Preserve the vessel, share the treasure

Dealing with the multifunctional roles of contemporary pastoral ministry

Eric H. Winter is the ministerial secretary for the South Pacific Division.

The role of a minister is a complex one. Pastors need to define and understand clearly their expectations from God, their parishioners, their organization, and themselves. How ministers understand their role will determine their attitude toward their work and their effectiveness as pastors. A failure to understand their role will result in low self-esteem, lack of job satisfaction, anxiety, and serious stress.

To comprehend the pastor's role in relation to God and human beings is as necessary as it is complex and demanding. After an exhaustive study of the biblical concept of ministry, W. T. Purkiser has concluded: "In part the deteriorating image of the ministry both outside the church and among its laity may well be due to the fact that ministers themselves often betray a profound lack of understanding of their calling. The fuzziness of the image reflects the ministers' own groping for an identity in modern society."1

In light of this ambivalence and the importance of pastoral role definition, it has been suggested that any description of the minister's function should be "negotiated" and "intentional." "We believe effectiveness and faithfulness in ministry results from negotiating an intentional ministry. In this setting, negotiation refers to the quality of relationships and transactions by which ministry is carried out. Intentionality refers to the style of faith and proactive behavior that is at the heart of effective ministry."2

The emphasis here is on a ministry that establishes and clarifies intentions; has a clear concept of the mission of the church; sets priorities and thus creates the minister's role, mobilizing the re sources available to him or her. A pastor cannot "negotiate" the role and function of his or her particular ministry with the congregation until the minister's own "intentions" are clearly defined. Yet it is just as important that the church clarify its role and mission in the world.

Biblical views of the pastoral role

In searching the Bible for a description of the minister's role, it is not difficult to mistakenly exacerbate the already confusing multifunctional portrayal of the pastoral task. Some studies have identified as many as 30 distinct roles for the minister. When the Bible is invoked as the source of such descriptions, an even more overwhelming sense of strain may come into play with regard to the pastor.

One well-intentioned study of the role of the minister in Scripture perceives ministerial function to be based upon seven elements relating the minister to God Himself: The ministry is a calling, initiated by God (Heb. 5:4); a covenant of faith in God's promises— an activity of assurance, not anxiety; a commitment to the purposes of God being the pastor's choice; a commission given by the Holy Spirit and confirmed by the church; a consecration being God's act of setting the minister apart for sacred ends; a challenge because it is the greatest task committed to humanity; and a continuation of the ministry of Jesus Christ through proclaiming the Word.3

Growing out of this, the same study distinguishes 16 different ministerial images in the New Testament: "messenger" (Mark 1:2); "fisherman" (Mark 1:17,18); "shepherd"(John 10:12); "witness" (Luke 24:48); "vessel" (Acts 9:15); "servant" (Acts 16:17); "fellow-laborer" (1 Cor. 3:9); "master builder" (1 Cor. 3:10); "steward" (1 Cor. 4:1, 2); "athlete" (1 Cor. 9:24-27); "ambassador" (2 Cor. 5:20); "playing coach" (Eph. 4:11, 12); "prisoner" (Philemon 1); "pattern" (1 Tim. 1:16); "soldier" (2 Tim. 2:3); and "husbandman" (2 Tim. 2:6).

These titles are then grouped into several role-related categories: disciple, apostle, elder, bishop-overseer, minister, preacher, prophet, evangelist, pastor-teacher, person of God, and priest. Wrestling with the implications of all of these role portrayals immediately evokes in the minister the wonder and responsibility that Paul saw in the pastoral calling: "Who is sufficient for these things?" (2 Cor. 2:16). Indeed, "It is sheer arrogance for any one minister to assume that he or she has equal gifts in all realms."4

Relieving the minister of multifaceted expectations

The key to relieving the minister from the burden of such an array of disparate expectations is clear: a renewed and more church-wide emphasis on the priesthood of all believers and the ministry of the laity through the gifts of the Spirit. In this setting the pastor will be seen as a coordinating leader in the congregation. Such a role assignment would go far in relieving the confused role conflict experienced by so many clergy. Sharing of the gospel commission around the whole church allows ministers to take on the primary role of being disciple-makers and leaders.

