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Pastoral Ministry: Not a Call to Make the World a Better Place

By Cole Hartin

I take the warning from the Epistle of James to heart:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do no have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? (James 2:14-16)

I pray my self-deception does not lead me here. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see images of Christians as comfortable people spouting platitudes without lifting a finger for the sake of those in need. Angela Martin from The Office is my case in point. There is certainly a temptation for Christians to interiorize their faith to the point that they have stopped living out its implications in any meaningful sense.

On the other hand, I think there is just as much as temptation — for priests and pastors especially — to lose sight of the theological nature of the Christian vocation, let alone their particular pastoral vocation. When this happens, the life of Christian ministry simply becomes a way to “help people” or to “make the world a better place.” Depending on one’s interests and politics, the aim of what we mean by this either becomes attempts to aid social assistance, ventures into social justice, or crusades to be a counselor to as many people as possible.

Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon point out the way that this happens in their essay “Ministry as More Than a Helping Profession.” They note,

Ministers are often people who need to help people. They like to be liked and need to be needed. Their personal needs become the basis for their ministry. Underestimating how terribly deep other people’s needs can be, they enter ministry with an insufficient sense of personal boundaries, and are devoured by the voracious appetites of people in need. One day they may awake to find that they have sacrificed family, self-esteem, health, and happiness for a bunch of selfish people who have eaten them alive. Pastors then come to despise what they are and to hate the community that made them that way. The pastor realizes that people’s needs are virtually limitless, particularly in an affluent society in which there is an ever-rising threshold of desire (which we define as “need”). With no clear job description, no clear sense of purpose other than the meeting of people’s needs, there is no possible way for the pastor to limit what people ask of the pastor.

Though helping people can be a fair and noble aspect of the pastoral calling, as Hauerwas and Willimon point out, it is never the center of that calling.

The descriptions of ministry in the New Testament are offices within and for the Church (1 Tim. 3:1-7, Titus 1:6-9) or for the extension of the Church. These are offices not ordained directly for the betterment of the world, though, in effect, through the preserving nature of Christian life, they can bring joy and beauty to fruition for all to enjoy. Proclaiming that truth has resonance, a reverberation whose effects we might not fully realize, though they may do much good.

This is why, in the early Church, deacons were given to oversee the practical work of ministering to the needs of the faithful, so that the Apostles (and their successors) would be devoted to their vocation to pray and serve the Word of God (Acts 6:1-15).

At one time, this passage from Acts was almost offensive to me, because it delineates clear priorities of ministry that seem out of touch with the very practical good that pastors could be accomplishing in the world. Moreover, it smacks of clericalism; for instance, if a priest said something like, “I am going to devote today to studying instead of serving the needs the poor,” I would immediately roll my eyes. But assuming this is not an excuse for laziness, it points to the fundamental calling of the pastor. Again, it is not that serving the needy is unimportant, and that it does not have a place in the Church, but it is not the primary focus of the pastoral vocation.

There is another facet to this as well: when clergy make it their mission to improve society, they are not only losing sight of their commitment first and foremost to God, but they can be driven to this kind of work by an anemic faith that situates themselves as the saviors who will step up when God does not. Hauerwas and Willimon pick up on this tendency in the paragraph above as well. When pastors set their sights on improving society, they presume to know what the deep fractures in our world are and how best to address them, and that they possess the capacity to do so.

I think the prayer for the Second Sunday after Pentecost in the Canadian prayer book gets right to the root of things, when we ask that God would “mercifully accept our prayers… because through the weakness of our mortal nature we can do no good thing without thee.” If we can accomplish some good in the world, it is only by the grace of God, and being attuned to him.

Many people with complicated situations, struggling with mental health, addiction, familial breakdown, and just general existential angst, come to the Church looking for help. Clergy are unequipped to do the kind of work that can really make a difference for these people in many cases, at least as pertains to these issues. And when such issues become the focus of clergy, the result is unqualified pastors shoehorning their way into situations that other professionals and community members are far better prepared to address. Whether the desire to help stems from a hubristic messiah complex or genuine compassion, the results are similar. Clergy, in desiring to help people, might miss out on opportunities to pray and serve the Word of God.

The vocation to serve God in the Church is lost in all of this as well. Clergy are not ordained to make the world happier or more fulfilled, but to share in the ministry of Jesus before his Father, as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit. This will include helping when we can, but we are not helpers, we are servants of Christ.

The Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin is assistant curate at St. Luke’s in Saint John, New Brunswick. 


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