“Our Bounden Duty…”: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
If the heart of Christianity consists of self-sacrificial love in imitation of Christ himself, what does this say about the pastoral offices within the Church? It has occurred to me that in recent years, we have increasingly tended to look at ministry in terms of “public performance”. It often is the way in which a pastor or priest is described by those in his church. We hear or say things such as, “He’s such a gifted teacher”. We describe church leaders as “charismatic personalities”. We speak of the “well crafted sermon” and the “dynamic leading of worship”. I think that it is not surprising, therefore, that many pastors and priests begin to think of themselves in the same manner. Increasingly, ministry comes to mean “the public exercise of ministry” leaving that which is out of the public gaze to be considered as “personal”.
I consider this to be a very modern point of view.
As an example, I was talking to a relatively new priest about Morning and Evening prayer in the Anglican tradition. The young man told me that he tried to say the Offices most days as his “personal devotions”. When I mentioned that I always regarded saying the Offices as an obligation on behalf of the church, he seemed puzzled. After a few more minutes of conversation, he said, “If I say the Offices as just one more duty, I wouldn’t be sincere”. It was clear that he regarded this part of the pastoral office as being wholly personal, as it was done outside of the public exercise of his ministry. More than that, I realized that describing something as a “duty” was a pejorative.
Perhaps it is time to reclaim the idea that the exercise of ministry is not restricted to that which is done in public. Perhaps it is time to reclaim the ancient Christian ideal that pastoral ministry encompasses the whole life of those who are called to exercise it. Perhaps it is time to say that “duty” as a pastor or a priest is not a pejorative, but is an essential requirement to exercise such an office. Indeed, such a life of self-sacrificial duty for a pastor or priest was once considered the norm.
Historically, the Church provided care for her children from the cradle to the grave and beyond. Historically, it was the duty or pastors and priests to dispense that provision that had been made by the Church. Some of this was public, but much was done in private and known to God alone. This sort of ministry was not restricted to the altar, or the pulpit or the lectern. This sort of ministry was exercised in the private world of confession and absolution. It was exercised in the darkness of a hospital room, the home of the bereaved and in the unseen work of charity. This sort of ministry was found in the nursing home and in the support of those in weakness or distress. It is a life of self-sacrifice and, yes, of duty as well.
Now, it has to be said, many pastoral duties are dull. Many pastoral duties are monotonous. Yet, none of these duties, most of which are unseen, are unimportant. All this is to say that exercising a pastoral office is to be a servant, often at the beck and call of one’s people. It is the building of a life-long relationship that is much deeper than simply being “a dynamic leader” or a “gifted teacher”. Recognizing this is to make the most costly offering which can be made. A congregation is not abstract. They are individuals with lives of their own in which a pastor has to share. He can only share in their lives, however, if he is willing to “give away” something of his own life in order to strengthen theirs. In my opinion, this duty is basic, but often it is not understood, much less exercised.
I should say that what I’ve written here is not a formula for “success” or at least not success as we define it today. Some may regard what I’ve written here to be dull and uninspiring while others might regard such a definition of pastoral ministry to be simply boring. Yet, the reality is that most faithful pastors that I have known through the years have had little earthly glory. Indeed, most have labored unknown and unheralded – except for those whose lives they have touched. Yet it has been these pastors who, showing the self-sacrificing love of Christ, continue to give me hope for the Church.