By Paul Koch –
I’ve always enjoyed the simple fact that after God created all things He placed man in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it. There in the paradise of God, man – the creature bearing His own image – was given a job. To work is part of being a man. However, it is difficult to imagine what perfect work would have been like: work that would never be fruitless, work that would always be a blessing. Go ahead and try to think of work where the purpose is clear, the methods are established, and the outcome is good. Then, envision it being like that all the time!
The sweat of our brow and the thorns and thistles of our occupation is the bitter and frustrating reality of our lives.
For many, their work at least produces something of quality that can be tested. My buddy Jake welds and beats metal into shape; he is a custom fabricator who can stand back with aching muscles and calloused hands and at least see the finished product of his labor. My plight is slightly different. As a preacher I may produce a sermon but it is a spoken moment in time that quickly passes, often without any measurable means of evaluating quality. In fact, if I didn’t seek out certain hobbies I would never have grease under my fingernails or calloused hands. My vocation seems far removed from working or keeping a garden.
To be a pastor is to be mired in the messy lives of other people. In a given day you may run the whole gamut of emotions and experiences: from studying the text you’re going to preach on, to sharing in the joy of the birth of a new baby, to counseling a couple going through marital problems, to being at the bedside of a dear saint in their final days, to enduring a meeting where you discuss the latest budget figures. The messiness of it all and the lack of a final product creates a culture that is ripe for “experts” who will offer quantifiable results for your labor.
However, it is my firm conviction that most of these “experts” are not gifted gardeners that ease our work, but rather they themselves are the very thorns and thistles of our vocation. The church and pastor who turns too readily to consultation and programs of today’s experts in mission and ministry often fall prey to the alluring distractions and promises. These only muddy our already polluted water.
Let me elaborate on what I mean. I’ve only been a pastor for a little over a decade and yet in that time I have listened to presentations on intergenerational ministry, cross cultural ministry, geriatric ministry, youth and family ministry, and international missions. I have heard about incarnational mission models and natural church development. I’ve been encouraged to embrace this stewardship campaign over that one. I’ve endured mission funding meetings that would make you ashamed.
In the end, what this does to a vocation such as mine is it makes it very complicated. It appears that success is out there in the wisdom of the “experts”; if you can only find the right combination, the correct formula for your circumstance, you will achieve that measurable result you so desire. So, we dive in like mathematicians trying to crack the code.
But here’s the truth. This vocation, though it is hard and though it is messy, is not complicated! The work of the church may be difficult, but it is simple. “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you,” says our Lord. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
Because the work of the church is often lacking in a quantifiable product, the thorns and thistles will encroach upon her labor in great number. We will be tempted again and again to place our trust in the complex systems of the “experts” instead of simply working while trusting in the promises of our God (“faith comes by hearing…”). The personal application of God’s Law and His Gospel to the people she serves is the job of the church. Being the hit-men and the midwives of God is the vocation of a pastor. It may not be for the faint of heart but it isn’t really complicated.