Towards a Modest and Messy Manifesto for Pastors: a draft

In just over a week, the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership will be welcoming a new group of ministry interns. This is often nearly as exciting as it is sad to say goodbye to those ones who are completing their studies with us. In addition to writing some new lectures, I’ve also been thinking about putting together a wee list of items of counsel for new (and old) ministers to consider and discuss. Of course, such a list could be endless, or radically brief. But here are 54 little tidbits that I came up with/stole today:

  1. Remember your baptism. Creep back into the font regularly.
  2. ‘Let nothing be done by force; let everything be done in freedom and love’.[1]
  3. Do not neglect the gift of prayer. Pray especially when you don’t have time to pray, when prayer makes the least sense, and when God’s aliveness seems the least likely version of reality.
  4. Read Scripture devotionally. Immerse your mind, your heart, your wallet, your time and your conscience in Scripture. This means reading the Bible for your sake, and not merely in order to mine passages that can be ‘used’ for some purpose other than hearing the Word of God for yourself. To read devotionally also entails a commitment to letting Scripture read you.
  5. Read Scripture in a scholarly way. Commit yourself to the disciplined study of Scripture, preferably in the original languages. Pastoral ministry is about three things: Exegesis, exegesis and exegesis. ‘Plow [Scripture] like a farmer, furrow after furrow’ (Eduard Thurneysen).
  6. Read newspapers in a scholarly way. Commit yourself to disciplined study of the newspaper. Pastoral ministry is about three things: Exegesis, exegesis and exegesis.
  7. Immerse yourself in the thought and writings of 2–3 significant thinkers for the next 20 years or more. Let them teach you, pastor you, advise you in various pastoral situations. Argue with them heaps, and learn from them.
  8. Always have (at least) one serious theological book on the go. Something like Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov or St Basil’s treatise On the Holy Spirit are worthy options.
  9. Regularly read paragraphs from P.T. Forsyth’s Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind and The Soul of Prayer, from Karl Barth’s The Word of God and the Word of Man, from Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, and from Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.
  10. Always have (at least) one novel or collection of poetry on the go, and read from it daily. Not only will this increase your chances of avoiding insanity, but it will make you a better theologian, pastor and preacher. Like sore thumbs and monotonous crickets are those untrustworthy and boring souls who don’t read novels and/or poetry.[2]
  11. Whatever the situation, always begin by asking the ‘Who’ question; i.e., ‘Who is Jesus Christ today, here and now?’[3] There may well come a time when you feel that the ‘Why’ and ‘How’ questions matter too, but they can wait their proper turn.
  12. In every situation, recall that humanity has been given one Great High Priest and that such a person is not you. Christian ministry has no justification or power or acceptance except that it be a participation, by the Spirit, in the vicarious humanity of the Son who, as the second (or last) Adam, leads creation and its priests into the worship and joy of the Father and into the service of the Father’s world.[4]
  13. In every situation, remember that every believer – and not just those with dog-collars (or their ‘secular’ equivalents) – receives from God all of the Great High Priest’s benefits and shares in what he is doing now.
  14. Every now and then, read 1 Peter 4 and, more than every now and then, 2 Corinthians.
  15. Learn to trust the people close to you.
  16. Learn to be suspicious of the people close to you.
  17. ‘Many people will want to give you advice. Mostly this says more about them than about you’ (Mary-Jane Konings).
  18. Hang out regularly – and informally – with a more seasoned minister. When you meet, beer and pizza should be the only additional default items.
  19. Hang out regularly – and informally – with peers. When you meet, beer and pizza – or beer and good Indian food – should be the only additional default items.
  20. Hang out regularly – and informally – with those you can mentor. When you meet, beer and pizza – or just beer – should be the only additional default item(s).
  21. Keep a whiteboard marker in the shower for those moments of inspiration.
  22. Despise and avoid romantic visions of Christian community. So Bonhoeffer: ‘God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own laws, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself. Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by his call, by his forgiveness, and his promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what he does give us daily. And is not what has been given us enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of his grace? Is the divine gift of Christian fellowship anything less than this, any day, even the most difficult and distressing day? Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Christ Jesus? Thus, the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by the one Word and Deed which really binds us together – the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship’.[5]
  23. Give thanks often and don’t complain about your church, not even to God: ‘If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ. This applies in a special way to the complaints often heard from pastors and zealous members about their congregations. A pastor should not complain about his congregations, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men. When a person becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him into this predicament. But if not, let him nevertheless guard against ever becoming an accuser of the congregation before God. Let him rather accuse himself for his unbelief. Let him pray to God for understanding of his own failure and his particular sin, and pray that he may not wrong his brethren. Let him, in the consciousness of his own guilt, make intercession for his brethren. Let him do what he is committed to do, and thank God … What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God. Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature’.[6]
