This past week I have been reflecting a lot on pastoral ministry and the Church. It has been a hectic year and this is my first time to seriously stop and consider everything that has happened. This was my seventh full year of ministry as a pastor on staff at a church. Unfortunately, due to financial circumstances, my position at a local church ceased to exist. As such, for the first time in those seven years, I’m not a pastor in the typical sense of the word (on staff at a church). I’m still ordained and in good standing, I’m looking to be involved in a local church, and I still deeply care about being pastoral to those I interact with daily. The call to be a pastor is not easily revoked. Yet, this break (let’s call it a “forced sabbatical of undetermined length”) has given me welcome space to reflect again on my call, what it means to be a pastor, and what a good church looks like.
There is something deep, like fire shut up in your bones, that burns when you are called. Granted, there are a lot of misguided zealots that burn brightly for a time. Plenty of people that consider themselves to be “called” are quite insistent on being inflammatory. But, none of those are quite what I mean. Perhaps it’s akin to a hunger. Not a hunger that yearns for the call itself or even personal fulfillment – both of those will be short lived, especially in ministry. It’s rarely that glamorous. It’s quite messy typically, it looks like a cross… by the world’s standards, anything but glorious. It’s actually a hunger for something much bigger – it’s a hunger rooted in the presence of the Living God that calls us into being.
I was speaking yesterday at the first church I had the opportunity to serve as a pastor. It was a spur of the moment opportunity – one I was excited to have. The passage was out of Joshua 5:13-6:27. It’s a well-known story: the destruction of Jericho. Previous to marching around the city, Joshua has a divine encounter. Much like Moses, he is told to remove his sandals for the ground he is standing on is holy. What kind of God can make worthless dirt holy? Joshua’s call is intimately tied to this idea of holiness – being made to reflect the very character and nature of God back into a broken world. But, his personal experience is not separated from the community’s call. God doesn’t call just one person without also calling a community. Pastoral ministry thrives when it is integrally connected to the Holy God and embodied in a living community of obedience.
Joshua is called to lead God’s people into the Promised Land, the completion of Moses’ call to lead Israel out of Egypt. Pastoral ministry is not isolated from history but builds upon it. That doesn’t always mean it is a positive history, but it is part of the DNA of that community that must be remembered and dealt with carefully. And, in fact, God often uses that history (we call this “redemption”). God had intended for the Hebrews to enter the Promised Land before Joshua’s time. Joshua had been one of the original spies and one of only two to give a positive report. The others were skeptical and it ended up keeping them from entering the land. Fortunately, the generation under Joshua’s leadership has learned from their past mistakes and decide to move forward in obedience to God’s command to enter the land.
Pastoral ministry often casts vision. It is, and must be, interwoven with the call that God has given both the leadership and the community. Many visions fizzle out because they are cast from ego rather than divine prompting. Other visions fail because it is not compelling to a community – it lacks significance. Still others fail when the leadership’s passions are not stoked hot by what is voiced by the community. And, sometimes visions fail because people lose hope in the face of opposition.
Jericho stands looming on the horizon before Joshua and his army of… priests, nomads, and untrained soldiers? It’s a band unfit for war on any scale that Jericho is accustomed to enduring. Formidable walls, towering structures, and well-trained warriors. The Hebrews have an ice cube’s chance in the Sahara desert of surviving, much less winning, any battle here. It would be quite easy here to say that God or Joshua or the community was mistaken. Perhaps they misheard or misunderstood. Or, maybe with a little more time and training they would be ready to wage war, to fight Jericho on its own terms. The problem is too big, the barriers too great… unless God is the one fighting the battle.
Pastoral ministry can easily slip into survival mode. Demands mount, deadlines press, and durability wanes. Add to the mix that you’re dealing with broken people and situations frequently, including yourself and your family. Your vocation, affirmed by God’s call, will often come up against Jericho-like situations. Great opposition to our call should not be surprised – Jesus warned us as much. The world hated Jesus; it will hate his disciples, too. Trials should not come as a shock. The problem in pastoral ministry is that sometimes the trials blindside you because they come from the least expected places. It comes from the congregation, from brothers and sisters, from within the Body. And, pastors are not guiltless in this either. Sometimes they are the stumbling block. We are adept are hurting people while placing a “spiritual” spin on it.