Duane Litfin emphasizes what he calls the "leader and completer" role: "A pastor needs some way to consolidate all these diverse activities into a comprehensive theory of his role as leader in the congregation, a theory which will enable him to sort through the muddle and evaluate what he is doing. Only in this way can a pastor face the complexity of his ministry without losing himself and his sense of purpose. To attempt to function without such an overall theory is to court the disaster of directionlessness which seems to afflict so many ministers."5

The question arises, Has the church added to the complexity of the pastoral role by gathering too much authority and function around its pastors? The Seventh-day Adventist Church and its pastors need to reflect on this issue if they are to minister realistically to today's needs.

The Adventist Church and the minister

The history and theology of the Seventh-day Adventist Church have influenced its role expectations of the pastor. The revived emphasis on Scripture, the concept of the remnant, the belief in the imminent return of Jesus, the focus on truths such as Sabbath, sanctuary, and lifestyle, and the eschatological urgency of the Adventist mission molded the expectations of the church for the Adventist minister. Given that context, Adventist pastors consider their message as the clarion call to a perishing world. Such a concept adds greater importance to the role of the minister and the church. And if this role is stressed without taking into account the New Testament model of ministry involving the pastor and the laity alike, we have cause to worry. If the church calls for accountability in its ministers' multifunctional roles without making allowance for specifically negotiated priorities and for human limitations, then it is bound to create tension, stress, and breakdown.

In defining the role of the pastor, the Adventist Church has the benefit of finding a sense of direction not only in Scripture but also in the work of Ellen White. She affirms the highest biblical view of the pastoral call: "Would that every minister of God realized the holiness of his work and the sacredness of his calling. As divinely appointed messengers, ministers are in a position of awful responsibility."6

The Index7 to Mrs. White's books lists more than 1,700 references covering 31 categories of the ministerial role. In addition, many hundreds of references are listed under the categories of "preachers," "shepherds," "gospel workers," and "evangelists." The theme of the significance and sacredness of the ministry is dominant in what Ellen White says about ministry. Along with this, another theme emerges: the need for the entire church to be involved in the completion of the task of the church. Without proper role clarification Adventist ministers may be over whelmed by the significance and sacredness of their calling. They may feel unfit or unqualified should they fail to reach the high and idealistic expectations presented in the counsel of Mrs. White. This attitude, if not correctly dealt with, will add significantly to the internal conflict of the pastor. An Adventist ordination service and the charge it contains reflect the high standards expected of the minister. Such expectations can be fulfilled only when the church continues to nurture and support its pastors and provide opportunities for them to practice the New Testament model of ministry that takes into account both the clergy and the laity in the fulfillment of the gospel commission.

Pastors an earthen vessel

It is true that without the very high est understanding and conviction of their calling from God. ministers will never aspire to, or achieve, what they have been called to do and to be. Like wise, to deny their human limitations and attempt to fulfill all the expectations directed their way will result in tension, low self-esteem, and a feeling of not achieving.

Paul's classic metaphor "we have this treasure in earthen vessels" (2 Cor. 4:7) points to the superiority of the "treasure" (Jesus Christ), as compared with the inferiority of the "vessel" (the preacher). "However great his Christian privileges and glory, he [the minister] is still a mortal man; he is still a victim of circumstance; he is still involved in a human situation over which he has no control; he is still a mortal body with all the body's weakness and pain. He is like a man with a precious treasure, but the treasure is contained in an earthen vessel, which itself is weak and worth less." 8

The work of the gospel minister involves both God and people. In spite of their inequality, they are inseparably united in the proclamation of the saving power of Jesus Christ. "In God's economy there is no such thing as the delivery of this glorious message of truth without a preacher. In the elective purpose of God His will and work are made known to us through a living personality,"9 the minister. But "the minister ... is only a man, and often a very ordinary man. He is not a superman. Neither is he an iron man. He has feelings and emotions, the same as other men; he grows weary, even as others do." 10

To this end, both pastoral leaders and church administrators need to acknowledge the frailty of the "earthen vessel." In addition, the parishioners must be aware of their ministers' humanness. When expectations are tempered by such a conscious admission, then the stressfulness of the role conflict of the minister will be lessened.

