Peering into a seemingly endless starlit night has always intrigued and inspired me. I remember as a young boy being enraptured as I stared into a crystal-clear summer sky. Lying on my back, feeling the residual warmth of the earth beneath me, seeing the unending world above me, big questions emerged within me. Where did all this come from? Where was it all going? What was my place in it? Did I really matter? How was I to live my life in light of it?
Undergirding the vocational calling of a pastor are foundational existential questions each of us must address at the deepest level of our human experience. Questions regarding origin, destiny, knowing, suffering, meaning, and purpose confront every pastor as we seek to make sense of the world and live lives of logical consistency and integral coherence. If these existential questions are not satisfactorily answered, the pastoral calling—no matter how sincere and well-intentioned—will be built on a fragile and frail foundation. When the rains of life begin pouring down on pastoral life and work, we want to have the strength and resilience not only to endure intense difficulty, but to flourish in the midst of it. So where do we begin?
The pastoral calling begins with God and his good-news story, our true north. A. W. Tozer makes the salient point that our deepest existential questions must begin with God:
What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God.
Tozer rightly reminds us that our idea of God calibrates us. God’s character and existence is the bedrock of all reality and must firmly anchor the pastoral calling. If there’s intellectual wavering at this foundational level, the pastoral calling will in time run aground on the rocky shoreline of debilitating doubt, disillusionment, and despair. A pastor’s heart, soul, mind, and body must first and foremost be firmly tethered to the faith proposition that God is real and has revealed himself to his created world. God’s inescapable reality is the truest truth of the universe.
Our understanding of the triune God is revealed through the created world, yet supremely through the 66 books of canonical Scripture and the story it tells. This means we too are storied people, and shepherd others into a great story unfolding in space and time that we participate in.
When pastors remember whose story they are living in, they are better equipped to flourish spiritually and to help their congregation members to do the same.
Story in 4 Chapters
Against the backdrop of a great deal of biblical complexity and mystery, it’s clarifying for pastors to see the God of Holy Scripture revealing himself through the coherent framework of a four-chapter story: original creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. The theological categories of the four-chapter biblical storyline recalibrate human existential categories. In my church, we like to translate the four chapters as the ought, is, can, and will.
We are storied people, and shepherd others into a great story unfolding in space and time that we participate in.
The first chapter, “original creation,” portrays the world as it ought to be. The ought in our storied lives reflects God’s perfect desire and design for his good world, and it points us to the truth that we live not in a nihilistic universe, but rather a moral universe.
The second chapter, “the fall,” portrays the world as it now is. The is in our story reflects the brokenness of our lives and world that we experience daily as a result of sin and its disintegrating effects in our relationships and all dimensions of reality. The is plays a foundational role in the difficult matter of theodicy, providing pastors a coherent understanding of evil and suffering in the world.
This framework is essential for pastoral care as parishioners encounter a great deal of suffering in their lives. Pastors also must understand that a part of the is is not only the painful reality of our fallen human nature, but also the reality of a personal Evil One who hates God and seeks to deceive and destroy the world God designed and loves.
The third chapter, “redemption,” brings good news to the world as it portrays the world as it can be. The can in our story reflects God’s loving commitment manifested preeminently through the sending of his Son, Jesus, as an atoning sacrifice for sinful humanity, rescuing us from sin and death and bringing new-creation life. Even in the midst of the most agonizing crucibles of suffering and injustice, pastors can be messengers of soul-transforming hope. God has not abandoned his good yet broken world, but he is redeeming it, bringing his kingdom reign to the world through Jesus the crucified and risen King.
The fourth chapter, “new creation” or “consummation,” is the final chapter of the biblical story, and it portrays what will be one day, our telos. New creation brings great hopefulness to the world. We know the God of history is moving history to an ultimate good end of judging evil and restoring perfect intimacy and fellowship of humanity with the triune God. We will eternally dwell with him in the new heavens and new earth.
We know the God of history is moving history to an ultimate good end of judging evil and restoring perfect intimacy and fellowship of humanity with the triune God. We will eternally dwell with him in the new heavens and new earth.
This four-chapter story is centered in the person of Jesus. That is, pastors are not recalibrating around just an idea or a story, but a person.
