Last week the Ringside Preachers podcast was in Fort Wayne, IN for the seminary’s annual symposia. We had the opportunity to interview a few of the professors to talk at length about what they were working on, while spending time thinking through what it means to be the church in times like these. Professor John Pless’ discussion was one of my favorites. I don’t want to spoil the discussion here, but he did share a great story about a time when he overheard one Englishman telling another that he was “as useless as a clergyman.” It is a fitting image he uses to illustrate a point about the role of the clergy in our society.
I’ll let you listen to the podcast and enjoy the discussion yourself, but I must admit that that phrase stuck with me after the interview ended. As a clergyman myself, I have certainly found myself in a situation where I felt completely useless. And I don’t mean while watching a friend wire up the ignition in my car or weld a new bracket for my motorcycle. I mean the feeling of being useless in the vocation that I am called to do. How many times have I sat in a hospital room beside a dying saint without anything to say? How often have I had a member sitting in my study seeking advice but there isn’t anything clever or insightful that comes from my lips?
In fact, I believe there are times that all pastors have pondered their usefulness. I recently read something by a brother in the ministry where he lamented that his words of encouragement and warning about the evils of our age the dangerous overreach of our government seemed to fall on deaf ears. His love and care for the people of God was easily drowned out by the talking heads that blast into everyone living rooms. His words on a Sunday morning couldn’t compete with the 24/7 news cycle and shifting narrative of our age. And at some point, you want to throw up your hands in defeat.
At such times, the clergy can often begin to wonder what their place is. They might second guess their usefulness, especially when they look around and don’t see any positive effect that their vocation is having. At this point I am reminded of that famous parable of our Lord where he speaks about the Sower who sows good seed only to have someone sow weeds into the field in the middle of the night. As everything begins to grow the field looks like a mess, by all accounts a total loss. The fact that he says this is a description of the Kingdom of God, this is what we look at when we set about our vocation, can be a bit disheartening. We begin to wonder what the use is, what benefit can there be in what we are given to do in the face of such turmoil. And so, we often begin to go searching for more impactful ways to find our usefulness. We set off from the central thing of our calling and look elsewhere.
The typical landing place for this search is either on the grounds of being a manager and life coach on the one hand, or being a therapist on the other. The temptation is to try and make the best out of the disorderly field by giving structure and order to carve out a place of meaning. Perhaps we can champion certain causes, a social justice that the rest of our world doesn’t seem to care about. We can set about to pluck up the weeds ever so carefully, to make the field a better place to spend our days. Or we can give insightful analysis to the wheat in the midst of the weeds. Give them tools to better endure the ordeal, to not lose hope and better cope with the encroaching weeds.
While these strategies can seem both empowering and positive, in the end they wont actually give usefulness to the clergyman. Or perhaps a better way to say it is that they clergyman will simply cease to be a clergyman. Instead, he is transformed into a CEO of a benevolent organization or a more affordable therapist. And so, the accusation that one is “as useless as a clergyman” remains true.
A clergyman’s usefulness is rooted in the small and well-defined focus of his call. He is to preach the Word and administer the sacraments in accordance with the Word of God. This will often look feeble and messy to our age. While it does kill and bring forth life, it does so without tearing up the field and instead waits for the harvest day to come. The Lord of the harvest says, “Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” The usefulness of the clergyman will be found in the wheat gathered into that eternal storehouse of God.