A few months ago, I wrote that I’d never been drawn to pastoral work, which isn’t quite true. Growing up in the church, “pastor” meant “middle aged white man.” Much earlier, it described something to do with agrarian life, but the word’s origin has import for its meaning and use today. It’s the Latin word for “shepherd,” as in “The Lord is my pastor…” in a Psalm 23-rewrite, and so is a sort of strange metaphor to use, as the shepherd or pastor isn’t the-sheep-who-happens-to-have-an-office-at-church, or the-sheep-who-listens-to-others’-problems, or the-sheep-who-must-be-emotionally-on-call-24/7, but not a sheep at all. The pastor is the servant-leader, doing exactly and only the things which the sheep can’t do for themselves or each other. I don’t know much about sheep, but I suspect they can get themselves up the morning, they mostly feed themselves, and they enjoy a good gossip over a cup of coffee without the shepherd.
So what’s the pastor for?
In the sort of churches that carry on the leadership structure developed in the first years of the church and practiced through thousands of generations of faithful Christians, the priest (the “pastor” of a “flock,” or congregation) undergoes extensive study, training, and spiritual discernment before having hands laid on his or her head and shoulders to ordain her or him as a priest. When a body becomes a priest, it’s set aside for a particular ministry within the body of Christ, the church. There’s work that no other part of the body can do, and so, there’s a lot that the priest ought to let others undertake in order to do focus on those things which no one else can do. Pastoral work–the tending to peoples’ souls and bodies–most faithfully comes from the spring out of which one became a pastor (a “shepherd,” a servant-leader, a priest): from one’s ordination.
Priests absolve, priests bless and anoint.
This is work that no other members of Christ’s body (except bishops, of course) undertake. The obfuscation of “pastoral work” in the last decades comes from an earlier confusion about the meaning and place of sacraments in everyday life. As churches which do not administer sacraments have proliferated, the servant-leaders of those congregations have had to find something to do, and so their work blurs the line of what it is that priests are called to do as far as “pastoral work” is concerned.
God is spirit, and God’s worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.
Many of God’s worshipers are also human, and therefore flesh–tangible, visible, dense matter. To deny or degrade our created flesh is gnostic, and so to rightly honor our created-ness (and therefore, our Creator), we bodies seek ways to meet our God-who-is-spirit in the midst of our created world, through our fleshy bodies. This is what sacraments are. This is pastoral work.
Those feuding church women who may try to knock down the door to the pastor’s study would do well to examine their own consciences and prepare a confession for the priest to hear–this does a woman’s (or man’s) soul much more good than tearfully rationalizing arrogant, selfish behavior to a priest in a sham of a counseling session. There’s nothing wrong with asking a priest’s help to prepare a confession, either–I’ve prepared my confession with a friend before, and it was truly the most faithful one I’ve done to date.
Blessing the bread and wine of Holy Communion and then distributing it to people hungry for God’s touch and transformation is the most powerful “pastoral work” which a person can undertake. This action rightly orders humanity’s place in the whole scheme of things–that is, a very small, passive place, setting God, God’s action, and God’s power at the center of all. It’s not hours of conversation or tactful posturing or social engagements that makes a good pastor, but the wise and liberal distribution of the sacraments–reminding us en-souled bodies that God breaks into our lives all the time, everywhere.
In confession, God breaks into our darkness and sin, evacuates it like a pus-filled wound, and administers healing ointment to bring us back to health. In Eucharist, God feeds us with his own body and blood in a dry and barren land. In marriage and unction (anointing the sick) and baptism, God comes alongside us with particular power at a pivotal moment to enliven and strengthen us with his own Holy Spirit.
Setting aside certain people to make the sacraments their business is a practice from the first years of the church–and long before the church, work for the sons of Levi, the priests of the Hebrew people. To overtake psychological work or medical work or even culinary work is not the purpose of a priest, or even of a pastor. If a person who is ordained happens also to be a psychologist, or a doctor, or a great cook, she may be called to incorporate that gift into her work as a pastor and priest, but it is not vital to a priest’s ministry.
In the last weeks, as I’ve been taking a sort of vacation from my priestly work, I’ve realized as I often do when I take such “vacations” (that is, not wearing my collar around or being scheduled to lead worship or preach) that I’m never really not-a-pastor, just like I believe I’m really never not-a-priest. Amongst the sweet people I’ve been journeying through yoga school the last month, I’ve been drawn again and again to exclaim aloud at their beauty and to lift them up to God in prayer. What is a priest–and a pastor!–except a person who spends their time pointing out God amongst people and pulling God’s attention toward people? Sacraments sit at that very communication point between God and humanity.
The heart of pastoral work is helping to draw God and the people to each other. Priests are called to do it through confession and absolution, through Holy Communion, and through blessing.