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The Next Faithful Step

From Rocky to Living Stone: Growing into our Pastoral Identity

David Rohrer :: December 7, 2012

One day not long after moving to our home in Seattle I was in one of those end of the driveway conversations with my next door neighbor. As the conversation warmed he seemed to be warming up to ask a question. I could tell he was struggling with how to frame the question, and when he finally came out with it, the reason for his discomfort became clear. He asked: "Aren't you a Priesteror something?" Here was a man who, like most of the population of the Northwest, had obviously never darkened the door of a church. He had no idea what to call me. Priest, minister, reverend, pastor, what do you call what you do? Not only that, I am sure he had absolutely no conception of what my work consisted. So all he could muster was an obscure amalgam of two titles he had heard somewhere for people who worked in the church.

Priester. It brings a smile to my face every time I think of it.I'm sure I also smiled that day when I tried to answer his question. I can't really remember what I said to him, but I suspect that not much of it made sense to him. Frankly, there are days when it doesn't make much sense to me. I must confess there are times when the work of describing my ecclesiastical role ties me up in knots. I suppose this is because it is not a job that is easily abstracted from an experience of its context. It is not a job that is easily described to someone unfamiliar with that context. In a word, it is hard to describe apart from an experience of the Lord who has called me to it and the relationships in which I find myself because of that call.

This year I passed the 30 year mark in pastoral ministry and as I think back over these years I am taken with how my pastoral identity has been refined primarily in the crucible of congregational life. I began this journey as a preacher who saw all that he did through the lens of preparing and presenting a sermon. Yet today I see myself as a pastor who does the prophetic work of looking for and giving witness to the presence of God in the life of a community. When I came to this work I was one who had fallen in love with the task of preaching. Thirty years in pastoral ministry has taught me the truth that the work I do in the pulpit is only a part of the greater calling to help people listen for Jesus' persistent invitation: "Follow me."

How did this transformation take place? It happened because the crucible of congregational ministry didn't just teach me how to be a pastor, it was also God's tool to shape me as a disciple as well. Congregations are not merely objects on which we apply our craft, they are communities in which we sojourn in order to both do what God has called us to do and receive the gift of God's transforming work in our own lives. The work of pastoral ministry among a particular people who occupy a particular place is its own kind of refining fire.The challenge before us as pastors is how we can remain open to taking the risk of experiencing this heat.

As I read Peter's first epistle I get some sense of how he let this heat change him as a disciple and pastor. In the crucible of ministering among and being a participant in Christian community I see Peter growing into a new name. He began the journey as Rocky and at the end he was a Living Stone who had allowed himself to be built into the larger spiritual house. Although we have only a few personal ascriptions in the letter (1:1, 5:1, 5:12) there is an allusion to a very personal image that Peter uses to explain the faith. In chapter two, Peter the Rock, plays with the metaphor of rocks and gives witness to the changes in his own self perception that have come about over the years of ministry.

In 1 Peter 2:4-10, as in his speech before the Council in Acts 4, Peter picks up on a tradition from the Old Testament (Psalm 118:22, Isaiah 28:16, 8:14) and uses it to describe both the identity of Jesus and the experience of his followers. Yet in his choice of this descriptor I believe Peter also shares out of his own experience of the faith. Although I haven't found any commentators who make this connection, when I read I Peter 2:4-10, my imagination immediately moves me to associate Jesus' blessing of Peter in Matthew 16:13-20 with this text. In choosing to talk about the cornerstone, living stones and stumbling stones, Peter is rolling around in language that is close to his heart for it relates to his God-given name.

The immediate context of Peter's words here are a continuation of his invitation to discipleship that he begins in 2:1. Calling his readers to lay aside or "rid themselves" of the things that inhibit the journey on the way of faith, he moves on to invite them to take in the "pure, spiritual milk" that will enable them to "grow into salvation." At verse four he switches the metaphor from ingesting food to building a house. "Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones let yourselves be built up into a spiritual house." Identify yourselves with the cornerstone, the foundation stone of life. Let your life be based on this one who is life; for in relationship with this one you will find life. What's more, you will discover in your connection with him a connection with others who are also built upon him, and together you will be built into a spiritual house, a community of disciples whose lives give witness to the Way of Jesus.

As I read this text in 1 Peter 2, I have a hard time seeing the young disciple of the Gospels as the one who could utter these words. Peter's story in the Gospels is the tale of an impulsive individualist whose spiritual passions never fail to get him in trouble. Whether he is attempting to walk on water or fight off the ones arresting Jesus, the Gospel writers consistently tell us the story of a man who takes matters into his own hands. He is the theological know-it-all who both chides Jesus for his lack of awareness about what it means to be messiah and suggests that it would be a great idea to build some shrines to commemorate the Transfiguration. He is an assertive learner who can discern and does not hesitate to offer the right answer (You are the Christ, the son of the Living God), as well as a wretched failure who can't stand up for Jesus when offered the opportunity to do so (I tell you, I do not know him). Even at the end of John's gospel as Peter encounters the resurrected Jesus we see him struggling to be a part of something bigger than his own affections. Upon hearing Jesus describe some of what was before him, Peter can't help but wonder about whether John is going to have to endure a similar trial.

