Love God, love your people

The counsel may seem simple; yet it is at the heart of successful ministry.

Marguerite Shuster, Ph.D., is a professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, United States.

Editor’s note: This article is a version of a chapter from the forthcoming book Best Advice for Pastors and Preachers, edited by William J. Carl III. Copyright 2008 Westminster John Knox Press.

A little while ago I received an invitation to write a chapter for a volume on the “best advice” for pastors and preachers, presumably to come out in a year or two. It was a nice invitation to which I responded affirmatively, as most of us can, perhaps, come up with some advice for other people without spending a great deal of time in the library. We may even have some things we deeply and sincerely want to say. But even that way of putting it suggests something of my latent unease about the assignment. After all, every psychologist knows the worth of advice—just about as close to nothing as one can get. Very often, in fact, it is even worse than that and pushes people in unwanted, instead of wanted, directions.

Years ago, at the very beginning of my pastoral career, I shared responsibility for a lay counseling center for the large congregation I served. A psychiatrist, a psychologist, and I met weekly with our lay counselors for supervision, and the inexperienced ones would often come in elated at the way their new clients had welcomed their helpful suggestions and admonitions. Following our own lights on this matter, we declined to advise them but simply suggested that they report back to us next week on what the clients had actually done with the instruction they had received. Inevitably, the counselors returned with fallen countenances, dismayed that what the client had received so gladly had led exactly nowhere. So, with that sort of reality in mind, I have worked on my little section. Furthermore, I am anxious about the kinds of criteria people most commonly seem to use today to define success in ministry.

You need, I think, to have that background in order to best understand what I have prepared for you today, which is rather far from the “helpful hints” sort of thing and is a considerably expanded version of the chapter I recently submitted. I titled it, “Love God, Love Your People.” My underlying assumption in what I am working with includes the conviction that depth in the basics is indispensable and that it will trump techniques however technologically up-to-date and flashy. It will even enable what might look like an undistinguished ministry to bear good fruit in the end—perhaps more real fruit than ministries that appear very successful on the surface. I am also assuming that even those of us who know and believe that, still need to be reminded of it in the current cultural climate, for sometimes the pressures to see things in secular terms are pretty overwhelming, and we may come to wonder if we have the right priorities after all.

Thus, I intend to try to offer hope and comfort to those who are not superstars in the pulpit or elsewhere, and to write a sharp caution over what I consider to be the misplaced hopes of those who think there must be a quick fix out there somewhere. I do not intend, however, to offer you something easy. Perhaps a way of thinking about the whole of what I have to say would be to ask yourself at every turn, “What if only God, and no one else, saw what I did and who I am?”—which is, of course, the actual case if we are talking about real and complete vision. So much for my preface.

Love God, love your people. It’s not advice so much as a command of the most uncompromising sort—the structure of the Decalogue, the substance of Jesus’ summary of the law. Get that right, and the rest follows; if it doesn’t follow, what is missing will ultimately show itself to be less than essential. Get that wrong, and in the end, all the achievements apart from it—every spiffy sermon, every leap in the membership rolls—will reveal themselves for the dust that they are.

Well, what kind of encouragement is that? To many of us, such words sound all too much like prescribing a proper diet and exercise for weight loss. However sound the prescription may be, it’s hardly news. The fundamental trouble with it is that we either can’t make it work at all, we can’t sustain the effort, or (and here is the hardest part) we do sustain the effort for a long time but don’t experience the rewards we expected. It’s the last piece that sometimes makes us doubt the whole enterprise, rather than just doubt ourselves.

For instance, the physically fittest person I knew in my present congregation—a triathlete who buckled (that is, received a buckle for finishing) in Ironman competitions and should have lived to a ripe old age, died suddenly in her early 50s of a fast-moving liver cancer. The finest pastor I personally know, the only person able to pull me out of a terrible pit a few years ago, has had a life of frightening suffering. Cases like these show us that things just don’t work out the way they should. These people did it right according to the rules, and look where it got them! So couldn’t someone, please, tell us something else to do, something that would be a little easier and bring us the kind of results we want a little more reliably?

