On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part VII

In his book, Called to Be Human: Letters to My Children on Living a Christian Life, Michael Jinkins tells of a letter that he received from a young minister. [BTW: I highly recommend Jinkins’ wonderful wee book, Letters to New Pastors]. This young minister recalls how he loves being a pastor, but is struggling to find his way through a long and bitter church conflict. Meanwhile, a variety of routine pastoral crises keep nipping like Chihuahuas at his heels. And, in the midst of all of this, he and his young wife are coping with the wondrous and life-changing event of the arrival of their first baby. The letter went on to highlight that his life had become so off kilter that he had almost completely lost the joy he knew when he entered the ministry. Jinkins’ response was to recall that ‘learning to live a balanced life is never easy, and even joyful events can sometimes contribute to life’s crises. But finding balance in the life of ministry – and this includes the preparation for ministry – is one of the greatest challenges of this vocation’. Jinkins cites Calvin’s view that ultimately it is our calling that sustains us in ministry. ‘But sometimes it is hard to sort through the accumulation of life’s debris, the flotsam and jetsam that move with every new tide’.

Jinkins then turns to Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, impressed as he is with the wisdom, sensitivity and humanity evidenced in the Roman Stoic philosopher’s Epistulae morales ad Lucilium. Reflecting on Seneca’s Letters, Jinkins writes:

‘Too often, it seems to me, Christians fail to treasure the fact that we are human … Maybe the reason we lose our balance in the first place is related to the fact that we under-appreciate our humanity, that we as Christians forget that we are human. We treat our bodies with contempt. We ignore our limitations. We indulge in the self-destructive myth of our own indispensability. And we violate the sacred principle of Sabbath. Then we go to our physicians or our therapists or our pharmacists asking them to calm the symptoms of the illnesses we have induced, without any intention of dealing with the underlying causes’. (p. 119)

One of the things that Jinkins proceeds to reflect on concerns the deep relationship between friendship and a thoroughly-human life. And here he again cites Seneca:

‘There are certain people who tell any person they meet things that should only be confided to friends, unburdening themselves of whatever is on their minds into any ear they please. Others again are shy of confiding in their closest friends, and would not even let themselves, if they could help it, into the secrets they keep hidden deep down inside themselves. We should do neither. Trusting everyone is as much a fault as trusting no one … Similarly, people who never relax and people who are invariably in a relaxed state merit your disapproval – the former as much as the latter. For a delight in bustling about is not industry – it is only the restless energy of a hunted mind. And the state of mind that looks on all activity as tiresome is not true repose, but a spineless inertia’.

Jinkins appreciates Seneca’s warning us to be ‘attentive to the hidden compulsions that drive us’, and he recounts how the experience of CPE (which I wish was compulsory for all our interns in the PCANZ) was so helpful here. It was in CPE – where he experienced being peeled like an onion – that Jinkins learned that ‘the success of my theological education depended on the success of an even more basic human education, the education which Kierkegaard describes as the curriculum a person “goes through in order to catch up with himself.” Anyone, Kierkegaard writes, “who will not go through this course [of study] is not much helped by being born in the most enlightened age”’. Jinkins continues:

‘The compulsions that lead us to talk when we should be silent and to be silent when we should speak, the compulsions that drive us to inappropriate actions and inappropriate inaction can only be dealt with when we find the courage to name them. Iwas unable to find the courage to name these compulsions and to deal with them until I knew (really knew!) that there is nothing in the world that can separate us from the love of God. The balanced life is a life liberated (or at least on the road to being liberated) from the unseen, unexamined compulsions and hidden forces that toss and turn us. Seneca understood the dangers of those inner forces and compulsions, although we have a real advantage over him in that we know something about God’s grace that can liberate us from them. Seneca also understood the importance of friendship for living a balanced life. C.S. Lewis in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves called friendship “the greatest of worldly goods.” Lewis told his friend, “Certainly to me [friendship] is the chief happiness of life. If I had to give a piece of advice to a young [person] about a place to live, I think I should say, ‘sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends”’.

