The Successful Ministry of a Dead Pastor

Consider Wendell Berry’s complaint of the modern educator in his essay, “A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural.” Berry writes,

Because of the obsession with short-term results that may be contained with the terms and demands of a single life, the interest of community is displaced by the interest of career. The careerist teacher judges himself, and is judged by his colleagues, not by the influence he is having upon his students or the community, but by the number of his publications, the size of his salary and the status of the place to which his career has taken him thus far. And in ambition he is where he is only temporarily; he is on his way to a more lucrative and prestigious place. Because so few stay to be aware of the effects of their works, teachers are not judged by their teaching, but by the short-term incidentals of publication and “service.” That teaching is a long-term service, that a teacher’s best work may be published in the children of grandchildren of his students, cannot be considered, for the modern educator, like his practical brethren in business and industry, will honor nothing that he cannot see.

I can’t imagine a greater caution for those entering into Christian ministry today than to apply what Berry is saying to our context. Like modern teachers, pastors today are driven by short-term results. We are most concerned with being judged by ourselves and our colleagues as wise, intellectual, and accomplished. The ministry today is no longer driven by concern for the spiritual lives of our people, but instead, it’s become a career, a platform for our own personal advancement and a stepping stone to the next and better thing, something more “lucrative and prestigious.” This manifests itself in constant restlessness. We look over the fence constantly to the bigger and better. And what suffers in the process?

What is lost is an understanding from the people that pastors are sent to love the sheep and are sent by God as servants of the sheep, responsible to give first priority to the ministry of the Word for the sheep. Because of displaced motives, pastoral work is no longer judged by the nature of what constitutes pastoral work: faithfulness of ministering the Word, praying with the sick on their deathbed, visiting the widow and orphan, or washing the feet of the broken. As Berry observes, the consequence of this lack of investment in people’s lives is apparent: we now live in a generation that measures and judges our pastoral work by the “short term incidentals” of our publications and accomplishments, as we justify our displaced aspirations in the advancement of our names under the guise of service.

What most interests me here is Berry’s astute observation that teaching is a long-term service that the modern interpreter will never appreciate since he cannot see the results. Berry says the best work of teachers is published in the “children of grandchildren in students.” This means, of course, that long-term investment in people’s lives will often seem unsuccessful, and will receive little approbation from a church world obsessed with greatness and immediate results. If God gives us to see some of the fruit of our pastoral labor in this life, then we should praise him for his kind providence. But our best work will be known tomorrow.

The fruit of our ministries will mostly be known in the generations to come, after we are dead and gone. It will be seen in the faith of a group of worshippers three or four generations out, whose parents, grandparents and great grandparents received a ministry before them devoted to the Word of the gospel and the care of the sheep. This is God’s way of doing ministry, because the fruit of today’s labor is a covenantal one, to a thousand generations to come through a previous thousand generations of Christ’s servants we never knew.

Pastors who adopt the modern paradigm for their ministry, dependent on being sustained by their big name, personality, and perception of being highly successful, lacking any real investment in the lives of the people, tend to fall as quickly as they rose to power. Think of how many celebrity pastors have come and gone in our short days under the sun.

It’s always important to be reminded that the ministry is not about being careerists. The ministry must showcase the one it is designed to represent, a suffering servant who became nothing, even to the point of death on a cross. When this is mirrored, whatever we accomplish, unseen and often unappreciated by many, is certain to have lasting value, especially in the eyes of the one to whom it matters.