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Two Ways to Fail as a Pastor

We cared so much for you that we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. (1 Thessalonians 2:8)

How can a pastor fail? Let me, with fear and trembling, count the ways.

When I was ordained to the ministry of the gospel in March, 2009, I envisioned a 40-year ministry, “retiring” in March, 2049 at 68 years old. By God’s grace, I’m still working this plan, now thirteen years in.

And the longer I pastor, the more I tremble at my own frailty and sense more deeply the warning about the stricter judgment Christian pastors will endure before the just Judge of the cosmos.

As I survey the field of ministry, I see two very potent landmines and temptations for a pastor, exemplified by the two pastors portrayed in John Updike’s novel Rabbit, Run.*

Here Updike juxtaposes the Lutheran pastor (Kruppenbach) who is passionate to be “full of Christ,” and the Episcopalian pastor (Eccles). Both men are a part of the life of Harry, nicknamed Rabbit, who has cheated on his wife and is in the midst of flushing his life down the toilet. Kruppenbach is Harry’s own pastor, and appears in one scene of the novel, while Eccles is a pastor who is present in much of the story ostensibly trying to help Harry.

When Eccles visits Kruppenbach, Kruppenbach rebukes him for following Harry around like a mother hen.

Do you think this is your job, to meddle in these people’s lives? I know what they teach you at seminary now: this psychology and that. But I don’t agree with it. You think now your job is to be an unpaid doctor, to run around and plug up holes and make everything smooth. I don’t think that. I don’t think that’s your job…. I say you don’t know what your role is or you’d be home locked in prayer…. In running back and forth you run away from the duty given you by God, to make your faith powerful…. When on Sunday morning, then, when you go out before their faces, we must walk up not worn out with misery but full of Christ, hot with Christ, on fire: burn them with the force of our belief. This is why they come; why else would they pay us? Anything else we can do and say anyone can do and say. They have doctors and lawyers for that…. Make no mistake. Now I’m serious. Make no mistake. There is nothing but Christ for us. All the rest, all this decency and busyness, is nothing. It is Devil’s work.

While Eccles indeed fails Harry like an impotent mother hen because he does not offer him Christ, Harry’s own pastor does have Christ to offer but he is nowhere present. He only appears when Eccles visits his house.

Here we find an illustration of two ways pastors can fail in their vocation. On the one hand in Eccles, we find a pastor who has presence without power. Eccles tries to surrogate for Christ by being omnipresent, showing the immanence of God but betraying his transcendence.

But on the other hand, in the very Barthian pastor Kruppenbach (whom Updike I think intends to hero-ize) we encounter a pastor who has power without presence. While full of the burning glory of Jesus, this pastor does not display that glory to his people in the gritty mess of their daily lives so that they can be transformed by that glory. He thus shows the transcendence of God while betraying his immanence.

I believe both men have failed in significant ways in their pastoral vocation. Pastors have been called to be full and hot with Christ, most especially on Sunday at the sacred desk of the Word; and they have been also called to bring that fullness and heat into the lives of their people Monday through Saturday in the nooks and crannies of life in the world. We must spend time alone, being tanned in the heat of the Son, and we must spend time in the field and smell like the sheep.

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*Unfortunately, Updike’s writing contains what I find to be gratuitous, graphic sexuality, and eventually I stopped reading the Rabbit series of novels for this reason. I am not necessarily recommending these books, and I genuinely think that some who struggles with sexual temptation would be wise to steer clear of them.

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