"I fear lest if I took the flock in hand when it was in good condition and well nourished, and then wasted it through my unskilfulness, I should provoke against myself the God who so loved the flock as to give Himself up for their salvation and ransom." - St. John Chrysostom

Yesterday I wrote, “Is the declining job market of academia good for the church?” in response to a posts written by Marc Cortez and Jim West (read the original post for links). I asked if it was a good thing that some people who hoped to be professors instead become pastors because they could not find a job in academia. On Twitter Myles Werntz responded saying, “Maybe it’s good, except that you’ll have lots of folks who view it as a consolation prize.” This seemed to be a common concern. On Facebook a friend wrote this:

“I don’t understand why people think that not making it in the academy always means a fall back into the pastorate…. Both are callings, and should be treated as such. …For students to treat ministry like that is kind of scary to me. Some people feel a call to both, fine- but don’t force something because of a situation. Unless you are Jonah, don’t do fall backs.”

If our pulpits are filled with people who wanted to be behind lecterns what does this do to the church?

I agree with those whose comments expressed concern. It downplays the pastorate. It makes the pastorate a “Plan B” for those who wanted to do something “bigger and better”. It could result in men and women pastoring people who know college/university/seminary talk. They may be able to explain the JEDP theory of the Pentateuch, but they cannot preach and teach the Pentateuch. They have a theory on the Synoptic Problem, but they don’t know how to connect the Gospel of Mark with the lives of parishioners.

That said, it could be that we are overlooking something important about some people. It could be that there are some who take the pastorate so seriously they don’t want to enter it. I’ve seen many contemporaries rush toward the pastorate and at times I’ve doubted that they’ve thought seriously about what this means. Do they think they will be the next famous preacher? Some might be that person, but many won’t.

Most people will pastor churches of about eighty members. They won’t earn big paychecks. They will be too busy to write those books they imagined writing. Their parishioners will not be nice people who love their pastor.

At times I am worried that they’ve underestimated the costs of this vocation. Those who seek academic positions are sometimes very aware of what it would mean to live life in a classroom compared to a sanctuary. They know why they don’t want to do it. Could it be that they are the best people for the job?

In John Chrysostom’s magnificent little work On the Priesthood he writes dialogue with Basil. Chrysostom does not want to pastor so Basil challenges him with these words:

“But what riddle can there be more obscure than this—Christ has commanded him who loves Him to tend His sheep, and yet you say that you decline to tend them because you love Him who gave this command?”

Chrysostom responds:

“My saying is no riddle, but very intelligible and simple, for if I were well qualified to administer this office, as Christ desired it, and then shunned it, my remark might be open to doubt, but since the infirmity of my spirit renders me useless for this ministry, why does my saying deserve to be called in question? For I fear lest if I took the flock in hand when it was in good condition and well nourished, and then wasted it through my unskilfulness, I should provoke against myself the God who so loved the flock as to give Himself up for their salvation and ransom.” (BOOK II.4)

Later Chrysostom begins to explain why he did not receive the call to the pastorate immediately, but rejected it at first:

“For had I accepted the office, I do not say all men, but those who take pleasure in speaking evil, might have suspected and said many things concerning myself who had been elected and concerning them, the electors: for instance, that they regarded wealth, and admired splendor of rank, or had been induced by flattery to promote me to this honor: indeed I cannot say whether some one might not have suspected that they were bribed by money. Moreover, they would have said, “Christ called fishermen, tentmakers, and publicans to this dignity, whereas these men reject those who support themselves by daily labor: but if there be any one who devotes himself to secular learning, and is brought up in idleness, him they receive and admire. For why, pray, have they passed by men who have undergone innumerable toils in the service of the Church, and suddenly dragged into this dignity one who has never experienced any labors of this kind, but has spent all his youth in the vain study of secular learning.”

These things and more they might have said had I accepted the office: but not so now. For every pretext for maligning is now cut away from them, and they can neither accuse me of flattery, nor the others of receiving bribes, unless some choose to act like mere madmen. For how could one who used flattery and expended money in order to obtain the dignity, have abandoned it to others when he might have obtained it? For this would be just as if a man who had bestowed much labor upon the ground in order that the corn field might be laden with abundant produce, and the presses overflow with wine, after innumerable toils and great expenditure of money were to surrender the fruits to others just when it was time to reap his corn and gather in his vintage. Do you see that although what was said might be far from the truth, nevertheless those who wished to calumniate the electors would then have had a pretext for alleging that the choice was made without fair judgment and consideration. But as it is I have prevented them from being open mouthed, or even uttering a single word on the subject. Such then and more would have been their remarks at the outset. But after undertaking the ministry I should not have been able day by day to defend myself against accusers, even if I had done everything faultlessly, to say nothing of the many mistakes which I must have made owing to my youth and inexperience. But now I have saved the electors from this kind of accusation also, whereas in the other case I should have involved them in innumerable reproaches. For what would not the world have said? “They have committed affairs of such vast interest and importance to thoughtless youths, they have defiled the flock of God, and Christian affairs have become a jest and a laughing-stock.” But now “all iniquity shall stop her mouth.” For although they may say these things on your account, you will speedily teach them by your acts that understanding is not to be estimated by age, and the grey head is not to be the test of an elder—that the young man ought not to be absolutely excluded from the ministry, but only the novice: and the difference between the two is great.” (BOOK II.8)

Chrysostom perceived that someone too quick to accept the offer to be a leader in the church might show themselves to have ulterior motives. In his presentation of himself he showed detractors that he could live life just fine without the prestige of an ecclesiastical office. He knew some would say that it was a shame that others who had given years to the day-to-day service of the church were overlooked in favor of one who had “has spent all his youth in the vain study of secular learning.” He knew he would be perceived as (to use our language) an academic in the pulpit.

Chrysostom is known today as one of the greatest preachers in the history of the church. He did not waste his good mind by entering the pastorate. But that is not the moral of this story. What I am saying is that we must be careful not to judge someone too quickly who flees the pastoral vocation in favor of other callings they find more apt. If God pushes them toward the work of a pastor you may be confident that they are taking the office not because they want power or fame, but they wrestled with the angel of God until exhausted they were changed.

Personally, I am one of those who would rather enter the classroom than the sanctuary. If I pastor someday it will be because I submitted to a strong, forceful calling–not because I wanted the glory of such a position. Now I don’t mean to sound too snarky, but I can’t guarantee the same for those who in their first year as an M.DIV student talk about how they are going to do this with “my church” and that with “my church”. Maybe churches should worry more about those folk? I don’t know.

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