This meditation on the role of pastors as caregivers first appeared in a special message to the pastors of the North American Division in May 2021.—Editors
He was a poor country parson,
But rich he was in holy thought and work.
He was a learned man also, a clerk,
Who Christ’s own gospel truly sought to preach;
Devoutly his parishioners would he teach.
Gracious he was and wondrously diligent,
Patient in adversity and well content. . . .
Wide was his parish, houses far asunder,
But never did he fail, for rain or thunder,
In sickness, or in sin, or any state,
To visit to the farthest, small or great.1
I remember muttering those words from Geoffrey Chaucer on storm-swept winter afternoons as my Subaru and I climbed the hill roads of central Massachusetts in search of wayward sheep. Such is the mystery of the mind, that in a moment quite unconscious, treasured words assert themselves with brave new meaning , illuminating a task, a job, a life’s calling.
Pinned to the wall above the aging typewriter back in my office were these lines from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, picturing the country parson. Even before I knew for certain God’s calling to pastoral ministry in my own life, I had marveled at how well they summed up all I hoped for in a pastor: rich faith, straight talk, clear-headedness, bold effort. And when that calling became my own, I fixed them on the corkboard where my wandering eye might find them at least once a day, and many times when I would stare blankly at the wall, trying to imagine the next line of my sermon. But it was in the doing of them—it was while out making visits on raw, snowy afternoons—I began to understand those fourteenth-century words in powerful new ways. There was a line connecting me, I saw, not only to my God, to truth, but to the men and women of all ages who have spent their lives as pastors for God’s people. All alone in my rusting red Subaru, I began to sense a solidarity with thousands of my peers who daily opened Scripture, prayed for the sick, comforted the grieving, taught the Word.
Yes, my parish was wide—60 miles by 50—and the houses were “far asunder”—180 souls scattered through literally a hundred towns and villages. But my duty to God’s people was identical to theirs, though hardly worth comparing to what pastors faced in Moldova, Mongolia, or Montana. By God’s grace, I wouldn’t fail to be a shepherd worthy of the flock.
Those were afternoons I won’t soon forget, for they transformed the singularity of my personal journey with God into a standing among—a standing with—all who minister in His name. When we step back from Chaucer’s antique words and ask ourselves why they still speak powerfully to the reality of pastors and congregations small or large, urban or rural, six centuries later, we discover that they underline a quality for which we yearn in an increasingly chaotic and unethical culture. And that word is “integrity.”
We usually use the word “integrity” to describe a person’s moral fitness for a task. A “person of integrity,” for instance, usually connotes someone who keeps their word; a person who is faithful to a spouse; a person who is willing to make sacrifices for the sake of causes believed in. But there is an even more basic meaning to integrity that we no longer regularly associate with our typical uses of the word. If you research the core and root meanings of the word—and I have, because it matters intensely to me—you discover that “integrity” is built on a word that most of us have probably not used since those days in elementary school when we first learned how to count. And the word is “integer.”
What is an integer? An integer, simply put, is a whole number. A whole number. There is nothing fractional about an integer, as in “he’s mostly ethical,” or “she’s 63 percent honest,” or “he doesn’t run around too much.” An integer is a whole number.
And I want to suggest that all who serve in any kind of pastoral ministry—in a congregation, as a church administrator, or in an editorial office—are in this calling because we personally aspire to be integers— whole numbers—ourselves.
Please don’t misunderstand how it is that any of us, or any pastor we know, becomes a whole number. It doesn’t happen by dutiful and sacrificial effort, though that is always a consequence of wholeness. It doesn’t occur because we are punctilious about behavior in some pursuit of personal perfection, though wholeness always improves our behavior. It doesn’t arrive because we spend long hours in sermon preparation or improve rhetorical delivery to some mathematical vanishing point, though the best preaching always emerges from those who are being made whole.
Wholeness, full restoration, completeness, is and will always be the gift of God—to each of us, and to those God calls as pastors. Wholeness is the consequence of grace—grace received; grace studied; grace prayed over; grace preached about; grace lived. It is grace that teaches each of us to be charitable in telling someone else’s story, even as our Lord has been gracious in telling our story. We learn in this “long obedience in the same direction”2 that we are not qualified for pastoral ministry by either our faculties or our fastidiousness; by our rhetoric or by our reliability; by our skills in Church Board process or by our grasp of administrative procedure.
Wholeness is the central task of pastoring—not preaching , crucial as it is; not teaching , fundamental as it is to building up the body of Christ; not visiting, though members need a lot more of that; not evangelism, as vital as it is to all that Jesus calls His church to do. The central task of pastoring is wholeness—living God’s wholeness, modeling Christ’s wholeness—even when we feel broken ourselves; inviting others to move toward healing and wholeness when their lives seem random and chaotic; building communities where the grace and forgiveness of Jesus is not only preached from the pulpit but practiced in the pew.
I still keep Chaucer’s words within reach, even as I keep the call of Jesus even closer: “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt. 11:29, 30).
In the doing of this life to which I was called, I have found wholeness for myself; communicated wholeness to His people; and celebrated wholeness as the Spirit builds us into a healed and restored people.
1 Geoffrey Chaucer, Prologue, The Canterbury Tales.
2 The reference is to the title of Eugene Peterson’s marvelous volume about the Pilgrim Psalter, Psalms 120-134.