ACR JournalMinistry

Thank God for ordinary pastors

The noble task of the ordinary Christian minister is essential for the future health of the churches which make up the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. Yet challenges to the ordinary Christian ministry abound! The world around us seems to be spinning away from its Christian moorings at a rapid rate, the frailty of the flesh and the failure of leaders in the church saddens us all too regularly, and the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, as he has always done – crouching even at the rectory door.  

There are, of course, myriad other challenges which face the mission-minded minister in Sydney today. The increased workload produced by legal compliance, risk management, and miscellaneous bureaucratic matters may put a pinch on pastoral work. The reality of declining church attendance and falling ordination numbers may produce acute pressure to grow numerically. The end of an apparent (!) golden age of money and effective ministerial models may stimulate a stressful search for new and ‘successful’ pastoral philosophies that worked for someone else, somewhere else.  One particular challenge that lurks behind many of these: the problem of understanding the role of the ordinary pastor.

On the one hand, it is possible to overload the role of the pastor such that it reflects the professional more than the pastoral world – perhaps the ‘Pastor as CEO’ model or the ‘Minister as paid service provider’. Visionary leadership, strategic thinking, change management, and church growth theories derived from foreign megachurch culture may tend to overload and distort the pastoral office in this way.  Of course, we really need to sift and Scripturally appreciate the business experience and managerial wisdom of our natural world.  However, the process of ‘plundering the Egyptians’ (cf. Exod 3:22, 12:36) must always complement but never dislodge the ordinary ministerial priorities of the pastor.

On the other hand, it is possible to underplay the role of the pastor such that the distinction between the ordained presbyteral ministry and lay ministry effectively collapses. Overreactions to Anglo-Catholic sacerdotalism, ignorance of the positive use of the word ‘priest’ in Reformation theology and history, and naïve views of ‘every-member ministry’ may tend towards devaluation of the pastoral office in this way. Though cultural egalitarianism and appreciation for informality may be Australian phenomena, they are no excuse for denial of the New Testament’s structured understanding of the ministry (1 Tim 3; Acts 20:28), nor sufficient grounds for rejection of the theology of ordination held in this diocese.

It is right to speak of ministry in which every Christian person is involved, and in the same breath, the ministry for which particular Christian persons are set apart. The former reflects the fact that all believers are given gifts for the building up of the body of Christ. The latter reflects the fact that some believers are appointed through examination and the laying on of hands for life-long ministry to the people of God. The essence of this ordinary ministry of the ‘pastor-teacher’ is Word ministry, which prioritises the preaching of Scriptures and the administration of the sacraments.  Ordinary pastors, through the exercise of this ministry, pastor Christ’s flock under their care and seek out His lost sheep. Broughton Knox reflects on the Bible’s teaching of pastoral ministry and succinctly captures the nature and importance of this high calling:

“Not everyone is sent by God for such ministry. When a man is called by God to this work, he is called to something to which he must devote his life.  His ministry is an essential ministry in the purposes of God for the maintenance of faith and obedience and the calling of people into fellowship with God.”[1]

I am informed that there are 270 parishes represented at our diocesan synod this year, which means – praise be to God! – that there are at least this number of pastors set apart for this ordinary ministry throughout our Sydney Anglican churches. I am also informed that we have around fifty thousand regular adult worshippers in our parishes each week, which means – praise God again! – that we have an average of roughly 185 adults per parish. Of course, some of our churches are larger and some are smaller than this number – and we all earnestly desire to see more and more souls saved and see these numbers grow. But the size of a parish does not make the ministry extraordinary. Rather, the ministry of the ordinary pastor is itself extraordinary.  Through the prayerful application of the Word and sacrament, our Lord gracefully tends to the flock He has placed under the care of His pastoral undershepherds. We must not lose sight of the extraordinary nature of those basic realities.

This ordinary ministry does not require superhuman strategies, colourful charisma, exceptional eloquence, unprecedented preaching ability, marvellous managerial skills, or even – dare I say? – an alliterated arrangement of ministerial portfolios. Of course, the Lord blesses His people with various gifts and abilities, and we should rejoice when we see the Lord bless his ministers in different ways and measures.  The existence of those who are strong and charismatic preachers, insightful ministerial philosophers, able managers of large ministry teams, and those who have grown large churches should give us cause to thank God and give us pause to reflect on their experiences. There are always competencies which can be grown and strengthened, and there is much in this regard that we can learn from those who have ministerial ‘runs on the board’.

But the reality is that most of us are fairly ordinary and do not possess the gifts and abilities of the megachurch minister. Indeed, a diocese of 270 parishes should not presuppose extraordinarily gifted pastors, but rather it should operate on the assumption of roughly 270 ordinary and average pastors. For a network of churches which requires its ministers to be extraordinary preachers with extraordinary charisma and possess extraordinary managerial qualities, will be a network with a rather short lifespan. It will cater for a handful of parishes with such clergy – but the vast majority will suffer a slow and depressing decline. The same goes for any ministry philosophy which presupposes an extraordinarily charismatic preacher and business manager and visionary leader as the senior minister. That ministry philosophy will not be suitable for most pastors, and for the handful of pastors to whom it does suit, it will function only for the duration of their ministry. Indeed, there may be a narrow-mindedness (“it worked there for that person, and so it should work across the diocese”) and short-sightedness (“it works for me, but the next generation is another person’s business”) bound up with placing these expectations on a large network of churches. 

Therefore, we should thank God for the ordinary pastors of our diocese. They are dedicated and loving ministers of the Word set apart by our Lord for our good. We ought to encourage the ordinary pastor – perhaps even our own ordinary pastor this Sunday – as he serves the saints and seeks out the Lord’s lost sheep. There are so many pressures placed on the modern minister, so let us – at least! – cast off the burdensome yoke of extraordinary megachurch ministerial expectations and be glad for the ordinary ministerial means of God’s grace to His people. And let us praise our good God for His rich blessing of so many ministers of the true gospel in our churches – and let us pray for many more. If we want to reach Australia, we do not need extraordinary pastors but extra ordinary pastors. This faithful and prayerful and ordinary ministry is the very heart of our diocese. And it is the Lord Jesus Christ who, by raising up and working through ordinary pastors, will keep it beating until the very end of the age.

ACR Journal: This article was originally published in the ACR’s Journal for Spring 2019.

[1] D.B. Knox, Sent By Jesus (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1992), 9.