26 May 2012

Some Thoughts on Pastoral Formation

One of the phrases I heard at the Seminary over and over was "Pastoral Formation".  It makes sense - the thrust at the Sem (Fort Wayne at least) was that this was the place that helped to guide and shape "Pastoral Formation".  Of course I'm going to hear it there.  And of course, it comes up today in discussions as we consider how best we are to shape and form Pastors for various contexts.

I find I don't really like the term.  I get what it is saying - that going to the Seminary, going through that process - the disciplines of both classes and campus worship and field work/vicarage shapes a person, forms them into something they were not.  And it's true - I was a different person when I graduated than I was before I went to the Seminary.  But the difference wasn't in sudden by virtue of those experiences and those classes I was prepared to be a pastor.  No, while I had gotten tools and had been immersed in a rich spiritual life that I was eager to pass on, the biggest thing I learned was that I was in fact... not ready to be a pastor.  Oh, I received a call, and nigh on 8 years I am still there, serving... but this was not due to the fact that I was "ready", or that I had reach a certain level of skills and thus graduated into the pastoral office.  It wasn't that after 4 years I was "formed".  That isn't how it works -- it is only ego and pride that would let someone say that he is "ready" to be a pastor -- that he has been formed into what he needs to be.

The simple fact is that we in the clergy are always being shaped by God in the crucible of the office.  We are to be constantly learning.  We are to be constantly immersed in a deep devotional life.  We are to be in the Word, not only for our people but for ourselves.  The Seminary is just the tip of the iceberg, the beginnings, the rough shaping before a lifetime of formation. 

My father is a pastor.  He went to the Sem while I was in junior high - so I was a Sem brat as well.  I saw the changes, the growth in him - they happened when I first really became aware of myself and others.  And I knew stuff.  I could spot bad theology.  I could write well (after coaxing football players at Oklahoma to write term papers, writing a 3-4 page sermon would be a piece of cake!).  I was sure that I was ready to be a pastor.  And I suppose if there had been some catastrophic event where I hadn't gone to the Seminary but had to preach, I could have.  My cousin who is a baptist pastor basically did that... he endures.

But I would have viewed it more as a graduation, or something that I had as by right, just as I expected to be admitted to the Sem as a matter of course.  It would have been matter of fact.  What the Seminary experience does it is destroys that ego, that sense of self determined worth.  But all of that was a lie of my sinful flesh.  I am not a pastor because *I* will it... I am a pastor because I have been called by God.  I am a pastor in spite of all my weaknesses and deficiencies.  A friend at the Seminary once quipped that he held to a "dysfunctional view of the ministry" - that is, God uses dysfunction men to accomplish His ministry.

Without that time it the Sem, that time of study, reflection, guidance, reverence, and humiliation... well, when those weaknesses or deficiencies revealed themselves, I would have hidden and denied them, ignored them, pretend they didn't exist.  Or I would have broken.  Their revelation would have attacked my cherished self-identity, the one I would have worshiped of myself as "Pastor" -- and I probably would have crumbled... the flaws would not have born the burden of the office.   This is because I would have been thinking in terms of myself and who I am. 

The Pastoral office has very little to do with the particular man occupying it.  There are a line of pictures on the wall of the pastors before me.  If the Lord tarries, I pray that there will be pictures of men after me, and that I might be viewed as the least of them.  Rather, being a Pastor is about nothing other than Christ - than bringing Christ and His gifts to people.  Being a Pastor is about learning what John had said - I must decrease that He may increase.  A Pastor, while important, is fundamentally replaceable.  If not me, when I am gone, God will raise another.

And I'm not sure I would have seen that as clearly if I hadn't gone to Sem, if I assumed the task of being a pastor upon myself, if I figured I was good enough as is, or just needed some finishing up (or to be more honest, if that delusion hadn't been broken at the Sem).  Ego would have openly prevailed... even now Ego must be beaten down.  And thus - new trials come, new opportunities, new chances to learn.  And I see them differently now -- I see them as being less about me and more about this congregation that I have been given to serve for a time.

Is this "formation"?  I suppose.  But it's not a formation completed at Sem.  I am not fully formed yet -- and that's perfectly fine.  Rather, I suppose I would say that the Seminary helps to begin to form someone, and teaches them that they will continue to be formed by God for the rest of their days.  Without that, all is pride, vanity, or despair.

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