Vitality in Pastoral Formation

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Preachers and church workers must also hear the gospel preached to them.

It would be easy to bore readers with stats about pastor burnout, but I won’t. Whatever the stats may say, the truth is that pastors and priests across nearly all denominational lines in the U.S. are feeling more tired, worn out, and dispirited than ever before. As a pastor who began ministry during the height of the COVID pandemic, I know the feeling myself. It’s pretty hard to have joy in pastoral tasks like preaching, communing your people, and visiting the homebound when you can’t actually do any of those things. Although at this stage, things have definitely improved and pastors can once again fulfill these essential aspects of the ministry, there are still many things in the societal landscape and in our congregations to dishearten pastors and other church workers.

We live in a time when the societal pressures of an inflationary economy, war in Europe, domestic political discord, heated debate over abortion, and ever shifting and increasingly bizarre public sexual morals intersect with our personal lives and the lives of our parishioners. With the instability in financial markets and the rising costs of energy, economic difficulties within many congregations have become more serious. These macro problems traverse into the personal lives of church leaders and laypeople alike and evidence themselves through sharp increases in depression, anxiety, loneliness, and substance abuse. The societal landscape today is enough to overwhelm any pastor or church worker, but at the same time, the situation calls more than ever for the healing medicine of Christ’s gospel, which they are called to give.

So now we arrive at a paradox. Only the gospel can heal the brokenness of the world and the brokenness of our lives. Pastors are called to preach the healing gospel of Christ. Yet, pastors themselves are disheartened, anxious, depressed, and lonely. How are they to hear without a preacher, but how are preachers to preach if they are disheartened? How is the church worker to pass on the life-giving gospel if they have lost vitality in their work?

The simple answer to these questions is that preachers and church workers must also hear the gospel preached to them. The preacher needs to receive the gospel and be healed by the gospel before preaching it. The pastor must receive pastoral care before giving it. The pastor must receive absolution before absolving. The church worker needs to receive the grace of Christ before sharing it with others. Pastors and church workers need the vitality of the gospel to reinvigorate their lives so that they can pass that vitality on to others.

Pastors and church workers need some kind of gospelizing formation in their vocational lives. They, themselves, need to be formed by the gospel message of God’s forgiveness and grace revealed in Christ, which they proclaim to others. The German-Australian Lutheran theologian and pastor, Hermann Sasse, recognized this.

Sasse’s writings are a spiritual and theological gold mine for devotional life and public ministry. As a pastor and theologian, Sasse was able to do something that is hard for many in the ministry: stand up for the truth in the face of any opposition without compromising and also show love and pastoral compassion that reflects the mercy of Christ. Sasse spoke out against racist Nazi theology before, during, and after Hitler’s rise to power, and he engaged deeply in giving pastoral care to pastors.

Beginning in 1948, Sasse wrote a series of letters to pastors throughout the world where he exhorts pastors to both stand up for the truth of the Gospel and to tend to their own pastoral formation in the Gospel. In the very first of these letters, Sasse identifies three aspects of this formation.

First, Sasse says, pastors need to pursue confessional brotherhood. [1] This means that pastors and other church workers need to gather together with, converse with, and be mutually encouraged by other pastors and church workers who share both their struggles and their confession of faith in Jesus Christ. Too often pastors and church workers seek guidance from the media, social media, and what articles are trending on the internet. Rather than crowdsource our pastoral formation in the general and unmediated online market, the iron sharpening iron of fraternal encouragement from fellow church leaders who share our theological convictions and confession is a better theological and pastoral practice.

 

In my own church tradition, we have a long tradition of pastors meeting together each month to do exactly this. Unfortunately, many of us do not actually show up or even talk with other local pastors within our own church body. How do we ever expect to preach the Gospel to the world, if we never even show up to share the encouragement of the Gospel with one another?

Even if it is not in this monthly format, pastors and church workers need to gather with, talk with, and be mutually encouraged by one another. The only cure for loneliness is not being alone! Some of the people who can best understand the challenges pastors and church workers face are other pastors and church workers. The only people who understand the depth of theological conviction and pastoral care needed for ministry are others who share your theology and the tasks of ministry. The first step to pastoral formation is intentional engagement in confessional and ministerial fraternity.

