Leading from the Second Chair: The Care of Souls

Screen Shot 2016-11-15 at 7.40.14 AMBy Ben Pickett, the Discipleship Minister at the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene Texas.

A couple of weeks ago I was one of a handful of ministers invited to join a panel discussion for a group of students at a local Christian university. We were a diverse group both in our respective traditions and in the various roles in which we served. Some on the panel were seasoned vets in ministry and some not so seasoned, but it was a very interesting group all the same.

As the conversation went on, a student asked a question about the challenges of ministry. When these kinds of questions come up, and when ministers find themselves in a reflective moment, the responses can be surprisingly raw with honesty. It’s like the concluding sentence in the climactic chapter of your favorite novel. You know the line is rich with meaning and carries far more significance than what you read on the surface. If you have read a lot and have been trained to seek out the connections and lessons discovered below the surface, you tend to appreciate good literature (and the inspiring authors) that understands this and invites the reader to risk diving in. I believe there is a similar dynamic found in the relationship between ministers and their churches. Let me explain.

At the heart of ministry is the cura animarum, the “care of souls.” This is the first task of ministry and the primary task of the minister. Regardless the specific role, every Christian minister holds a responsibility for the spiritual nurturing and well-being of those in their parish. In seminary or university, entire programs and coursework are devoted to “spiritual formation” and carry, at their foundation, an implicit charge for ministers to help people learn to grow in faith. A minister that doesn’t care deeply about people doesn’t understand ministry or what it means to be a minister.

I’ve always found it interesting to observe how parishioners view their ministers. In some traditions, I’ve observed how church members held the priest or minister in great esteem. Not so much for their individual spiritual character (though character was highly important), but also in large degree to the assumed responsibility the role held for the spiritual health and well-being of the congregation.

In these contexts, I’ve noticed a great deal of humility and respect for the role as much as respect for the person filling it. The church took great care to hear what was said because they understood it was for their spiritual good and the preacher recognized in concrete ways the responsibility to serve well.

On the other hand, a second view I’ve noticed is different from the one above. While the role of the minister is the same, the way the church understands the role can be strikingly different.

In some cases, (interestingly, those that possess a very high view of the “priesthood of all believers”) the minister’s role and the person in it were often treated in a way that would give the impression that their vocation was of ancillary concern to the spiritual health of the church. Like the older traditions, in Protestant churches it seems to me the pulpit minister, or lead pastor, will most often find themselves in the first role described above. The 2nd chair minister often occupies the second view.

In his book, Sacred Fire, Ronald Rolheiser recalls a story from the University of Louvain where Edward Schillebeeckx (please don’t ask how to say his last name – I’m at a loss) was asked a question by a student: “If you had to submit one biblical text that you felt named our faith situation today, what would that text be?” His answer? “The disciples walking on the road to Emmaus on Easter Sunday.” The professor went on to explain that contemporary Christians are deeply discouraged by the world around them, “that a once-firm faith has been shattered, but they are walking with Jesus and yet are unable to recognize him.”

I think this same problem is a challenge for 2nd chair ministers. While unable to talk with the church as a whole, they still feel the responsibility to minister to their parishioners who may or may not consider their role significant. At the same time, these ministers care deeply about the spiritual condition of the people they serve. They hear the answers to common “how are you?” questions and know there is more going on, that the line has deeper meaning, but grieve over the lack of honesty and openness so necessary for spiritual growth. They won’t press, but they know more is going on.

The minister to my right said, “I love my job, and at the same time, I hate my job.” The room was dead silent. After the panelist said it, he caught himself – perhaps realizing he had shared more than he wanted to. But we all got it.

When a minister genuinely cares for people, has devoted their vocation, their family, and their very heart, in service to God, in service to the care of souls, there are moments when all the training and experience cannot provide the right spirit, or the right argument, to persuade people to believe and to do what God desires for them.

They choose their own way.

This is why I don’t talk politics with my church members, or “make things interesting” on the golf course. Ministers can offer what’s best for their churches; however, as we discussed last week, ministry is a volunteer environment. People decide for themselves how they will serve and, more importantly, decide for themselves what they will believe.

It’s a choice that’s been around since the Garden. When we as ministers watch the people in our care walk with God in the “cool of the evening,” the sight warms are hearts and reminds us of our calling and purpose.

Sometimes we will find ourselves on the road to Emmaus. Confused, frustrated, and unsure about the future.

But like those walking on Easter Sunday, we all stay on the road.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.