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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

The Pastor’s Promise, Part II
October 20, 2016

With our October prayer calendar focusing on pastors, this month I am exploring the relationship between pastors and their congregations. First, I challenged congregations to provide their pastors with what they most need in order to fulfill their calling: prayer, encouragement, and forbearance. I followed that by considering pastors’ ordination promise to hold their congregations in prayer.

Specifically, we promise to “pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” (Book of Order W-4.4003h) Prayer is first of all a matter of address – our speaking to God, and seeking to listen to God. Yet prayer is more than verbal communication. It is also a frame of mind and heart that leads to particular activities. Pastoral prayer is about address, attitude, and action.

“Energy, intelligence, imagination, and love” describe how we pray, just as surely as the words we utter with and for God’s people constitute what we pray. The whole of the pastoral life is, in a very real sense, a life of prayer.

When Jesus is asked to identify the greatest commandment, he quotes two statements from the Law: Love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:30-31, citing Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19) This fourfold character of right relationship to God strikingly parallels the pastor’s fourfold promise to God’s people:

Energy – strength
Intelligence – mind
Imagination – soul
Love – hart

Indeed, in Matthew’s account, Jesus says that love of God and love of neighbor are homoios, meaning “alike” or “equivalent.” (Matthew 22:39) The pastor’s love for God and love for the people is a single, seamless cloth.

Energy is not about being a constant “Energizer bunny,” an unstoppable bundle of motion. It speaks rather to persistently investing one’s full and best ability in the vocation to which we have been called. The opposite would be to “coast” along. The true test of this in pastoral work is the test of time. Are we still investing our very best in our pastoral work after one year? Three? Ten? Twenty? Or have we begun to coast?

One place this has been a challenge to me has been with preparing sermons. Do I invest the same energy in preparing my sermons year after year after year, or do I begin to dip into my sermon “barrel” to recycle them? Do I plagiarize myself by representing a word that I felt God calling me to give for another day as though it were God’s word for today?

Of course, I am no fountain of original ideas week after week. No pastor is. I will share some ideas and stories again and again, just as every human being does. But, for me at least, simply pulling an already-packaged sermon out of the freezer as is, microwaving it for a few minutes, and presenting it as a freshly prepared meal just doesn’t square with my promise to maintain my best energy in listening for God’s Word for God’s people here and now.

It is particularly tempting to go to the barrel now that I preach at different churches each week. I may have preached this elsewhere, but nobody will know, will they? One time in my seven years here, I decided to try my hand a preparing a sermon that I could share from church to church. I thought of it as preaching a single sermon to my entire congregation, which doesn’t gather all at once, like a pastor who preaches the same sermon each Sunday at multiple services (something I have done often). I was just three weeks into that experiment when someone greeted me after church by saying my sermon was just as good this time as it was two weeks earlier when he had heard me deliver it to another congregation he had visited, where I had happened to preach. He did not mean to denigrate me at all. I thanked him with a chuckle, but a warning bell went off inside me. I had not invested the same study and prayer in preparing today’s sermon as I had two weeks ago. I tried to deliver it well, but I was coasting just a bit.

Ministry of the Word requires of pastors their best energy week after week, year after year. For me, that means preparing a new sermon each Lord’s Day. Perhaps others can keep their energy investment high by refining and recasting a previous sermon for a new place and time. Not me.

Maintaining our best energy requires that we practice Sabbath. Sunday is no Sabbath for pastors. It is a work day. We need to take another day away from the labors of ministry if we aim to keep our energy high. By keeping Sabbath, we acknowledge our very human need for rest. We need it for our own sake and for our ministry’s sake. But we need also to model the necessity of keeping Sabbath for our parishioners who themselves are caught up in a world of unrelenting demands that all too easily wear them out and break them down. Here is a great gift that a congregation can give its pastor: Insist that she or he keep Sabbath!

Yours in our Lord’s strength,

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

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