Pastor Austin Rivera served as a TIM Associate Pastor at First United Methodist Church, Emporia, KS from 2012-2014. He is currently a Ph.D. student in the Ancient Christianity program of Yale’s Religious Studies Department.
When Ambrose of Milan set out to write on the virtues to be cultivated by a pastor, the first he hit upon was silence. Had he written a treatise on the difficulties of the pastoral office he could well have given silence pride of place there as well and named the chief hazard as speaking far too much, for if there is one thing a pastor is constantly being asked to do, it is speak. We must preach, we must pray, we must write articles for the newsletter and blurbs for the Facebook page and the website. Those of us in the process of ordination must fill volumes with theological and autobiographical statements (some of us are asked, or even of our own initiative endeavor, to write for blogs). We must speak to UMW circles and community groups, we must offer words of counsel to those in need of it and speak words of comfort to the sorrowful and distressed. We are drowned and awash or rather driven and carried on the lifting waves of the words we are compelled to speak.
The spiritual dangers of speaking so often are many. The first, of course, is that it disaccustoms us to listening, that pillar of the spiritual life commended first above all things by St. Benedict. I have found the ways I am called upon to speak one of the fundamental differences between being in seminary and being a pastor. As a student, anything you speak is spoken to clarify what you have heard both listening and reading, and all that is written is written after much rumination upon these things. But as a pastor speech is the priority and we listen to our people in order to speak to them more clearly and powerfully from the pulpit, in order to lift up more genuinely their lives and struggles and joys in prayer. Yet most of the time, because of the nature and diversity of a pastor’s work, this speech cannot be the product of rumination, but springs rather from the unreflective reflexes of the moment. The pastor is a speaking animal, and the work seems to demand that we neither listen freely to the speech of others nor pause before speaking ourselves. And yet without these things our speech can only ever be death for ourselves and others, never life.
The subtler danger, however, is that the words we speak are almost always our own. This does not mean they cannot also be God’s, but they are always our own, and that means each word we speak as a pastor is an invitation to pride. And indeed the very fact that our words are to represent the people to God in prayer and God to the people in preaching makes that temptation all the greater. Words that are our own, in the drama of the liturgy, become the words of Christ and of his body. And supposing we do not keep to the set prayers and acts of worship that we have received but contrive our own for the weekly bulletin, then the whole congregation is compelled literally to speak with our words in a call to worship or a prayer of confession, as if it were not already enough that the gathering of the people of God comes to a halt so that we may open our mouths for twenty or thirty minutes. And indeed, for most of our people (and indeed for many of us) these words of ours in the sermon are the high point of the service, the climax to which all builds—that such perversity does not destroy all our souls is a weighty miracle of the grace of God!
One can discern the rooting tendrils of this pride whenever pastors get together to talk about their sermons, or, really, get together to talk about anything. One hears it loud and clear as a young pastor asking for advice from anyone: the anecdotes come pouring forth, words themselves, of course, but very often also remembrances of a pastor’s glorious (or, occasionally, inglorious) words, in the hospital room, in the committee meeting, in the pulpit. It quickly becomes clear how deeply so many pastoral identities are tied up in their own words. This slow poison of a seemingly benign self-centeredness appears to me, at the outset of it all, to be one of the chief dangers of making the ministry of God’s Word your “career.”
For what is good for us is not to be defined by our words but by God’s words, for in this way we become children of God, just as the Only-Begotten has said of himself “I declare to the world what I have heard from my Father” and “whoever is from God hears the words of God;” “what I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me” (John 8:26, 47, 12:50). And yet despite this truth, at nearly every turn the shape and expectation of our ministry draws us away from the sonship of speaking only what the Father has given us and encourages us rather to form an identity of our own, tell a story of our lives, teach the people with our “personal theology,” the “gift we bring,” to remember what we have done and to dream what we might do. Certainly as one’s memory becomes more and more filled with remembrances of the work of ministry, the nature of human personality renders us ever more susceptible to such temptation. But our institutions and our culture as United Methodists have their part in encouraging, feeding, and fostering these weeds of the soul. In the process of ordination we are commanded to give an autobiographical statement and make our own lives, and not the economy of Jesus Christ, the place where our call and ministry occurs. We are chided, furthermore, if our articulations of doctrine rely too much on what we have received and are not “in our own words,” that is, words that are intentionally un-catholic and un-apostolic, but have rather the curious virtue of originating with someone the Church has not yet recognized by ordination as an authoritative teacher of her faith. As we attend seminars to sharpen our work in the pastoral labors we are encouraged to be “original” in our planning of worship and to “put ourselves” into our sermons, told to speak the language of the world, of “everyday experience,” instead of the divine and God-given language of Scripture’s extra-ordinary witness (in this way we deprive both ourselves and our people of any hope of fluency in the words of truth). It is no wonder then that men and women molded by such encouragements and expectations (they are really enticements and snares) find it difficult to move their people to accept the transformation of the Spirit, let alone transform the world.
As young pastors we must immure ourselves early against these sly and not-so-sly temptations, these pride-bearing habits, internal and institutional alike. We must be on guard as we are compelled constantly to speak, that we do not cut off our ears with an overzealous, overstimulated tongue. But more importantly, as we gather experience and are called on more and more to tell our own story again and again, more and more to speak as one in authority, we must take scrupulous and pitiless pruning care of our memory and imagination alike so that the more we speak (and are seen as “speakers”) the less the words may be our own, but God’s. We must from the start consciously work to form an identity not ossified into the shape of things we have done, counsel we have offered, ideas we have had, wisdom we have gained, dreams we may cherish, words of our own, but rather one freed to grow into the fullness of the one who receives all his words—and so all he is—from the Father. For pastors who have not something of the shape of Christ to themselves are worth nothing to the body entrusted to them, that body which is the “fullness of him who fills all in all,” that body which must “come to the unity of the faith and to the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 1:23, 4:13).