By the fourth year of my first church plant the congregation was in financial jeopardy. Members of my denomination’s Home Mission Board had informed me with all solemnity that it would take ten years to plant a church. In the next breath, I was told that we would be given six years of decreasing denominational aid. By year four it didn’t look like we were in sniffing distance of ten let alone five years!
In those situations everyone has an idea. One man on the board continually urged me to form and reform the church’s vision and purpose statement. Another wanted me to think about our niche in the community. Why were we there? What were we doing? Who were we serving? I was being encouraged to read church growth material and marketing books, always with the qualification that these principles needed to be baptized.
It was then that I discovered John Chrysostom’s, Six Books on the Priesthood, published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Chrysostom is another well known figure in church history but he is usually thought of as the golden-mouthed preacher, which he apparently was. To put Chrysostom into historical perspective, he was about twenty years younger than Gregory of Nazianzus and though there is no evidence of them having met, John, in February 398, would become pastor of Gregory’s Constantinople congregation. Whether they met or not, it is likely that Chrysostom had read Gregory’s De Fuga. Why is that a good assumption? Well, not only does Chrysostom have his own version of a “flight” from the pastorate but he picks up the metaphor of the pastor as physician saying of the ministry, “It takes the place of medicine and cautery and surgery.” He too had likely imbibed a lesson or two from his betters.
So, what did I learn from Chrysostom during those belt tightening times? First, I learned not to panic. My inclination during those days was to turn to the law as a motivator; a whip might be a better description because that is essentially what it is. These sheep needed to get into shape and start moving in the right direction! But Chrysostom urged me to think of the pastorate as ministerial in nature and not magisterial. That alone is worth its weight in gold.
He wisely said of the ministry, “But in the case we are considering it is necessary to make a man better not by force but by persuasion.” He then adds, “[A] lot of tact is needed, so that the sick may be persuaded of their own accord to the treatment…and not only that, but be grateful to them for the cure.” This is a lesson every seminary student and pastor must learn. The pastorate is a ministerial office. Tact is a must.
But before I could be persuasive Chrysostom helped me to do a little self-reflection. In other words, and second, he helped me to see who it was that first needed some whipping into shape! It was me. According to Chrysostom, a pastor “must be sober and clear sighted and possess a thousand eyes looking in every direction, for he lives, not for himself alone, but for a great multitude.” He lives for his congregation. Let me put it another way. He lives to care for his congregation. Let me not mince words. The church is not the pastor’s kingdom. He is God’s steward called and appointed to soberly and vigilantly keep watch over the sheep in his trust.
The third lesson that Chrysostom taught me was something that I was going to learn over and over again from these spiritual masters. I needed to remember, “When all is said and done, there is only one means and only method of treatment available (Chrysostom is speaking of the sinful condition of the people), and that is teaching by word of mouth.” Chrysostom’s view of preaching is simple, “[words] are urgently needed, not only for the safety of the Church’s members, but to meet the attacks of outsiders as well.” I needed to remember what another theologian has said so well publicly, namely, when a pastor preaches the Word faithfully God is doing something in the life of those in the congregation that will last for all eternity.
So, how did that fourth year end? The session called the congregation to fast and then appointed a worship service in order to break that time of humiliation with a guest preacher opening the Word. It was a sober and sobering time in the life of the congregation but it was also a time of rich blessing. Later that month someone quietly placed a substantial offering into the collection plate which opened the door to further blessing from the Lord. But better still I had learned some invaluable lessons, yet again, from my pastoral betters.