Being with pastors

Over the past month I have traveled more than I should have, probably; there was a day when, feeling rather overwhelmed by life, I looked for a reason, and realised that I was about to sleep in my sixth different bed in six nights…

The traveling included some great times, though. I spent three days at continuing education events for pastors, one with the Free Church of Scotland, and two with the Scottish Baptists. Days like these remind me of several things: my own vocation; the purpose of theology; and the goodness of God.

I am called and vowed to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. It may be, at present it looks likely, that for the remainder of my life my salary will be paid by institutions of higher education, but vocation is not about employment; the day I stop believing that I can adequately fulfill my ordination vows in the academy will be the day my resignation goes in. This is not the same for every theologian, of course: I have good friends who have courageously held on to a vocation to lay theology, when ordination was offered by ecclesial authorities and looked an easy route to academic employment one way or another.

I am convinced, however, that theology is the church’s science. We do what we do to serve the people of God, the bride of Christ. Being Baptist, I am further convinced that theology is the churches’ science: we do what we do to serve not some idealised ecclesial entity, but messy and difficult local fellowships which gather Sunday by Sunday around Word and bread and wine. For me, this means that those occasions when I have the privilege of being with pastors are moments of testing and, by the grace of God, always thus far, of validation: have I got something to offer these brothers and sisters, that will feed, aid, and sustain their ministries? Not, of course, that everything done in the study or seminar must be immediately translatable to the pulpit or pastoral visit, but that the time spent in study and seminar has produced some fruit that is now ripe for the picking. I believe the Pope claims as one of his titles servum servorum Dei, ‘the servant of the servants of God’; perhaps the title is his pre-eminently, if his role in the determination of doctrine is as it is claimed to be, but for all of us who are called to wrestle with the teaching of the church, the implications of the gospel, this title offers an aspiration–to serve God’s ministers.

And the goodness of God. An old friend, with whom I have since lost touch, trained for Anglican priesthood as I trained for Baptist ministry; Moira’s wisdom and insight was remarkable, and talking to her enabled me more than once to name my own experiences. She said once of Wycliffe Hall, where she trained, ‘I have never been anywhere where people laughed so much.’ That’s it. That’s what being with pastors means to me. I came away, particularly from the Baptist meeting, with a sense of having been immersed in something remarkable–wholeness? wholesomeness? holiness? All of those and more–Moira would have known what to call it.

The events end, of course, with fulsome expressions of gratitude, a generous gift, and I depart, unable to articulate the truth that I received far, far more than I gave, or ever could give.

But it is ever thus in God’s economy of grace.

3 Comments

  1. Nathan Hitchcock
    Feb 10, 2008

    Steve, I enjoyed meeting you in person during your presentation at New College last month. I continue to ponder what are the long-term ramifications of “neo-trinitarianism.”

    And thank you for this honest post. I too cannot shake the feeling that my primary identity is as a churchman. I have served in professional ministry, non-professional ministry as an elder, and am making the transition to the academy – but there lies within them the same vocational impulse. Contrary a historical point recently argued by McGrath, we would do well to see this insight captured by the Reformation, bridging the divide between sacred and secular, magisterium and commoner, noumenal and phenomenal. May there be many in the community who in their faithfulness to Christ and the church are also “faithful to the earth.”

  2. Steve H
    Feb 11, 2008

    Hi Nathan, and welcome. I’ll post something on ‘neo-trinitarianism’ soon, probably including a tidied-up version of the paper you heard (the stuff on Basil was rapidly written, and it showed…)

    As I say above, I don’t want to suggest that all theologians should be ordained to ministry; I have friends whose commitment to a vocation to lay theology is as clear and as strong as my vocation–and in most cases is better fulfilled. But this is who I am, for better or worse…

  3. Geordie Ziegler
    Mar 7, 2008

    Steve,
    I stumbled on your site and found myself gravitationally pulled to your pastoral comments above. I have an honest question for you which arises out of my own anticipated future challenge… How, in your mind and experience, are you able to fulfill your ordination vows while serving in the academy? Having spent the last nine years as a Presbyterian minister and now studying in Scotland for a PhD, I anticipate arriving at the other end of this ‘sabbatical/desert/pilgrimage’ and looking for a way to ‘walk the middle’ – to use for the good of the church what I’ve received through this season of study, but to serve the church as well. How does one do that, particularly in an ‘ordained’ way, while in the academy?

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