  24. ‘Your church is not a reflection of you. It’s success doesn’t make you great; it’s failures don’t make you one. It’s really not about you’ (Carolyn Francis).
  25. Retain a private phone number, and that if for no other reason than that your partner and kids will be grateful.
  26. Remember that God has been calling people do to this impossible stuff for long before you came on the scene, and that you’re dreadfully unlikely to be the last.
  27. Don’t seek honour and don’t give a toss about who is the greatest (see Luke 9.46). As Bonhoeffer put it, ‘The desire for one’s own honor hinders faith. One who seeks his own honor is no longer seeking God and his neighbour … Every cult of personality that emphasizes the distinguished qualities, virtues, and talents of another person … is worldly and has no place in the Christian community; indeed, it poisons the Christian community … The Church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus … The root of all sin is pride’.[7] Or, as Jesus put it, ‘change and become like little children’ (Matt 18.3).
  28. Fish, or garden, or tramp, or climb trees, or keep bees, or just do something that reminds you that you and this earth belong together, that you are made of dust, and to dust you will return. There is, we are reminded, ‘no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman’.[8]
  29. Learn a musical instrument, or paint, or cook. Human vocation involves undoing the curse of tastelessness and boringness that exists within creation, of adding value to creation itself, and of bearing witness to the wonderful truth that in the end all is music.
  30. Avoid ecclesiocentricity. The end game, after all, is not the church but the new creation. Consequently, those whose entire identity is wrapped up in churchly matters are not only living a lie but are failing to bear witness to the true nature of reality.
  31. Avoid ecclesioisolation: ‘Let him [or her] who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him [or her] who is not in community beware of being alone’.[9]
  32. Cultivate the gifts of friendship. This is a biggie, and its neglect is the cause of much pain in the minister, of much scandal in the church, and of much lying in the world.
  33. Start to seriously worry if you never change your mind about important things.
  34. Anticipate being surprised about God’s location and shape: ‘I can never know beforehand how God’s image should appear in others’.[10]
  35. While we’re speaking of anticipations, if you anticipate wanting something changed at the manse, or in the proposed ‘job description’ (Is there anything more ugly or category-confusing for a minister to have to contend with than one of these awfully-heretical documents?), agree on it early and be done with it.
  36. Because there is an inevitable unfinishedness about the routines of ministry, many ministers find it helpful to ‘pursue a hobby where you can complete projects regularly’ (Mary-Jane Konings).
  37. Minister out of your love life with God. Better still, minister out of God’s love life with you.
  38. Love the people that God has entrusted to your care. Live in solidarity with them, rejoice with them, cry with them and, if called upon, die for them. This includes your own family.
  39. For those with partners, never underestimate the gift that your partner’s eyes (and those of your kids too) are for noticing things within and outwith you that you need to know.
  40. At home, keep a strong-handled basket somewhere handy into which you can throw things during the week that you need to take to church on Sunday, and bring home things (like books that you’ll never read but someone thinks you should) that others give you. When at church, keep this basket on the front pew and make it known that this is what it is for.
  41. Develop ways of learning to speak the local lingo. ‘Laity sometimes complain that their young pastor, in sermons, uses “religious” words like “spiritual practice,” “liberation,” “empowerment,” “intentional community” … that no one understands and no one recalls having heard in Scripture. Such “preacher talk” makes the pastor seem detached, alien, and aloof from the people and hinders leadership’. (William Willimon)
  42. ‘At the same time, prepare yourself to become a teacher of the church’s peculiar speech to a people who may have forgotten how to use it. This may seem contrary to [the previous] suggestion. My friend, Stanley Hauerwas, says that the best preparation for being a pastor today is previously to have taught high school French. The skills required to drill French verbs into the heads of adolescents are the skills that pastors need to teach our people how to speak the gospel. Trouble is, most seminarians are more skilled, upon graduation from school, to be able to describe the world anthropologically than theologically. They have learned to use the language of Marxist analysis or feminist criticism better than the language of Zion. We must be persons who lovingly cultivate and actively use the church’s peculiar speech’. (William Willimon)
  43. ‘Keep telling yourself that the difference in thought between the laity in your first parish and that of your friends back in seminary is not so much the difference between ignorance and intelligence; it’s just different ways of thinking that arise out of life in different worlds. I recommend reading novels (Flannery O’Connor saved me in my first parish by writing true stories that sounded like they were written by one of my parishioners) in order to appreciate the thought and the speech of people who, while having never been initiated into the narrow confines of the world of theological education, are thinking deeply’. (William Willimon)