The calling to pastoral ministry can and often does separate us geographically – and sometimes in other ways too – from those we love. But we need friends. I remember Geoffrey Bingham once commenting that pastors are expected to be friends to all, but few have any friends of their own. Might it be that one of the main contributors to clergy burnout is a paucity of friends? Effective pastoral ministry is impossible apart from friendship precisely because human flourishing is impossible apart from friendship. Only non-human pastors can go it alone, those particularly uninterested in being associated with the imago dei in creation.

While doing some study recently on 2 Timothy, I was struck by the depth of affection in Paul (or the author) for Timothy, who he remembers ‘constantly in [his] prayers night and day’ (1.3). Recalling Timothy’s tears, Paul writes of longing to see Timothy in order to be ‘filled with joy’ (1.4). Paul is concerned that Timothy may be embarrassed by his current state in prison and invites Timothy to join with him in ‘suffering for the gospel’ (1.8). Paul also notes with pain the abandonment of those in Asia who turned away from him (naming Phygelus and Hermogenes), and with thanksgiving the ‘household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chain’, recalling that ‘when Onesiphorus arrived in Rome, he eagerly searched’ for Paul and found him (1.15–17). Throughout the letter, Paul proceeds to encourage Timothy to stay steadfast to the truth of the gospel, to ‘proclaim the message with persistence whether the time is favourable or unfavourable’ (4.2), and to resist the temptation to abandon the ministry of the word, reminding him that such a determination will come at cost, and that ‘all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (3.12). It strikes me that this is the tone of a true friend and fellow worker. The letter closes with Paul’s personal appeal to Timothy to ‘do your best to come to me soon’ (4.9), ‘do your best to come before winter’ (4.21), and not only come yourself but also bring Mark along as well (4.11). Moreover, ‘when you come’, Paul writes, ‘bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments’ (4.13). I repeat: Effective pastoral ministry is impossible apart from friendship (and possibly parchments!).

While reading 2 Timothy, I remembered Barth’s comments in the Preface to Church Dogmatics III/4 where he expresses gratitude for ‘so much understanding and confidence, comfort and encouragement, friendship and co-operation, from so many people … both near and in many distant places (even in Germany, with a fidelity which I find very moving) … [who] in writing, in print, by telegraph and over the air .. moved, shamed and delighted’ him (pp. xiii–xiv). And later on in the same volume, he writes of the real honour of friendship, the koinonia in the ministry entrusted by God, reminding us that friendship is a gift of our union in the one Mediator Jesus Christ:

‘It is in service that two men learn to know and respect one another, not by simply observing or thinking about one other, or even by living with one another, however great their concord or even friendship, in indolence or caprice, self-will or arrogance. So long as it depends on these factors, they can only underestimate or overestimate one another and miss the real honour which they both have, since each can only miss his own honour. Mere companions and comrades cannot appreciate either their own honour or that of the other. The honour of two men is disclosed and will be apparent to both when they meet each other in the knowledge that they are both claimed, not by and for something of their own and therefore incidental and non-essential, but for and by the service which God has laid upon them. This alone is the school of true self-estimation and mutual respect. But it really is this’. (CD III/4, 659)

But Barth also warns of the danger of making an idol out of friendship. Only in Christ is friendship free from the tyrannies of idolatry, and the consequent pain birthed when the idols topple, as is inevitable. In the anxieties that attend the condition called ‘being human’, Barth suggests, in CD IV/2, that such anxiety relates firstly to our ‘ignorance of God’, our ‘unwillingness to honour and love [God] as God’ (p. 475), to be, as he writes elsewhere, ‘friends of God’ (‘Our truth is our being in the Son of God, in whom we are not enemies but friends of God …’. CD II/2, 158; cf. CD II/2, 344, 745; CD III/3, 285–87; CD III/4, 40, 503, 576; CD IV/1, 251, 432). He continues:

‘In his anxious care man has secured and bolted himself against God from the very outset. He thinks that he can and should deal with God as if He were not God but a schema or shadow which he has projected on the wall. Is it not inevitable, then, that he should not have hearing ears or seeing eyes for His self-revelation? How can he believe in Him and love Him and hope in Him and pray to Him, however earnestly he may be told, or tell himself, that it is good and right to do this, and however sincerely he may wish to do so? In his care he blocks up what is for him too open access to the fountain which flows for him. Care makes a man stupid.

