God Ordains Men
Every now and then, I hear from younger guys who are considering going to seminary, and from guys who are already at seminary, and from younger pastors - seeking advice.
So now that I am an older pastor, I thought about what I would tell myself if I could send a letter back in time using a Tipler Cylinder or some such and give my younger self some advice (I’m name-dropping here, because I’ve become friends with Dr. Frank Tipler, the mathematician and physicist who posits that he can mathematically prove that the laws of physics only work with a Triune God who becomes incarnate).
So here goes:
I understand that you are interested in serving in the Office of the Holy Ministry.
Think of something else to do. It is not like what you think it will be. If you can possibly get out of it, do so. St. John Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood is a very helpful handbook as to what the pastor is to do in his calling and why you should consider not entering the Office. At least do so with eyes wide open. Consider everything else that is out there. There are thousands of wonderful godly vocations to which God might be calling you instead of the ministry. Pray the Lord’s Prayer, and in this case, I don’t mean the Our Father, but rather the Lord’s “Let this cup pass from me” prayer.
If you have truly and prayerfully considered any and all other vocations, but you inescapably discern that God is pushing you like a chess piece into the Holy Ministry, that you believe that you are trapped and literally have no other choice: then don’t flee your cross. Embrace it.
At seminary, you need to jump in with both feet. There is an old canard that a man is called “Pastor” whether he graduates with As or with Cs. Don’t you fall for that. If God is truly calling you to serve in the Office, then He is intending to place you as a shepherd of souls. You will bear responsibility before God for people’s eternal lives. You will be with them as they are dying. You will serve them in their most trying moments. You don’t get to slack. Attend every class. Attend every chapel. Study like a maniac. Go when a pastor shows up to give a fireside chat. Drink beer with your classmates and attend all social events. You will forge friendships with your brother classmates and father professors. If you are not sure you can sing, you have to learn. It’s part of the job. You will be singing solo in public at least once a week. So join the chapel choir (if it is still offered). It is like free voice coaching.
Take the hard classes. The key to success is to really learn the material inside and out. Get videos out of the library (and use YouTube - there was no such thing back in my day). Read good overviews of the topics at hand, such as Harry Boer’s thin volume A Short History of the Early Church. This will actually save you study time because the material will be well-organized in your mind and will stick with you better. Keep your biblical and confessional languages fresh through frequent (but short) review and reading.
If you get a bad field work church (and/or vicarage), suck it up. Learn to keep your mouth shut. Unless there is a practice that violates your conscience (such as “consecrating” as an un-ordained man), learn to do what you’re told. Be polite and humble. Bad pastoral practice is on the head of your supervisor. You are not there to instruct him or save the people from his practice. If there is something really egregious, then by all means, contact your chain of command at the seminary. But understand that this is a last resort.
Be sure to marry well. Your wife can destroy your ministry. The pastor’s wife is a godly vocation that requires wisdom beyond her years. She will need rhino hide and will have to get used to life in a fish-bowl. She will not be the pastor, but she will be of great help to you in a multiplicity of ways. She may be a very helpful go-between in the congregation between yourself and your female parishioners. You will want neither to muzzle her, nor to push her. She will need to be discreet at all times. She will have a vocation, but you and you alone will bear the vocation to preach and administer the Holy Sacraments. You will have to discern what her role will be. Both of you will need to be wise in your use of social media. And every church and every pastor are different. There is no one-size fits all.
In the ministry, you will make mistakes, sometimes very bad ones. But that’s life in this fallen world. You take your lumps, learn, and get up to wrestle with the demons another day. You will also be blamed for things you didn’t do, falsely accused of ridiculous and hurtful things. Incredibly, some people (who should know better) will uncritically believe these things. Keep your wits about you and remember what you are called to do. Stay the course. Lash yourself to the mast. Don’t be distracted. Pray. Read the Scriptures. Partake of the Holy Supper. Learn the section of the Pastoral Care Companion that is devoted to spiritual warfare. Exorcisms are not like what you see in movies, but they are more common than you’d imagine. Evil will attack you and your parish in waves. Those waves will come and go, sometimes with eerie regularity, and sometimes out of the blue. And Satan’s onslaughts will come from people that you have loved and trusted and served faithfully. Like our Lord, you will be betrayed. You will be stunned - until it happens a few times over the years. Then you will merely be disappointed, and no longer shocked. Many pastors live day to day with a certain degree of Post Traumatic Stress (which is not the same as PTSD). Self-care is going to vary from man to man. Make numerous friends in the ministry and listen to their counsel. Get pastoral care of your own!
I believe that mental health issues are on the rise. There is a good chance that you will deal with disturbed people. You may be stalked or otherwise subjected to creepy (or even criminal) behavior. If you or your family are being harassed or threatened, do not hesitate to bring law enforcement into the picture. If your gut tells you that something isn’t right with a person or a situation, trust your gut. Don’t be foolish and allow your church or family to become a statistic.
As we are an increasingly litigious society, and as the LCMS is increasingly counter-cultural, be wary of potential lawsuits. Be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove. If you can make friends with lawyers, they may be able to give you some pro-bono work should you need it.
