From the October, 2005 issue of Touchstone

Wearing the Cross by Paul Gregory Alms

Wearing the Cross

Paul Gregory Alms on Servant Leadership & other Pastoral Fads

I have been a pastor for only thirteen years, but I have already seen several models of pastoral ministry—each the latest thing and the final word—come and go. Scores of workshops, programs, and even whole industries have promised to make me a better shepherd. Many offer new paradigms, new techniques, new strategies, summed up in great catchphrases, to increase my effectiveness and success.

Servants & Visionaries

When I entered the holy ministry, the buzzword was “servant leadership.” The best way to exercise pastoral care was to be a servant. Pastors did not exercise authority; they served. They did not tell lay people what to do or think; they enabled parishes and people to become healthy and whole. Servant leaders were experts at facilitating and assisting, all of it aimed at better functioning in life.

Sounded great. This soon segued into another “hot” paradigm: being the visionary. Visionaries did not concern themselves with the nuts and bolts of pastoral ministry (you wouldn’t find them at a hospital bed; they had a “vision” for multiplying ministry so that others could care for the sick).

They were intent on setting the vision, outlining the future and the bright horizon toward which the congregation was pressing. This visionary leadership was inspirational and uplifting, for it drew others into its orbit as they “felt ownership” of the vision painted by the pastor and then coalesced to carry out his vision for the congregation.

This visionary prototype was often presented alongside a CEO pattern for pastors. The CEO would delegate tasks, concentrate on efficiency, see the big picture, set up programs, and make the congregation responsive to the customer (the newcomers and unchurched reputedly lurking at the doors of the church and wanting to come in, if only the church were responsive to their needs). The CEO pastor was a growth pastor who would grow the church with strategies and processes and approaches taken from the corporate world.

Many of these paradigms are still around. But lately I have encountered yet another one. Now I am being told to forego all of that “office work” and be an evangelist. The buzzword is no longer “vision” or “leadership”: It is “sharing,” one-on-one sharing of the gospel.

Whereas in years past I was advised to hold meetings, compose vision statements, and concentrate on systems therapy to diagnose my congregation, now I am encouraged to get out of the office and go down to the corner barbershop or the 7-Eleven and share what Jesus means to me with the teenage girl who cuts my hair or the clerk behind the counter. No longer am I supposed to be Lee Iacocca, guiding the ship; I am now supposed to be John Wesley, revealing the warm glow Jesus has put in my heart so as to win souls.

What I have found in my short time as a pastor is that none of this has much to do with really being a pastor. I think that much of this yearning for models and systems has to do with the weakness all pastors feel, the inherent conflict, the cross that a shepherd must bear in the apostolic office.

These fads and models are all based on effectiveness and on measuring what happens in the church, on setting up measurable goals that tell us if what we are doing is working. This sounds so sweet to the ears of a pastor. It sounds wonderful, for it lifts that cross off the pastor’s back.

What is that burden? What is that cross the pastor bears? The burden of forgiving and relieving people of sins and guilt, people who come back the next week or, often, the next day with a full plate of disgust and filth needing to be rinsed again.

The Cross of Uncertainty

The pastor’s burden is to preach the gospel, a message that is the power of God for salvation, to a congregation full of people who can barely be roused to pay attention for an hour a week and who, then, as far as human sense can often make out, fall back into the carnal slumber from which they were so briefly awakened at Sunday liturgy. The pastor’s crucifixion takes this form: to work in a calling where the results are by nature invisible, where the harvest is hidden from our eyes in the heavenly wedding hall, and where we now sludge forward with only faith that what we do matters at all.

What the paradigms and models and programs do is to take faith out of the equation. They lift the burden and the cross from our backs. There it is, finally, results I can see and count. Even if I fail, at least I can know it for sure. There it is in the spreadsheet: attendance is up . . . alleluia! Attendance is down . . . weeping and gnashing of teeth. But there is no uncertainty either way, no cross to bear.

With statistics and paradigms and quantifiable, goal-driven ministry, I do not have to wonder if the fumbling words with which I try to catechize the squirming bunch of adolescents will ever really shield them from the sorrows and sadness of life. Instead, I can count the number of newcomers I have enticed to come through the door. I don’t have to wonder if the baby I am baptizing, whose parents are of uncertain piety and dedication, will know the joy of growing up in the Church. Instead, I can devise a new program, measure results, have a meeting.

The Lord’s Farmer

It is funny how our Lord never promised his apostles great success, or told them to count, or offered them a concrete program of pastoral ministry. He just said, “Follow me, take up your cross, baptize, teach all things I have commanded, do this in remembrance of me.” He gave his pastors a crucifix, not a plan; he led them to walk in his footsteps, in the darkness of faith, with his promises only.

Most often as a pastor I feel like an uneducated but pious farmer who pushes his seeds into the dark soil and then prays. I do a lot of seed-pushing and I do a lot of praying. I suspect this is how it is supposed to be.

I have come to know a few things for certain in this uncertain ministry I pursue. I have an idea that the Church that survived persecution and success, growth and decline, knew that the pastoral life is one of faith. I think the Church of all the ages, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, gave me a paradigm of pastoral care at my ordination: to preach, to administer the sacraments, to visit the sick, to forgive the sins of the penitent.

I am pretty sure that I am not supposed to know or have any measurable ground on which to stand. Rather, I have been given the words of my Lord: baptize, teach, do this. I am convinced that when my parishioners open their mouths to take the Body of Christ, they are being cared for in an ineffable, uncountable, non-statistical, heavenly way, the way our Savior intended.

I do know this: When I preach to my little flock, when I give them the gospel, then I am most a pastor; when they hear from my lips not the latest marketing technique but the eternal truth of Jesus and him crucified.

Paul Gregory Alms is pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Catawba, North Carolina. A graduate of Concordia Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, he has written for Lutheran Forum Letter, Logia, and Portals of Prayer, and writes a weblog called Incarnatus Est ( He is married and the father of four girls.

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