I want to write about something this month that no one wants to talk openly about (people talk to me privately, as you will see later). I know some of my readers will want to de-frock me, string me up, and pour hot tar mixed with feathers all over me, but I got to call ‘em as I sees ‘em. So here goes.
I’m convinced that many Christian leaders (clergy and lay) have been duped into following the wrong call and are wasting their lives and the lives of those under their influence. Give me time to explain before you start heating up the tar and ripping up the feather pillows.
I surrendered to a call to preach when I was sixteen and a half. It was an unbelievably gutwrenching experience that turned my life on its ear. The call was real, but the direction in which I was sent was anything but valid. You have to realize that in the 1950s, when people received a call to preach, it mostly meant that God had chosen them to become a pastor of a church. There was little if any understanding of the possible role of apostle as in the New Testament. So I went to seminary and prepared to be the pastor of a church. Little did I know that all of the advice I was getting was prostituting my call.
I never really felt comfortable in the role of pastor. The role was too confining, too parochial, too settled for me. I think I fulfilled the role well, but I often chafed at what people expected of me. Many times I longed to do something else. It wasn’t until arriving at my fifties that it became clear to me that God wasn’t calling me to pastor a church. God had called me to assist other pastors in achieving their best in their ministry. In other words, God had called me to be a modern form of an apostle.
Okay, I know. Some of you just winced at my use of the word apostle in reference to myself. Somehow you have been convinced that the role of apostle ended with Jesus, or rather with Paul. However, my experience with Christ is just as real and just as apostolic as Paul’s experience. No, if Paul can claim the role of apostle, then people can make that same claim today.
So about twelve years ago I began to explore the role of apostle and found where I should have been all along. I suspect this is true for some others as well. Let me continue explaining.
Until recently, ministry was mostly relegated to the paid clergy. When I was young, most if not all serious calls sent one to seminary to some form of full-time Christian service. Very few understood that lay people could be called to serious ministry in their local church.
I remember saying, “I surrendered to the ministry.” For most of the last fifty years, we have had the understanding that real ministry belongs to the clergy. We call on them to pray. We expect them to have higher standards than the laity. We use them as spiritual hired guns to carry out the ministry of the church. When people receive a call to ministry, others just naturally assume that God has called them into ordained ministry. Not until recently have established congregations begun to understand and practice the belief that all Christians receive a call from God to ministry. This means that there isn’t such a thing as the ministry. There are ministries galore, open to all Christians. One doesn’t have to go into ordained ministry to be in ministry.
If this is an accurate view of what has transpired over the past decades, then probably a lot of ordained clergy, like me, were never called to be pastors of congregations. Some were called to be apostles and others to ministries such as being chaplains and counselors, but not to be pastors of congregations. The role of a pastor, according to the Scriptures, is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. Ephesians 4:11 clearly says that God gave gifts “. . . that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry. . . .” The role of pastors is not to take care of people, but to equip the saints for the work of ministry.
Now I can hear someone say, “But Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep.’” Yes, he did, but you need to consider what a shepherd did in those days. The shepherd didn’t really feed the sheep. The shepherd got the sheep to a pasture in which they could graze. The shepherd provided an environment in which the sheep could grow, thrive, and produce wool. Get the picture? The primary goal wasn’t the care and feeding of the sheep but what the sheep would produce. Jesus addressed this producing issue in many of his parables. Most of today’s pastors don’t equip; like chaplains or counselors, they counsel or take care of people.
A couple of years ago I was leading a small group of pastors in developing leadership skills. I had just finished a whole day of work on the role of the pastor, giving special attention to the role of equipping laity to do the work of ministry rather than the pastor doing most of it, such as going to the hospital, visiting shut-ins, and attending meetings. When I finished, a middle-aged man on my right said to me, “If I did what you are recommending, there would be no need for me to be a pastor. I entered the ministry because it felt good for people to need me. If I did what you advocate, they wouldn’t need me anymore. Then where would I be?” This man had not been called by God to perform the role of pastor as described in Ephesians 4:11-12. This man was called to be a chaplain in a hospice environment. A worthy call, but not a call to pastor a church (my mother’s in a hospice and I wish she had this man around to minister to her). This poor guy had spent his whole life thinking he was following God’s call, when all he had achieved his entire ministry was to keep congregations dependent on him so that he would feel good about himself and find some validation for his life.