Jericho looms large in our imaginations. They fight for blood, they use power to get what they want, they violently protect their way of life – never mind who gets hurt or used up. It’s a dog-eat-dog-world… and only the most ruthless survive. Fortified walls hold at bay the outsiders, protect from changing the way of life, and promote uniformity without challenge. Jericho has fortified itself not only from outsiders; it has also closed itself off from God. And, surprisingly, it seems to work. Who would challenge such strength? Who would entertain such thoughts? It’s the way it’s always been, the way it’s always going to be… or so the logic goes.
Life often presents barriers to God’s call upon our lives, from living into God’s promised future now, And, it is tempting to live like Jericho in those moments. After all, on the surface, it seems to work and continue to work – at least for Jericho and those like them. Their position seems so firm and sure. Our position seems tentative and weak. From a pastoral perspective, we are no less vulnerable to this than our parishioners. In some form or another, we all want control over the variables of life. We want the sure bet.
Let’s be honest, Joshua’s plan looks like the worst battle plan in the history of military warfare. Really? March around the city once every day and seven times on the seventh day… then shout!? I’m no tactician… but even I would be saying, “Joshua, you’ve been out in this desert sun too much.”
But, isn’t a life of prayer much like that? We hear God speak, calling us out… and then? Silence. We march around and around that barrier. Nothing. Not even a crack in the wall. Marching and marching, not fighting Jericho on its own terms. Marching and praying… day after day after day. It is in the silent obedience of daily marching, daily prayer, that something subtle and almost hidden begins to happen. Jericho might not be changed… but we are. The Hebrews marched and marched, never speaking a word. Like a liturgy that slowly seeps into the bones and into our very character, prayer shapes us by opening us up to God’s presence… to the One who is able to make dirt holy. We find that we are being changed and transformed into something more than we are alone.
Persevering prayer causes the steadfast walls of Jericho to become little more than rubble littering the landscape. But, in every victory there is cause for caution. Joshua tells the people to “devote everything to destruction.” The temptation, with this victory, is to take up the resources received and to become another Jericho. Many churches that have experienced “success” by the world’s standards soon begin to covet many of the same things that the world covets. Hello, Jericho! Instead, Joshua calls for the people to take everything and dedicate it back to the Lord.
Honestly, as a pastor, one in leadership, it is a temptation too readily available for us. Given the pressures of various institutions, our cultures, our congregations, ourselves… we often settle for an established Jericho rather than risk walking into the unsettled Promised Land. Having coveted the world of Jericho, we find ourselves building new walls to firm up our positions of power or prestige. We create new walls for insiders and outsiders. We construct fortresses that ensure stability rather than risk following a God that is not controllable. We trade the language of relationship to a language that deals with God at a distance, describing God but not engaging God. Jericho stands again.
And, yet, honest, persistent prayer will not allow such walls to stand in our own lives or in the lives of the community. Ultimately, we find, there is only one sure foundation: God.
In our economic environment, it is not unusual to be concerned about finances. There are few who are not working on budgets to make sure that bills are paid and ministry is funded. We want to be good stewards of the gifts God gives us. Nothing wrong with that. Yet, I know of churches where the “bottom line” revolves far more around money than it does people. When it becomes more important for us to keep our doors open, even at the expense of people going into personal debt, there is another stone in the wall for Jericho.
This is only one instance where we have coveted Jericho and haven’t earnestly marched in prayer around the problem, waiting upon God. It is merely one example of trying to control our circumstances rather than praying for God to provide victory over situations that are too big for us to handle alone. Joshua wasn’t trying to build another Jericho. He sought to follow God whole-heartedly. Joshua stands as testimony that God never fails to follow through on His promises. Pastors and churches can rest in that kind of sure foundation.