He will not break a bruised reed
or quench a smoldering wick
until he brings justice to victory.
– Matthew 12:20, NRSV
* * *
Pastors see many things. It is easy to get angry in ministry. One can become overwhelmed by brokenness, dysfunction, and trouble in people’s lives. A pastor feels responsible. A pastor feels called to bring Jesus to people so that he can touch their lives and work faith, hope, and love in them. Results are not always apparent, and this is immensely frustrating. Living with a congregation can lead to sleepless nights and paralyzing anxiety. The Apostle Paul himself testified that his greatest trial was the daily weight of concern he felt for his churches.
Faced with these facts, some ministers give up and go do something else. Others hang around, suffering a low grade fever of discouragement and fading hopes. The strong in spirit decide they won’t put up with lukewarm Christians and take control. They develop a strategy, surround themselves with faithful lieutenants, and build a church in their image. They fortify their power base, disallow any dissension, root out “problem people,” and forge ahead to “success.” People in the church are deemed successful when they toe the line and fit into the program. The majority of ministers fall somewhere in between, savoring those seasons when things are going well and the church family seems healthy, persevering through the tough times, and often finding themselves wondering if there isn’t more they can do to move the church forward into spiritual health and maturity.
All ministers face the temptation to be God the Father, laying down the Law, God the Son, overturning the tables in the Temple, and the Holy Spirit, cutting the congregation to the quick. It’s up to us, isn’t it? This is our calling, right? We mustn’t settle for anything less than “radical” Christianity.
In his book, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life, Paul Zahl urges a different way.
The main feature of pastoral care rooted in grace is non-proactivity. This is another way of saying that the main feature of pastoral care rooted in grace is passivity. Grace in pastoral care eschews control and acts out of response rather than action. This means that pastoral care from grace consists mostly of listening and watching.
. . . Ministers see no evil, and yet they see everything. This is the reality of imputation. Pastoral care is not “proactive,” a big word in our lives today. Pastoral care observes, yet decides not to see. This is the essence of grace in practice. You look out on a group of people on a Sunday morning and observe bickering mothers and daughters, sullen and resentful sons, sexually frustrated men and misunderstood wives. You feel the rising infidelities and the hurt feelings and the palpable mourning for mothers and fathers who are no longer present. You see all this if you have an eye to original sin and total depravity. Yet you speak the word of imputed righteousness: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). The blanket of condemnation that the discerning eye cannot fail to see is replaced by the “garments of salvation” (Isaiah 61:10).
This means that pastoral response is always the response of listening and passive reception. It is not the response of trying to fix things. Every conversation you ever have in ministry is a piercing conversation from the standpoint of the pastoral listener. He or she has heard it all before, many, many times. Yet it has to come out. It has to be heard with full acceptance, even sorry acquiescence. Grace never tries to fix, but trusts God to do this. Grace listens.
In caring for people in the setting of a local church, the idea is first to relax control and the idea of control. No more micro-managing! This only takes place in the vacuum provided by the absence of human control. It is the fruit of the Spirit to create love where there was resentment, and creativity where there was blockage. This happens among everyday people when the control of the law is lifted.
– pp. 240-243