It would hardly do for a seminary professor like me to imply that the whole enterprise of educating clergy and then publishing articles and chapters and books or giving talks at seminars to try to help them in their ministry is fruitless. I spend a lot of time and energy on these things. I’m even seen as rather passionate about them, for as a matter of fact, I think it matters a great deal whether one’s doctrine of the Trinity is orthodox, and whether one’s sermon is coherently and interestingly designed. I teach both systematic theology and preaching, and I believe that those of us who spend our days working on such matters are not wasting our time. But still, if one fails to cling to the God whose nature one has so carefully articulated, or if one’s engrossing sermon conveys no grace, well, then the end is worse than the beginning.

The danger of all the “something else’s” we might strive to do is their tendency to usurp the place of the fundamentals, and thus become idols, something of our own construction that we can control much better than God or our neighbor in all their mysterious contrariness. For all the convenience of idols, we tend to notice too late that, as someone noted in a sermon I heard recently, the thing about idols is that they never answer us when we cry out to them. We can control them to a certain extent, yes, but that is because they are of our own making. The wonder of God and of our neighbor is that they can both answer—but they often do not say what we want to hear.

Some of us, especially when we are young, know too little about the seeming contrariness of God and neighbor, and hence about the real difficulty of faithful ministry. In the first flush of a call or a conversion experience, love overflows in its emotional as well as its practical aspects. We are ready to go anywhere, serve anyone, at the greatest cost to ourselves. We can hardly imagine either a cooling of the ardor or a lack of striking results for our efforts. But the surer we have been, the more painful the reality that eventually sets in. Sometimes, no doubt, we avoid facing the cooling and the less-than-stellar results as we grasp frantically for tools and techniques behind which we can hide. Or sometimes, perhaps, we have been persuaded by advertising and chipper sayings and colleagues in ministry who appear to be getting better results than we are, that all we need are a few seminars, some surveys, and a generous dose of pop psychology, promotional skill, and management techniques to get our ministry on the road. We may be tempted, for these people sound so certain, but the more honest we are, the more surely we will suspect, even so, that we have somehow left our first love. What I really am talking about today at the bottom, then, is not losing our way when the path has become both faint and very steep.

Love God. The feelings do not come easily when expected direction and help seem long delayed, or when disaster has overtaken us in the midst of our most earnest efforts to remain faithful, or when energy is low and hopes have faded. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, we are inclined to think. We read and hear about miraculous provision: could the stories be false? We think back to times in our own lives when God’s providential care and guidance seemed incontrovertible. (Perhaps you can cite dramatic examples of the Divine guidance, as can I.) Were we deceived? More importantly and more likely, what does it mean if we were not deceived? Unless we have some legitimate reason for supposing otherwise, and, of course, there can be such reasons, it is possible that we have committed high-handed sin, been patently rebellious and disobedient, or who knows what. But apart from that, it does not mean that we have fouled up somehow and that if only we could get it right (whatever “it” is), all would be well.

That is the fundamental mistake ingrained in us by our do-it-yourself culture and by all the CEO-style and health-and-wealth paradigms of ministry; those paradigms that teach us that proper procedure on our part will surely produce satisfying results. It is simply a mystery how anyone could read the New Testament, discern the patterns of the lives of the disciples, or contemplate the cross of Jesus Christ, and reach any such conclusion. The gospel story is not a tragedy because, and only because, it is finally about God’s victory (victory in a dismaying narrative in which the protagonist has no tragic flaw).

Loving God, then—or at least the ability to persist in loving God in the hard times—has everything to do with trusting that victory in the midst of circumstances that look for all the world like defeat. It is not a blind faith; it is confidence, instead, in the resurrection. That confidence then funds—as well as directs and constrains—everything else. But it funds it all as the first fruits, the sure promise of the harvest, not as if the harvest had already come and the only reason we are not healthy and wealthy and wise is that we have unaccountably failed to take advantage of it.

I am arguing that an eschatological perspective is essential to faithfulness here and now. It is not a way of escaping our responsibilities in this life and this world; it is a way of retaining confidence that what happens here and now is not the whole story, so that we can regain our courage to make real sacrifices and exercise real courage. It is fascinating to me that as soon as I start to talk that way in the circles in which I usually travel, people fear that I am going back to some pie-in-the-sky approach that will fail to take responsibilities in this life seriously—as if we still lived in an age when that was a real danger. I am suggesting the reverse— that we now live in an age where failure to take God’s promised future seriously leaves us with nothing but this life, which gives our losses and sorrows here such ultimate importance that we are robbed of the hope that we need in order to act responsibly and precisely in this life. If there is nothing else, today’s suffering and sacrifices can indeed feel overwhelming; it can seem that to risk present loss would be to risk everything. But if this is not the end, rather the crucial beginning, everything changes and we can better dare to be brave.