  44. ‘Remind yourself that while the seminary has an important role to play in the life of the church, it is the seminary that must be accountable to the church, not vice versa. It is my prejudice that, if you have difficulty making the transition from seminary to parish it is probably a criticism of the seminary. The Christian faith is to be studied and critically examined only for the purpose of its embodiment. Christians are those who are to become that which we profess. The purpose of theological discernment is not to devise something that is interesting to say to the modern world but rather to rock the modern world with the church’s demonstration that Jesus Christ is Lord and all other little lordlets are not’. (William Willimon)
  45. ‘Be open to the possibility that the matters that were focused upon in the course of the seminary curriculum, the questions raised and the arguments engaged, might be a distraction from the true, historic mission and purpose of the church and its ministry’. (William Willimon)
  46. ‘On the other hand, be open to the possibility that the church has a tendency to bed down with mediocrity, to accept the mere status quo as the norm, and to let itself off the theological hook too easily. One reason why the church needs theology explored and taught in its seminaries is that theology (at its best) keeps making Christian discipleship as hard as it ought to be. Theology keeps guard over the church’s peculiar speech and the church’s distinctive mission. Something there is within any accommodated, compromised church (and aren’t they all, in one way or another?) that needs to reassure itself, “All that academic, intellectual, theological stuff is bunk and is irrelevant to the way the church really is.” The way the church “really is” is faithless, mistaken, cowardly, and compromised. It’s sad that it is up to seminaries to offer some of the most trenchant and interesting critiques of the church. Criticism of the church ought to be part of the ongoing mission of a faithful church that takes Jesus more seriously and itself a little less so’. (William Willimon)
  47. ‘Your life would be infinitely easier and less complicated if God had called you to be an accountant or a seminary professor. Most of the stuff that you read in seminary will only prepare you really to grow and to develop after you leave seminary. Think of your tough transition into the parish as the beginning, not the end, of your adventure into real growth as a minister. Theology tends to be wasted on the young. It’s only when you run into a complete dead end in the parish, when you are aging and tired and fed up with the people of God (and maybe even God too) that you need to know where to go to have a good conversation with some saint in order to make it through the night. Believe it or not, it’s much easier to begin in the ministry, even considering the tough transition between seminary and the parish, than it is to continue in ministry. A winning smile, a pleasing personality, a winsome way with people, none of these are enough to keep you working with Jesus, preaching the Word, nurturing the flock, looking for the lost. Only God can do that and a major way God does that is through the prayerful, intense reading, study and reflection that you can only begin in three or four years of seminary’. (William Willimon)
  48. ‘Try not to listen to your parishioners when they attempt to use you to weasel out of the claims of Christ. Much of the criticism that you will receive, many of their negative comments about your work, are just their attempt to excuse themselves from discipleship. “When you are older, you will understand,” they told me as a young pastor. “You have still got all that theological stuff in you from seminary. Eventually, you’ll learn,” said older, cynical pastors … God has called you to preach and to live the gospel before them and they will use any means to avoid it. Be suspicious when people encourage you to see the transition from seminary to the parish as mainly a time finally to settle in and make peace with the “real world.” Jesus Christ is our definition of what’s real and there is much that passes for “the way things are” in the average church that makes Jesus want to grab a whip in hand and clean house’. (William Willimon)
  49. ‘The next few years could be among the most important in your ministry, including the years that you spent in seminary, because they are the years in which you will form your habits that will make your ministry. That’s one reason why I think the Lutherans are wise to require an internship year in a parish, before seminary graduation, for their pastors and why I think that a great way to begin is to begin your ministry as someone’s associate in a team ministry in a larger church. In a small, rural church, alone, with total responsibility in your shoulders, in the weekly treadmill of sermons and pastoral care, if you are not careful there is too little time to read and reflect, too little time to prepare your first sermons, so you develop bad habits of flying by the seat of your pants, taking short cuts, and borrowing from others what ought to be developed in the workshop of your own soul. Ministry has a way of coming at you, of jerking you around from here to there, so you need to take charge of your time, prioritize your work, and be sure that you don’t neglect the absolute essentials while you are doing the merely important. If you don’t define your ministry on the basis of your theological commitments, the parish has a way of defining your ministry on the basis of their selfish preoccupations and that is why so many clergy are so harried and tired today. Mind your habits’. (William Willimon)
  50. Speaking of habits, remember that ‘The pulpit is the real arena of the Kingdom of God’ (Karl Barth). In the busy demands that attend parish life, order your priorities accordingly.
  51. Woe to that minister who sub-contracts their pastoral care responsibilities to others and in so doing divorces the cure of souls from the ministry of the Word.
  52. Always strive to represent the local church to the church catholic, and the church catholic to the local church.
  53. Prepare three envelopes:

