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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

The Pastor’s Promise, Part III
October 27, 2016

With our October prayer calendar focusing on pastors, this month we are exploring the relationship between pastors and their congregations. In our denomination, pastors promise at their ordination to “pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” (Book of Order W-4.4003h) In last week’s letter, I noted how this fourfold promise parallels the way Scripture calls us to love God and neighbor, and considered what it means for pastors to expend and sustain their best energy in fulfilling their calling.

Today we consider our promise to invest our best intelligence in our ministry – that is, to know, serve, and love God and God’s people “with all our mind.” (Matthew 22:37)

This is about more than being merely “book-smart,” though it certainly mandates our best efforts to engage honestly and rigorously what others can teach us. It most assuredly means that we will make every effort to increase our knowledge of God in Christ, of Holy Scripture, of the grand historic stream of theological wisdom, and of the arts and sciences of our world. Intelligence in ministry is about both learning as much as we can, and using our learning winsomely to build up others. It is about increasing in both knowledge and wisdom.

One sure mark of true wisdom is that the more we learn, the more we realize how much we do not know. Genuine learning is marked by both an increased mastery of particular subject material and an acknowledgment that there is so much more to know than what we have yet discovered. The exercise of godly pastoral intelligence is marked by humility. It is a demonstration of the mind of Christ that defers to others. (Philippians 2:4-11)

One of the Reformers’ most significant legacies was the restoration of learning as a central dimension of Christian discipleship. They had been raised in a church in which Scriptures were read, sermons preached, and liturgies led in a dead language that parishioners did not understand. One of their first reforms was to offer scripture and liturgy in the vernacular, enabling the congregation to learn what Scripture teaches us to believe and do. In order to promote learning in the church, pastors in Reformed churches themselves needed to be learned in theology, biblical languages, sciences, and the arts.

I have been called many things as a pastor, some of which would be inappropriate to publish. I have never been big on titles, but I did have one favorite by which a few older members affectionately addressed me many years ago: “Parse.” Short for “Parson,” which is a variant of “Person.” One reason the term “parson” became a common designation of the parish minister among Reformed churches was that the pastor was usually the most broadly educated and influential “person” in the community. As such, the pastor was not just the priest, but also the primary educator and advocate for members of the parish. This is one reason why many pastors in Reformed churches scrapped priestly garb in favor of the black gown worn by academics and magistrates.

I often hear people say that one reason they are drawn to the Presbyterian church is that in this church they’re not asked to “check their brains at the door.” While the pastor may no longer be the most learned person in the community, a church atmosphere supporting open inquiry and rigorous education is sustained by the pastor him/herself being an avid life-long learner.

As important as ongoing learning is for pastors, it rises to the standard of loving God and neighbor with all our mind only if it leads us to open our minds and hearts ever wider – not only to learning new data and ideas, but also to learning more about the people we serve. It requires that we practice disciplined exegesis of texts and of people alike. The more I seek to understand great texts, the more I realize how much there is left still to learn. And the better I understand the people I serve, the more I see how much more there is to them than the little bit I have so far discovered.

Genuine pastoral intelligence entails humility. Godly learning leads us not to puff out our chests, but rather to bow our heads and hearts before the wonder of the cosmos that God has created, and of the unfathomable depths of divine beauty present in each and every human being created in God’s own image.

Each member of our community is God’s “work of art.” (Ephesians 2:10, New Jerusalem Bible) Pastors who seek to keep their promise to invest their intelligence in seeking to know, serve, and love God’s creation with “all their mind” will ever seek to learn more about God’s word, God’s world, and God’s people. Breathtakingly beautiful! Far greater than our ability to comprehend! We bow low in humble acknowledgment of the grandeur of it all, and in that grandeur we see ever more clearly the majesty of the One who created it all. Soli Deo Gloria!

Yours in seeking the mind of Christ,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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