Last Sunday I went to an installation service for a new pastor in our area. I have always felt a deep sense of responsibility to go to such services. After all, it is the other pastors who are tasked with the responsibility to give a blessing to the newly installed pastor. They are a witness to the congregation that this man is the one appointed by God for their spiritual care. We all wear our vestments as a visible testimony of the clergy to direct they eyes and ears of the people to the new man that stands before them. It is from him that they ought to expect the handing over of the goods. It is our attempt to do things in good order, not for the sake of pomp and circumstance but to give assurance to the people of God.
And yet, every time I do go, I find that I am given a sort of reminder about my own role and responsibility. The rite of installation is a reminder of the ordination vows that pastors make, a reminder then of the responsibility and proper focus of the office of the ministry. Yet this time, as I listened again to the responses of the pastor, there was one part in particular that stuck out to me. It wasn’t addressed to the pastor, per se, though it had great bearing upon his role. It was spoken to the congregation who was there to witness the event. After the vows are made, after the solemn promises are heard by all gathered there, the leader asks the congregation if they will support and pray for their pastor. And the rationale given for their gift of love and support was rooted in a verse from Hebrews, and it is haunting.
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Heb. 13:17)
Now the confessions of our church are quick to remind us that “this statement requires obedience under the gospel; it does not create an authority for bishops apart from the gospel.” This isn’t about giving absolute authority to the one installed, this isn’t a cart blanche allowance for those who use human traditions in a manner contrary to the gospel. Instead, it is to see the installed pastor as one who has been called to keep watch over your soul, and you want him to do that with joy. How miserable it would be if the one watching over you hated doing it or did it with grumbling and hesitancy. No one would want that: not you, and certainly not your pastor.
But the part that really jumped out at me is that that they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. There is responsibility inherent in the ordination and installation of a pastor. A pastor will have to give an account to our Lord for those in his care. It reminds me a bit of our Lord in John 17 praying to his Father concerning his disciples and saying, “While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction…” He gives an accounting and so all those called as under-shepherds of our Lord will do the same for those given to their care
This, I think, fundamentally changes the relationship between pastor and parishioner. This isn’t about simply fulfilling a function; it is more than a matter of determining that someone ought to preach the Word and administer the Sacraments. It is a solemn role of great responsibility with consequences. A pastor doesn’t preach because he has some clever insights and intriguing academic novelties regarding a specific text. No, he preaches because of the people gathered there, and only because of them. His words then are consumed with their fate, for it is for them and no one else that he is called to give an account. And so, the congregation in turn sees their pastor as one worthy of service and joy for their assurance is tied up in his proclamation and no one else’s. And none of this happens outside of our Lord. He sends the Word. He gathers the guests. He demands an accounting.
Perhaps a lot that has gone awry in the church has happened because we’ve forgotten this great economy of pastor and congregation.