Participants in What We Proclaim: Recovering Paul’s Narrative of Pastoral Ministry

November 01, 2014

by Rob Edwards

The American church has conducted a substantial amount of research into the health of its pastors since the start of the twenty-first century. Alarming statistics have been amassed suggesting all is not well. The general consensus is that over the past thirty to fifty years much has changed in ministry with the result that “pastoral leadership does not seem to offer the promise of a life well lived.” This appears evident from the large numbers of those leaving the ministry within the first five years, with some statistics indicating a fourfold increase since the 1970s. The mainstream media has taken note too, with an article in the New York Times concluding, “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension, and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen.” Studies indicate that many in ministry are unhappy and would leave for some other line of work if they could.

As desperate as this sounds, action has been taken to address these troubling trends. The Lilly Foundation funded a 10-year project, “Sustaining Pastoral Excellence,” distributing grants totaling in the millions of dollars to 63 different organizations, with the aim of conducting research to better understand the negative conditions of pastoral ministry and develop strategies for positive change.

Jesus’s death and resurrection is of first importance as the event that inaugurates a new era of redemption.

These organizations represent the breadth of the American church, from mainline and evangelical Protestants to Roman Catholics. As a result of their work, a number of book-length studies have been published, which both describe common reasons for the difficult climate of pastoral ministry and prescribe potential remedies for improving its environment.

Although operating with diverse theological commitments, the use of the social sciences ties these various studies together. Each explores the habits and practices of pastors in their various traditions with the guiding question of what defines and sustains excellence in ministry, utilizing qualitative research methods in the analysis of data to develop their descriptions and reach their conclusions. These studies prove helpful in many ways, noting commonalities in experience that coalesce into themes that frame life in ministry, which need to be examined and of which churches and pastors need to be aware. The hopeful expectation through all of this work is that “a new narrative about ministry is coming into being,” one that replaces the discouraging narrative of irrelevance, ineffectiveness, and mediocrity.

These studies inevitably include a measure of biblical and theological reflection. The primary focus, however, is the research into the immediate causes that make pastoral ministry uniquely difficult in our current setting. So while biblical notions of excellence in ministry are considered, the data gathered on contemporary experience is at the heart of the analyses. While valuable in bringing to light particular difficulties that our present ministry culture may create, this approach potentially overshadows deeper biblical-theological descriptions that are at the core of the hardship ministers face in every age.

The aim of this article is to explore the biblical-theological framework for suffering in ministry that all pastors will endure as they faithfully proclaim Christ. In particular, Paul’s letters will be examined with special attention given to his correspondence with the Corinthians, which is rich with descriptions of his own experience, not only as an account of his life in ministry, but as a pattern for all those who follow. The premise in what follows is that the current need is not so much to develop a new narrative for pastoral ministry, but to recover the rich biblical-theological narrative of ministry found in Scripture that is grounded in Christ’s death and resurrection. In doing so, the hope is to see beyond the specific struggles faced today, to the larger story common to all in ministry throughout these last days, stretching from Christ’s resurrection until his return, so that those entering the work of ministry will do so with a narrative informed by the gospel they are called to proclaim.

1. Maintaining the Matters of First Importance in Ministry

In various places Paul presents what appears to be a rather grandiose view of his ministry, such as when he describes his “insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations,” a mystery that, he says, was “made known to me by revelation” (Eph. 3:3–5). He boldly envisions his labors in relation to great OT prophets, going so far as to compare himself to Moses, leaving the clear impression that his is the greater and more glorious work (2 Cor. 3:11–13). These portrayals, on first read, may seem to imply an exaggerated sense of self-importance. It is not, however, Paul’s self-perception that leads to this exalted view of his ministry. Instead, Paul understands that the greatness of the age ushered in by Christ’s death and resurrection exalts his work. It is not his contribution that brings distinction. This grand and decisive epoch of redemption attributes greatness to Paul’s own labors in ministry.

Christ’s death and resurrection displays God’s “plan for the fullness of time” that has now entered history.

Paul concludes his first letter to the Corinthians with a reminder of what he refers to as the matter “of first importance” in the gospel he preaches: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4). Death and resurrection together constitute the focal point of the gospel he proclaims. Yet in reading Paul, this climactic moment of redemption is not simply the summary of Paul’s message. Jesus’s death and resurrection is of first importance as the event that inaugurates a new era of redemption, which then serves as the setting for all he endures in ministry.

According to Paul, Christ’s death and resurrection displays God’s “plan for the fullness of time” that has now entered history (Eph. 1:9–10). Therefore, he can confidently say that upon us “the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11), because of “the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10–11). In every description of ministry, Paul remains fully alert to this time in which he labors. It emboldens his proclamation: “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). Regarding Paul, Ridderbos notes that, “before everything else, he was the proclaimer of a new time, the great turning point in the history of redemption, the intrusion of a new world aeon.” Paul is urged on in the work, and urges others through his preaching, because Christ’s death and resurrection have brought about this age of salvation in which he now serves.

. . . continue reading at Themelios.

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