A Friend Among Colleagues

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, October 20, 2022

A Friend Among Colleagues

I am writing from the beautiful grounds of the Krislund Camp and Conference Center, nestled in a central Pennsylvania valley at the height of fall’s glorious leaf season. I am gathered here with my colleagues in executive presbytery ministry across the Synod of the Trinity, friends who have been a mainstay for me in the work to which God has called me in Pittsburgh.

This community of friends in ministry has sustained me in my vocation, something that I highlighted in last week’s letter as necessary for all who minister in the way of Jesus. I cannot imagine doing my work well without them.

This is my last time to gather with them before I retire, and as such this meeting is bittersweet. Yesterday they offered me an astonishing gift, as they went around the room expressing specific points of appreciation for me. Some of them I expected, such as gratitude for my music. But I barely recognized myself in some of their accolades.

One of them expressed gratitude for how I live out our fifth ordination vow, “Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry?” (Book of Order W-4.404) They noted that this vow is far too widely neglected. Not only does its neglect impoverish us as ministers – it robs the church of the vitality that is generated by leaders who are at their best.

Two others around that table of Presbytery Executives thanked me for the work I did for them in the decade before I came to Pittsburgh, during which I developed and led a national program for first call pastors, designed to help them build a foundation for faithful, fruitful, and fulfilling ministry over a lifetime. (A story about that program was published in The Presbyterian Outlook. A brochure for that program is here.)

Their work now as presbytery leaders suggests that the program that influenced the beginning of their pastoral ministry accomplished its aims for them. I cannot take credit for the program’s contours, because they came from Jesus himself. The core of the program was to embed first call pastors in colleague groups led by pastor-mentors, that adopted a covenant of vital vocational habits and met regularly to encourage and admonish one another in their practices of ministry.

Since coming to Pittsburgh Presbytery, I have each year led a “New Clergy Orientation” meeting with everyone who began a new call in our presbytery that year. One of the things I highlight in that meeting is our expectation that every minister will participate in a clergy colleague group. Some of those groups have been led by our presbytery staff, but most are not. Some are interdenominational. Most are local, but some groups comprise colleagues scattered across the country.

Ministry friendship is too important to pursue ad hoc. It requires the discipline of commitment to gather with the group and to pursue practices of ministerial excellence to which we hold each other accountable.

Apostolic leadership in the way of Jesus has been communal at the core from the beginning. We get a glimpse of how this works in the Pauline counsel to Timothy: “What you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.” Apostolic ministry is learned in community, practiced in community, and transmitted to the next generation in community.

I have been distressed by a significant uptick I have observed recently in public fault-finding and blaming of church leaders. I have seen it manifest at all levels of the church’s life. It is most often expressed as mistrust of decisions made by leaders, such as over masking policies in church worship. We have always honored the freedom of conscience to disagree, but this does not justify the new wave of public airing of grievance against church leaders that has erupted. A bad spirit has emerged in the public square, of tolerating and even applauding public defiance, castigation, and ridicule of those who differ from us. And that spirit has infected the church.

If ever the church needed not to be conformed to the world, that time is now.

We open ourselves to this bad spirit when we cease practicing friendship with our colleagues in ministry. By “practicing” I intend to be very concrete. We cease meeting with them, praying with them, learning from them, breaking bread with them. Or if we do these things, we do them only with those who think like us and look like us.

The collegial friendship that sustains ministry for the long haul must not be an echo chamber in which everyone parrots each other’s celebrations and peeves. It must be informed by the ancient apostolic wisdom that we need most those who are unlike us if we are to be faithfully and fully the body of Christ.

How are you practicing your promise to be a friend to your colleagues in ministry? Your own vitality and the vitality of those you serve depend upon it.

Your friend in ministry,

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