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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

The Pastor’s Promise, Part IV
November 3, 2016

Today we conclude our series on the pastor’s promise 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 installment, we considered the shape of pastoral intelligence; now we turn to pastoral imagination and love. That is, how do pastors invest heart and soul most fully in the love of God as it is expressed in their relationship with the people they are called to serve? (Matthew 22:37-40)

When we promise to serve with “imagination,” we need to tread carefully. The word “imagination” appears just four times in the Bible (NRSV), and in each instance the text cautions against trusting our imaginations when it comes to knowing God or mapping our future. John Calvin warns that human imagination is a “factory of idols.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion I.11.8)

Yet, imagination marks us as creatures who have bear God’s own image. Creation is God’s imagination bringing something out of nothing. We who are created in God’s image demonstrate godly imagination through our own creativity. Pastoral ministry that is only responsive and not generative constitutes a failure to live up to our pastoral promise.

But this is no license to indulge in untethered flights of imagination. A holy imagination is motivated and constrained by love – love for God and for God’s people. Rogue imagination seeks first to express and enact one’s own plans.

Imagination without love is self-indulgent. Love without imagination is sentimental and ineffectual. Pastoral excellence requires us to put all our heart and soul – all our imagination and love – into serving God’s people.

Pastoral imagination that builds up the church and glorifies God is harnessed by love. It seeks not to force the pastor’s ambitions or solutions onto the congregation he or she is called to serve, but rather to be attentive first to the hearts of the people and the needs of the neighborhood. Ministry initiatives imposed by a pastor apart from careful, prayerful listening to the congregation bypass the investment of heart and soul that vital pastoral ministry requires.

Prior to my arrival, one of the congregations I served had called a pastor who came with a reputation as an expert in transformational ministry. As soon as he arrived, he began dismantling the church’s organization and outreach, in order (he said) to revitalize its mission. When members began to remonstrate, he pushed all the harder. Soon they asked him to leave. It seemed to them that he was trying to create the church as he imagined it should be, with no acknowledgment of its heritage of faithful service to our Lord. As I began service as their pastor, I determined to do nothing new for the first year, other than get to know the people and their story as well as I could. After that period, in which we learned to love one another “just the way we are,” we were able to find a pathway to significant transformation of that congregation’s life and ministry. New mission projects we began those many years ago continue to thrive to this day.

Pastoral love embraces a congregation and its community just as they are, without condition. It strives to see them just as their Creator-Redeemer sees them. Pastoral imagination seeks and uses every means possible to lead these beloved ones onto pathways of greater vitality in life and purpose, so they can be all that God has created them to be, to the glory of God, for the sake of the world.

The pastor’s promise to pray for and serve God’s people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love is a promise to live for the sake of others.  It is not a promise to burn oneself out on the altar of ministry, to be (as Stanley Hauerwas so evocatively puts it) a “quivering mass of availability.” To serve in the way we promise requires disciplined nurture of a pastor’s own physical and spiritual reserves. Pastors who do not steward well their own lives cannot care well for others. Yet pastoral self-care is always a means to an end, never an end in itself. It serves a higher good, namely the care of God’s people so they are able and committed to invest themselves fully in Christ’s mission, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Yours in shared ministry,



P.S. Our November prayer focus is for our civic leaders, especially at the time of national elections. Regardless of who wins the electoral races next week, let us make prayer for our leaders a first priority. (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

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

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