August 21, 2012

Ambassadors and Fishermen

In the verse just before the beginning of today’s epistle St Paul says, “the love of Christ controls us.” Paul’s decisions, big and small, are colored by his deep love for Christ. He consciously retools the way he looks out on the world, no longer “from a human point of view.” He consciously decides to look out on everything he sees with the eyes of Christ, who gave himself up for the life of the world, to reconcile the world to God, “not counting their trespasses against them.” This “ministry of reconciliation” belongs to us as well. In fact, the late Prof Veselin Kesich used to say that this was the only ministry in the church that does belong to every single Christian. We all know the famous saying of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, “learn to be peaceful and thousands around you will be saved.” This is the ministry of reconciliation that all of us can start again every day. This is what is means to be an ambassador for Christ. Some will despise this, but others will be grateful and will follow the same path. As Jesus tells the first apostles-fishermen, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” The reconciling message of Christ has attracted the most diverse types of people from the beginning. And it still does, through the examples, however poor and mixed up, of human beings like you and me who desire to be transformed by His indwelling love. 

Effective Pastors (Again)

At the end of June I reported on my meeting with Prof Peter Bouteneff at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary. And back at SVS this morning for a follow-up conversation. We are doing a joint study of the effectiveness of seminary education (as part of the review that the Association of theological Schools does of seminaries). I asked readers to share their thoughts on what makes for an effective pastor. I received just a few replies that time but they were very thoughtful and I’d like to share two of them, from a priest and then a layperson (both slightly edited). If others would like to add their views as the OCA works with seminaries to prepare clergy and theologically trained laity, then please write to me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) (put “effective pastor” in the subject line).

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Dear Father John,

What follows is in response to your invitation on your blog. It’s a few
things I have by no means mastered but am still (after 40 years!) struggling to learn because, despite my thick-headedness, I’ve come to see their importance.

1. Without a real personal prayer life, a person may be effective for an organization, but not for the Lord. “Pastoring”  is really introducing people to and helping them stay in vital relationship with the risen Jesus; and one cannot do that genuinely without one’s own real, personal, prayer-shaped and prayer-nourished relationship with Christ. Lacking that, one is simply a parrot squawking someone else’s words and experience. This, obviously, cannot be taught, in the academic sense; but it must be modeled. The shape of that prayer life cannot, I think, be standardized. For me, the daily Offices work best (with a blessing, in its pre-1962 Western incarnation, because of the busyness of being a parish priest), because I have the attention-span of a retarded radish; so I need to be firmly anchored; and the Psalms work very well for me in that regard. But for someone else, it could be the prayers in the prayerbook, said with real attention and devotion. But a priest who does not pray is a monster.

2. Serving according to the rubrics and the Typikon is important, not only that everything may be done “decently and in order,” as the Apostle says, but also as an exercise in cutting off one’s own will… [Some priests behave] as “franchise owners,” who somehow think that the parish and the services of the Church are theirs to do with as they wish.
BUT serving with precision is not enough. A presbyter and/or deacon must learn how to pray the Liturgy and the other services of the Church, to make those words the expression of his own mind and heart. We begin the Liturgy with “Blessed is the Kingdom,” yes? But what is the experience of the Kingdom in its fullness? From the Apocalypse of Saint John, it’s obvious that eternity in the Kingdom is an eternity of worship, an eternal Liturgy of praise and thanksgiving. So that’s what we should be aiming to make of our earthly Liturgy…not by gimmicks or by trying to generate feelings of any particular kind, but by laying aside all earthly cares and focusing totally on the Lord. Bishop_____ is a sheer pleasure to serve with because he does exactly that. And if the priest who’s serving is really praying the Liturgy, that’ll rub off on the faithful.

3. While one has to be aware of current social trends, yea, even to the point of watch MTV or Much Music from time to time (UGH!!! Where’s Glen Miller when you need him?), 40 years of pastoral ministry have led me to the conclusion that the fundamental problems of the human race boil down to the same old, same old: “you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”  Human beings are stubborn in their refusal to face their reality, that in our fallenness we are born as “powerless,” “ungodly,” “sinners,” “enemies.” And the fundamental pastoral task is to proclaim AND TO MODEL what the Lord Jesus proclaimed at the beginning of His public ministry: “Repent, and put your trust in the Gospel.” And it is precisely because of our sin and sinfulness that we need to keep reminding people that although God loves them anyway, the only way to plug into that love is found in Matt.22:37-40. We have to pound away at the notion (so fostered in our current culture) that “spirituality” is some kind of warm and gooey feeling, rather than daily taking up the cross of mortification of self and service to others.

Priestly formation in the OCA has, in my estimation, fallen into the same trap the Protestants fell into after WWII and the Romans fell into during and after Vatican II: seeing it in purely academic terms. While it is true that an ignorant priest can do far more damage to souls than a wicked priest (cf. Arius, Nestorius, et al.), priestly formation cannot devolve into some sort of neo-gnostic exercise without impacting destructively on the people the priest is ordained to serve.


Dear Father John,

My initial reaction to the question “what makes for an effective pastor” was, deep faith, liturgical connectedness, ability to listen. Life experience.

You asked, “If we’re looking increasingly for self-starter clergy and church workers who are capable of planting new missions, connecting with youth, the unchurched and seekers, with language abilities to reach immigrant, Spanish and French-speaking communities—how will that affect seminary training and continuing education for clergy and laity?”

I believe the Church has always needed these, and I believe the Lord raises up the leaders who are needed. The seminaries’ task is to make sure the students become immersed in the liturgical (and community) life, and in the Scriptures, with clear explanation/understanding of what, how, why, where, when, who. They need to ensure that students have knowledge of the Scriptures and of the Church’s interpretations and commentaries.

Another thought about effective pastors: A knowledge of church music, and a good voice, are definite pluses; however, probably a good choir director, and openness on the part of the pastor to allow the choir director to direct, would go a long way to make up for deficiencies in this area.

Thanks to a reference in a recent essay by Father Lawrence Farley, I am reading C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (the first time straight through) and finding them rather salutary! [For those who aren’t familiar, this entertaining and insightful classic on spiritual life is written from the perspective of the devil, Screwtape.] This morning I read a section which I think is relevant to your question. Screwtape writes “The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart - an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship” (ch. 25).