Halfway through my first semester at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, I am facing an acute and quite unexpected sense of inadequacy for the pastoral ministry. It’s not a particularly comfortable feeling for one who has enjoyed roughly twenty years of success in military, college, and professional experience. Interestingly – perhaps ironically – I remain strongly convinced that God has not only led me to seminary, but is continuing to lead me into ministry. So what is it that is making me feel so inadequate?
Let me say first of all that it is not my grades. I am enjoying all of my classes – even Greek, in spite of the challenge of memorizing dozens of finely-nuanced forms of verbs, nouns, participles, articles, and other grammatical elements that I haven’t thought about in any language for at least a dozen years. One of my other classes, though, is definitely contributing to these feelings of inadequacy. The class is focused on laying a solid theological foundation for pastoral ministry, and the first text we are reading (Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition, by Andrew Purves) looks at the thoughts and writings of five church fathers from the 4th through 17th centuries: Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, Martin Bucer, and Richard Baxter.
These men clearly held the pastoral role in high esteem; so high, in fact, that the first two literally fled ordination before the conviction of God’s call led them eventually to assume the mantel of shepherd. They recognized the critical importance of the pastor’s life being morally blameless. Gregory of Nazianzus wrote that the men God calls to be pastors ought to “surpass the majority in virtue and nearness to God.” (Purves, p. 23) These pastors also took seriously God’s charge to Ezekiel, that if the prophet failed to warn someone in sin, that person’s blood would be on the head of the prophet (Ez. 3:18). They saw this as one of the responsibility’s that has been passed on to the pastor, who must diligently seek to warn people of God’s judgment.
After reading just the first few chapters of Purves’ book, I began to be convicted that my own life didn’t attain to the high calling these men recognized. Rather than fleeing ordination and the role of pastor, I have sought it out. Yes, I believe that my seeking is in response to God’s call; and no, I don’t take lightly the seriousness of leading a congregation, or even a particular ministry or other subset of a local church. Yet I confess that I have not reflected deeply on all the ramifications of being a pastor, beyond the superficial challenges of dealing with sometimes-messy people and the inconveniences to my family of life in a veritable fishbowl. This class is definitely causing me to do some of that deeper reflection.
Twenty years ago I adopted Philippians 3:10-11 as my life verse: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” I have realized over the past few weeks that in my focus on those verses, I have neglected the broader context in which Paul wrote. Immediately preceding these words he comments on his tremendous religious heritage – in many respects similar to my own (missionary kid, born-again at age 4, a church leader) – and he shares that he has come to view that heritage as something lost to him. But it’s not just lost; it is something to be thrown on the garbage heap! The NIV and NASB translate the word as “rubbish”; the KJV probably has the more accurate translation, “dung.” One lexicon notes the strong connotation of Paul’s word: “to convey the crudity of the Greek…: ‘It’s all crap’.” (Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. (3rd ed.) (932). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.) It strikes me, then, that Paul has deliberately discarded his heritage in favor of “the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus”. Yet he quickly lets his Philippian readers know that he’s not there yet. In spite of what at this point is probably more than 30 years of serving Jesus and proclaiming his name throughout Asia, Paul says that he doesn’t really know him yet!
It is influences such as these that are contributing to my sense of inadequacy. As uncomfortable and unwelcome as the feeling is, though, I think it can be spiritually healthy and I find myself thanking God for it. I realize that he is stripping down my misplaced self-confidence and is replacing it with confidence in him. Like Paul, I haven’t yet obtained this, but I do recognize that the work he began in me, he will carry through to completion.