Loving God today, while trusting His final victory, involves taking the whole earthly story in all its brutal messiness seriously in our living and in our preaching. The Crucifixion was the necessary precursor to the Resurrection. Necessary not, perhaps, in some vague theoretical sense, for one can imagine restoration to life provided in the face of a death that came in one’s sleep, but necessary to the atoning work of the One who bore in His human body not just our weakness and mortality but our sin. Victories involve real enemies, real battles, and, almost inevitably, real pain. How, then, can we read and proclaim the gospel story by bowdlerizing it, by compiling little pink books of Bible promises that ensure our preaching will be uplifting? Not, of course, that the point is to make the opposite error and specialize in the sayings of a little black book of Bible curses. The point is that the whole counsel of God contains all the terror and complexity and failure and defeat, as well as the mysterious joys and gifts, of ordinary human life. If we really trust God, we will trust Him right there, and our preaching will not dance daintily around the difficulties. Because if God isn’t big enough for difficulties, He isn’t big enough, and we will in the end deceive and confuse people whose lives don’t quite measure up to the idealized pictures we are so tempted to present. We cannot truly love God if we love only carefully altered pictures of Him, from which everything marring a harmonious view has been eliminated, anymore than we can really love a spouse or close friend if we cannot tolerate the aspects of him or her that rub us the wrong way. If we try, or if we present such a picture to others, it is not God whom we love, but some idealized deity of our own design. People who have embraced such pictures will be baffled when they are confronted with a problem for which such answers do not suffice, and there is nowhere for them to go but out the backdoor of the church. Even the promise of the abundant life God offers must be presented in the way that God offers it, not as the world defines it.

Besides a sober honesty with ourselves and others about what God has done and the obstacles He has overcome and how He still continues to act, loving God also involves a certain self-sacrificial style of discipleship. Face it: love, if it is love, always involves sacrifice. Sometimes the joy of a relationship makes the sacrifice seem like nothing; at other times, commitment to the relationship sustains one in the necessary sacrifices despite sentiments that would lead anywhere or everywhere but where one must go. But a need for sacrifice there will surely be.

A longing for holiness is rather out of fashion these days, and if such a reference makes one squirm a bit, I have made my point. Oh, yes, an ascetic impulse exists that can merge all too readily with a self-justifying and destructive masochism; one can surely fall off the trolley on that side. But today, cultural forces are more strongly arrayed to push us off the other side, the side on which every sort of self-indulgence, self-centeredness, and capitulation to the allure of mammon is justified under the rubrics of health, self-care, and celebration of life. Students always look excited and affirming when I begin to speak of legitimate issues of self-care in my homiletics lectures, but they end up being dismayed when they find that I do not think such things are the be-all and end-all of ministry. I tell them that if they are looking for a regular and defensible 40-hour work week, I recommend working for the postal service.

True, certain pastor-search committees today will be populated by those who want a pastor—and a Jesus—whom they can “hang out” with (the precise term some folks on a recent committee I know of used); someone whom they see as being basically just like them and with whom, therefore, they are perfectly comfortable. That is fine so long as one doesn’t really need a pastor—or a God.

While one understands and affirms such persons’ distastes for all the holier-than-thou presentations (and visions) of self that can make pastors simply obnoxious, one fears that the less defensible aspect of the impulse is to have a pastor whose character and preaching will make no actual demands, will lead to no real disturbance to one’s lifestyle and commitments. It may betray an underlying spiritual laziness, a refusal even to aspire to anything higher and harder. Capitulating to desires of this sort means in the end choosing to please people rather than to seek to live up to the best that one knows. And I suspect that the best that one knows involves a good deal more self-discipline and a good deal more awe before the holy Lord than will ever be exactly popular.