‘In a certain city there lived a young pastor who was starting her first day at her first solo pastorate. She had met the staff, put all her books on the shelves, and was arranging her desk when a curious thing happened. She opened the desk drawer, and there were three sealed envelopes, numbered one, two, and three, encircled with a rubber band, and with a note attached.

She eagerly unfolded the note, and this is what it said: “Dear Successor. Welcome to the Old Church on the Green. When I arrived here many years ago I found three envelopes in my desk as you just have. They were from my predecessor and his note told me to open each of them in turn whenever I found myself in difficulty in the parish. This was very helpful to me, so I am providing you with three numbered envelopes to open when you need them. Blessings on your ministry. Your Predecessor.”

She didn’t know what to make of this, but soon forgot about the envelopes amidst the whirlwind of starting a new ministry, meeting new people, putting names with faces, in the general excitement and anxiety of the first months. And truth to tell, she had a joyful honeymoon period where she learned to love the congregation and they learned to love her, and everybody was very happy and content.

But in the fullness of time some discontents could be discerned among the faithful. Well-meaning advisors came to her to tell her things they had heard, not that they felt that way, but others did. None of the complaints were major, but they ate at her morale. Some said she had annoying mannerisms in the pulpit, that she was never in the office, that she didn’t do enough pastoral visitation, that she had been seen coming out of a yoga class during the daytime when honest hard-working people are at their jobs.

All these things got her down, and one day she spotted the forgotten envelopes in her desk drawer. She wondered if she should open the first one, and after some struggling and prayer about it, she did so. Inside was a single sheet of paper and on it were the words: “Blame your predecessor.”

She had once taken interim ministry training so she knew how to do this and immediately put the strategy into play. She told her boards and committee that congregations were really dysfunctional family systems and the dysfunction was caused by the former pastor. They all nodded their heads and agreed to be healthier, and they forgot all about their complaints against her, since it is always easier to judge someone that isn’t around. And once again everybody was happy and content.

There came a time, however, when new discontents emerged. The economy went South, pledges were down, fuel cost were up, the endowment which many worshipped had taken a hit, new members were slow to arrive to help pay the bills. She was no longer the new pastor, and there were hints and rumors that a different kind of a leader might fix the problems. She didn’t know what to do. She tried everything she could think of. She went to a centering prayer workshop, she got a Day-Timer, and she attended the Alban Institute conference called “When your Job Sucks.” But none of it seemed to help, so one day, after much struggle and prayer, she opened the second envelope. Once again it was a single sheet of paper and on it were the words: “Reorganize.”

