By Cole Hartin

I take the warning from the Epistle of James to heart:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do no have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? (James 2:14-16)

I pray my self-deception does not lead me here. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see images of Christians as comfortable people spouting platitudes without lifting a finger for the sake of those in need. Angela Martin from The Office is my case in point. There is certainly a temptation for Christians to interiorize their faith to the point that they have stopped living out its implications in any meaningful sense.


On the other hand, I think there is just as much as temptation — for priests and pastors especially — to lose sight of the theological nature of the Christian vocation, let alone their particular pastoral vocation. When this happens, the life of Christian ministry simply becomes a way to “help people” or to “make the world a better place.” Depending on one’s interests and politics, the aim of what we mean by this either becomes attempts to aid social assistance, ventures into social justice, or crusades to be a counselor to as many people as possible.

Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon point out the way that this happens in their essay “Ministry as More Than a Helping Profession.” They note,

Ministers are often people who need to help people. They like to be liked and need to be needed. Their personal needs become the basis for their ministry. Underestimating how terribly deep other people’s needs can be, they enter ministry with an insufficient sense of personal boundaries, and are devoured by the voracious appetites of people in need. One day they may awake to find that they have sacrificed family, self-esteem, health, and happiness for a bunch of selfish people who have eaten them alive. Pastors then come to despise what they are and to hate the community that made them that way. The pastor realizes that people’s needs are virtually limitless, particularly in an affluent society in which there is an ever-rising threshold of desire (which we define as “need”). With no clear job description, no clear sense of purpose other than the meeting of people’s needs, there is no possible way for the pastor to limit what people ask of the pastor.

Though helping people can be a fair and noble aspect of the pastoral calling, as Hauerwas and Willimon point out, it is never the center of that calling.

The descriptions of ministry in the New Testament are offices within and for the Church (1 Tim. 3:1-7, Titus 1:6-9) or for the extension of the Church. These are offices not ordained directly for the betterment of the world, though, in effect, through the preserving nature of Christian life, they can bring joy and beauty to fruition for all to enjoy. Proclaiming that truth has resonance, a reverberation whose effects we might not fully realize, though they may do much good.

This is why, in the early Church, deacons were given to oversee the practical work of ministering to the needs of the faithful, so that the Apostles (and their successors) would be devoted to their vocation to pray and serve the Word of God (Acts 6:1-15).

At one time, this passage from Acts was almost offensive to me, because it delineates clear priorities of ministry that seem out of touch with the very practical good that pastors could be accomplishing in the world. Moreover, it smacks of clericalism; for instance, if a priest said something like, “I am going to devote today to studying instead of serving the needs the poor,” I would immediately roll my eyes. But assuming this is not an excuse for laziness, it points to the fundamental calling of the pastor. Again, it is not that serving the needy is unimportant, and that it does not have a place in the Church, but it is not the primary focus of the pastoral vocation.

There is another facet to this as well: when clergy make it their mission to improve society, they are not only losing sight of their commitment first and foremost to God, but they can be driven to this kind of work by an anemic faith that situates themselves as the saviors who will step up when God does not. Hauerwas and Willimon pick up on this tendency in the paragraph above as well. When pastors set their sights on improving society, they presume to know what the deep fractures in our world are and how best to address them, and that they possess the capacity to do so.

I think the prayer for the Second Sunday after Pentecost in the Canadian prayer book gets right to the root of things, when we ask that God would “mercifully accept our prayers… because through the weakness of our mortal nature we can do no good thing without thee.” If we can accomplish some good in the world, it is only by the grace of God, and being attuned to him.

Many people with complicated situations, struggling with mental health, addiction, familial breakdown, and just general existential angst, come to the Church looking for help. Clergy are unequipped to do the kind of work that can really make a difference for these people in many cases, at least as pertains to these issues. And when such issues become the focus of clergy, the result is unqualified pastors shoehorning their way into situations that other professionals and community members are far better prepared to address. Whether the desire to help stems from a hubristic messiah complex or genuine compassion, the results are similar. Clergy, in desiring to help people, might miss out on opportunities to pray and serve the Word of God.

The vocation to serve God in the Church is lost in all of this as well. Clergy are not ordained to make the world happier or more fulfilled, but to share in the ministry of Jesus before his Father, as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit. This will include helping when we can, but we are not helpers, we are servants of Christ.

The Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin is assistant curate at St. Luke’s in Saint John, New Brunswick. 

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin is an associate rector of Christ Church in Tyler, TX where he lives with his wife and four sons.

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3 Responses

  1. Benjamin Guyer

    Great article. If I might agree via an analogy: the job of a teacher is to teach, not use class to – allegedly – improve the world, usually by refashioning the world in one’s own image. (NB: I write this as a university lecturer). When teaching becomes about activism, education – understood as the imparting of content, the development of methodological know-how, and the cultivation of research skills – usually gets lost. This does not mean that social engagement is unimportant, only that the job of teaching is to teach, not preach.

    I’m curious as to how we might apply the article. A few thoughts here.

    First, would it help if we (the wider Church) stopped describing the clerical office as a “calling” (meaning, a divine calling) and instead described it, perhaps less interestingly, as a set of ecclesial duties? “Calling” risks being pompous, and I suspect that it also feeds into some of the narcissistic tendencies identified above. If we believe ourselves “called,” it becomes all too easy to shirk what gets in the way of our own self-perception, even as that self-perception risks becoming an echo chamber or feedback loop.

    Second, while the author is no doubt right that clergy generally lack the necessary training to assist with a wide variety of things, e.g., addiction or general anxiety, is it not also the case that the whole notion of pastoral care presumes that clergy are in fact capable of offering some sort of personal/psychological help? Week in and week out, yes, what the clergy do on Sundays is most important. However, it is hardly all that they do. In times of crisis, many people want the clergy close. Perhaps seminary training really needs to develop to a point where clergy do have some sort of extended training? (And perhaps the best way to do this is for seminaries to partner with counseling programs at larger, and usually secular, universities.)

    Lastly, whatever the evidence in the New Testament for, e.g., the earliest diaconate (and please note, that I do not call the NT a “model” here), is not also true that, irrespective of what deacons may do, clergy should also embed themselves in some facet(s) of the local community? Ministry is within the parish, but also from the parish to the wider world, and to be blunt, it is the job of the clergy to lead people in doing so.

    Would it help, therefore, if we created a distinction within your basic point: it is *not* the job of clergy to *make* the world a *better* place, but it *is* the job of clergy to *serve* the world *in* place. The former clause assumes the knowledge and the possession of necessary means for expected outcomes; the latter clause does not, but only assumes knowledge of duties here and now, irrespective of outcomes. (I’m sorry that I don’t have it in front of me, but I’m very much depending here on a summary that I read of Gandhi’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita.) Activism is about control, however coercive, of means and ends. Service is about dispossession of both means and ends, even as one recognize the inescapable need to help people in tangible ways here and now, today, in their very own locales.

    The latter point is largely due to my own reflections over the past few years as a largely weekly volunteer at a pay-as-you-can cafe. I’ve never actually found that activists show up to help. While some employees and patrons are of left-wing political convictions, it is no less true that others are Bible-believing evangelicals. Any fool – or narcissist! – can go marching in the streets demanding change here and now. Protest gives a euphoric high, and then the protester goes home. But the slow burn of service, working with those in need (depending on the situation, acute need), is a very different sort of thing. It yields no high, and no sense of being on the right side of history, but only (one hopes) a greater sense of compassion, and a greater recognition of the vast, vast amount of work needing to be done. Activism presumes that change might come by fiat. Service knows that no such fiat exists. Perhaps if pastoral care aligns itself with the latter (service), it need not cut itself off from the wider community, but might find itself more liberated for constructive, non-partisan engagement?

    • Cole Hartin

      Thanks for the comments Ben. I think the way your reworked my point is a good one, and I was trying to be somewhat hyperbolic. I think “calling” remains a useful way of thinking about holy orders, but I think it remains equally useful when describing any vocational pull. But your point about ecclesial “duties” bears up historically, I think, and atleast from my knowledge of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this was a common way to think about the clerical life.

      Finally, I think your experience at the cafe is telling, and is quite similar to my own experience serving in our community. There is typically an incongruence between those ushering the loud calls for action on social media (and elsewhere) and the faithful folks – spanning the political spectrum – who roll up their sleeves to serve.


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