But when we turn to the horizontal plane care also destroys human fellowship. It does this in virtue of the unreality of its object. The ghost of the threat of a death without hope has no power to unite and gather. It is not for nothing that it is the product of the man who isolates himself from God. As such it necessarily isolates him from his fellow-men. It not only does not gather us but disperses and scatters us. It represents itself to each one in an individual character corresponding to the burrow from which he looks to the future and seeks to grasp its opportunities and ward off its dangers. Care does not unite us. It tears us apart with centrifugal force. We can and will make constant appeals to the solidarity of care, and constant attempts to organise anxious men, reducing their fears and desires to common denominators and co-ordinating their effects. But two or three or even millions of grains of sand, however tightly they may be momentarily compressed, can never make a rock. Anxious man is a mere grain of sand. Each individual has his own cares which others cannot share with him and which do not yield to any companionship or friendship or fellowship or union or brotherhood, however soundly established. By his very nature he is isolated and lonely at heart and therefore in all that he does or does not do. Even in society with others he secretly cherishes his own fears and desires. His decisive expectation from others is that they will help him against the threat under which he thinks he stands. And it is just the same with them too. Cares can never be organised and co-ordinated in such a way as to avoid mutual disappointment and distrust and final dissolution. And behind disappointment and distrust there lurks, ready to spring, the hostility and enmity and conflict of those who are anxious. It is a rare accident if different cares, although not really uniting, do at least run parallel and thus do not lead to strife. For the most part, however, they do not run parallel for long, but soon intersect. And, unfortunately, they do not do so in infinity, but in the very concrete encounters of those who are anxious. What is thought to be the greater anxiety of the one demands precedence over what is supposed to be the lesser anxiety of the other. The desires of the one can be fulfilled only at the expense of the desires of the other. Or the intersection is because they fear very different things, or – even worse – because the one desires what the other fears, or the one fears most of all what the other desires most of all. It is only a short step from a fatal neutrality to the even more fatal rivalry of different cares and those who are afflicted by them. If care itself remains – and it always does, constantly renewing itself from the source of the false opinion of human temporality – we find ourselves willy-nilly on this way in our mutual relationships, and we have no option but to tread it. There can be no genuine fellowship of man with man. There can only be friction and quarrelling and conflict and war. Care dissolves and destroys and atomises human society. In its shadow there can never arise a calm and stable and positive relationship to our fellow and neighbour and brother. It awakens the inhuman element within us’. (pp. 476–77)

So one is a friend when they have ‘the freedom, the ability, to be spontaneously good to another – a voluntary friend of God and therefore of [others]. As such [a person] does not do anything alien or accidental. [One] is not “friendly” amongst other things – casually – when [one] gives [themselves] to God and [to their brother or sister. One] does that which is most proper to him [or her. One] loves in doing it’ (CD IV/2, 833).

To return to Jinkins: Jinkins rightly notes that ‘friends keep us in balance. Friends keep us from taking ourselves too seriously. Often a friend’s laughter is a signpost pointing to our own absurdity, turning the light of grace on a fault so we can correct it. A friend may be the only person who loves you enough to read your sermon manuscript for the next week and tell you: “I know how you feel; but you shouldn’t say that in your sermon.” Or, “I agree with you and I’d be angry too; but don’t mail that letter.” Or, “I understand why you feel the way you do; but for God’s sake don’t do this.” On the high wire of life and Christian ministry, there are times when the net below us is unsure and the wire on which we balance has become frayed. Sometimes the only thing that we have to steady ourselves is a friend’s voice. The words may be spoken in reproof or in comfort. But if you know they are spoken in friendship, they may just save you from yourself’.

