This month Abingdon has published the revision of my book, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Leadership. Pastor has been used in dozens of seminaries and has helped thousands of new pastors on their way into ministry. It has also been used as a resource for sustaining the ministry of many. For the past couple of years I’ve been working on this revision, guided by my classes in Introduction to Ordained Leadership at Duke Divinity School and informed by a decade of interesting research in pastoral ministry. Here is an excerpt from the revised edition of Pastor:
New Creation by Water and the Word
In the living room of my grandmother’s rambling house, after a large Sunday dinner, family and friends gathered. Lifting a silver bowl filled with water, the preacher said words, made promises, and then baptized me—made me Christian. There is much about this originating faith event that I would have done differently. (Baptism properly belongs in a church, not in a living room.) Yet God manages to work wonders despite the ineptitude of the church. Becoming a Christian is something done to us, for us, before it is anything done by us. What we might have done differently, had it been our action alone, is not as important as what Christ and his church do for us in baptism. As an infant, I was the passive recipient of this work in my behalf. Someone had to hold me, had to administer the water of baptism, had to tell me the story of Jesus and what he had done, had to speak the promises of what he would do, had to live the faith before me so that I might assume the faith for myself. In other words, by water and the word, that I am Christian is all gift, grace.
Thus I began as a Christian by water and the word. Thus the world began (Gen 1). Brooding over the primordial waters, God speaks, and a new world springs forth. My world as a Christian began in baptism, that strange, deep, formative, and indicative rite of the Christ and his church. It is up to God, in each generation, to make the church, to call by water and the word a new people into being, or there is no church.
Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan by John was the beginning of his ministry. When Jesus was baptized, the heavens opened and there was a voice, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22b). It is a scene reminiscent of the Spirit of God brooding over the primal waters of creation, creating a new world, then pronouncing it all “very good” (Gen 1:31). Luke follows this dramatic baptismal descent of the Spirit with an unexciting genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3:23-38), taking Jesus’s paternity all the way back to Adam. I suppose this is Luke’s way of reiterating the gifted quality of the Beloved. True, Christ is a gift from heaven, fruit of the descent of the Holy Spirit, yet he is also the bequest of the ages, of a gaggle of ordinary folk like Peleg, Eber, Shelah, Noah, and Adam. He is here as gift of God from above and also of Israel from below.
In my baptism, I was product of a human family, a people who had clung to the promised land of upcountry South Carolina for five generations, scratching out a living in cotton and cows until my nativity into a new generation who would rather live off schools, churches, and hospitals than work the land. It was a human family, with the goodness and badness of most any family.
Yet I was, as signified that day in my baptism, also a gift of God. Heaven was mixed up in who I was and was yet to be. In my beginning was also some divine condescension enmeshed in my humanity, some incarnation. From that day on, in ways that I am still discovering, you could not explain me without reference to my baptism, to the water, the promises, the story, the hands laid upon my head. Criticize what you will about the mode of my baptism—whether or not it should have occurred so early or if there should have been instruction or a different location or more informed intention—you must admit that it worked. Here I am telling the story of the story that was told to me, the story that I did not tell myself, the story that I am still learning to tell—a story named discipleship.
As soon as Luke is done with Jesus’s genealogy, the story of Jesus’s ministry begins. “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness” (Luke 4:1). Now his work commences. Ministry is a gift of baptism. This gift of water and the word, this act of a descending Holy Spirit, is also an assignment. First the baptismal gifts. Then the baptismal vocation. “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and . . . He began to teach in their synagogues” (Luke 4:14-15).
Yet if you know the story, you know that between his baptism and his ministry in Galilee there is temptation (Luke 4:1-13). In the wilderness, during his forty-day sojourn, the devil offers Jesus some tempting, even noble, alternatives—stones to bread, political power, miracles—all good in themselves. Jesus says no. Even these good works do not fit the ministry to which Jesus has been called. Right at the start, Luke reminds us that ministry is, from the beginning, a choice between God’s work and our own. Vocation and temptation seem to go together. If we lack clarity about our proper work, the devil is quite willing to tell us what to do.
Therefore, this book’s exploration of ordained leadership assumes the originating baptismal call, then moves to the peculiar nature of the clerical vocation in order to gain clarity about that vocation and its duties. Ministry is both gift and assignment. This reflection upon the ordained life is carried out upon the background of Luke 4:1-12; among pastors it is always possible to get things wrong, temptations abound, and the devil is ever eager to substitute his work for God’s.