Aug  2015 19
Remember Your Baptism... Grace for Clergy

When I entered seminary as a student in 1977, I bought a life insurance policy from a company that sold to clergy. The salesman told me that clergy were fortunate, in that our life expectancy was high relative to the population. So said the actuarial tables.

Well, times have changed. Clergy are no longer among the longest lived. I don’t know if it is more stressful doing ministry today than it was in the 1950s and early 60s. I do know that the statistics regarding clergy health indicate a higher level of stress-related diseases today than in the mid-20th century.

A recent event prompted me to remember some research I did nearly 20 years ago. I love 19th century U.S. religious history and find it to be a “distant mirror” (to use historian Barbara Tuchman’s term) in which to look and understand our own time.

In considering contemporary matters of clergy wellness and sense of vocation, I was curious regarding why so many Methodist circuit riders in the 19th century drove themselves either to early graves—often before their thirtieth year of life—or to broken health.

What became the pension fund was then called “the worn out preachers fund.” After reading the journals of 20 circuit riders, I concluded that they saw themselves as soldiers engaged in a battle against Satan. Satan and his minions never rested; when Methodist preachers rest, Satan advances. Little money, inconsistent food, and rags for shoes during nasty weather did not help.

But there was another piece of the puzzle regarding longevity in ministry. Methodists preached the gospel of a loving God full of grace, by whose grace persons are saved and perfected in love. However, God’s deal with Methodist clergy seemed to be of a different covenant, for they believed their salvation was contingent upon success in ministry.

Success was defined as staying in the battle and the numbers of souls saved reported at annual conference sessions, which themselves served the function of a war room: strategies planned, the fallen mourned, victories celebrated, morale boosted. If these circuit riders could not stay in ministry because of health, they feared God might have a place in hell for them.

Clergy colleagues: few of us today might see ourselves engaged in the same kind of battle as those circuit riders saw themselves. But I know clergy whose gut theology whispers to them at 3 a.m., “The church is in decline because there is something wrong with you. You are not good enough. You don’t deserve grace. You should not expect grace. While you preach a gospel of grace and love, you must live by the gospel of excellence. You earn your worth by turning the church around.”

Personally, I am not unfamiliar with that gut theology, that my sense of worth and validation of call is tied to a thriving institution. When I was a seminary student, professors and some clergy colleagues stated what became a refrain, “We are called to be faithful, not successful.”

Right. Tell that to nearly any district superintendent, or say that to your board year after year of declining membership and tighter budgets. Still, Clergy Friends, we must be rooted in the message that God’s love and grace, given daily, is for us, too.

The baptismal covenant is foundational for ordination vows, and our worth is tied to the baptismal covenant, not the ordination vows. We do not have a special covenant whereby our acceptability to God is contingent. However unacceptable or inadequate for the task we may feel, God sees us differently, as Beloved and worthy.

Laity colleagues: This is a stressful time for the church. You know that. No pastor can “save” a church. Surely, there are more and less fitting pastors, more and less skilled pastors, more and less effective pastors.

But here is the danger: church life seduces pastors to so cloak and overlay their baptismal calling with their clergy calling that the former disappears and, in effect, is forgotten on a daily basis.

When the partnership between clergy and laity is inadequately developed or absent, laity collude and encourage clergy to see themselves only as clergy, rather than as persons, as fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, friends, and as beloved children of God.

When this forgetting happens, clergy are judging their worth by the effects of what they do, or even by what the church does. Many clergy need help distinguishing between their worth as a person and their performance in ministry. When that distinction is erased, the consequences can be tragic.

I’ve heard Lutheran scholars say that Martin Luther, who endured the stresses of being declared a heretic and outlaw (meaning he could be killed by anyone, with impunity), kept water beside his bed.

Upon rising each day, he dipped his finger in the water and crossed himself on the forehead, reminding himself that he was baptized. And, by virtue of that baptism, he was the recipient of God’s love and grace. No matter what. That is a disposition worth strengthening today, for the health of the clergy, and for the health of the church.


Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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