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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

The Pastor's Soul

The pastor cannot offer to his or her congregation what he or she has not received, namely, an encounter with God in the ordinary life of the parish. The same God who stepped into human history and took on a fully human existence is present in the ordinary life of our congregants. But before the pastor can tell the congregation what God is doing, he or she must personally encounter the work of the Spirit. M. Craig Barnes writes: "Pastors are never more servants of the church than when they’re alone with their thoughts about what God is doing in the lives of others. But they’re not really alone. Their souls are crowded with all who have made their way deep inside. And of course, there is also the nagging presence of those holy words that will not go away. This is how pastors love their congregations-they take them into their souls, where they carry on both sides of a conversation between the people and their God."

To me, this description of the pastor’s soul sounds heavy. His or her soul sounds weighed down by the needs of congregants and a Word from God. Yet the pastor is not alone with a soul crowded with congregants and ancient biblical figures. He or she is in the “Holy of Holies, present to God.

The hardest work of the pastor does not take place in the pulpit or the hospital room; it occurs in the quietness of the prayer room and the study. Success in the pulpit and the hospital room is determined by what occurs here. If the pastor abdicates responsibility in the prayer room or the study, he or she will fail to offer a Word from God in both the pulpit and the hospital room. Only as the pastor makes sense of the parish in prayer and Scripture can he or she make sense of the parish in the pulpit and the hospital room.

For those of us in seminary, the most important preparation for ministry is not mastering Greek and Hebrew and Systematic Theology, as important as these things are. It is important to learn how to, in the midst of busyness, carve out space for the soul to encounter God. As I think about my current prayer practices, I find I do not take much of my life into the prayer room. When I pray, it tends to be about getting homework finished, God’s direction to find new work, and asking him for a relationship. It is not often I come to the prayer room with the needs of my students and the stressful weight of a school day. I pray with the students each morning during homeroom for their requests but rarely do I pray for them when I am by myself. Earlier in the school year, I walked around the classroom during my noon prayer and prayed over each of their desks. Yet I have allowed the “tyranny of the immediate” to shorten my noon prayer time. I run through the Book of Common Prayer’s noonday liturgy, read the Scripture passage, and ask God to give me strength in my weariness. Then I turn to the next task. Such a rhythm is not ideal for my students and is a poor habit to get into before pursuing the pastorate. I need to work on this time now, utilizing it to bring my students with me into my prayer room, finding God’s love for them to fill my own love for them.

Another essential practice, one I believe I am better at, is Sabbath. One day a week, the pastor can attend to his or her own soul before God. I am not sure how much of the congregational needs should come into this space with the pastor. During my present Sabbath practice, I focus on reading Scripture and praying for my own soul before turning to rest and play. I rarely think of my students during my Sabbath. I believe this would even be healthy as a pastor. While I imagine it is difficult to completely detach from congregational life, I believe it is important for the Sabbath to focus on the pastor’s life with God aside from the work of the pastorate. On the Sabbath, the pastor can hear the love of God declared to him or her as individuals loved and cherished by God.

[1] Barnes, M. Craig. The Pastor As Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2009, p. 108.

[2] Ibid.

[3] A phrase from my Formation Group mentor, Mike Abma.

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