Lost shepherds and waiting sheep
The Rt Revd Rennis Ponniah, the Vicar of St John’s-St. Margaret’s Church, and Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Singapore, gave an insightful message to priests and ordinands recently that was excerpted in the Diocesan Digest(Nov 2010). He was reminding the church of what it meant to be an Anglican priest in the church of God –the classical role of Anglican priests. Over the years, this has been greatly eroded, obscured, obstructed, and pushed aside by the pressures arising from expectations of congregations for their priests to function like CEOs. The result: lost shepherds in the church, and the consequence – more lost sheep waiting in the pews for their shepherds to do what they are truly called to do, and other sheep leaving for other pastures. The irony is that members want their priest to act like a CEO so that the church would grow, but the outcomes are exactly the opposite: priests and lay leaders suffering burnout and members leaving because their soul care has been ignored.
Lost shepherds can find themselves
What he said so accurately reflects a clear and present danger in the other churches in Singapore too, not just the Anglican. The unbiblical expectations members have of their pastors to be like CEOs, reminded me of what Goh Keng Swee and his team of systems engineers did to the Singapore education system in the 1970’s (they killed its soul, and teachers felt lost). What Rennis said would resonate with many pastors in this land. The same has already happened in urban churches in the United States too. Shepherds today, like the ones at Christmas, need a fresh and heavenly revelation of who God is. They need to eagerly seek the One in Whom they can find their true self and calling. Here is an excerpt of his message:
So much is expected of the priest in the modern city – chairing meetings, organizing major projects, replying emails at the speed of smartphones and sometimes initiating financial ventures – that it becomes easy to lose our way and neglect the major tasks of our calling. The affirmation of men and meeting the expectations of our congregation for dynamic leadership and management can become our priorities instead of pleasing God through our faithfulness to our calling. As one of my clergy colleagues recently remarked, “If there is a parable to describe our modern situation, it may well be entitled the ‘Parable of the Lost Shepherd.’ The hundred sheep, safely in the fold, wait hungrily for their shepherd to find his way back to them.”
We do well therefore as priests to heed the call to vocational holiness – to being true to the central tasks of our calling. What then is our vocational calling as priests? In a word, I would say that our call is not to run an organization or meet people’s felt needs, but to build a community of disciples. I often have to remind myself, “I am not running a church, I am building a community.” With this in mind, the key vocational tasks of a priest can be identified as:
1. Preaching / proclamation of the Gospel
2. Discipling/teaching and equipping bands of people
3. Interceding/shaping and leading corporate prayer and worship services
4. Pastoral care and spiritual direction(ie the role of the “wise man” in the Old Covenant)
5. Leading the people out in mission and community service
6. Oversight of the flock and governance.
The greatest threat to fulfilling our vocational tasks is our management responsibilities in our urbanized parishes. I am not saying that management work is not needed in priestly leadership; however, they should not stand in the way of our primary tasks. This is clear in the early account of the early church where the apostles found themselves diverted from their vocational calling because they were personally managing the task of food distribution to the needy. They learnt to delegate this task to others in order that they may give their “attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4). Sadly, priests today may be delegating away their primary vocational tasks, while focusing on secondary ones. We are farming out the task of pulpit preaching to frequently-invited guest speakers, and the task of intercession to church intercessors. We are called to “prayer and the ministry of the Word”. We are called to “attend to God” in prayer and the study of His Word, and then to minister to people out of the strength of His presence. Are we attending to the needs of men (emails and mobiles) but ignoring our Lord (eg. Prayers and devotions)?