The pastoral office is central to the church. We operate seminaries for the primary purpose of preparing men for this very important office. Yet it seems, at times, that so many other positions compete in importance with that office. It's not hard to see how a pastor could see other positions in the church-at-large as promotions from the pastorate. One position would be teaching at a synodical university or seminary. Another could be a director of some department within the International Center at the LCMS in St. Louis. Obviously these require special skills and education above and beyond the 'entry level' position of parish pastor, right?
After spending over a quarter of a century in the pastoral office I have come to see that such thinking is dangerous and misguided, if tempting to be sure. It has certainly captivated my own thinking. Not that the larger church does not need such specialists, or that they are not important. However, technically speaking, do they not ultimately exist to serve the local parish and school?
But beyond this it is hard to compare any of these offices and positions with the unique opportunities that exist in the pastoral office. Once one steps out of this office a connection is lost with the intimacy of ministry. Today I communed a dear saint at a local nursing home. He was crying as I served him. To receive Jesus' body and blood was the most important gift for him at that moment. And to serve this gift is one of the most important responsibilities of my call. I handle holy things. The other day I ministered to a family in the midst of a crisis. I responded to their farm as their barn was burning, fulfilling multiple roles that day of firefighter, chaplain and pastor. Gently leading an older member away from the fire I saw the pain in his face as he watched a lifetime of memories burn to the ground. But I was there. In the very heart of life's mess. I saw the tears. I experienced the immediacy of their grief.
As pastor I am invited into the most private places of people's lives. Their hearts are opened in trust, looking to me as Christ's representative to offer some comfort and hope. I am there at their births and rebirths, their weddings and funerals, their anniversary parties, holiday gatherings and family reunions. They invite me to their land to hunt and include me on a snowmobile ride. We eat together, laugh together, and cry together with a bond as deep as a family.
Sometimes I forget the privilege it is to serve this way, the honor to be called someones "pastor." It is unfortunate that even as we recruit men for the ministry we sometimes neglect to remind them of this tremendous privilege. Some day I may leave the pastoral ministry. I don't know. But I do know now that if I should I will never find such an incredible opportunity to serve. Nothing will compare.