“Take thou authority to preach the Word….” These were the words under which many of us were ordained into the pastoral ministry. The issue of pastoral authority is a troubling one for many of us. Here are some thoughts, in a recent book on pastoral leadership, that are instructive for us pastors.
The Reverend John McFadden describes how the difference between worldly power and spiritual authority was revealed to him in the life of the church. The context was his working relationship with his Wisconsin Conference minister (our low-church equivalent of a bishop) in the United Church of Christ. John penned these words at the occasion of the Reverend Fred Trost’s retirement and publicly feted him with these warm pearls of insight.
It was the Budget Committee. Fred greeted everyone warmly, prayed earnestly, and outlined the difficult issues associated with balancing a budget in a year where funds were tight. Then, in a cordial but firm tone of voice, he identified the items in the proposed budget that were not open to discussion or debate!
Having been trained in Puritan self-control, I succeeded in choking back my outrage. Who does this man think he is? What is the point in serving on a committee of the Conference if the Conference Minister makes unilateral decisions? The word “arrogant” was one of the more printable I assigned to him, and I determined to maintain a certain distance. I am certain that for the next year or two he saw me as cool and aloof. The Great Facilitator had met Herr Pastor Trost, and the distance between the two appeared to be unbridgeable.
I can now look back and chuckle at how badly I misunderstood Fred and his motives in that early encounter. What I then perceived as arrogance I now appreciate as conviction; what I then heard as “this cannot be debated!” I now know was “let us debate this with real passion!” I was so deeply schooled in the ways of power that I failed to recognize genuine authority when I encountered it.
Fred Trost stands first among the mentors who have taught me that the integrity of the pastoral vocation grows from daring to claim the spiritual authority vested in us by the church. True spiritual authority begins only when we reject the sinful temptation to embrace the ways of power. Power is self-centered and self-serving; its clarion cry is “my will be done!” Power is measured in dollars, in clout, in control. It is brokered by fear and intimidation. Its goal is always to win and, in winning, to create losers. Power builds fiefdoms and empires. Power always believes in its own wisdom, its own strength, its own purpose. Power answers to nothing beyond itself, not even to God.
Authority is temporarily entrusted to our stewardship by that which is greater than we are and to which we are accountable. Spiritual authority must answer to scripture, to tradition, and to the living community of the church, from which it never stands apart or above. Spiritual authority grows from the humility born of knowing we are creatures, utterly beholden to our Creator. As such, we can never possess absolute certainty that our thoughts are wise, our actions righteous, so the authority invested in us must often be discharged in fear and trembling.
Yet, paradoxically, spiritual authority also grows from the confidence born of knowing that where our wisdom and righteousness end, God’s begin, and that through the actions of the Holy Spirit these frail, earthen vessels may convey deeper truth and work greater deeds than our own limited abilities would permit. Spiritual authority acts most boldly when it first prays most humbly; it speaks with the greatest strength when it first listens most carefully. Spiritual authority seeks to empty itself of the conceit of possessing its own wisdom, so that it may say not “my will be done,” but “Thy will be done.”
True spiritual authority may reside in either a Great Facilitator or a Herr Pastor. It often leads us to a place somewhere between the two. When a Great Facilitator understands the truth of spiritual authority, he or she seeks to help the saints discern the prompting of the Hoy Spirit in their discussion and debate. The goal is not to build consensus or resolve an issue by taking a vote. Rather, it is to discover together how the living Spirit is working and speaking through the gathered community of the church.
When a Herr Pastor understands the truth of spiritual authority, that person spends years in coming to know the saints of the church deeply, grieving with them in times of pain and loss, celebrating with them in their joys and new beginnings, until the pastor can no longer say with certainty where his or her own life ends and the life of the congregation begins. When the line between “I” and “we” becomes sufficiently blurred, Herr Pastor can speak with a clear, authoritative voice that is no longer tainted by the presumption of personal power.
Both the Great Facilitator and Herr Pastor must return frequently to the sources of their spiritual authority. They must study God’s word in Holy Scripture, preferably in fellowship with other Christians. They must pray, both in the stillness of their own hearts, and in settings of Christian community. They must read the thoughts of saints who preceded them, so they can dialogue with the wisdom of the ages. They must worship God frequently, so that they never forget who they are, and whose they are. They must immerse themselves in Christian theology until it becomes second nature to experience the world through God’s eyes, rather than their own.
— From Who Are You to Say? Establishing Pastoral Authority in Matters of Faith, by Dale Rosenberger, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2005, pp. 87-89