a never-dying soul to save and fit it for the sky.
-- Charles Wesley
Every ministerial candidate seeking admission to full membership in the Annual Conference is expected to answer a series of questions. The first five of these questions pertain to his or her own spiritual life.
1. Have you faith in Christ?
2. Are you going on to perfection?
3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
4. Are you earnestly striving after it?
5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work?
Now, you’d think this would go without saying. Yeah, you’d think. But because this is really serious business, we have to pause and ask the obvious, lest we rush past it. It’s too important not to address. For, as John Wesley discovered in his fiasco-laden mission to North America, you can’t give to others what you don’t have yourself. Not only that, but no organization should want as a leader someone who’s not sold out on the goal we are in the business of pursuing. The first duty of the minister, then, is to be what we want everyone to be, a disciple of Jesus Christ. And that means not only having the right relationship with God in Christ, but also living the life Christ calls us all to.
Now, clergy do a lot of “spiritual” things. They plan and lead worship, and their attendance is the most regular of anybody’s. They pray a lot, especially with other people. They are involved in multitudinous good works. They read the Bible with great attention to prepare sermons and lessons. They appear, therefore, to be far more religious than most of their fellows. But . . . all these activities are not a substitute for the spiritual life we expect every Christian to maintain. These are in addition to the ordinary discipleship expected of every Christian. The Job requires a lot of religious activity, but the pastor has one’s own soul to keep in health, and doing for others is not the same thing as doing for yourself. This is why James said, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.”
Not only that, but the stresses of the pastoral life can be very wearing – and even toxic. C.S. Lewis noted that no doctrine seems so flimsy as the one you have just successfully defended; you can find yourself wondering, “Do I really believe this?” even as you say the magnificent words you are required to say. Moreover, you can easily come to resent the demands on your time, the comparatively low pay, the lack of real friends, the sacrifices your family (especially your children) make. You become cynical about those placed over you (not without some justice, many times, but still, an insubordinate attitude will hurt you more than it hurts your incompetent bosses). And you can also so burn out on religious people that once you get free of The Job, you don’t want to participate in anything churchy ever again.
Well. I’m retired now, so I’m back to where I started, just trying to be a Christian. I no longer have The Job, with its structure provided by my overloaded calendar, to hold me up – to make me read the Bible, pray, worship, etc. So it’s all back on me now. And I never had much of a formation experience. I was a church orphan: no one ever taught me how to pray, how to spend my time, how to form proper devotional habits. I pray a lot, but I have no regular devotions. We give to church and missions causes, and we do so in an organized way. And I still go to church. I give myself time off now and then, but I go pretty regularly, even though I struggle to pay attention and get out of the service what I need. It’s hard – but I haven’t given up. Festina lente, as the Emperor Augustus used to say. “Make haste slowly.” I’m still trying to reach that bright city up ahead, and though I’m limping and sore, I still declare of Jesus, “Whom have I in heaven but thee?” He is still my goal, my heart’s desire, the only thing I’m counting on. As the old spiritual puts it,
He made me a watchman, upon the city wall,But least and last, it doesn’t matter, so long as I make it in the end. As for my colleagues, I want you to realize it's a long trip. Take care of your soul, and don't give up.
and if I am a Christian, I am the least of all.