It is Sunday morning, and I have no sermon to preach and no Bible Study to prepare. I will attend church, but I will not be expected to serve Communion or set up mid-week pastoral appointments. I have no mailbox to check in the church office. I have nothing to print out, no copies to make.
I am a layperson.
By virtue of moving to England for the PhD, I find myself no longer working in the capacity of a minister. Setting out on this new academic vocation is in no way a departure from ministry, in my view. I have not chosen doctoral work because I wish to be unshackled from churchly annoyances and pastoral messes. I delayed my entry into a PhD program by taking a 3-year pastoral post right at the time I was about to begin the same program in 2008.
But the reality is that I am not pastoring right now, for the first time in 9 years.
I had hoped to find a part-time ministry post here in England, but Durham’s Department of Theology reasonably expects its full-time students to be full-time students. And no such post emerged when we were searching all last summer (though one did for my wife).
I have done quite a bit of preaching in my first year here in Durham, but I no longer bear the enormous pastoral burdens that have characterized my vocational life for most of the previous decade.
I miss it. And yet I am so grateful for the break.
I realized several months into life here in England that I was viewing myself as a minister without a ministry post. For the most part, I still consider myself a pastor. So I have wondered—am I clinging to some occupational identity for the sake of feeling personally significant? Or is “minister” who I am by virtue of divine call? Either way, I cannot answer that awkward question, “What do you do?” with “I pastor or I minister.” In this stage of my life, I study… and I do it full-time.
The weight of pastoral ministry can be absolutely crushing. Another good descriptor is “suffocating.” There are the painful burdens of parishioners one must bear. There are the disillusioning secrets one discovers every week. And uglier than these weights are the pressures one feels to grow the church, to expand the ministry, to increase the numbers. These “ugly pressures” are the sort that we minister-types like to think we are above or immune to. In every ministry post I have held, these “ugly pressures” have haunted every meeting, every sermon, every Bible study preparation. I have hated them and fought tooth and nail to resist them and entrust the growth/size/numbers to God. But they have always been there, whether within or without. These pressures are unfortunate realities.
But not for me. Not right now.
Today, my heaviest burdens are 1) the financial costs of tuition and life in the UK, 2) German, 3) Hebrew, 4) the secondary literature on John’s Gospel, 5) the work of writing a guild-worthy doctoral thesis, 6) the work of writing a theology of media.
Bearing the burden of someone’s disintegrating marriage seems much more noble than bearing the weight of memorizing German vocab or Hebrew verb paradigms. But the struggle of many a theology student and seminarian is the struggle of faithfulness in small, tedious labors that can discipline us for weightier assignments. By entering a doctoral program, I have determined that German vocab and Hebrew paradigms are non-negotiable for my vocational work as a minister. As impractical as they seem to be at first glance, they open up new worlds for the minister of the Gospel—Hebrew more than German, but there are times when it would be nice to get into Barth or Thielicke or Bonhoeffer on their own linguistic grounds.
Will I “return” to ministry after the doctoral program? Will I chose a professorship over a pastorate, a classroom over a chapel?
I have decided at this point to refuse bifurcating church and seminary and ministry from the discipline of theology. The vocational fork up ahead of me between pastoring and teaching has loomed almost ominously, because I cannot envision serving in a church post that removes me from serious theological study, nor can I envision working as a professor in a way that compromises my work as a minister. Assuming someone offers me a job in a couple of years, I will have to choose.
But I am blurring the vocational lines on purpose.
For now, I have an excellent opportunity to learn to be a devoted layperson. I have the unique privilege of serving the church as a minister without an official title. Pastoring has helped me learn so much about lay ministry. Ministers know well how church members can strengthen the church’s ministry through their volunteer devotions. Now, I am going to let lay ministry teach me how to better serve as a pastor. Because sometimes, the folks in the pews are the most erudite professors for that lonely, disgruntled person in the pulpit.