In a follow up letter to his son Jeremy, Jinkins again picks up on Seneca and the so-called ‘balanced life’, noting that ‘the life to which we are called in Jesus Christ is not necessarily a balanced life. The Christian life (and this extends to the life of Christian ministry) is, in a way, a profoundly unbalanced life. The Christian life is not simply the life of moderation described by Seneca the Stoic. The Christian life is a life of holy excess – not fanaticism, but excess nonetheless’. To illustrate, he cites from a diary that Reinhold Niebuhr kept as a young pastor (published as Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic) wherein Niebuhr wrote of himself:

‘I am not really a Christian … I am too cautious to be a Christian. I can justify my caution, but so can the other fellow who is more cautious than I am. The whole Christian adventure is frustrated continually not so much by malice as by cowardice and reasonableness … A reasonable person adjusts his moral goal somewhere between Christ and Aristotle, between an ethic of love and an ethic of moderation. I hope there is more of Christ than of Aristotle in my position. But I would not be too sure of it’.

And later in this same diary, Niebuhr says: ‘It is almost impossible to be sane and Christian at the same time, and on the whole I have been more sane than Christian. I have said what I believe, but in my creed the divine madness of a gospel of love is qualified by considerations of moderation which I have called Aristotelian, but which an unfriendly critic might call opportunistic’.

Most of us, I suspect, operate how Jinkins describes himself: as benefiting greatly from our reading of the Stoics, but preferring to dine with the Epicureans. Or what is probably more accurate is that we live in a tension between ‘the good life’ as defined by the ancient Greek philosophers and ‘the call of Jesus Christ’ to take up our cross and follow him. ‘There is indeed something of a “divine madness” about the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is an outlandish, outrageous, insane extravagance about God’s mercy that acts without reservation and without the expectation of getting anything in return. But it is precisely in this holy madness that God reveals his own humanity, and shares it with us’ (p. 125).

I plan to return to this question of friendships in a latter post. But for now, it’s time to re-read 2 Corinthians, … and Dostoevsky, … and MacKinnon …


Other posts in this series:


  1. Interesting post Jason… I have always struggled with the title CPE and it has to do with the question of professionalism. A clinic is a place where a professional provides services to a client. There is an inherent consumerism in the concept. How does the term ‘clinical’ relate to the term ‘pastoral’? In all the literature I never find these definitional questions answered. Is a clinic the context of the process or a descriptor of how the process works? If the latter, what does it mean? Scientific? Is a person being educated in being pastoral or clinical? Or clinical about being Pastoral? Or Pastoral about being Clinical? Are the flock also clientele? And how does the sociology implicit in clinic relate to friendship? And care? And Barth’s contrast between friendship and care?

    Could the insights learnt in the ‘clinical context’ (whatever that means) transfer to the context of friendship in the body of Christ?

    Regarding Geoffrey Bingham’s and your comments, I wonder how pastoral care relates to friendship? I have been told that the two should be separated (I hear the sociology of the clinic in the background here) such that those who offer pastoral care ought to see the relationship as structurally antagonistic to the mutuality of friendship. In other words this isolation of the clergy is not just a fact but a duty laid upon the clergy as ‘professional’ to limit friendship to outside their pastoral relations. From your and Geoffrey Binghams comments I suspect you want to challenge what I have been told. To what extent does this challenge the framework of CPE (for which you advocate)? I suspect what you are saying is significantly counter-cultural in our context. If this is to be the case we will need think about the reform of the flock (pastoral) as the sociological context of care rather than the clinicisation of ministry? This will be hard to hear in the so-called ‘real world’.

    Final comment: I wonder what German word Barth uses for care (Sorge or Pflege?). Sorge has more the connotation of anxiety. Pflege has more the connotation of practical action.


  2. I have heard the same thing Bruce. I think some polities actually lend themselves to exactly what you are saying on Friendship. I would be interested in how that has played out in your ministry because in my first year I am all ready beginning to feel the pull that if I am friends with this person I neglect my ability to pastor them. Although I don’t just think it is only a clinical background but the fact that friendship is such disarray in our society that we end where we are.
    Have you run into anything on this Jason?


  3. Hi Matt. Thanks for raising these questions. I look forward to reading Bruce’s reply. I’ll also post something on it soon. It’s an area that I’ve thought about over the years. It’s a tension, to be sure, but one not unique to pastors. In the meantime, you may be interested in checking out this recent post by Prince Raney Rivers.


Comments welcome here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.