Yet the Peter of this letter as well as the Peter of Acts, is one who seems to understand himself as a part of the Spiritual House. Rocky seems to have become a living stone and quiet confidence appears to be more ascendant in his life than righteous arrogance. It is hard to say with any certainty what came together to create the environment that effected this transformation. But I like to believe that it came about for Peter in the fertile soil of covenant relationship and koinonia. I imagine that Peter the commando became Peter the pastor as he allowed himself to be shaped in the crucible of a faith community. The Rock grew into a Living Stone as he experienced being a part of God's Spiritual House.

It didn't take me all 30 years of my time in pastoral ministry to make the move from preacher to pastor. But I have to say that my love affair with the pulpit died hard. After all, who wants to exchange an elevated lot with a view for something more modest in the valley? The view from the pulpit was one that I had no desire to relinquish. Yet in my defense I offer the observation that I was shaped by an ecclesiastical culture that encouraged me to aspire to this place on the bluff. My earliest memories of being in worship as a child are of the pastor magically appearing through what seemed to be a secret door in the chancel at the beginning of worship, regally ascending the pulpit at the time of the sermon and triumphantly recessing down the aisle like a victorious general following the benediction. Here was one who appeared to be above it all. He seemed to hover somewhere over us rather than dwell among us. And frankly that was attractive.

However, over the years I came to realize that ecclesiastical culture that inspired me to aspire to that elevated role was a very different place than the community of disciples among whom I actually ministered. As I became a part of this community I discovered that the secret passageway to the chancel didn't exist, and that I had to walk through the congregation to get to the pulpit. I came to terms with the truth that that elevated pulpit was just a façade in front of the broken person who occupied it. And I became aware that the recessional wasn't so much a victory parade but just the pathway leading to another week of preparation. I learned that my life in pastoral ministry had to be about something more than preparing, delivering and recovering from the sermon I brought each Sunday, and it was the people of the congregation who taught me this truth.

Don't get me wrong. I still love preaching. Yet now it fits into a bigger context of pastoral work. Instead of viewing the sermon as some precious museum piece that I take out of the case and hold before the congregation each week, I now see the sermon as a simple tool that helps me do the rhythmic work of reminding people who they are and encouraging them to stay the course in this exciting but often baffling journey of following Jesus. I grew into this awareness over the years because I saw that people didn't remember what I said in the sermon, as much as they remembered what God did when I said it. Thus the sermon became an opportunity to participate in the work of God. It was no longer an end in itself to be cherished and put away in some archive. Rather it was a living word, preached in and relevant to a particular moment in the life of a particular congregation. I learned that the best sermons were both an exposition of a biblical text and an exploration of a shared story of living the faith.

The great scandal among, or perhaps the "dirty little secret" of, pastors is that we are often the most spiritually impoverished ones in the communities we serve. How is it that we pastors can become so good at neglecting to attend to our own spiritual formation? Why is it so easy to allow the work of ministry to get in the way of the Spirit's work in our own lives? Why do we think that we can be ministers without also being disciples? I am sure there are all sorts of good answers to these questions that reflect the myriad of personalities and pathologies that are represented among today's clergy. Yet I think one of the biggest reasons lies in our individualistic self-perception of our role. Rather than seeing ourselves as one of the living stones in the spiritual house we see ourselves as the rock on which it is built. And it doesn't take long to crumble under that kind of pressure.

Covenant relationship begets empathy, and empathy begets humility, and humility begets solidarity. What we learn and grow into as pastors as we allow ourselves to be influenced by the people among whom we serve, is that interdependence under the Lordship of Jesus is a much stronger force for transformation in our lives than individual striving. As I look at many of the Gospel stories about Peter, I see him learning and relearning this lesson. But I consistently return to one story in particular for encouragement to persevere in the Way of Jesus. The lesson that Peter learns as he walks out to meet Jesus on the water in Matthew 14 reminds me that ministry is never without both the call to individual risk and the utter vulnerability of needing to depend on someone other than ourselves.

There is a certain kind of mundane and soul-sucking safety that we can settle into as pastors. It happens most when we think we have ministry figured out and there is no longer any opportunity to encounter a risk. It happens when we are so confident about the adequacy of the tools in our ministry tool box that we have nothing more to learn and thus no one on whom we need to depend. It happens when we stop expecting to be surprised by an appearance of the Lord who is making his way toward us walking on the water. Peter inspires me in those moments to strain at seeing that there just might be a bigger picture. As he squints into the storm and cries out "Lord if it is you, command me to come to you on the water," Peter encourages me to step out of those perceived places of safety and start walking toward Jesus. But he also reminds me, that by myself I will sink.