Back to the Heart of Ministry
After serving for two decades in denominational leadership,
one pastor returns to his first love.
by Richard Lucco | April 13, 2020
Pastoral ministry makes me come alive. The opportunity to journey with a community of faithful people over time, to preach and teach, to be with folks in moments of joy and sadness, to do life together—all of these things bring joy to my life, fill me with gratitude, and make me come alive.
And yet, 18 years ago, I left a church I loved in Salem, Oregon, to serve first in conference and then in denominational leadership—work that I enjoyed and helped me to grow. Why did I leave? The simple answer is I knew God was calling me to that work for at least a season. I also knew God was calling me to live out my identity as a pastor in new and different ways. I hoped and prayed that I would be called back into ministry in the local church someday.
God is good. After I retired from Covenant Offices in December 2018, I was called to a role as part-time associate pastor at Northwest Covenant Church in Mount Prospect, Illinois—a church I have come to love.
Serving as a pastor again in a local church has brought me new life as day by day and week by week we together seek to grow in our relationship to Christ and with one another. It has helped me remember that it is what God made me to be—and I have come alive again. On the occasion of his retirement, Harry Emerson Fosdick said, “If I had a thousand lives to live in this century, I would go into parish ministry with every one of them.” I have never heard a stronger affirmation of a call to pastoral ministry—though I might not be able to go quite that far! (If I had a thousand lives to live, I might use a couple of them to play catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals or be the keyboard player in James Taylor’s band.) But I thank God every day that with this one life I have to live, he has called me to be a pastor.
Being a pastor is unique among the spectrum of vocations. I confess that when I was younger, I had the sense that somehow I needed to “add on” to my pastoral work, to somehow bring “value added” to what I did. I thought I needed to be a therapist or a strategist or a missional leader or a leadership coach or a fundraiser or a program director. I realize now that although all of those things are part of being a pastor, they are not the most important parts.
I realize that the real job of ministry is, in the words of Henri Nouwen, to be “a living reminder of Jesus Christ.” That is, to help folks remember who God is and that we are his children; to every day remind folks that they are loved, accepted, and forgiven by God in Jesus. To help them remember that before God ever tells us what to do, he tells us who we are, his beloved children. I help people remember and in helping them I help myself remember that there is nothing I can do to make God love me any more than he already does and nothing I can do to make him love me any less.
Eugene Peterson, in an interview in Christianity Today, said, “The pastor’s question is, ‘Who are these particular people, and how can I be with them in such a way that they can be what God is making them?’” I come alive when I can simply be present with a community of Christ followers praying, listening, preaching and, in Peterson’s words, “being honest with them, not doing anything to interfere with what the Spirit is shaping in them.”
As a pastor, I am free to listen to God and to people. I am free to present God to people and present people to God. I am free to pray. I am free to help folks find themselves in the biblical narrative and remind them of the grace of Jesus Christ. Grace that mends in the broken places. Grace that heals in the hurting places. Grace that forgives in the sinful places.
As a pastor, I can help folks hear the still small voice of God and the gentle knock of Jesus. The voice and the knock that help us move from fear toward love, from anxiety toward peace, from discouragement toward joy, from worry toward gratitude, from control toward surrender, and from self-centeredness toward servanthood.
“Don’t ask what the world needs.
Ask what makes you come alive and go do it.
Because what the world needs is people who come alive.”
I love being a pastor. I love leading people in worship on Sunday that they might experience God. And I love being with them during the week to remind them of his presence, power, and provision in their lives.
I love God and want others to know his love and love him back.
I love people and want them to know who and whose they are.
I love hearing people’s stories and connecting those stories to God’s story.
I love the gospel, the good news of grace and mercy and sharing it with a world that desperately needs to hear it.
I love the church with all of its faults and brokenness.
And I love that somehow I, in my own brokenness, can be a living reminder of Jesus and, to borrow another image from Nouwen, “a wounded healer.”
I close with the Apostle Paul’s words to the church in Thessalonica because they describe so well how I view pastoral work:
“Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well….For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting, and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:7b-8; 11-12).