In His Stead
Paul Gregory Alms on Being Paid to Act Like Jesus
What do pastors do all week? Being a pastor, I get this question every now and then. A few weeks ago, I was visiting a prospective family who had visited our congregation, and the husband, who was not much of a churchgoer, asked me, “So, what do you guys do all week?”
I am always a little nonplussed when someone asks me this. This fellow was a banker with a strong corporate mentality. I wanted to answer, “Well, I sit around a lot and read the Bible and pray and think about God and Jesus and people like you and me.” Which is literally true.
A Real Job
But I knew what he really wanted to hear. He wanted to know what, if I punched a clock, would fill up the eight hours a day. So I told him that I visit a lot of shut-ins, make a lot of hospital and evangelism calls, attend a lot of meetings, do sermon preparation, prepare Bible study classes, do administrative work. I tried to list as many concrete “tasks” as I could. I wanted him to think that, indeed, I had a real job just like him.
I could have taken the tack that I have heard some pastors take. I call it the “the ministry is the hardest working occupation in the world” sob story.
Around budget time in the congregation, or when a pastor is being attacked in the congregation, or when things are going south in the church financially or emotionally, some pastors will try out the sob story: “I work eighty hours week, I make calls all the time, I go to the hospital at all hours, I go to many, many, meetings, I am exhausted.” The sob story is effective at silencing critics for a while, but like my answer to my banker friend, it does not get at the heart of what pastors do.
Trying to describe what a minister does is tricky. Often, it isn’t a matter of time spent doing tasks. Sometimes the most important thing I do all week as a pastor is stand in the shower and realize that my sermon has no gospel in it and I’d better dump it in the trash and rewrite it. That insight, which takes a moment, might be the most valuable, cost-effective work I do all week.
Often, the most important things that happen are, to a corporate mind, the most mundane and routine: putting a bit of a wafer in the mouth of a sinner at the altar rail, or saying, “Your sins are forgiven in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
I can hear the thought-gears of that banker grinding at that one. “You mean they pay you a full-time salary with benefits so you can say words that any idiot could memorize and stand up and say?” Well, in a way, yes. They also pay me to preach and teach, and visit, and do some leadership and some administrative tasks.
But, in the end, what I really do is this: I am Jesus to them. I get paid to play-act. I get paid to do now what Jesus did: preach and forgive and bring the Kingdom to sinners. I say the words Jesus said and told us to say.
There is always a bit of the ludicrous and foolishness to the ministry. There I am on Sunday morning, the guy who, less than eighteen hours ago, went to the hardware store in a ratty t-shirt, ball cap, and dirty jeans, and now I am in God’s place, pronouncing divine judgments. I play dress-up; I wear vestments that are supposed to say to people looking at me that I am not “me” right now, I am Jesus in your midst. My voice is not mine; it is his. I am a paid actor.
But an actor with authority behind him, an actor with the authority of Christ propping him up. I cannot choose the scenes in which to appear. I cannot improvise. At the hospital bedside, in the pulpit, in the confessional, or at the cemetery, I am bidden to speak the lines given me: the eternal gospel of Jesus Christ.
All of this makes the question of what do I do all week and what do they pay me for hard to answer. In truth, I do not earn a salary at all, as most think of it. I may work hard, I may deserve the wages I receive, but the ministers of Christ are not paid or rewarded monetarily for the things they do. Faithful pastors would do them anyway with no money coming on the first and the fifteenth. Faithful pastors are pastors on account of the gospel, not the benefits package.
But the money comes and the check is cashed. The money, though, takes the form of an offering. That is where the pastor’s paycheck comes from anyway: -offerings in the plate. The “paycheck” I receive is not really “compensation for services rendered.” It is a gift. It is a gift given not even to me or my family.
Whether those giving it know it or not, it is a gift given to God. The gift is given in thanks for the ministry, not the minister, a gift of gratitude for the Great Shepherd who is seen in the human foolish shepherds he has sent to represent him, a Eucharist to the Crucified One who speaks through the squeaky little voices of his pastors.
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