“I’m going to die, Rylan.”
The statement caught me off guard. I wasn’t sure where he was going with this—hockey locker rooms are not usually included in the list of common “memento mori” and, while he could be prone to exaggeration, I didn’t think hockey practice had been that bad. Coach hadn’t skated us that hard.
I clumsily answered something like, “Well, yeah, that tends to happen…” before trailing away. He obviously wanted to say more and quickly filled the silence.
“Another of my high school buddies died this week. Second one in four weeks.”
Another silence. I managed to get out a “I’m…I’m sorry to hear that,” while racking my mind for something good to say. Nothing came.
I remember asking if there was anything I could do.
“Nah. I’ll be okay. I have you guys but it’s tough, you know?”
I did. Or, well, I didn’t. I knew of pain, but the brokenness and despair that intersected so tightly with my teammate’s world seemed at best a theoretical reality—something I had read about but never experienced. What form does the Gospel take amidst the post-hockey sweat-stench?
Always be prepared, Peter writes to scattered Priests in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia but in that moment—caught with my breezers around my skates—I found myself woefully unprepared. How do you prepare to give an answer for a hope in you when that hope was not a choice but simply an inheritance? I am, after all, one of those Covenant children baptized before my mouth could properly shape the words Jesus is Lord. Nearly every square inch of my life has been marked by a certain theological bent. A tradition that does not so much work at laying an apologetic foundation upon which to stand as it casts an expansive vision of the world into which to step. A vision which catches—like keen-eyed re(formed)naissance artists—in fading light the halo hovering over our neighbors, prairie flowers, and HVAC systems alike. The shimmering rumor, if you will, that there is not a created thing that is not a potential candidate for glory yet unseen. Trying to give an account of that kind of hope is as difficult as trying to give someone your DNA. Grace is tricky like that.
“How do you prepare to give an answer for a hope in you when that hope was not a choice but simply an inheritance?”
I handled my teammate’s confession rather poorly, of course, but it’s one of those conversations that replays in my mind after I’ve spent too many hours poring over books in the library. Of making many books there is no end and, well, I can’t help but ask, how many of them will actually help with the sweaty, smelly questions of life? What is theological study for? It’s questions like these that are on my mind as I write this essay: what are pastors for? What are pastors for among all the question marks of life? What are pastors supposed to do and say that others can’t?
I find this question to be intriguing for two reasons. First is simply the recognition that the Neo-Calvinist tradition, while impressive at producing thoughtful engineers, biologists, and artists, does not produce pastors at the same rate. Its theology of culture often outstrips its ecclesiology. Just think how difficult it is to find willing persons to serve on church council. Agents of cultural renewal—and with good reason—would rather be playing out in creation than sit through church meetings.
But more than that, I am in seminary right now and seminaries across the United States—facing declining attendance and financial pinches—are struggling to come up with a coherent answer as to what pastors are for as well. Curriculums have been shortened, language requirements lessened, and additional formational aspects added. The training is less theological-vocational as much as it is vocational-theological.1 The guiding axiom appears to be that shepherding is best taught in the pasture and not in the classroom. While this is perhaps a needed heart-y correction to the heady training of yesteryears, I worry that seminaries are just as confused over what pastors are for as the rest of us are. Are we organizational leaders? A helping profession? Psychologists with a spiritual twist? “Pop” theologians?
I wonder, what exactly am I preparing to be?
If the Church is—to borrow a phrase from Abraham Kuyper—a field hospital, no one should be barred access, but neither should one be surprised if they are offered treatment. While this is generally agreed upon, it seems to me we don’t have uniform agreement on whether pastors/office bearers are the ones who do the treating (i.e. prayerful discipline) or whether pastors are the porters who walk with the patients until the patient is ready to step into the operation room to meet the One who heals our every ill for themselves. As I understand them, the Three Forms of Unity suggest the former over the latter but, needless to say, how we answer this question (and its close but broader cousin: What is the Church for?) bears significant impact on the shape of theological education. If the keys of the kingdom really are given to the office bearers of the church to diagnose and discipline sin in hopes of healing, we had better, through careful thought and learning, be prepared to know what health looks like on this side of heaven.
But what does this preparation look like and how? In my short stint as a pastoral intern, I’ve realized that being on the front-lines of ministry always catches you with your breezers around your skates. You rarely feel prepared. The wounds that walk into a field hospital are as varied as the people who carry them. Pastoral ministry, it seems to me, has a certain improvisational character to it that begs God daily for more of that Spirit-gifted-wise-and-insightful-love that can understand what is best in a certain situation and in a certain neighborhood. But understanding what is best requires sustained attention on whatever is true, right, honorable, excellent, and worthy of praise. And sustained attention to what is true, right, honorable, excellent, and worthy of praise is the work of a theologian. A person who, as Herman Bavinck says, traces the unity of God’s thoughts—for there is nothing more true, right, honorable, excellent, and worthy of praise than the wonderful works of God revealed to us in the Scriptures2.
While answering the question what are theologians for? gets us started on the right track, I do think the question, what are pastors for?, has a slightly different nuance.3 Theology without pastoral care is empty, but pastoral care without theology is blind. The two are inseparable while remaining distinct. It’s almost as if the knowledge of God and the knowledge of self are so intertwined that it is difficult to recognize which one precedes and gives birth to the other. If the “theological” work of pastoral theology works to trace the unity of God’s thoughts and attempts, with carefully weighed words, to explain what is true and right, the “pastoral” work of pastoral theology perhaps seeks to trace the unity of our lives—how our longings, our baptisms, our funerals, our weddings, and our wounds are not the idiotic happenings of a pale blue dot hurtling through empty space, but one day will be seen with joy as the work of a master artist “such as the human heart could never imagine”4. And pastors attempt, with carefully weighed words and a humble grasp at what is true and right, to lovingly lay forth what is best for their particular neighborhoods and parishioners.
“Theology without pastoral care is empty, but pastoral care without theology is blind.”
So, what are pastors for? You can probably tell that I’m still trying to figure that out. But even while I don’t know what exactly pastors are for, I feel a bit more confidence in making a claim on who pastors are. Pastors are the stewards of the mysteries of God unprepared, like all of us I presume, for the ugliness of sin and the hard questions that come at unexpected times but find themselves unable to help but stammer something about the cross even when it feels like the most foolish thing to say in the entire world. No one in the priesthood of believers is exempt from these encounters, of course, pastors are simply the men and women who are ordained by the church to get caught with their breezers over their skates more often than anybody else5.
A difference perhaps akin to identifying as a student-athlete or an athlete-student. ↩
Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, ed. John Bolt, tran. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2003), 44. ↩
What I think I mean by this is that while every Christ follower is called to be a theologian, not all are called to be theologians in the same way. Some are called to be biologist-theologians/theologian-biologists, others theologian-theologians, and still others pastor-theologians/theologian-pastors. I’d gladly accept correction on this point, however, should someone find this classification out of step with reality. ↩
This phrasing is an admixture of vocabulary borrowed from Clyde Kilby and the Belgic Confession. ↩
The key to unlocking any robust after dinner conversation is to attach the preposition “for” to the end of a question (i.e. What are people for? What are denominations for? What are sports for?). This essay wrestles with the question: what are pastors for? That this question should be tackled here by a young and callow seminarian ensures that the conversation does not conclude here and I would eagerly welcome responses from seasoned pastors, laypersons, and theologians should they wish to respond in order to correct or clarify my thinking on this or the related ecclesial questions such as “what are churches for?” ↩