I’m reading the RCL lessons for this coming Sunday – Ezekiel 2:1-5 and Mark 6:1-13 – and notice a similar theme. Ezekiel is called by the Lord to preach specifically to people whom the Lord knows (and so does Ezekiel) are not about to listen to him; when Jesus goes to Nazareth to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom to them, they refuse to listen to Him as well. In fact, Mark notes that their unbelief was so stubborn that Jesus could not perform any miracles there.
Sometimes in our pastoral work we can feel like we’re just bashing our head against a brick wall. Our preaching isn’t having an effect. Nobody is listening to our suggestions. Despite our best efforts, the congregation isn’t growing. We think we are doing everything we possibly can, but nothing seems to be happening.
Some twenty years ago or so some consultants did a study of congregations in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod that concluded that the chief reason that congregations in our church don’t grow in numbers is because the pastors of those congregations spend their time doing wrong tasks. Their prescription was that the pastors should change and do right tasks, and the churches would grow. We’ve been fighting about that prescription ever since.
Should the pastor take the blame if the church doesn’t grow? Should he blame the congregation, and say that they’re as stubborn as the people Ezekiel was sent to? Should they together blame their surrounding demographic?
After years of wrestling with these questions, and coming up to this Sunday’s readings, I’m ready to say that we never should have been asking these questions in the first place. Blame-casting really only wounds rather than helps the person or group on whom the blame falls; but beyond that, these Scriptures show us that our focus on these questions was way off base in the first place.
More basic to the understanding of the pastoral task is the pastor’s identity. The people of Nazareth asked of Jesus, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother Mary?” and on and on. Of course He was – but that’s not all He was. He also was the Son of God. His identity was not defined solely by the people of Nazareth, or by His human parents, but more importantly by His heavenly Father. And pastors, preachers, our identity is not defined solely by the congregations we serve, or by the perceptions of people around us, but more importantly by our own Heavenly Father. Our identity is not “preacher” or “pastor” or “church grower”; our identity is “beloved child of the Heavenly Father.” He has loved us with an everlasting love, and because of His great love for us in Jesus He has no condemnation for us ever, even if we fail in the pastoral ministry.
Overlay on top of identity the pastor’s call. God specifically called Ezekiel to a ministry that they both knew would be difficult. They both knew the people would be stubborn, unresponsive, and recalcitrant. The both knew that Ezekiel’s ministry would probably not be “successful” by human standards. But Ezekiel’s call was to preach the word of God to them regardless of the results – as Paul might say, “in season and out of season.” And, pastors, your call may not be to plant a church or lead a megachurch or have an easy ministry. It might just be the call of God for you to go to stubborn, unresponsive, recalcitrant people and preach the love of God to them without acknowledgement or appreciation or even effect. I don’t know what your call is – some days I’m still trying to discern mine.
What I do know is this – I know that you are a child of God for the sake of His Son Jesus. I do know that His call to you is unique, like Ezekiel’s was. God probably did not call you into “the ministry” – it’s more likely that He called you into a particular ministry at a particular time in a particular place for a particular reason. And He has given you the Holy Spirit to help you carry out that call. Rather than discerning your best course of action according to consultants and advisors, you and I are doubtless way better off seeking to discern the call that God has for us, and faithfully discharge the duties of that call regardless of the earthly results.