Because life is a series of edits

Ambiguity and the Pastoral Call

In Thought on July 21, 2006 at 11:11 am

Learner just finished another book on the topic of pastoring: William H. Willimon’s Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, a book he says he sees himself re-reading almost annually if indeed he found himself following a call into the pastorate. This may be one of the more important, applicable books he reads in seminary.

Willimon, former professor and dean of students at Duke, speaks from both education and experience about a variety of topics related to the call to pastor – images/expectations of a twenty-first century pastor; the pastor as priest, interpreter of Scripture, preacher, counselor, teacher, evangelist, prophet, and leader; and (perhaps the most helpful section for Learner), the character and constancy of a pastor for effectiveness over the long haul. Willimon writes:

“Because of the ill-defined nature of the pastoral ministry, the work demands a high level of internal control…in conscientious persons this encourages a heightened sense of responsibility and can lead to an oppressive situation if the person is not only conscientious but also perfectionistic as well as unrealistic.” (317)

Willimon goes on to write, quoting a colleague who was a pastoral counselor for 15 years:

“The essential personality requisite for happiness in the pastoral ministry was a ‘high tolerance for ambiguity.’” (324)

Conscientious (but not perfectionistic) ambiguity? Why, Learner wonders, would he want to subject himself to such insane demands? And why would God possibly call someone like him – an INTJ who loves closure almost as much as life itself – into the pastorate?

Actually, he’s come a long way in his dealings with things ambiguous. Getting married and learning to live with someone who is not as consumed by these feelings helps; so does having children. In the past year, prescribed drugs have taken the edge off the perfectionism some, as has prayer and getting more to a point of recognizing that God really is the only one of us in control. It hasn’t been the smoothest or most pleasant of transitions, but it has been a transition – a change – and that’s important…and good.

While he supposes it’s always a temptation, he doesn’t see himself struggling with being faithful to the work of the call – both his history and sense of responsibility work against laziness in that case. He says he does feel, however, that the tendency toward overworking and perfectionism might be his greater temptation, as well as the urge “to have an answer” and “figure out” God and what he may be doing in ambiguous situations in his life and in the lives of others.

By God’s grace, the key, Learner says, to dealing with any of this seems three-fold: 1) Recognize (repeatedly) his own limits in what he can and can’t do; 2) Learn and experience more in prayer how to trust God for what he can and can’t solve; and 3) Surround himself with others who will help him do numbers one and two faithfully and joyfully, a call almost as intimidating as the pastoral one.

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