The second step in pastoral formation identified by Sasse is daily study of the Bible and for Lutherans, the Lutheran Confessions. [2]

This vital exercise is not just so that pastors can feel encouraged in doing their own jobs. (Though, as a pastor, I promise you this will happen!) Nor is it just an excuse to be nerdy and carry around a pocket-sized Book of Concord. Rather, the vital exercise of daily studying the confessions is ultimately for sharing the wealth of the Confessions and Scriptures with others. This exercise should be done so that pastors will preach better and share the joy brought by both Scripture and the Confessions (which were written to declare the Gospel and teachings of Christ) with their congregations. [3] In advocating such daily study Sasse reflects the earlier admonition of daily study to pastors given by Martin Luther. So vital is this exercise to a pastor’s ministry, says Luther, that if a pastor will not so teach and share with his congregation, he should be “given nothing to eat” and “pelted with dung and chased by wild dogs.” [4]

For vitality in the ministry, the Lutheran pastor and church worker needs to study the Lutheran Confessions. Such study is crucial, because Christians need true doctrine to give them the comfort of the Gospel that because of the death and resurrection of Christ, nothing will ever separate them from God’s love.

The final step in pastoral formation, according to Sasse, is an invincible trust in the power of the means of grace. As Sasse points out, this step in pastoral formation is truly the most important, for it is from the means of grace that the life of the church and the eternal life of the Christian flows. The church is instituted by the means of grace; faith is given to believe in Christ through the means of grace. [5]

The means of grace—the Word of God and the Sacraments—are the source of faith, eternal life, and the existence of the church, because the means of grace convey Jesus Christ himself. Christ is the Lord of the church and the author of faith, and through these means he comes to us, gives himself to us, and gives us the faith to trust him and his promises of forgiveness, righteousness, and eternal life. Like Martin Luther, says Sasse, we must trust unfailingly in the means of grace, because to do so is to trust Christ Jesus, himself. [6]

Vitality for ministry and for the life of the church comes Solus Christus, and Christ has only promised to come to us through the Word and Sacraments.

Trusting in the means of grace necessitates that pastors and church leaders must themselves be formed by the means of grace. They must hear, read, mark, and inwardly digest the Word of God’s law and gospel. They must confess their sins to one another, and then hear and trust Christ’s word of absolution given through the words of a brother. They must live daily in the power of their baptism, recognizing that their old self has been crucified with Christ and a new self has risen from baptism to live and walk in newness of life. They must come to the table of the Lord regularly and receive his body and blood for the strengthening of their faith, so that they in turn can feed and strengthen others as God has called them to do.

Then, having their own faith formed by Christ in the means of grace, pastors and church workers must trust in these means alone for the vitality of their ministry in the church. It is through the means of grace alone that Christ has promised to sustain, nurture, and grow his church. Too often, says Sasse, we look to dynamic personality, political and social activity, or gimmicks and numbers of worshipers as signs of success to ministry and growth in the church. [7] Vitality for ministry and for the life of the church comes Solus Christus, and Christ has only promised to come to us through the Word and Sacraments. An invincible trust in the power of the means of grace is vital to pastoral formation in Christian ministry, because it is through these means that Christ comes to us, saves us, and keeps us in faith. Ultimately our pastoral formation as proclaimers of the Gospel and workers in the Church comes from that Gospel and the work of Christ it proclaims. We trust Christ and his means of grace to form us a ministers of his Gospel, and we commend the success of our ministries to his hands that we grasp in the means of grace.

Vitality in pastoral formation for ministry is not something that will come from finding just the right formula at a conference or reading the right Christian self-help book. Ultimately, vitality in pastoral formation comes from Jesus Christ alone. These aspects of pastoral formation identified by Hermann Sasse give vitality in ministry because they have Christ as their ultimate goal and content. Pastors and church workers are formed through edifying fraternal conversation with fellow pastors and church workers, through daily study of the Scriptures and confessions, and through encounters with, and invincible trust in the means of grace. Through these steps of formation, pastors and church workers who feel like giving up will be picked up and encouraged to go on with the good work of ministry. This pastoral formation will bring your faith to life and give you faith that lasts throughout your life. It will do so, because it will give to you the very source of life: Jesus Christ who gives his life to you.