier to forgive both ourselves and others.

Godlikeness also means the capacity for a deeper relationship with God. It means continual growth—personally, professionally, and spiritually—as we allow Him to restore His image in us.

In old Palestine when olives were put into a new earthenware jar for preservation, the new container would impart a slight taste of earth to the fruit. But after the jar had seen a few seasons of continuous use, its pores would be filled with the olive oil, and it would no longer re veal of what it was made.5 This is an illustration of what can happen to us as we, being fully human, reflect more fully the image of God. His characteristics will so penetrate our lives that the fruit we bear will not be tainted with earthliness.

Ministers have limitations

Finiteness comprises a third reality of humanness. Finiteness speaks of our creatureliness. It marks the limits to our godlikeness we are, after all, less than God. Even before sin entered, being human meant having limitations. But we must distinguish finiteness from sinfulness, although sin surely has increased the limitations to the point of serious weaknesses. Whereas finiteness speaks of our limitations, sin means disobedience toward God, and loss of eternal life.

The life of Jesus teaches us some important lessons regarding finiteness. Philippians 2 describes His self-emptying and self-limiting humanity. "Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness" (verses 6, 7). In the wilderness Jesus was tempted to supersede His humanity by making stones into bread, by assuming instantaneous kingship, and by defying gravity.6 But He accepted the bounds of human limitations.

Sometimes ministers seem to ignore the limitations of their finiteness. Over work, family neglect, over-assumption of responsibility, and false guilt all manifest this problem. When pastors feel guilty for taking appropriate time off, when they blame themselves when people do not make decisions for the Lord or when church members do not fulfill their responsibilities, they are suffering from false guilt. One author observes that such guilt "is often the outgrowth of a need to be in control of everything or feel responsible for everything."7 This is actually an assumption of omnipotence, a characteristic of God that is not given to humanity.

It is right for us to learn all we can and do all we can as we reach for excellence, but the goals and tasks we accept must not exceed the limits our finiteness places upon us. Limitation is not in itself bad. We must remember that after God made mankind with the limitations of creatureliness, He pronounced His creation "very good."8 In fact, it was Eve's unwillingness to accept her creatureliness that brought sin into the world.

Accepting our finiteness means living within our humanity and regulating our lives with balance. It means recognizing and admitting our limitations, getting help when we need it, cultivating a sup port system, and sharing our responsibilities.

Ellen White writes: "God is merciful, full of compassion, reasonable in His requirements. He does not ask us to pursue a course of action that will result in the loss of physical health or the enfeebling of the mental powers." "Do not try to crowd into one day the work of two."9 "Sometimes ministers do too much; they seek to embrace the whole work in their arms. It absorbs and dwarfs them; yet they continue to grasp it all. They seem to think that they alone are to work in the cause of God, while the members of the church stand idle. This is not God's order at all." 10

Of course, our finiteness is not an excuse for mediocrity or laziness. That would not be godlike. But as Ernest White writes: "When ministers can come to be at home with their own limits, they are much more likely to begin developing their potentials."11

Finally, being human means relatedness. There is a common bond between ourselves and other people that not only allows us to communicate with and understand them, but gives us a special interest and concern for their welfare. After all, we are all sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. From a universal perspective, we have more in common with one another than we have differences. We live in a single world community. It is this aspect of humanness, our relatedness, that mandates and enables ministers in their work.

The Son of God became human so that He could minister to us. "He had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest," says the book of Hebrews (Heb. 2:17). "Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted" (verse 18).

Our relatedness means that ministers should not hesitate to identify with their people. It means that there should not be a wide gap between clergy and laity. We are colleagues in the work; it is merely our roles that differ, Our relatedness means that all believers ought to minister to one another as priests of God. It means that we have a special responsibility to communicate to our fellow beings through our influence and through the spoken word the truth about God.

Bratcher writes, "I think it is important for ministers to learn how to join the human race." l Humanness, I have suggested, means sinfulness, godlikeness, finiteness, and relatedness. As a human being, the minister will function within the balance, the limitations, and the opportunities that these realities afford.

*Unless otherwise noted, Bible texts in this article are from the New International Version.

1. Edward B. Bratcher, The Walk-on-Water Syndrome (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1984), p. 22.

2. Ibid., p. 25.

3. Louis McBurney, Counseling Christian Workers (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1986), p. 98.

4. MillardJ. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book Hpuse, 1984), vol. 2, pp. 498-510.

5. O. M. Mackie, Bible Manners and Customs (Westwood, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, n.d.), p. 5.

6. Ernest White, "Ministers Are Human," in Anna Davis and Wade Rowatt, Jr., eds., Formation for Christian Ministry (Louisville, Ky.: Review and Expositor, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1985), p. 64.

7. Daniel O. Aleshire, "Essentials of a Minister," in Davis and Rowatt, p. 53.

8. Erickson, p. 491.

9. Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1915), pp. 245, 244.

10. Evangelism (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), p. 113.

11. Ernest White, p. 65.

12. Bratcher, p. 34.

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Benjamin D. Schoun, DMin, is president of Adventist World Radio, headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

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