"On Pastoral Authority: It's a (Long) Process"

Transition into Ministry Program


Pastor Brenda Kostner is currently serving as a TIM associate pastor at Stillwell United Methodist Church, Stillwell, Kansas (2014-2016).

Whenever I consider the phrase pastoral authority, I flashback to my first year in seminary, to an early morning class called “Pastor and People”- a survey of pastoral roles and congregation dynamics. I had chosen that class as my practical class. Having just finished my undergraduate degree in history, I was ready to move out of history and theory and actually do ministry. This class proved to be a good choice as my schedule that year was filled by Christian History, Old and New Testament, Theology and the sort.
The class was mostly upperclassmen which was intimidating, and suddenly I realized that I was indeed in seminary because the professor wanted to open the class with a devotion and prayer- and he expected each of us to lead one week. As eager as I was to prove myself, I also felt increasingly unprepared. So many of the other students had been serving in churches, preaching, leading Bible studies and here I was fresh from public university in Kansas still just trying to figure out the train schedules in Chicago.
My turn came to give the devotion. I do not remember what passage it was, though it was from Paul’s writings. I was so nervous; I doubt I slept much the night before. I don’t remember much more than standing in front of the class reading through my devotion. Later the professor would say to me that I had very good thoughts but I needed to present them not apologetically but with confidence. I don’t remember if he used the phrase pastoral authority but that experience has always been linked to it for me. Where do I find confidence and pastoral voice?
I am now nearly six months into my first appointment as an associate pastor. While there are still days that I feel more like an intern than a pastor (the comments of ‘you will be a great pastor someday’ do not help), every day I am developing that confidence and pastoral identity. Truly, now more so than in seminary, does the issue of pastoral authority take on a new and even more pertinent role. Suddenly, I have moved beyond theory to praxis. So I spend time wondering how I can dress and style my hair so that I might look older (and not like a youth), cringe when I use the word ‘totally’ in a sermon (knowing that it makes me sound young) and hope that more often than not I convey confidence and not the “oh my, I’ve never done this before!” panic that is happening in my head.
However, over these first few months, there are moments which reflecting back on, I know I walked away from with a greater sense of confirmation that I am in the right space and God has indeed gifted me for this great work of a pastor. I wish to recount some of those moments to you.
Back in October, I experienced my first hospital call. Awake at 4:30am, I made it downtown to the hospital by a little after 6 in the morning. As I walked toward the family in the waiting room, the look on the face of the wife said it all. I was unprepared for the very visceral reaction of comfort that my presence brought to her face. Then as we stood in the preparation room and took a moment to pray for the individual before he was taken away to the operating room, I felt so privileged to be the one praying to God for God’s hand to be with those in the operating room and God’s presence to be with those waiting. It was a holy and humbling moment.
This may seem strange, but one of my favorite parts of the worship service is being able to give the benediction. As an associate, I get that privilege on the Sundays which I preach. It’s that moment of raising of my hands, almost embracing the congregation, and asking that the Lord may bless them and keep them the coming week. It is a holy act invoking a blessing onto God’s people.
With the Kansas City District UMW having their fall meeting at Stilwell, I had the opportunity to preside over communion for their worship service. As I read the section asking God to, “pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine” I realized that it was the first time I had ever said them. I almost stumbled over my words right there! To be blessing the sacrament for the gathered community as we remembered God’s presence with us and sacrifice for us. It was a holy moment.
Finally, just a couple of weeks ago, I was back home visiting family (west of Wichita) when the Saturday after Thanksgiving they got a call that the pastor was sick and would not be at worship the next morning. While there is a lay speaker at the church, she asked if I would like to give the sermon. At 11:30 on Saturday night, I experienced another holy moment as the words I needed to speak flowed from mind and heart to pen and paper (okay, iphone notes, but that ruins the metaphor). That next morning as I preached, it reminded me of the beauty of the connectional system of the church. My identity as pastor is not restricted to one community (except for sacramental authority as a licensed pastor, yes) but is an identity that I carry with me everywhere.
I am still a pastor when helping with the senior high youth at a local food pantry, regardless of how I ‘look just like the students.’ I am still a pastor when at a UMW event at another church someone remembers me as the young pastor who presided over communion at the fall district event. I am still a pastor when I’m home with family and a pastor gets sick. It is a humbling and holy moment when I remember that I indeed am a sign of God’s presence wherever I go.
While I continue to wrestle with what exactly this thing called pastoral authority means, I have confidence that I am experiencing glimpses of it in these holy moments. I never know when I will stumble upon one of these moments but I praise God for giving me grace and confidence to step into each experience with humility and maybe a touch of that pastoral authority.