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Confronting the Idolatry of Family: A New Vision for the Household of God by Janet Fishburn


Janet Fishburn is Professor of Teaching Ministry at Drew University Theological School in Madison, New Jersey. This book was published by Abingdon Press, Nashville (1991). This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Epilogue: The Servant Role of a Pastor


The letter to the Ephesians encourages a young church and its leaders to be strong in the Lord. This is a timeless message, even for churches that are not new or "young," as the first gatherings of Christians were "young." Every pastor and every congregation today can learn from the encouragement of the writer of the letter to seek unity in the Body of Christ, to grow up "to the measure of the full stature of Christ" (Eph. 4:13).

The vitality of the Christian tradition today depends on reclaiming the central affirmation of the church that Jesus Christ is Lord of all life. Otherwise, churches in the United States will only reflect the faithlessness of American culture epitomized in the attitudes and dreams of "the family pew." Otherwise, the churches of the Christian tradition will have nothing to say to religious seekers in a culture where people are free to believe anything they wish about God . . . and do.

In the earliest Christian churches, pastors and evangelists visited from church to church carrying news of the spiritual health of congregations. In times when the very existence of Christianity was unsure, this early ecumenical movement helped to keep the church alive. This was a way in which Christians could learn from and give support to one another, spiritually and financially.

Few pastors today can count on spiritual support from other pastors. The Consultation on Church Union falters as denominations plan mass evangelism campaigns to increase their membership. There is very little ecumenical cooperation in a time when denominations compete for members. Within almost every denomination, money is in short supply. Departments, programs, and executives vie against one another for financial support for their programs.

Intimacy with God is normal in a congregation where committed Christians together seek guidance for their lives through Scripture and prayer. Today, few pastors will serve a congregation where this is a way of life for members. Rather, most pastors will face the temptation to conform to the culture of the congregation, to be shaped by the local tradition rather than to lead that congregation in new directions. That is why every pastor needs a friend in faith who is an "outsider." A friend who shares the pastor’s dream for the congregation can provide the objectivity needed to guard against spiritual complacency or despair.

Every denomination has been influenced by the values of a success-oriented culture. Not many pastors will find support from their supervisors for a prophetic ministry that challenges the status-quo values of a congregation. The primary concern of most church judicatories is not the spiritual integrity of ministry. Pastors who are acknowledged and rewarded by their denominations are usually those whose success is measured by numbers of members and church budgets. This is what clergy talk about when they meet for judicatory meetings. As long as this is the pervasive ethos among pastors, there will be no spiritual friendships among them. These values mirror those of a success-oriented culture. Pastors see one another as competitors, not as friends in Christ.

In the cultural environment of the church today, there is very little appreciation for a Christian way of life. Fellowship, mutual ministry, and love of neighbor are not the values of a success ethos. This affects pastors as much, if not more, than members of their congregations. In a culture where the church has very little visibility as a social institution, there is not much social validation for the role of pastor. Where there is little cultural recognition, little or no support from peers, and minimal encouragement from supervisors, it is no wonder that so many pastors burn-out. Except for pastors validated by the appreciation of members in a congregation, people who respond to God’s call to ministry today find themselves living a very lonely life.

Pastors are not exempt from the temptations of the American Dream -- an idolatrous love of family, career success, and a high standard of living. The desire for success, defined by the size of a congregation, can blur the spiritual vision of a gifted pastor. Some fine pastors leave parish ministry in despair for lack of responsiveness among the people they serve. Others wonder if congregational ministry is their calling. Most do not realize that the battle for the hearts and minds of church members is being waged against the power of a civil religion that forms the life commitments of most church members. A life committed to Jesus as Lord of all life does not preclude loyalty to nation, family, and church. But it does mean a reorientation of the heart so that commitment to nation, family, and church are expressions of love of God.

Anyone who aspires to prophetic ministry in a congregation will need spiritual direction through friendship with some group or person who is not a member of the pastor’s family or congregation. Although a pastor is called to be a spiritual guide and prophetic leader of a congregation, pastors need to receive ministry and spiritual direction, like any other Christian. Most especially, pastors need spiritual direction and counseling concerning their family life. The conflicting demands of church and family for the attention of a pastor creates tensions that can work against good relationships with their own family members.

A pastor may not give regular attention to meditation and prayer because of other, more immediate obligations. Yet, in order to lead others into faithfulness, a pastor must have some regular source of nourishment and support. Those who are called to teach and preach the good news cannot give away a love that is not real to them. In order to sustain hopeful ministry in both family life and the congregation, every pastor needs loving companionship and guidance from some person or group who affirms the calling and the person of the pastor.

A pastor who is not aware of his or her own spiritual weakness and destructive self-images will not be an effective leader of a congregation. A pastor who challenges the idols of American culture is not likely to find many supportive like-minded people in a congregation. This kind of prophetic ministry is not for the weak or the timid, the hopeless or the despairing. It is for those with a strong sense that they must respond to God’s claim on their lives in this particular way -- whether they believe they qualify for hardship service or not.

