The leftovers

What exactly do pastors do all day? It’s a question I’m sure you’ve wondered about, as you slaved away at your workplace while your pastor quietly contemplates John Calvin in the corner of a coffee shop. It’s a question that I certainly wondered about as I went through seminary, preparing to become a pastor myself. The answer is not as easy to come by as you might expect.

During seminary I served for a summer as a chaplain intern at University of Louisville Hospital. As any seminarian who’s been through that particular boot camp can tell you, it’s an emotional time. My assignment was with the palliative care team, a roving group of doctors and nurses who monitored and prescribed treatment for patients with severe pain, many of whom had received terminal diagnoses. It was here that I made, perhaps, my first real progress in my research on what pastors actually do.

After seeing patient upon patient, watching the doctor or nurse practitioner prescribe treatment, watching the residents weigh in and give advice and seeing the psychologist make her diagnoses, I began to wonder what was left for the pastor to do. I watched the chaplain ask about patients’ beliefs and listen to their stories, but I just didn’t “get it.”

I finally asked: Everyone else on the team seems to have something specific to offer, some knowledge or expertise. The doctors, nurses and residents care for the body; the psychologist cares for the mind. What does the chaplain do? While I’ve forgotten much of the conversation, what I do remember is this: The chaplain cares for the soul.

But is this really it? Are ministers simply the “pastors of the gap” who fill in the holes left by all the other professions? Many of my seminary professors seemed to want me to be an educator, a lawyer, a community organizer, a social worker, a psychologist, a scholar, a motivational speaker or an entrepreneur. That’s fine, but what about all those poor people who were actually trained to do those things? They’d be out of a job if we started doing all that. Right? So we pastors tend to the leftovers.

I’m not opposed to leftovers. I’ll gladly eat day-old spaghetti. But there are fewer and fewer leftovers every day. More people attain higher levels of education each year. Jobs get more specialized and specialized services get cheaper. It gets easier and easier to leave the community organizing to the community organizers, the psychology to the psychologists and the entrepreneur-ing to the entrepreneurs (since they can entrepreneu better than I can anyway). If things keep tending this way, I might actually only need to work one hour a week.

So what’s a leftover pastor to do when the leftovers are running out? Here’s something I know I’m supposed to do: read the Bible.

Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.” Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” (Mark 8:18-21)

I believe that my God is a God of abundance, not scarcity. When Jesus didn’t have enough leftovers to feed everyone, he fed them anyway. What happened? God provided plenty exactly when everyone expected failure. If I am to be a leftover pastor, I will trust that there will be plenty left over.

I may not be a doctor, but I can help someone find the courage to see a specialist. I might not understand the economy, but I can help balance a budget. Maybe I’m not qualified to be a psychologist, but I can listen to someone’s story when they’re having a bad day. There are plenty of leftovers to go around, and I may not be the best at very many things, but sometimes I’m the closest one at hand. After all, if God only needed the best person at any given task, there would be a few billion of us with nothing to do other than wait for those best people to get around to us.

Of course, this also means that sometimes other people have to fill in when the pastor’s not around. Having a professional evangelist on staff doesn’t mean no one else has to do it. Just because there’s a seminary educated preacher doesn’t mean Bible study gets erased from the “to do” list. Each of us, in a sense, is called by God to be a leftover pastor: to take care of the tasks of ministry that appear around us.

God doesn’t just call people with seminary degrees; God calls everyone to be part of the body of Christ, and Christ is always up to something. I may still be slightly unclear about what exactly it is that Christ is asking me to do as a pastor, but every day I find something to work on. I do try to care for people’s souls, and I try my hand at other tasks as well (like plumbing), even if I’m not the most qualified. And whatever I happen to do with my day, even if it’s just taking care of leftovers, I do my best to perform the task for the good of the world and as a servant of God.

Alex BeckerALEX BECKER serves as the pastor of Langcliffe Presbyterian Church just outside of Scranton in the wonderful town of Avoca, Pennsylvania, where you might catch him out for a run, or more likely a walk.