Not long ago I had just finished speaking to a large group of people on the subject of the leader’s role in today’s world. Of course, when it came to pastors, I stressed that their only biblical role is that of an equipper. I was putting away my computer and projector when a man approached me. He had tears in his eyes and was visibly shaken. I asked him if I could help him. He replied, “I’m one of those you talked about. I’ve been to seminary, pastored churches now for twenty years, and I’m just now discovering that I wasn’t called to pastor a church. I shouldn’t have gone to seminary. I should have followed my heart and been a veterinarian and used my gift of evangelism as a layperson, but that wasn’t acceptable back then. Now, I’m too old to go back to school and I’m not trained to be anything but a theologian, and not a very good one of those. I could have won many more people as a layperson!”
Thousands of pastors are trapped like this forty-five-year-old man: not called to pastor and not trained to do anything else. So I asked him what he was going to do about it. “I have no choice. I have a family to feed and a child just beginning college. I can’t quit. There’s nothing I can do to make that much money.” Pain etched the lines in his face. I felt for him, but I felt much more deeply for the churches he had ruined, and would in the future, by not being an authentic pastor.
She came up to me after one of my sessions on leadership. I could see I was going to get it, and I did. “I suppose you don’t think I’m called to ordained ministry,” she quipped. I replied, “Tell me why you are in ordained ministry and I’ll try to respond.” Turned out she was one of those women in the 1970s who became ordained because she felt called to beat the drum of feminism. Now don’t get me wrong. I have championed her cause many times in my life, along with Cesar Chavez’s grape-and-leaf campaign, Martin Luther King and civil rights, Saul Alinsky and his confrontation movement. But none of those are the reason to become ordained to pastor a congregation. They may be part of one’s ministry as they were mine, but they can never be the sole reason for being ordained and pastoring a congregation.
So I told her, “No, God didn’t call you to pastor a church; God called you to champion a cause.
There’s quite a difference.” A lot of fur flew that afternoon . . . none of it usable when the dust settled.
It’s Time the Cow Ate the Cabbage
It’s time some of us got honest with ourselves and our God. Either we are wrong or the Bible is mistaken. Most of our churches are led by the wrong people or else we would not have gotten into the mess we are in today. It’s time that the clergy—those whose primary call is to counsel or chaplain—own up to the fact that they were not called to pastor a church. Then they can get out of the pastoral ministry.
Now take it from me. When you own up to it and take action, a burden is lifted. There’s nothing like being where God wants you to be. The day I left the local church as pastor, I found my place in God’s world. I’ve never been happier or more productive. What a shame it took more than forty years of service to discover it. I don’t want that to continue happening to others.
What can be done about this mess? For one thing, I’m convinced that some of the pastors who are not functioning as pastors, because they are taking care of the saints instead of equipping the saints, do so because laity have been convinced that is their pastors’ job and are forcing them to play “pastor fetch” and private counselor. I want to give you permission to say, “Enough is enough.”
There’s still time to get retooled. All you have to do is want to bad enough. If you get retooled and your congregation kicks you out, then don’t fret. If God called you to be a pastor, there will be another church waiting for you. You need to remember that there are far more churches now than there are ordained clergy.
Second, many churches and organizations need chaplains and counselors. Begin to look around. See what doors might open for you.
Third, denominational leaders can begin screening candidates for ordination based on Ephesians and their ability to equip rather than their theological stance or willingness to roll over and play pastor fetch. Most of the screening I see has nothing to do with the authentic role of pastor. Much of it focuses on screening out people with possible emotional imbalances or insuring that the candidate has a doctrinal stance in line with the denomination. Unfortunately, the doctrine does not include equipping the saints. A few areas or segments of some denominations are beginning to include items like leadership and mentoring in their screening, but that list is very small.
Another option that I don’t expect to see much movement on in established denominations is to emphasize “demonstrated credentialing.” By this I mean that the only route to being ordained into a denomination is by first demonstrating an ability to lead, mentor, and equip. The Puerto Rican United Methodist Church has actually done this. One must demonstrate several years of effective leadership in a congregation before being ordained there.
A final option is way “out of the box,” but I think it will take hold in the 21st century: either the elimination of the ordination of clergy or practicing ordination for all Christians who demonstrate an ability to live out their spiritual gifts on behalf of the Body of Christ. In the best of all worlds, the Church would in effect eliminate the clergy/laity demarcation line. I think God would smile.
All Christians receive a call from God to ministry.
There isn’t such a thing as the ministry. There are ministries galore, open to all Christians.