A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
October 23, 2014
Many churches have joined a movement to recognize October as “Pastor Appreciation Month.” I must confess to being somewhat skeptical of the motives of the movement’s originators – publishers who might stand to gain from increased sales related to pastoral recognition. But I have never wavered in my support for honoring the work of our spiritual shepherds, in the spirit of 1 Timothy 5:17: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” And so I challenge each of us to do something concrete to demonstrate our love and appreciation for our pastor, especially this month.
Unlike most people who grew up in church, I only ever had one pastor before I left home for college. My attraction to pastoral ministry began by watching his ministry. He clearly loved the pastoral vocation – even through the inevitable rough patches – and pursued it with all his heart and mind and strength. He cautioned us young people against becoming pastors unless we had such a deep sense of call that we could do nothing else. He never urged me personally to pursue pastoral ministry, confident that God would put that on my heart if that were my calling.
I was a leader in our church’s version of scouting, and president of our youth group. I had a voracious appetite for knowing Scripture, and loved the Lord and his church greatly. Several of my friends were similarly engaged and inclined. Others pointed us toward pastoral ministry, but our pastor refused to try to sell others on his own vocation. Interestingly, many of the church’s youth later became pastors. His example proved to be powerfully influential.
My pastor modeled what he preached. He was not perfect, of course, but he always pursued personally the godliness he proclaimed publicly. He never asked his flock to carry a burden or to make a sacrifice that he did not embrace himself. He loved his family deeply, and did not sacrifice them on the altar of professional pursuits. When anyone needed assistance of any kind, from spiritual direction to fixing the plumbing, he was always glad and ready to help. He treated everyone with dignity, regardless of their station in life.
He was not glued to his study desk (he kept a “study” rather than an “office”), yet time and again we would see him there immersed in preparation for proclaiming the Word – which he did often, preaching two different sermons each Sunday (we always had morning and evening services), plus leading a midweek Bible study.
While most of the church’s members loved him dearly, some folk were thorny toward him. I marveled at his capacity to keep good cheer in the face of resistance. From him I learned the critical importance of the pastor growing a thick skin while guarding a tender heart; all too often pastors tend to respond to critiques – even friendly ones – with thin skins and hardened hearts.
There were seasons of significant church growth under his pastoral leadership, but most of the time church life remained stable and ordinary. He didn’t need to set new records or break new ground in order to validate his ministry. A couple of times church attendance slumped, when some folk became dissatisfied with his steady pace, and broke away to join up with “the church of what’s happening now” (with apologies to Flip Wilson). While he was saddened when people chose to leave, he continued on the course of what he believed God had called him to do.
He is retired now, and lives some distance away from those he used to serve as pastor. He has supported his pastoral successors, both by encouraging them in their labors and by deferring all ongoing pastoral work to them. He stays away from doing the baptisms, weddings, or funerals of those he formerly served as pastor, yet he remains connected in bonds of friendship with many of them, thanks to the technologies of email, Facebook, and unlimited long distance phone call plans. He still prays for them, rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep. They still love him, and he still loves them.
While he is no longer the pastor of the flock he served over his years of active ministry, he remains my great vocational example and inspiration. I know of nobody who has embodied more robustly the great markers of authentic pastoral ministry – faithfulness, fruitfulness, and fulfillment. And so today, with immense respect and gratitude, I say to my pastor (who happens also to be my Dad), “Thank you! Well done!”
Grateful beyond words,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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