The Scary Truth About Pastoral Authority

May 28, 2013

Tuesday Re-mix –

This is what the Lord says:

“As for the prophets
    who lead my people astray, 
they proclaim ‘peace’ 
    if they have something to eat,
but prepare to wage war against anyone
    who refuses to feed them.
Therefore night will come over you, without visions,
    and darkness, without divination. 
The sun will set for the prophets, 
    and the day will go dark for them. 
The seers will be ashamed 
    and the diviners disgraced. 
They will all cover their faces 
    because there is no answer from God. ”  Micah 3:5-7

hamiltoncropThis passage from Micah has something to say to us about pastoral authority.  And so does professional baseball.

They say that, among the various professional sports skills, hitting a major league baseball pitch may be the most difficult.  I’ll buy that.  And as far as I’m concerned, nobody practices that skill any better than Josh Hamilton.  I honestly think he has maybe the sweetest swing in baseball.  Last year, his four-home-run performance against the Orioles became just another illustration (just to put that in perspective, that has only been done 16 times in all of MLB history…that makes it even more rare than pitching a perfect game).  But let’s be clear about those home-runs.  They do not happen because of Hamilton’s amazing backstory, and they do not happen because of his title or his position as a major league player, and they do not happen because he has somehow earned the respect of his team mates or of opposing players.  Those home-runs happen because of many long hours of perfecting a swing and then repeating that swing perfectly under a variety of circumstances.  It is about sticking radically to that perfection and not wavering from it even a little bit.  When Hamilton does that, when he sticks exactly with that perfect groove, not adding anything to the well-rehearsed swing and not leaving anything out…when he does it exactly the way the swing was given to him, the power follows.  It is a terrific illustration of the “power” that comes with “pastoral authority”.

It should not surprise you that, in my work with conflicted congregations, the notion of “pastoral authority” is a hot topic.  The pastor, after all, eventually gets thrust into the middle of pretty much every congregational conflict.  Finding himself (or herself) there, he/she then must begin to form some conclusions about the issues.  As soon as that happens, there are some who disagree with the pastor, and that almost always will eventually bring to the table the discussion about pastoral authority.  What does it mean, when does it “trump” all else, and is it the end of the conversation?

I would like to answer those questions by first asking and answering a different question: under what circumstances does pastoral authority fade away?

First of all, it seems to me that “pastoral authority” (whatever it means) is meaningless except as it is attached to decisions.  In other words, it is what a pastor says or does (or chooses not to say or not to do) which is either filled with authority or not.  The power of Josh Hamilton’s swing is only “in play” when he is actually swinging a bat.  It is pointless to talk about pastoral authority separate and apart from the specific decisions in question.

Secondly, then, pastoral authority becomes less a question about office or title and much more a question about the presence and power of God in a specific word or course of action.  The more careful a pastor is to speak exactly what God has given him/her to speak, the more authority those words carry.  But as a pastor gets away from the precision of God’s message or direction, the authority begins to fade.  Like Hamilton’s swing, it is not likely to be perfect every time…but when it is, the power (the authority) is there.

The scary thing, then, about pastoral authority is that (like the sweetness of a baseball swing) it is neither guaranteed nor permanent.  Any pastor worth his or her salt can testify to this.  It takes hard work and discipline and study and prayer to find the precision of God’s message in each lesson taught.  And when we get it right, it is so very right.  But when that hard work and discipline and study and prayer wane, so does the authority. Like that baseball swing, no matter how experienced we get, there is never a time when we can afford to lose that discipline and focus.

For a true shepherd, a genuine leader among God’s people, that understanding comes with great fear and trembling.  Just ask Josh Hamilton…or Micah…they will tell you.

© Blake Coffee
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2 thoughts on “The Scary Truth About Pastoral Authority

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  2. David Powell

    Just like Josh, sometime the pastor strikes out(doesn’t connect with the church), fouls off a pitch(is off in timing or direction), or just gets a hit (good message, but not the best)

    Reply

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