This element of sternness and exclusivity in one’s love for God is precisely what enables one actually to love one’s people and not simply use them for one’s self-aggrandizement. It can free one to keep on loving all those folks whose troubles all the good advice and good cheer in the world will never fix; indeed, it may at last teach one that most often the only help one can give begins when, because of one’s trust in the Lord’s adequacy, one stops needing to fix folks oneself. What they need most, of course, is a pastor who is not afraid to stick around even if it doesn’t get better, for how can they be expected to find their recalcitrant suffering bearable if even their pastor cannot really tolerate it over the long haul? (I’m not speaking here of the sort of hole-in-the-bucket parishioner who is psychologically unwell and makes inordinate demands. Of course, pastors must set fi rm limits in such cases. I’m speaking of people who need desperately to be neither blamed nor abandoned in the midst of lives that are relentlessly hard. And unfortunately there are lots of them.)

Pastors who love their people will not leave the care of them to someone else so that they can attend to administrative tasks, as if the mechanics of the institution were more the pastor’s job than the human condition of the people. And pastoral care takes time. I remember over 16 years ago, when I moved from a pastoral to an academic ministry, the words of a kindly, elderly pastor who begged me to teach my students to visit their people, for doing so is becoming a lost art. In fact, you doubtless already know that the current wisdom seems to be that such things should be delegated to lay people to free the pastor for—what? Assorted management and leadership tasks, I suppose. Obviously, I think that is completely wrongheaded, for how can one be a pastor to those one does not know? And I suspect your experience matches mine; people really do want care from their pastor, no matter how much they appreciate the ministry of others in the congregation. If you are reluctant to abandon that personal touch or wish to retrieve it, I would encourage you in instincts that I earnestly believe to be right. Not everyone is a skilled pastoral counselor, nor should the pastor undertake the role of a psychologist offering long-term therapy, but almost everyone with any gift for ministry at all can learn to listen, if only they will, which, sometimes, is almost everything.

Loving pastors will neither feel the need to beat people up from the pulpit, as if being punitive were the measure of faithfulness, nor will they be squeamish about the hard word that is sometimes called for. Genuine love, after all, is not a squishy sort of indulgence or refusal to do or say anything that might cause someone even a moment’s displeasure, but a longing for the best for those one loves. In it all, the pastor who loves the people will seek to be an agent of God’s grace and mercy, genuinely wishing the people well but not confusing things going well with their being easy. In fact, to love people may often require being willing to say that given the choice between a route that requires courage and one that offers comfort, the one that requires courage has a certain moral presumption in its favor. The easy road should raise the most suspicions in a broken world like ours. A pastor I know once questioned the wisdom of a particular course of action on a difficult question that had been proposed at a denominational gathering on the grounds that the course of action was too easy—it required no courage. To his mind, that in itself put its merit in doubt. Similarly, I love the story of the rabbi who asked a parishioner how it was going, and when the man responded, “Well, OK, but it wouldn’t hurt if things were to go better,” the rabbi raised his formidable eyebrows and said, “What makes you think it wouldn’t hurt?” What makes you think it wouldn’t hurt if things were to go better? That may sound a little stern, but still, the loving thing is the true one—true not in a wooden and brutal sense, but true before God.

Now, these people whom we commit ourselves to love will surely disappoint us, even as God disappoints so many of our expectations. Sometimes they will disappoint us because they do not make the progress we think they ought; sometimes they will disappoint us because they do not offer us the appreciation we long for; sometimes their sorrows will break our hearts. And sometimes we will be ashamed as we find them far more faithful than we are ourselves. But there they are—the painfully mixed and highly particular lot that the Lord has given specifically to us, given into our care.

Love God, love your people—honestly, without looking away from the hard parts, without expecting doing it right to work according to this world’s standards. There is, after all, no very sound reason to suppose it will, for apart from the Resurrection, the gospel itself could look for all the world like a failure. So you will need others to stand with you, to tell you when you can no longer say it to yourself that the message is true—that the prayer and the Bible study and the reaching out to others are not for nothing. You will need others to listen to you, to pray for you, to care for you, to proclaim the gospel to you: do not suppose that you are supposed to do it all by yourself. But for your sanity and for the health of Christ’s church, steer away from the gimmicks and the quick fixes. Find those to support you who know, as you do, that the great cloud of witnesses of Hebrews 11 all died without having received what was promised. Why? Because God has provided something better (Heb. 11:39, 40).

What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor. 2:9, NRSV).

Truly to believe that is to be made wonderfully free to obey and trust the only One who, in the end, can make it all worthwhile no matter what and thus to be genuinely free to give ourselves to our people.

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Marguerite Shuster, Ph.D., is a professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, United States.

March 2008

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