What makes a good pastor?

31 Jul

It’s not difficult to say what makes a bad pastor or priest: plenty of evidence there. But what makes a good pastor? I mean someone we can really respect, value and appreciate as a pastor? Here I am not talking about the making of such a person, though that is a vital issue and one that occupies a lot of my thought and work. I mean the fundamental question of what we actually mean by a pastor or spiritual leader, such that we can indeed respect that person and say that she or he is in fact fulfilling that calling well.

It’s interesting that there are a number of such characterisations in literature surviving from the centuries past—in poetry and novels as much as formal textbooks on ministry. I guess the first such portrait I knew was Chaucer’s portrait of ‘a parson of a town’ in the Prologue to Canterbury Tales. It begins:

There was a good man of religion, too,
A country parson, poor, I warrant you;
But rich he was in holy thought and work.

Just now I am reading again Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov . It’s another superb read that has survived because of its sheer insight into the human condition. It intrigues me that Russian writers of the 19th century, especially Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, have such profound and lasting insight into the issues of morality and faith that continue through all the changes and vicissitudes of individual life, cultural shifts and the apparently huge differences in religious expressions in these last centuries.

In the first part of The Brothers Karamazov,  the novice monk Alyosha (youngest of the brothers) attends to the dying abbott of his community, Father Zossima. At one point we find a long account of the Father’s teaching which is essentially about ministry. I would like to quote several parts of it, with just a few interpolations of my own comments. (Apologies for the gender exclusive language: it’s the text as written. I hope we can see though that the insights apply to us all.)

Love one another, Fathers, said Father Zossima … Love God’s people.

That seems unexceptional: but then Zossima explains that the monastic life (and I would suggest all life in ministry) has a fundamental temptation—to imagine that they are somehow better than the ordinary people, more holy.

Because we have come here and shut ourselves within these walls, we are no holier than those that are outside, but on the contrary, from the very fact of coming here, each of us has confessed to himself that he is worse than others, than all men on earth … And the longer the monk lives in his seclusion, the more keenly he must recognise that. Else he would have no reason to come here. When he realises that he is not only worse than others, but that he is responsible to all men for all and everything, for all human sins, national and individual, only then the aim of our seclusion is attained. For know, dear ones, that every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all men and everything on earth, not merely through the general sinfulness of creation, but each one personally for all mankind and every individual man. This knowledge is the crown of life for the monk and for every man.

At this point I find myself a bit confused or challenged. How can one person, and indeed every person (in this ideal) be responsible for all others, and indeed for all the creation? This runs contrary to all our ideas of individual freedom and responsibility. Isn’t this extraordinarily paternalistic: literally the Fathers of the church claiming to manage our lives for us? Or, to raise a different issue: Isn’t this a priest claiming the role of God? Surely only God is, in this sense, ‘responsible’ for us all; only God is capable of being responsible for all the world.

Well, Yes: except that the challenge is to consider the alternative: would that be to say that we are not responsible for others, or to others? This is where the challenge comes in Zossima’s proposal. So let us read a little further:

For monks are not a special sort of men, but only what all men ought to be. Only through that knowledge, our heart grows soft with infinite, universal, inexhaustible love. Then every one of you will have the power to win over the whole world with your tears …

Here we have a quite remarkable turn: what he means by being ‘responsible’ for the world and for others has nothing to do with power, or dominion over other people’s lives and actions: it is about loving people ‘infinitely’, and that love expresses itself as forgiveness, in tears that wash away the sins of the world. This is a vision of God! It’s an image of the Christ, weeping over Jerusalem, or in his anguish in the Garden. These are the tears of redeeming love, and this is what it means to be a pastor or minister of the Gospel. Before any programs or ‘ministry’ projects, this is the foundation of being, a spiritual stance with God and before God and the world.  Thus, he goes on:

Each of you keep watch over your heart and confess your sins to yourself ceaselessly.  Do not be afraid of your sins, even when perceiving them, if only there be penitence, but make no conditions with God. Again I say, Be not proud. Be proud neither to the little nor to the great. Hate not those who reject you, who insult you, who abuse and slander you. Hate not the atheists, the teachers of evil, the materialists—and I mean  not only the good ones—for there are many good ones among them, especially in our day—hate not even the wicked ones. Remember them in your prayers thus … (then follows a form of prayer).

Clearly, this Father has been reading the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5. 43 – 48). I am especially interested in the focus on confessing to oneself: this I think is a powerful insight. It is not so much how we present ourselves to others, even in confession or spiritual direction, or supervision, that ultimately leads to love. It is what we tell ourselves. It is our personal integrity: are we truthful to ourselves, about our worth, about our ‘response’ to others and to all creation; and to the sheer fact of being alive, with and before all others and with and before God? This is the ‘sober estimate’ of which Paul writes, too, in Romans 12. 3: not thinking too highly or too lowly of oneself, but instead recognising the grace that is given to us all and to each.

This is really a vision of living with oneself and with others, simply as a person: a human being with and for others. In this idea, being a monk does not make a person special or different, in any significant respect. It might bring some things into focus, and it might make some things harder (perhaps because of special temptations): but in Zossima’s understanding it just shows how fundamentally human, like all the rest of us, these brothers are. And in the end, I would suggest, this image of being truly human is in fact also an image of Christ.

I find much of value here. Centrally, it is a call to be human, with and for each other. Being a pastor, minister or priest is not a call to be anything other that human, with and for others. In an important sense, as Zossima sees, it is not a call to be different, but rather to be (actually to be) what each of us and all of us could be, and without excuses and without setting limits to God’s love and therefore our love. Hence the prayer for enemies, atheists etc.

It is immensely helpful to define ministry in terms of prayer, and its origins in humble honesty with oneself,  and in terms of one’s own standing before God and others, as opposed to defining it as a role within an institution or a project or objective. Those things come as out-workings of this fundamental stance and moral calling. As it is with God. God is not first of all a ‘mission’. God is love. And that love has a creation and God’s mission is to love that creation: all of us. Thanks be to God. And thanks, too, for wonderful writers such as Fyodor Dostoevsky!

(Quotations are from pages 181-182 of the Kindle edition.)

One thought on “What makes a good pastor?

  1. C S Song suggests Compassion; together loving and suffering or loving and suffering together.
    I like watching Father Brown – if only everything could be resolve at the end of the day!

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