Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Turning Stones into Bread

My favorite book on the pastoral ministry was and is "The Art of Pastoring" by David Hansen. I have read it four or five times over the years and given a copy to many people along the way.

In his book Hansen talks about how a person called to be a pastor puts aside the prerogative of what he calls “turning stones into bread” or what I might call “working for a living.” Thus I derive the title of this post from Hansen’s book, though I do not wish to fault him for any bad or erroneous ideas I have come up with on my own!

Technically speaking as a pastor I was not “paid” to do a job as much as “supported” to do that job, in a similar manner as a missionary. OK, that support gets turned into a salary and a paycheck, but the official “call” from the congregation goes like this…”In order that you might devote yourself exclusively to the ministry of the word and pray, we the congregation…”

Once calledin this way, many business instincts are out the window. In my 20 years of pastoral ministry this was one of the most frustrating and also rewarding aspects of the calling.

Although there may have been an indirect correlation between how hard or well I worked on the one hand, and how much money was in the coffers (or in my paycheck) on the other, the pastoral ministry requires that such correlations be far from mind and heart.

If I run a business I can choose to work more hours, spend more money on advertising, or develop new proficiencies with the motive or goal of having more business and as a result more money. I may fail in those efforts, but there is nothing wrong with those efforts or their motivation.

Granted, one would hope that I see some greater good being served through my work, but seeking to provide better for myself and family is a perfectly decent motivation. It isn’t in the church. The moment I am connecting anything I do as a pastor with an increase in “business” (more money coming in) and the normally concomitant increase in “salary,” well, I have profaned the calling and am worthy only to be cast out of it.

Just think of the mischief to which such a motivational correlation would lead . First, it would cause me to spend more energy “courting” wealthier visitors than poorer visitors. Such favoritism is an obscenity. Second, it would lead me to focus pastoral attention and care more on those who offer possibility of financial return rather than on those who really need the care. Usually in such scenarios the mentally ill, the elderly, and the needy get shorted. Third, it would lead me to focus a church outreach on an affluent neighborhood rather than a poorer neighborhood. There is nothing inherently wrong with outreach in a more affluent neighborhood of course;, well, depending…(This reminds me of the almost universal tendency for church plants to be located in what are, on average, more affluent areas. Something seems wrong with that picture.) Fourth, the motive of “building the business” might be the driving force for all sorts of interesting and hip advertising campaigns. That would be bad.

Had he not been called to fast, and were he not being tempted to distrust his Father, there may have been nothing wrong with Jesus turning a stone into bread. Likewise as a pastor I gave up the right to work for my personal well being and benefit, especially financially. I gave up, as it were, the right to turn stones into bread.

On the positive side giving up that right forced me to trust and to pray more. God’s faithful provision over the years for my family’s needs also trained me to attend to the essentials of the calling while being able to rest in the knowledge that He had taken care of us all along the way and would continue to do so.

I was raised in a family of small businesses – my dad, his parents, my mother’s parents, my siblings, and so forth. I sought out work as soon as I was old enough to push a mower, and always had money. If I ran low I went out and made more money. If I needed to I advertised. If I needed to I sought work in the rich neighborhoods rather than the poor ones. If I needed to I worked dawn to dusk day after day.

And so, on the negative side, giving up the “right” to turn stones into bread went against almost every instinct I had and have. This reminds of my first rugby game at Clemson. I played left wing, and I remember on about our first offensive move down the field, after the ball came to me, my football instinct kicked in. I saw a crease and I cut and I ran for it. Had it been football I would have made a twenty yard gain, gotten a first down, and lots of pats on the head. But it was rugby. All I did was cause our team to lose possession once I was down. I got a few knocks on the head for being stupid, that’s about it.

After being well trained in the ministry mindset I am now back in that other world. All in all, I think I like it. It’s scary in a whole different way, but I am enjoying the opportunity to think creatively about how to survive.

As you think of your pastor or rabbi or priest, remember the unique challenge it may be to him or to her to give up the right to turn stones into bread. Be generous and do what you can to allay the anxieties that may eat away and tempt him or her to take that stone, that calling to trust and wait while being devoted to word and prayer, and turn it into bread. The temptation is always there. It can be insidious.

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