And not only that: we have the soul-inspiring hope and historical confidence that Jesus also entered the story. Jesus left the heavenly throne room of the triune God, entering a sin-ravaged planet, taking on human flesh, living a sinless life, ushering in the reign of God, and laying down his life on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for our sin. Jesus defeated death, bodily rising from the dead, ascending into heaven, and will return one day to this earth to set things right again.
Embracing Jesus in repentance and faith, not on the basis of any merit of our own, we experience forgiveness of sin and a new-creation life here and now in his already, not fully yet kingdom.
The pastoral calling emerges out of the context of this biblical storyline, providing a coherent understanding of our world, our place in it, and the hope of the gospel at the center of our lives and work. At the very heart of the pastoral calling is our living in this story about Jesus—living, loving, breathing, and sharing the good news. Human and redemptive history marches on, and the pastoral calling walks in step with a triune God, dwelling outside of time, who is accomplishing his sovereign purposes within time for his ultimate glory and praise.
If the gospel is about a person, then pastoral calling is deeply relational. The Christian faith we affirm and proclaim is not merely a moral system or set of doctrinal beliefs (as important as they may be), but rather a person we know and are known by. From original creation to consummation, the good-news story has a constant theme of relational intimacy with God and others. The pastor has a lifelong quest not merely to know about God, but to know God personally and to be known by God intimately.
In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul points us to a growing intimacy with God. “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (Gal. 4:9). Our present intimacy with Christ and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit are appetizers of what is to come. In his poetic description of love, Paul writes, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then shall I know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
Starting with Why
Not only do pastors orient their vocational callings within the framework of God’s personal good-news story; they must also have and maintain clarity around their ultimate purpose. Our telos must be recalibrated. Simon Sinek reminds us that we must start everything we do by first asking the big why question: “By why I mean, what is your purpose, cause, or belief? Why does your company exist? Why do you get out of bed every morning? Why should anyone care?” All too often the pastoral calling focuses on what we are to do and not why we do it. When the “why” of our calling grows fuzzy, erosion of passion and drift of mission are inevitable.
Our present intimacy with Christ and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit are appetizers of what is to come.
The Westminster Catechism asks first the big why question: “What is the chief end of man?” The answer: “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” While this is true for all followers of Jesus, the pastoral calling builds on this purposeful foundation to include why the church they serve exists. In addition to the Westminster Catechism, as a pastor of a church, I add that the chief end of man is to know that Jesus and his church are the hope of the world.
The big why that animates my pastoral calling, what gets me out of bed every morning and compels me to bring my best to the work God has called me to do, is that I believe with every fabric of my being that the church as God designed it points people to the hope of the world—Jesus Christ. For over 30 years of pastoral ministry, maintaining clarity around the big why of my calling has allowed me to thrive on both the highest mountaintops and deepest valleys that come with serving a church.
Our Time Horizon
As a church-planting pastor, one of the most important questions I had to consider from the very beginning was what time horizon would animate the architectural design and mission of the church we were launching. While we had the timeless horizon of eternity as our ultimate aim, the timely horizon of an enduring institution that would serve multiple generations and outlast our lives was paramount.
Whether we are building a company, an organization, or a life, having a long time horizon in view is crucially important for any pastor. The pastoral calling embraces a longtime horizon, knowing God’s view of time is vastly different from ours. The apostle Peter, hopeful that Jesus would return in his lifetime, puts it this way: “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Pet. 3:8). If our vocational calling is limited to something that can be accomplished merely in our lifetime, the scope of our thinking is woefully inadequate.
On the other hand, we recognize the brevity of our temporal journey and the importance of stewarding time well. The psalmist not only points us to an endless eternal time horizon but also a short temporal horizon: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). With the strong tug of eternity in our hearts, we seek to embody wise lives in the here and now.
We are called to live before our audience of One, causing our time horizon to be recalibrated by the eternal God in his temporal plan for us.
From the story we believe we occupy, to our new time horizon, recalibrating our true north changes everything about who we are as pastors and what we do in our vocations. All reality is encompassed in a personal triune God made known in his clearest revelation, Jesus Christ. By this true north, lost shepherds are found. By this reorientation, we can rightly follow God’s guideposts.
Adapted from The Flourishing Pastor by Tom Nelson. Copyright (c) 2021 by Tom Nelson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illionis. www.ivpress.com