So she convinced her board to create a long-term planning committee, write a new mission statement, and re-write the by-laws. And everybody got very busy, and worked hard together, and there wasn’t enough energy left to complain, and the church thrived for many seasons, and everybody in the congregation felt proud of themselves for having such a well-organized church and such a clever pastor. And, once again, everybody was happy and content.

By this time our pastor was frankly getting a little bored, and not a little burned-out, and wondered just how long she could put out the energy it was taking to keep such a well-organized church going. And her soul was disquited within her.

Once again she tried everything she could think of. She joined a pastor’s support group, she went on a Conference Committee on pastoral excellence, she bought herself a smart-phone and started a blog. But none of it seemed to help, so finally one day in desperation she went to her desk drawer and she opened the third envelope. Once again inside was a single sheet of paper and on it were the words: “Prepare three envelopes.”’[11]

54.  Remember your baptism.

Suggestions will be gratefully received.

To be continued …


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (trans. John W. Doberstein; New York: Harper and Row, 1954), 66.

[2] See Michael Jinkins, Letters to New Pastors (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), 49–55.

[3] See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christology (trans. John Bowden; London: Collins, 1966), 58ff.

[4] See Jason A. Goroncy, ‘”Tha mi a’ toirt fainear dur gearan”: J. McLeod Campbell and P.T. Forsyth on the Extent of Christ’s Vicarious Ministry’ in Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (ed. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow; Princeton Theological Monograph Series. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 253–86.

[5] Bonhoeffer, Life Together 27–29.

[6] Ibid. 29–30.

[7] Ibid. 95, 108, 109, 113.

[8] Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It.

[9] Bonhoeffer, Life Together 78.

[10] Ibid. 93.

19 thoughts on “Towards a Modest and Messy Manifesto for Pastors: a draft

  1. So many people with so much advice. Do they really know what they are talking about? Most of it appears sensible to me but there’s one I’d like to argue about when I have time to gather my thoughts, mainly because I think it’s one-sided rhetoric.

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  2. I guess I’m struggling again with Saint Dietrich’s oft quoted visionary dreamer passage… I want to analyse the rhetoric into its constitutive concerns. Who among us in any Christian community is not dissatisfied with that community and with themselves to boot? And how can anyone take Ecclesiology seriously without having some vision of the kind of community and the form of community that Christ creates? Is the effect of his rhetoric to create a bias for the sociological status quo?

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  3. I think anyone who can give 53 things for Pastors to do/be as a modest manifesto has probably never Pastored, at least for long, and perhaps shouldn’t be teaching those who will be.

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  4. A very comprehensive list!

    If I may be so bold as to add:
    55. Please try to read Paul Kelly’s essay on Frank Sinatra titled “In the Wee Small Hours” (based on Kelly’s favourite Sinatra LP). This way pastors will know that Frank didn’t only sing “My Way”.

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  5. Really an admirable list! So much good stuff. I think it takes family for granted (though I don’t really think *you* do!), #s 25, 38, and 39 notwithstanding.

    In the spirit of strong, manifesto-language: Your family depends on your care more every day than anyone else in your care ever will.

    And/or: Your family needs to know that “dying for them” includes your willingness to walk away from your other pastoral responsibilities in favor of their well-being if/when you are confronted with that choice.

    Thanks for a great read, Jason.

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  6. “We are only the lightbulbs (Richard), and our job is just to remain screwed in” (Desmond Tutu’s comment to Richard Rohr).
    Works for pastors too!

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  7. Thanks for this list. It is helpful.

    Might I suggest two more?

    1. “Consider your wife and children (if you have them) to be the most important people on the planet.”

    2. “Make time to visit and show love to the people in your community who can give you and your church nothing in return.”

    Blessings,

    Jon Bonomo

    (pastor, Faith Community Presbyteriam Church, La Porte, IN)

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  8. The theological justification would be St. Paul’s call for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church. That is the calling of a pastor husband as much as it is for any other Christians husband. But, as a pastor, there are so many pulls for one’s time that it is fairly easy to neglect that duty. It is easy for pastors to begin to care more about their congregations than their own families. The results of this will almost always be disastrous in the end, for the pastor, the family, and the congregation.

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