Written by Pastor Ed
Passing On the Torch
February 28, 2018
Deut. 18: 15-20
Mark 1: 21-28
As I was reflecting on the scripture passages assigned to today and my own ministry and some of the issues that I have dealt with over the years, one of the issues that I reflected on was that of authority. I recall the issue of authority, and particularly pastoral authority being discussed back when I began ministry, and it is still and issue that we deal with. I was tempted to use this cartoon on the bulletin cover, but decided it didn’t really fir with what I wanted to say. But it does raise some interesting questions, to which people have had different answers. How much authority does a pastor have? Is it ok to question that authority? One of the complaints often voiced was that pastors are put into positions of responsibility, but then not given any authority to do anything.
In the short Gospel passage we read from Mark, Mark twice notes that Jesus spoke with authority, and that amazed the crowds. When Jesus went into the temple and taught, “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (1:22) and then a few verses later Mark notes that after Jesus healed the man with the unclean spirit, “They were all amazed, and they kept asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching – with authority!’” (1:27)
When we read Matthew’s account of Jesus’ teaching, Jesus often said, “you have heard it said, but I say…” That is certainly different than the way the scribes taught, or even the way many Jewish rabbis teach today. There is a long tradition of Jewish teachers who primarily teach what others before them have said, citing scholars and rabbis often on both sides of an issues. Rabbi so and so says this, while Rabbi thus-and-so says that. How different it must have been to hear Jesus say, “I say.” And it amazed the crowd.
Now most preachers that I know don’t claim to be Jesus, and yet, here I am supposedly speaking an authoritative word each Sunday morning. Where does that authority come from? Well, some would say it’s because I’ve been ordained and hold the position called pastor. That’s one kind of authority, called positional. This diagram suggests that there are four sources of authority. One of those is positional authority, which I’ve just mentioned. Another name for it is the authority of the office, not the room, but the position. Most people have a certain respect for the office, role of pastor. Not as much as they used to, but still it’s usually there. So when a new person comes into that role, they are afforded a certain amount of authority that goes with the role.
At the beginning of a pastor’s time in a congregation, that’s primarily where their authority comes from. That’s called the honeymoon period. Unfortunately, when a pastor misuses that role, that office, and engages in misconduct, they destroy not only their own authority, but also the authority of the office. People no longer trust anyone in that position and so the next pastor, or after-pastor as they are called, has the task of rebuilding that trust.
Pastors also have authority because they bring a certain level of expertise to their position. That is they have probably gone to school to learn how to study the Bible, read theology and church history, and have an understanding of church polity and organization. At one point a farmer in my congregation commented on all the books that I had and I said those are my tools. These days you maybe don’t need as many books because there is a lot available on the internet, but one still needs some tools to understand and sort through all the information that’s out there. Of course, some people value that expertise differently. For some schooling is suspicious, after all, anyone can read the Bible, right? And that’s true, but it helps to be able to know the context, perhaps I would argue, even to know the language. Just a other professions follow a course of study in order to better practice their trade, so pastors do the same.
Those two are sources of authority that are sort of external to the person. For some of us, reputation also comes into play, that is, when you’ve been around the church awhile, people come to know you and have some impression of who you are or what you have done in the past. I know that when I was being considered here, someone contacted people in a former congregation to see what they had to say. Fortunately, they gave a good report. Our reputations, for good or bad, usually precede us. I also knew, and was up front with you, that because of my previous experience and reputation I would get asked to become involved with Mennonite Church Alberta, which you graciously accepted.
And then, finally eventually, hopefully, we gain authority simply by being around, they call it longevity. Trust and authority are built as you become known, so long as you don’t blow it. In fact, some writers suggest that a pastor really can’t do anything substantial until they have been in a position at least 7 years and have built up that personal authority in addition to the positional authority that comes with the office. I think there are a lot of other factors that go into that, but there is also some truth to it. It does speak to the importance of not having too rapid a turnover in pastors. In some systems where pastors are moved every two or three years, it’s really no wonder that not much happens.
Now we could talk about how that authority is either used or abused, but I’ve talked about that in general before, so I want to focus on one particular aspect that comes into play at this point in our lives together, and that was sparked by our other scripture reading from Deuteronomy. As Moses is nearing the end of his life, and his tenure as leader of the Children of Israel, God promises that a new prophet will be raised up who will carry on the work that Moses began. And indeed, we know that as they came close to crossing the river Jordan, Moses passed his leadership on to Joshua.
Passing the torch of authority is, at times fraught with problems. Moses seems to have done a good job of it, as did Jesus as he left his disciples and passed his authority on to them. Saul – well that’s a bit of a different story. And over the years I have experienced and seen both sides of this issue. In 3 of the 4 congregations I have pastored, I have had former pastors who were part of the congregation, in fact, in one of those I had 4 former pastors who were still a part of the congregation. And in two instances, a former pastor was even on the search committee! They were not my immediate predecessor, thankfully.
In the first congregation I pastored, I was startled to find the elderly former pastor on the search committee. He had been a pastor in the congregation for over 30 years, now retired, but dearly loved and who still carried a great deal of personal authority. But the only times that Leslie ever spoke up, which weren’t often, were always in support of me. He had graciously given up his position and passed authority on to his successors.
On the other hand was the former pastor who often spoke against things in the church and in one congregational meeting, when he wanted to speak his piece, went to the front and stood behind the pulpit to oppose what was being proposed. Unfortunately for him, that clued a few people in to what was going on. I’ve seen instances where former pastors have torn congregations apart with meddling and never quite leaving their positions.
So let me be clear. When I give up my position as pastor here on April 1, I will no longer hold any positional authority, and will not use any personal authority in this congregation. I will not return to do weddings or funerals nor will I speak into whatever is happening here. There is a code of ethics for pastors that I want to adhere to, and I would ask that you also abide by it from a congregational point of view. I will expect you to give to any new pastor that comes the same kind of support and authority that you have given to me, no matter who they are. It’s the only way that they will truly become your pastor, as I hope I have.
That doesn’t mean I won’t be interested in what happens here, nor that I will cut off all contact. I hope, and trust that we will remain friends with all of you, and may even have occasion to visit from time to time. But the relationship will change, as it should and must. I suppose that will be easier since I will be some 2700 kilometers away, but the same rules apply no matter if I were staying here in Calgary.
And indeed, the same principles apply no matter what positions we may hold. When we leave a position, particularly one which carries some authority, it is important that we pass the torch on to the next person so that they can be effective in that role. I’m sure you could all cite examples both good and bad.
As I noted, even Jesus, who amazed the crowds with his teaching and actions and who we see as the authority for our lives and work, when he was a about to leave passed on his authority to his disciples, sending them out to teach and preach in his name. That task is not just for us who stand behind a pulpit, but rather for all disciples. And Jesus said, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
And that’s what gives me hope for the future of the church, but more on that next week. God is faithful, let’s join and sing that affirmation of faith in the words of hymn #327 Great is thy Faithfulness.