Be very careful of friendships within the parish. Always watch what you say in front of parishioners. Remember that your most trusted friends can turn on you and seek your destruction. It is a diabolical reality. And conversely, people whom you thought hated you may well turn out to be your best friends and help in the parish. Never let your guard down. You are not “just one of the guys.” The advice that I heard the most in seminary was to be wary of the first people who run up to you after arriving in the parish. They may be genuine, but they may also be trouble. If you haven’t read it yet, you must read (and later re-read) the Rev. Kenneth Hougk’s Antagonists in the Church. This book could literally save your ministry and your sanity.
No matter what happens, try to never lose your temper in public. If you feel anger welling up, lower your voice and speak more slowly. Pause. This is where having a water bottle or a cup of coffee is very helpful.
Document your work. I carry around a small pocket notebook and use this as a calendar, planner, record-keeper, to-do list, and for notes in classes, lectures, meetings, etc. Pastoral work is busy work. Don’t think that you’ll remember what you did last week or next year when you need to (such as for congregational meetings or for taxes). You will probably not have someone watching over you all the time, so you will need discipline - just like any self-employed person or small business owner. The ministry is not a 9 to 5 job. There are times when you will need to do personal things during the day, and church stuff in the evening. You may need to get away for a few hours. It is a demanding life, and you are on call 24-7. Pace yourself. Unless you write things down or put them in your phone, you’ll forget. Don’t let that happen! Try to get a routine down with shut-ins, but don’t be surprised when they are hard to reach (some may not hear the phone or doorbell, some may often not feel up to a visit, others are busy with doctor’s appointments, etc.). Do your best.
Get involved in the community. This one took me years to learn. I serve as a chaplain for our fire company and in the Civil Air Patrol. Your local police may have a chaplaincy program. Join the local historical or civic society. Lead prayers at the beginning of the meetings if you are able. Be patient but persistent. Over the course of five years or so, you will become part of the community. This is of tremendous worth in the Holy Office, especially as most of us are outsiders, often in small towns. You have to foster a sense of home and belonging in order to earn the trust of your parishioners and others in town. People talk. You want them speaking well of you - not for your ego’s sake, but for the sake of the Gospel and the good of your parish.
One thing that is becoming increasingly important is the likelihood that you will be a worker-priest, that is, a bi-vocational pastor. Health insurance is increasingly expensive. Congregations often can’t afford to pay district salary. You may go years without a raise. It is very likely that you will need a side-hustle. If you can get a professional credential or license in something like project management or cutting hair, or work as a plumber, build stuff, repair stuff, teach (even as a sub), tutor, drive Uber, do captioning, edit, or take on some other sideline of part-time (or even full-time, if necessary) work - the best advice is to be prepared. Sock some money away if you are able. If you can shepherd your congregation without too much worry about keeping food on the table, it will tremendously help your ministry.
You need thick skin to be in the ministry! I can’t emphasize this enough! Thick skin! This is especially important for you younger guys who have been raised in a more protected, hermetically-sealed environment than we older guys who came of age in the primitive heavy-metal days of the last millennium. I was never strapped into a car seat, some of my dad’s cars didn’t even have seat-belts, I never received a participation trophy, and never in my life have I worn a bicycle helmet. I don’t even know what a campus “safe space” looks like. I had no adult supervision on the streets with my bicycle as a free-range 12-year old with no cellphone. To this day, I laugh at insensitive jokes, and am nonplussed by Clint Eastwood’s racist, sexist, hetero-normative devil-may-care character in “Gran Torino” (which is a must-see for a man in the Holy Office or moving in that direction, by the way - it is laden with Christological themes, and the parish pastor is actually a good guy in the film). When you are around other pastors, don’t expect them to behave like your kindergarten teacher. Especially if they’re old. They are guys. Old school guys. They will bust your chops - with all of the love of Christ - for your own good.
And finally, don’t just blindly take my advice. Nobody knows everything. You’ll notice I said nothing about the LWML, the district president, dealing with calls, taking time off, or the various kinds of paperwork that we are supposed to fill out. Other guys can give you tips on those. Don’t be afraid to get advice from your fathers and brothers. Get a “second opinion” - as we all have our blind spots, biases, and hobby horses. No advice is absolute. There is no one-size-fits-all formula, only general guidelines. Some of the best decisions that I have made have been to disregard advice given to me, while other times, following the advice given to me has paid huge dividends. As a lawyer friend said to me, “This is chess, not checkers.” Of course, your mileage will vary.
And if you’re still reading, now that I have probably depressed you or frightened you - gird up your loins. If God is calling you to this endeavor, He will use you as He sees fit. His ways are not our ways. There is true joy in serving in the ministry. It is both humbling and a great honor to stand shoulder to shoulder with legions of shepherds across space and time who have taken the slings and arrows of the devil, the world, and the flesh - as well as to thrust back and deliver a few blows with the sword that is the Word of God. The Holy Spirit gathers His flock, and the Most Holy Trinity will indeed work miracles through your most unworthy mouth and hands. There will be faithful people who will love you and bear you up, and you will indeed see the work of the holy angels guarding you and keeping you against all odds.
The pastoral life is a martial life. It is to be a warrior. And this war has already been won by our Lord at the cross. So take heart! And in the words of the motto of the great economist Ludwig von Mises: “Tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito!” that is, “Do not give in to evil but proceed ever more boldly against it.”
And as the sainted Reverend Father Kenneth Korby put it so bluntly and tersely: “God ordains men; be one.”