By Paul Koch –
“How pitiful is the young pastor who enters this office thinking: ‘Hooray, the time of hard work and drudgery is over. Now I have come to the haven of rest and peace! I will enjoy that! I am my own boss and need not take orders from any person in the world!’ This is just as pitiful as the pastor who looks upon his office as his craft, or trade, and thinks: ‘Now all I have to do is to set up for myself a nice, comfortable parish! I will be really careful not to make enemies and do everything to make everyone my friend.”’ Oh, what a pitiful man! These pastors plan to use their spiritual assets for worldly gain. They are not true ministers of Christ, and on the Last Day He will say to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness’ (Matt 7:23).
“But blessed is the pastor who starts his official work on the very first day, determined to do everything that the grace of God will enable him to do, so that not one soul in his congregation would be lost on account of him. A pastor like this would resolve that by the grace of God he would do all he can, so that, when the day comes for him to lay down his shepherd’s staff, he may be able to say what Christ said to His Father, “Here I am. Of those You gave me, not one is lost.’”
-C.F.W. Walther “Law & Gospel,” Twentieth Evening Lecture
I began my career as a pastor filled with a lot of fear and trepidation. The responsibility seemed too big and the task too daunting for the likes of me. Reading lines like the one above from Walther, not to mention the many others from John Chrysostom (Six Books on the Priesthood) and even more modern authors like William Willimon (Calling and Character), I was sure I was not cut out for this line of work.
Right before I left the seminary for the parish, I was happy to spend some time with (the recently departed) Dr. Feuerhahn before hitting the road. I remember being in his study, and he was generously unloading some of his excess library on me. We were there because I had mentioned to him that among the great fears I had about leaving the seminary, leaving behind its incredible library was one of the prevalent ones.
I loved that library. (I still like to wander through it when I get a chance to go back.) The library held the promise of answers and guidance for my vocation as a pastor. I loved the smell of the old books and marveled at the massive collection of great theologians, past and present. I could get lost in those stacks below for hours and be quite happy. From ancient texts to contemporary journal articles, the library was a powerful tool to any who sought to be a preacher of the Word. I wasn’t just met with lines to fear but words of encouragement and guidance. Leaving such a treasure trove behind was a bit scary. It was like taking off the training wheels the day before a big race. The tools of the library would surely aid me in being a better preacher, so I was shaky about simply walking away from it.
Dr. Feuerhahn had often remarked that when he visited a pastor in the parish, often he could immediately tell what year this man graduated simply by looking at his library. His point was that there were no new books purchased since he had graduated. The personal library of the pastor looked like a snapshot of the Seminary’s curriculum during whatever period of time he was in school.
Now with the accessibility of the internet and the great amount of quality material in digital form, his point may seem a little dated but his sentiment is not. At least when it comes to the task of striving to be better preachers, most of our libraries haven’t changed all that much. Tools for preaching seem in short supply compared with the volumes written for leadership strategies and understanding strategic planning.
The vast majority of conversations I have ever had with my colleagues in the pastoral ministry deal with very practical things. Our discussions deal with stewardship, youth ministry, confirmation, evangelism, mission strategy and the like. More often they deal with particular issues with particular members. Sometimes we will even argue doctrinal distinctions and exegetical struggles in a particular text. But it is rare when the discussion turns to the task of preaching. The quest to be a better preacher seems to be low on the agenda. This point is proven by the schedule for almost every pastor’s conference I’ve ever been to.
Quite simply, I think this is very dangerous.
I think we need to dust off the old books and buy some new ones. We need to engage consistently and passionately in the discussions about what is proclamation and how we do it the best in our given situation. It’s time to reclaim the craft of preaching. Isn’t it about time that preaching moved to the top of our agendas?!