This is the first week of Advent. In the Revised Common Lectionary, we’re now in Year C, which means that many of the prescribed scripture readings for Sundays in this season revolve around the life and ministry of John the Baptist. John was the “voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord!” He was the “prophet of the Most High” giving God’s people “knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.” And, as a new book by David Rohrer suggests, John provides a model for faithful ministry which pastors today should emulate.
David gave me a copy of The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry when I attended a pastors retreat at which he spoke in September. He is an experienced pastor, and the book is filled with anecdotes from his years in ministry in Presbyterian churches up and down the West Coast. From that time in ministry, he knows a bit about what faithful ministry does and does not look like. It’s not “biblical ‘how-to-ism,'” as though people merely need advice on how to live (p. 30). It’s not business management, as though pastors are executives, nor is it marketing, as though we work for advertising agencies (pp. 60-61). For Rohrer, faithful ministry looks less like the culture around us, and more like prophecy in the wilderness.
Instead of these distortions of ministry, Rohrer paints a picture of the pastor as a prophet like John the Baptist, one whose ministry directs the attention of the people to Jesus. As Rohrer writes, “The prophetic tradition points us in a direction where we see our call not in terms of running the institutions we lead, but in terms of inviting people to wake up to God” (p. 41). This sounds simple, but as Rohrer unpacks the implications of this counter-cultural portrait of ministry, the reader becomes starts to realize just how challenging this task is. All of ministry becomes a relational art requiring patience and attention to the Holy Spirit. Conversations with congregation members start to look different. The pastor’s work becomes a matter of asking the question, “Are you aware of God’s presence or not? And if you are aware, what difference is this awareness making in the way you are living your life?” (p. 29).
As a relatively young pastor, I found The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry greatly encouraging. In contrast to the voices which question the legitimacy of ordained leadership for churches, Rohrer encourages pastors to embrace the office and not to doubt the significance of their ordination. Jesus told John to baptize Him even though John was unqualified to do so (Matthew 3:13-15). Rohrer writes, “In Jesus’ response to John’s hesitancy, we have what we need as pastors to accept our office in those situations where we are painfully aware of our personal inadequacy” (p. 76). The final chapter, “Confidence,” reminds pastors that faithful ministry is not about our ability to please congregants, but about our role as prophets pointing to Christ. The crowds came to John in the wilderness because they were hungry for God. The same is more true today than we realize. Rohrer writes, “It’s amazing to think about the level of confidence we could have in ministry if we allowed our work to be fueled by the belief that people are actually searching for the Bread of Life and the Living Water” (p. 157). Pastoral ministry in the sacred wilderness means directing our attention, and the attention of our hungry congregations, to the One who is the Bread of Life and the Living Water.