The Pastor’s Need

Loss of vocation

Eugene Peterson claims that American pastors are abandoning their parishes at an alarming rate and have gone whoring after other gods. Today pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what Christian pastors have done for two millennia. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns, how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that customers will lay out more money. Many have eliminated prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction from their lives and are more concerned with what can be measured, with sociological impact and economic viability. Too many meetings and appointments leave no time for solitude to be before God, to ponder Scripture, to be unhurried with another person (Working Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity).

In today’s activism many parishes measure success in terms of big budgets, large membership rolls, and lots of programmes, and thereby priest and parish lose their bearings, as clergy lose sight of their vocation. It produces the mentality that thinks in terms of meeting peoples’ worldly demands rather than being faithful to God as their shepherd. This violates the priestly vocation, to be disciples of Jesus Christ in the world, set apart for the purpose of announcing the Kingdom of God and witnessing to it through celebration of word and sacrament, praying with and for the people, teaching them God’s Word and being alongside them to bring the friendship and compassion of God. This requires a sobriety and interior prayer in daily life that are essential to reception of the grace that makes us ‘partakers of the divine nature’

Consumerism versus Resurrection

Related to loss of vocation is the loss of the significance of Sunday as a ‘Day of the Lord’, ‘Resurrection Day’. Consumerism versus Resurrection and worship pushes devalues Sunday. A secular culture ignores kairos as distinct from chronos time ignoring the Christian perspective and living an orthodox Christian life, and contradicting traditional ascetic virtues. So people desperately need their parish priests to provide pastoral care to guide them through the modern psychological theories, the impact of sexually explicit media, entertainment, and the fallout from the extravagant and unequal wealth that characterizes contemporary life. When contemplation, traditionally the milieu of priestly living, is replaced by social concerns, entertainment, and consumerism, the din of television and careerism quickly deadens spiritual faculties. Authentic orthodox ascetical living and worship are vital to authentic ministry. The pastoral relationship is only possible when one is spiritually refreshed by a daily intimacy with God. This is exemplified in the classical teaching of two millennia.

Classical teaching

The fundamental principle of this teaching is that the one who gives care needs regular and special care himself. For Gregory the Great (Pastoral Rule) the specific hazard of pastoral ministry is to become so focussed upon others’ needs that one’s own well-being is put at risk. ‘In restoring others to health by healing their wounds, he must not disregard his own health … let him not, while lifting up others, fall himself … the greatness of certain men’s virtues had been an occasion of their perdition, in that they have felt inordinately secure in the assurance of their strength, and they died suddenly because of their negligence’ (Gregory the Great, Pastoral Care, Part IV, 1). John Chrysostom argued that, ‘The priest’s wounds require greater help, indeed as much as those of all the people together … because of heavy demands and extraordinary expectations associated with the pastoral office’ (Chrysostom, On the Priesthood, Ch. VI-10, sec 16). ‘For when a harbour is full of ships, it is easy for them to get crushed by each other, especially if they are secretly riddled with bad temper as by some worm’ (John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 4, sec. 77, p. 43).

For Gregory, ‘Pastors are called to fulfil their charge over others in such a way as not to fail to accomplish the charge over themselves, and to be ardently solicitous on their own account in such a way as not to grow slack in watching over those entrusted to them.’ (Gregory the Great, Pastoral Care, Part III, Ch 4). This is genuine ordinate self-love, and is a pastoral duty. Pastors should pray for their own needs. Aelred of Rievaulx prayed that the ‘the vices and the evil passions which still assault my soul … Lord, may your sweet grace afford me strength and courage; that I may not consent thereto, nor let them reign in this my mortal body’ (Aelred of Rievaulx, The Pastoral Prayer, sec 5, CFS 2, pp 110–111).

‘Making a list of all the difficulties involved is like trying to measure the ocean’ (Chrysostom, On the Priesthood, Ch VI, sec 8, p149). Often the deepest joys of ministry are directly related to what makes it at times very difficult. St Benedict saw the pastor’s job as demanding, when subject to many humours and trying to suit everyone with regard to their capacity and condition, but it cannot be undervalued for the sake of temporal concerns, which are earthly, transitory, and fleeting (Benedict of Nursia, Rule, LCC, IX ).

Arthur Middleton is a Tutor at St Chad’s College, a writer and lecturer.