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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

The Pastor’s Promise, Part I
October 13, 2016

With our October prayer calendar focusing on pastors, last week I challenged congregations to provide their pastors with what they most need in order to fulfill their calling: prayer, encouragement, and forbearance. Now we turn to consider what congregations need most from their pastors.

All officers of the church make a promise at their ordination to “pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” (Book of Order W-4.4003h) Wisely, the church requires that this commitment be orally renewed each time a pastor, elder, or deacon is newly installed in service. While it also shapes the work of ruling elders and deacons, over the next few weeks we will consider how this promise shapes faithful, fruitful, and fulfilling pastoral ministry in particular.

It was literally on my first day on the job in a new pastoral call when I received word that one of our parishioners had been admitted to hospital – would I be willing to stop by and visit her? I was glad to do so, and found her to be a delightful woman who had suffered with multiple sclerosis for more than thirty years. Over those years she had received countless pastoral visits. As I prepared to leave her room I asked whether I might pray with her. Her eyes widened with surprise. “Really?” she wondered incredulously. “Of course! It’s what pastors do,” I replied. At least that is what I thought pastors do. She told me that her former pastor considered offering unsolicited prayer an invasion of privacy; he would pray for parishioners whom he visited only if they asked him to do so.

The ordination promise is to pray for the people; I would like to add the commitment to pray with the people. It is vitally important for pastors to pray for their congregations, and I am sure my predecessor did so. But praying with them is also vital, and sometimes even more important. Vital pastoral ministry is relational, and not just transactional; it is ministry with and not just for the community. Congregations need to know their pastors are holding them in prayer. Praying with their parishioners assures them that their pastors are praying for them.

Praying pastorally in the pulpit is a partial fulfillment of the pastoral promise. I have seen pastors pray in manifold ways for parishioners in public worship – by reading lists of those in need, by lifting up needs spoken aloud in the assembly, by collecting prayer cards and referring to them in the pastoral prayer, etc. When I was a parish pastor, one way I prayed for and with my people was by inviting those in the congregation who desired personal prayer to remain after worship, at which time I would pray with them individually. In each of these cases, pastoral prayers are offered in response to requests for prayer. But what of unrequested prayer?

Pastoral prayer is more than an on-demand service. Jesus often responded to cries for help, but he also reached out to people who asked him for nothing. His first two signs in the Gospel of John reflect this pattern: in the first, the changing of water into wine, he responds to the plea of his mother, while in the second, he singles out a lame man in a group of invalids, asking him if he wants to be made well. (John 2:1-11; 5:1-9)

Leaders in Christ’s church are called not just to pray when asked, but also to take initiative in praying for members of their community. Their vocation is both to pray for their people and with their people. When pastors pray with their people, they join in solidarity together with those in need. Hebrews tells us that because he suffered with us, Jesus is able to make intercession for us. (Hebrews 4:14-16)

Prayer is more than mere address; it is also attitude and action. The rest of this pastoral promise – to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love – is prayer as attitude and action. In the coming weeks, we will consider how this quadrilateral gives particular shape to excellence in pastoral ministry.

Yours in prayer,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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