Introductory Note:

Two of the most prolific and gifted writers of our time, Eugene Peterson and Marva Dawn, collaborated to write a fascinating book, The Unnecessary Pastor. Their message is relevant for all of us, whether or not we serve as professional ministers: “We do not graduate into an advanced level of religion that sets us apart from or above our earlier status as Christian.” In this excerpt from the first chapter, Peterson reflects on the vows he took when he was ordained, and on one vow in particular that calls us to continually renew our most basic commitment to follow Jesus. While they affirm the pastoral role as God’s design, Dawn and Peterson also challenge pastors to build an “identity of unnecessariness to counter expectations from culture, ego, and congregation.”

Renovaré Team

Excerpt from The Unnecessary Pastor

As I approached this fortieth anniversary of my ordination, I had occasion to go back and revisit the eight vows I took at the time. One of them, the sixth vow, struck me as being generic to all pastors, and I want to use it now… 

Will you, in your own life, seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love your neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world?

It seems odd to include a question like this in ordination vows. This is a question to ask someone entering the Christian life, getting ready for baptism. This is a beginning question, a vow that gets us started on the right foot. But here I was, getting ready to be a pastor, and this vow — number six in a sequence of eight ordination questions — which has nothing to do with pastoring, comes up. The ground has already been covered pretty thoroughly, making sure that the ordinand is a confessing Christian (#1), submissive to the authority of scripture (#2), agreeable to the traditions of my church (#3), knowledgeable concerning the office to which I am being ordained (#4), and willing to be a member of a community of peers (#5). Two more vows follow the sixth, making clear that the ordinand knows that people are to be served as well as Jesus (#7), and that this is ordination not to a place of privilege but to one of diligent service, requiring a lifetime of energy and resolve (#8).

Embedded in the eight-vow sequence is this sixth, which doesn’t quite seem to fit the context of ordination. Isn’t the ordination ground amply covered in the first five and the last two? Isn’t a basic Christian commitment assumed? Isn’t this redundant?

Yes. But. Yes, it’s all there already. But, long experience in this business makes us alert in detecting loopholes. The loophole, in this case, has to do with becoming so diligent in being a pastor, working for Jesus, that it crowds out the personal life of living for Jesus. The operative phrase in the sixth vow is in your own life.”

The constant danger for those of us who enter the ranks of the ordained is that we take on a role, a professional religious role, that gradually obliterates the life of the soul.

The sixth vow specifies three areas of protection against this: (1) following the Lord Jesus Christ; (2) loving neighbors; (3) working for the reconciliation of the world. This sixth ordination vow, it seems, has nothing to do with being a pastor as such; it is a vow to diligently guard and nurture our basic commitment as a Christian. Many a Christian has lost his or her soul in the act of being ordained. This vow returns us to the basic vocation of being a Christian, a mere Christian.

For, in ordination, we do not graduate into an advanced level of religion that sets us apart from or above our earlier status as Christian. It is not easy to maintain that awareness. Karl Barth was eloquent in his insistence that we are always and ever beginners in this Christian life. No matter how well we preach, are knowledgeable in theology, competent in polity, and diligent in carrying out the duties assigned us, we are always novices; we never graduate from Christian” and go on to advanced work in ministry.” Neither Christian living nor Christian ministry can ever be anything but the work of beginners…. What Christians do becomes a self-contradiction when it takes the form of a trained and mastered routine, of a learned and practiced art. They may and can be masters and even virtuosos in many things, but never in what makes them Christians, God’s children.”1

The sixth vow lays down protection against taking on the role of expert and then taking over the work of leadership from the Christ in whose name we are ordained.

  1. Karl Barth, The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics IV, 4 Lecture Fragments, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981), p. 79. ↩︎

Taken from The Unnecessary Pastor: Rediscovering the Call by Marva Dawn and Eugene Peterson. Copyright © 2000, Eugene Peterson. Published by Eerdmans

Text First Published November 1999 · Last Featured on November 2021