Generally speaking, there is usually a debilitating and persistent viral infection in every human undertaking. The pastoral ministry is most certainly not exempt.
I recently saw a quote that struck me as having contemporary universal acknowledgment:
“Who is Mr. Error Code 404 and why does he have so many web pages?”
The quotation was anonymous, so I don’t feel compelled to insert a citation. The truth is we have all seen Error 404 many times: “This page no longer exists,” “There must be a problem!” “Oops!” or my favorite, “Okay. What happened?”
The error 404 in the pastoral ministry shows up almost daily for many of us. The “bad link” seems to pop up when we least expect it. In fact, error 404 in the pastoral ministry appears whenever we feel we have done our very best without doing our very most. In such sad times, when the clouds of a lost Garden drift into our thinking, we revert to an intuitive syllogism:
Major premise: Skill and hard work bring desired results.
Minor premise: Pastors and other vocational ministers may acquire skill and execute hard work.
Conclusion: Pastors who apply skill and hard work to ministry projects (missionary endeavors, sermons, church plants, staff meetings, session, vestry, counsel, committee, or board meeting) will see success (philosophers, kindly withhold your public comments about my categorical or logical mishaps along the way; this is prose in pursuit of purpose!).
Such an equation is treacherously familiar, isn’t it? Yet, the syllogism is faulty from the start. “Skill and hard work” doesn’t always succeed in our work. In fact, such otherwise virtuous attributes may become the greatest hindrance to “effective” ministry (when “effective” is linked to “the mission of God in the world”).
When applied, even with the best intentions, not only do we miss the mark but we feed the deadly gangrene of presumed self-sufficiency. This is an inherited, often cryptic disease left by the fall of Adam. The septic decrepitude is as attached to your and my spiritual DNA as a surely as an ear-shape gene is to our physical DNA.
Regeneration through Jesus Christ provides us with a forensic justification before God for our guilt of sin. It strikes a death blow at the sin nature in the same way as Christ’s victory on the cross struck a blow at sin in the world. We are “born again.” The earth is “set free” from the Fall. But, we are not yet. We are on our way. And as St. Paul instructs us from his own life experience, the residual effects of Original Sin continued to present an obstacle to be overcome through a life of sanctification. Now, the spiritual disorder that often afflicts pastors and causes them to rely on the familiar, intuitive syllogisms is, in many cases that I have observed in counseling, as well as in those too rare occasions when I am honest with myself—(you knew it) pride. The persistent Error Code 404 in the pastoral ministry is human pride. When the withering, cold, white leprous hand of pride touches the pastoral ministry, which has a spiritual foundation and underlying necessity in the practice of ministry, the disastrous contagion “tricks” the Christian Shepherd into an often-tragic delusion that he can accomplish spiritual goals by mortal strategies.
Let me take just one example that we are all familiar with: sermon preparation. When we begin sermon preparation as a technical craft to be learned and practiced rather than a spiritual discipline to be cultivated and enjoyed, the resulting product is defective. When I say that it is “defective,” I am saying that “the deliverable” does not accomplish what it was originally designed to do. To be quite honest the product we peddle becomes a horrible case of false clerical advertising (if not outright malpractice). We sell a message that if you come to church and hear the sermon, you will hear from God. Of course, that is what preaching should be. But to accomplish that goal we recognize that we must begin with a counterintuitive approach, a heavenly syllogism:
Major premise: True sermons are those in which God speaks.
Minor premise: God speaks according to His means of grace.
Conclusion: Sermons that are grounded in the means of grace are God’s Word.
The spiritual equation that brings about effective ministry is always counterintuitive, paradoxical, and quite frankly mysterious (meaning, “I see the truth, but I cannot see through it”). What is not a mystery is the supreme model for this gracious and completely ethereal way of the new life.
The cross of Jesus Christ was the centering place of God’s Covenant love where human syllogisms crumbled beneath the mind of God. Humankind separated from God by sin would be saved by God Himself being crucified by His own creation nailed to an instrument of torture (from timber that He created) and humiliation in the company of criminals, and before a crowd, save his mother and the other Mary and John, that was guilty of deicide.
The ruling motif of the cross becomes, forever in the Christian life and in pastoral ministry, “the very thing that seeks to destroy you becomes in the hands of a loving God the very thing that saves you.” Thus, in weakness, in the confession of sin, in absolute dependence upon the power of the Holy Spirit, we approach the sacred texts of the Holy Bible and plead with God, “Open up the meaning of your Word to me O Christ. Search me and know me and disclose to me the truth of this portion of Thy Word for my life. Guide me through prayer and Thy Spirit’s presence so that I may proclaim Your Gospel to our community. Speak O Lord through this filthy sinner saved by grace and called to preach the gospel that I once blasphemed. Save, sanctify, renew, and recover.”
The good thing about Error Code 404 is that it is in most cases not the end of the line. Your research is merely postponed. You may proceed to your goal through a viable link to another page.
Falling back into the old human equations of success in pastoral ministry might reveal the Error Code 404 in our vocation. But it is not the end of the line. In fact, it may be a “click” away—by confession, prayerful humility, and a return to the cross of our Savior—to return to a good place of pastoral ministry; a place that is both spiritually effective and vocationally satisfying.
Of course, we believe that this is “merely” what Jesus taught another pastor long ago:
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV).
And that, my dear brothers and sisters, remains the single most effective cure for Error 404 in the ministry.
Dr. Michael A. Milton (PhD, University of Wales) is the Distinguished Professor of Missions and Evangelism at Erskine Theological Seminary where he also serves as the Director of Chaplain Ministries. The retired fourth presidency and chancellor of the RTS System, Dr. Milton founded and shepherded 3 churches (KS, GA, and NC), and was the senior minister of the historic First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga. Mike Milton is a US Army Chaplain (Colonel) retired, and remains President of the D. James Kennedy Institute of Reformed Leadership. Dr. Milton’s life verse is from Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it unto the day of Jesus Christ.” Or, as Mike puts it in the title of his autobiography, “What God Starts God Completes.”