What is a pastor?

September 12, 2011

I just got my copy of Tim Chester and Steve Timmis’s Total Church (IVP UK 2007). I know a couple of people who have read and liked the book. Not too long ago I read Tim Chester’s book on pornography, Closing the Window (IVP USA 2010). Parts of the book were excellent so I thought that I’d check out more of what Chester has to say on things theological.

I haven’t had the chance to read the book (since it came yesterday). I have, however, flipped through it and read parts of it that arrested my attention.

Here’s a paragraph that chilled my blood:

I was talking with a prominent evangelical church leader and asked him why more people were not open to a household model of church or to community groups meeting in homes. The church leader was candid in his reply: ‘Because people like me come from professional backgrounds and we want churches that reflect our backgrounds. I don’t want to be opening my home to people. I don’t want to get involved in people’s lives. I don’t want needy people in my church. Before people like me went into Christian ministry, we were lawyers, doctors, businessmen. And when we get involved in ministry we bring those values with us. We want to lead growing churches with professional people, church administrators, healthy budgets. We want to be a well-run church organization with polished presentations’ (Total Church, 66).

There’s little ambiguity in this statement. In fact, it takes a pretty significant amount of hubris (at least from where I stand) to say that, don’t you think?  The statement highlights an inherent tension for those of us in ministry. We occupy a sort of vocational “third space” between the professions and other work, say the trades.*

The way we think about what it means to be pastor is culturally-affected. It seems to me that there is a twin danger for pastors at present. On the one hand, thinking of ourselves as simply another profession diminishes the truly radical nature of the work we’re called to do. Our work is deeply relational–it has porous boundaries, spilling into every part of our day. Pastor is not a nine to five job, it’s more of a life than a profession.

On the other hand, we have a duty to carry out our work in a way that conforms to a standard external to us. For the pastor this ultimate standard is that of Scripture and the subordinate standard of our Confessions and Constitution. We are examined before we are ordained and we’re examined periodically throughout our ministry as we move from call to call. This, of course, doesn’t necessarily make us professionals–it is, however, profession-like. The ultimate purpose of this examination (at least in my mind) is not simply that we possess a knowledge base sufficient to carry out the work in a technical sense, but that we have a living faith in Jesus Christ that is shaped by the Scriptures in conformity with the Reformed faith.

I have more thinking to do on this subject. I’d like to hear your thoughts.

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*You get a sense of this when you read Phillips Brooks’s 1886 address to Harvard College on “The Ministry as a Profession.” He argues, at least according to the New York Times account, that the ministry is not a profession since it “consists of certain men who are appointed to do what is the duty of all humanity to do.”