The leadership style of a pastor is a clue to his or her ability to act out of inner convictions about the church and ministry. Congregations with no clear congregational identity have been led by pastors who do not have an explicit, clear focus in their ministry. The pastor who achieves objectives through the political influence of a clique of friends is always in danger of being compromised about the focus of ministry. A pastor can avoid conflict by controlling membership on the most powerful boards and committees. But it is dangerous to pack committees with friends and allies, especially when there are clear differences in a congregation about the nature and mission of the church. If the pastor befriends only like-minded members, this will cause conflict in the congregation. Like any family group, congregations suffer from jealousy, envy, and "sibling" rivalry.

Pastors who can give focus to the life of a congregation are people who feel compelled to carry out a ministry that they know will not always please members of the congregation. Over time they are able to lead people with divergent views toward a shared vision of their congregation. In most congregations, creating a common vision of the congregation will take from three to five years. That is why pastors cannot depend on friendships within the congregation for support in a servant ministry. There will be times when their best friends in the congregation will not and cannot agree with their leadership. Servant ministry demands a kind of spiritual integrity usually found in Christians who know what it means to wrestle with God with support from a trusted friend.

The pastor who can nourish the lost sheep in the church today will be a gentle spirit and an ardent lover. It requires patience, perseverance, and genuine goodness to offer new life to persons so that they can grow in their own way. Goodness means a spirit of sacrificial love that can see, appreciate, and elicit goodness in others. This attitude is essential to ministry that questions social conventions because it means that the pastor loves members of the congregation regardless of their present commitments. Pastors who love "their" people are able to see them as they really are and also as the more faithful people of God they might become. It means that the pastor is able to trust God enough to let the people learn the Christian life by living it.

A model of mutual ministry relies extensively on the ability of members of a congregation to minister to and to learn from one another. That is why the role of the pastor is described as that of an arranger or an overseer of spiritual growth groups. The personal presence of the pastor with each group should not be necessary if the pastor is giving adequate attention to equipping laity for their ministry. This assumes that the pastor is able to see the potential of growth in members and is also able to allow them to grow in their own way.

A pastor who feels compelled to attend every congregational event is acting like a parent who does not trust the children. Pastors who are comfortable with themselves and secure in their own leadership role do not need to personally control everything that happens in the life of a congregation. Pastors who are unusually effective leaders are good at training program leaders in a congregation. They are equally good at delegating authority to the many other people who carry out the agreed-upon programs of the congregation.

Of all the people in the contemporary church, pastors have the best access to the sources of God’s transforming grace. Yet, like other people, many pastors have been formed by spiritually deprived churches. They may not know themselves as persons beloved by God. They may not have personal experience of what other Christians mean when they talk about "friendship with God," or of "intimacy through mutual ministry in the church."

A pastor can be a skilled professional in ministry, a fine theologian, a knowledgeable Bible scholar, and a good church historian. A pastor may be much loved by a congregation, may be a good friend, or may be a good counselor. But where the desire to love God above all else is missing, gifts for ministry can be misused. A pastor may rise to denominational, national, or international prominence. However, the career of a pastor who spends a lifetime serving unknown congregations in unknown towns and that of a well-known church leader come to the same end if they do not find spiritual wholeness through serving God.

The peace, the joy, and the sheer delight of pastors who are faithful to their calling is not the product of a successful ministry as it is usually defined by denominational leaders anxious to perpetuate their own power and position. The peace that passes understanding is not peace as it is known to the world of ambition, greed, competition, and success. Theirs is the peace of Christians who can relax with faithful service, sustained by a sure sense of the presence of God in good times and bad.

Pastors who enjoy their ministry are those for whom ministry is a spiritual discipline. They are people compelled to proclaim the good news in Jesus Christ because they have learned to see God’s grace at work in their own lives. They are receptive to becoming ever new as persons through whom God’s love is communicated to others. They can give and receive God’s blessing as they lead a congregation into deeper fellowship with God.

Christians with an evangelical spirit, who are confidant of their calling and willing to take risks in leading a congregation into ministry are the kind of pastors who find members responsive to their leadership. Given positive sociological factors, they are pastors whose congregations do attract new members and growth; if their congregation is in a location where increased membership is not very likely, they do not have to feel they have failed. These pastors are not the victims of an ecclesiastical success ethos; they are not more interested in the quantity than the quality in their members.

Learning to lead church members so that they can grow up "into the body of Christ" may require letting go of the dream of pastoral success as it is commonly defined in the church today. It can require a prophetic stance within and over against denominational structures. Yet, the spiritually disciplined life of being a pastor has its own rewards. They are rewards not understood by the powers of the world. They are rewards not understood by pastors who have not experienced them.

There is no love quite like that of those who love and serve the Lord together. There is no commitment quite like that of Christians who are faithful to God and one another in the best of times and the worst of times. The joy of seeking new life together through the Spirit of Jesus is a delight given to those who sacrifice personal desire in order to seek the good of their neighbors. They are people who "know" the power and presence of Jesus among themselves. They are people who see the suffering Lord in the faces of all deprived and oppressed people. Such is the profound mystery of love when members of the Body of Christ reach out to God’s world and move into God’s future together.

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