Pastor: A Unique Calling to Serve a Unique Community

By Barry Howard

For 34 years now, I have had the privilege of serving as a pastor. Even after all of these years I consider myself to be a student of ministry, not an expert. I have been privileged to serve remarkable congregations who have challenged me, frustrated me, and taught me more than I have taught them.

Although I have been blessed with wonderful mentors across my ministry, in recent years my perspectives on being a pastor have been heavily influenced by writers such as Eugene Peterson. One of Peterson’s latest books, The Pastor: A Memoir, is an inspiring autobiographical account of what it means to be called to pastoral ministry and to live out that vocation in a unique community.

While Peterson is known to many primarily for his popular Bible translation called The Message, for me his greatest contribution has been his writings about pastoral work. Years ago I read three of Peterson’s books about pastoral ministry: Five Smooth Stones of Pastoral Work, The Contemplative Pastor, and Under the Unpredictable Plant. In a church world that looks to the pastor to be the CEO, a chaplain-on-demand, or an ecclesial entrepreneur, Peterson reminds ministers and churches that a pastor is more like a spiritual director, a “soul friend” who walks alongside others pointing out what God is doing in their life.

In a fast paced world, where a competitive consumerist culture has invaded the church, pastors are often expected to be an idealistic combination of captivating motivational speaker, savvy executive/administrator, and extraordinary counselor. But the call to be a pastor is unique. There is no other vocation like it.

The call to be a pastor is unique because the nature and purpose of the church is unique. Veteran pastor Hardy Clemons reminds us that the church is to be “more family than corporation.” Clemons reminds pastors and churches of their peculiar mission:

“Our goal is to minister: it is not to show a profit, amass a larger financial corpus or grow bigger for our own security. The ultimate goals are to accept God’s grace, share the good news, invite and equip disciples, and foster liberty and justice for all.”

While serving as a pastor involves skills and responsibilities that are similar to other career paths, being a pastor is a vocation like no other. Although ministers and laity alike will be tempted to compare the role of the pastor to executive roles in the marketplace, the call to be a pastor is distinctive. Peterson stresses that a call to pastoral ministry is a call to spiritual discernment and caring within a particular local congregation and community. It is not a “one size fits all” occupation that functions uniformly in cookie cutter churches.

In his Memoir, Peterson summarizes his understanding of the biblical role of a pastor:

The pastor is “not someone who ‘gets things done’ but rather the person placed in the community to pay attention and call attention to ‘what is going on right now’ between men and women, with one another and with God—this kingdom of God that is primarily local, relentlessly personal, and prayerful ‘without ceasing.’

Each one of us is responsible to God for fulfilling our calling in life. Thirty-eight years ago I confirmed my calling to be a pastor, and I am still learning and growing and understanding more of what it means to provide spiritual direction to a congregation.

While the call to be a pastor is neither a superior calling nor an elite calling, it is an important calling. For me, being a pastor is more than what I do. It is who I am called to be. It is more than a job. Being a pastor is the life I am called to live, a life that connects with all kinds of people in all kinds of circumstances at the most crucial junctures between birth and death. And that is a calling unlike any other.

(Barry Howard serves as senior minister at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)

The Voice and Vision of Dr. King

As a boy growing up in Alabama during the heat of the Civil Rights Movement, I was familiar with the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but only as a name in a news headline or a textbook. With grandparents who were avid Wallace democrats, I knew a lot about the governor from Clio, but very little about the man who marched in Selma. That is, until 1982.

During my senior year at Jacksonville State University, I participated in a field trip to Atlanta with the Sociology Club. We visited several sites of social and cultural significance including the Atlanta Federal Corrections Facility, the Grady Hospital, the Ebenezer Baptist Church and the King Center.

While touring the sanctuary of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, another student and I ventured into the pulpit and stood briefly where Dr. King had stood to preach. The hostess immediately reprimanded us, informing us that in their church tradition, only ministers of the gospel were allowed to “stand behind the sacred desk.”

I relieved her sense of alarm by informing her that I was a “licensed” Baptist minister and that my friend was preparing to be an Episcopal priest, a claim which our faculty sponsor confirmed for the hostess.

Upon learning of our ministerial affiliation, the hostess asked the two of us a few specific questions about our knowledge of Dr. King and then invited us to follow her to the King Center adjacent to the historic church. She led us through the Archives Area, and then through a door that was labeled “Authorized Personnel Only.”

Once inside, we discovered we were in an expansive storage facility with row after row of shelves containing hundreds of boxes. She took a couple of boxes from the shelves, opened them, and allowed us to view at the contents. We quickly realized that the hostess was giving us the privilege of examining some of Dr. King’s personal sermon notes, speeches, and correspondence. This information was being stored in the warehouse prior to being processed for the archives.

We observed notes that were mostly handwritten on hotel stationary, restaurant napkins, used mailing envelopes, and on the backside of “incoming” personal letters. While many respected orators labor intensively over manuscripts, revising multiple drafts in order to arrive at just the right script, it was obvious that Dr. King had a rhetorical gift for rendering a speech extemporaneously from a few scribbled thoughts.

After a half an hour or so, our time was up and we rejoined the others in our group. Only years later have I come to realize the distinct privilege given to me that day in Atlanta. Since that time, I have read most of Dr. King’s published writings as well as many commentaries and editorials about Dr. King’s life.

Dr. King courageously pursued his dream of equal opportunity for all persons, and he employed and encouraged non-violent means to advance a course toward civil rights. The voice and vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped shape a movement that began transforming our nation and our world, a movement that continues to this day.

(Dr. Barry Howard serves as senior minister of First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida.)