Conflict is not necessarily bad. If controlled, it will both stimulate and motivate. If uncontrolled, it will be disastrous. G. Campbell Morgan provides the needed balance: "The pressure is in the earthen vessels, and they are subject to afflictions. There is a revelation of great principle of all successful work. It is through the breaking of the earthen vessels that light flashes out upon the pathway of others.... Yet the other truth is recognized that the power is such that all the pressure upon the earthen vessels is not sufficient to destroy them." 11 Yet with a large proportion of ministers undergoing stress-related role conflicts, something is wrong. There is an urgency that the minister be ministered to.

"To promote the highest ends of the ministry the servant of God must begin with himself." 12 The acknowledgment of this truth allows for a viable intentionality in encouraging ministers, parishioners, and employers to relate with supportive understanding. It acknowledges God's true understanding of His "earthen vessels." It lends itself to a healthier ministry with less role conflict.

"Role conflicts occur when two or more role expectations interfere with each other or contradict one another altogether.... In a serious conflict, the compliance with one expectation may make it completely impossible to comply with another." 13 The minister himself or herself, the local congregation, and church administration must intentionally combine to negotiate a reduction in the contradictory interplay of such diverse role expectations.

It is encouraging to note that such role conflicts are not new to the people of God. Biblical patriarchs, prophets, priests, and preachers too have experienced such conflicts. Paul experienced conflict between his desire to be self-supporting when he was entitled to be supported by the church, acting thus "in places where his motives might have been misunderstood." 14 He had to choose between receiving pay or remaining independent at the expense of his apostolic role. Peter and John (Acts 4:13-22) experienced role conflict between the command of Christ to preach and the command of the authorities not to preach. To decide either way was to create anxiety as they related to their obligations.

We can minimize these conflicts if we consciously admit that we are only earthen vessels, charged with sharing the divine treasure to all people through the help of our congregations. Pastors are not only leaders but trainers of others to be partners in the ministry. Even though this may seem to place yet another obligation on an already over crowded pastoral role structure, it is an obligation that leads to long-term relief rather than ongoing frustration. This will be so especially if the whole church is engaged in the task of ushering in this shift in emphasis. Where genuine partnership exists, role conflict in ministry can be lessened and role fulfillment increased.

This article is edited and adapted from chapter 2, "The Role of the Minister," from the author's M.A. disertation from Andrews University in 1983.

1. W. T. Purkiser, The New Testament Image of the Minister (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970), p. 17.

2. John E. Biersdorf et al., Creating an Intentional Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976), p. 13.

3. Purkiser, pp. 22-29.

4. Biersdorf, p. 51.

5. A. Duane Litfin, "The Nature of the Pastoral Role: The Leader as Completer," Bibliotheca Sacra, January-March 1982, vol. 139, no. 553, pp. 57, 58.

6. E. G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1915), p. 150.

7. See Comprehensive Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1962).

8. William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1965), pp. 220, 221.

9. W. A. Criswell, Criswell's Guidebook for Pastors (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1980), p. 25.

10. Wayne C. Clark, The Minister Looks at Himself (Philadelphia, Penn.: The Judson Press, 1957), p. 67.

11. G. Campbell Morgan, The Corinthian Letters of Paul (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1946), p. 239.

12. Ralph G. Turnbull, A Minister's Obstacles (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1972), p. 9.

13. Smith, pp. 26, 27.

14. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 347.


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Eric H. Winter is the ministerial secretary for the South Pacific Division.

June 1996

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