Multiple Allegiances of Ordained Clergy

The professor said, “Don’t become a pastor unless that’s the only thing you can do. If you can do anything else, do that instead.”

I’ve forgotten which professor it was, but I never forgot what he said. But unlike many pieces of practical advice, this was the one and only time I ever heard this piece of wisdom.

It was surprising—surprisingly frank. I’ve attended one Bible college and three seminaries and never once heard anyone else discourage people from entering the ministry. At the time it was obvious that, for some reason, he considered pastoral ministry to be the most difficult job in the world.

As a young man I was clueless as to what he was talking about. But I know now.

Ordained clergy face a host of difficulties, and there are a host of solutions. There is, however, one root problem for the love-hate relationship women and men have with their ministries and their lives in the church. Jesus’ discussion of this problem appears in both Matthew and Luke. In my humble opinion, all other pastoral problems flow from this one: the impossibility of juggling multiple allegiances. No one, according to Christ, can serve two masters.

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matthew 6:24 & Luke 16:13)

Ordained clergy are not in the situation Jesus described, not exactly. Their situations are worse. Ordained clergy are not caught between two masters, but three: their congregations, their superiors, and God.

Unless this one particular problem is acknowledged—the problem of multiple masters—none of the patchwork of remedies and fixes can do more than work as palliatives for a hospice patient. Like aspirin and morphine, they reduce pain but do not cure.

For the fortunate few, it is true: “There is no conflict.” These clergy, apparently, were made for denominational work, and denominations were made for them. God bless ‘em.

It is not the healthy who need a doctor.

[Addition 12/18: Is there a solution to these multiple allegiances? For the minister who experiences this conflict as I experienced it, I don’t see any solution short of a big gamble, a radical solution. Repentance doesn’t let you remain the same. Metanoia, that 180 degree turn in the opposite direction. Jesus emptied himself in order to minister to us. Paul counted his education and status as a rabbi as so much rubbish. Both of them turned their backs on a secure, comfortable life.]

About Ron Goetz

My first wife used to say, "There's nothing so sacred that Ron won't pick it apart." My desire to be a pastor -- that was a temperamental mismatch. She was so patient. If my birth mother had lived somewhere else, maybe I would've become a cold case detective. But I would have had to be J instead of a P, I think. And that mid-life reevaluation, starting adolescence as a GARB fundamentalist and transitioning to a non-theist, that gave me an unusual skill set.
This entry was posted in Christendom, Pastoral Ministry. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Multiple Allegiances of Ordained Clergy

  1. Dayton S. Griffin-Sloat says:

    Yes! I am a United Methodist Pastor and disciple of John Kaiser (Author, Winning on Purpose) and, as a result of trying his approach to disciple making, I now see my allegiance as being, number one, to Christ my Lord (and God his Father) and second, to those whom Christ sends us to serve. Institutional loyalties are a distant third. I am working to develop a local church structure where I am primarily accountable in my effectiveness and method as a pastor to my local SPRC, rather than to heirarchical (read: bureaucratic) structures. All of the transformative outreach the churches I lead can do will be strengthened if I succeed in these reforms. Needless to say, I expect resistance.


  2. I have used the phrase mentioned above, about not going into the ministry unless there was nothing else one could do, when talking to those attempting to discern their calling. I had never heard anyone else use those words.

    What I intended to communicate was that the calling should be so strong that one could not resist it. I think of the imagery used in a novel of some years ago about the life of Jesus. The author described the relationship of Jesus with God as like a person who had an eagle with its talons in his scalp and wouldn’t let go.


    • Ron Goetz says:

      I agree. The professor’s understanding of calling was undoubtedly the same as yours.

      I have dealt with a related problem, one that a fervent Christian high school or college student would deal with, which is what I was those many years ago!

      Situation: a young person feels an overwhelming desire to give their entire life to God, and they want to act on it. Such people have only seen the tiniest sliver of the options available in terms of denominations, functions (pastor, missionary, professor, Pope), and settings (denominational, non-profit, local church, independent). If they’re fortunate, their youth groups have given them at least a taste of the variety of ways to serve. Not all young people are that fortunate.

      I’m thinking specifically about a couple of things. First is the seductiveness of denominational ministry. As a Christian college student headed toward the ministry, I was forcibly struck with how denominations were a concrete violation of Jesus’ John 17 prayer for the perfect unity of the church. I was terrified at the prospect of becoming a pastor outside of a denomination. “How will I find a church to pastor? Where would I begin?” I eventually read about the incipient house church movement and realized that denominations were not the only way to go.

      Then I think of all the pastors who really are not suited, not gifted, for pastoral ministry. I have seen pastors struggle in their tiny churches, expending so much energy and devotion to their work, and seeing so little fruit. And personally I don’t believe God called them to carry out their work with so little to show for it. They were motivated to the ministry by a desire to help people, or a desire to reach the world for Christ, and what they got suckered into was a job that is 90% institutional maintenance. They get stung by a massive bait-and-switch. They’re promised the chance to do one thing, and get stuck with something else.

      No young person who aspires to be a pastor says, “I want to spend my life putting out fires, settling squabbles, being afraid to say what I really think because of how my parishoners will react!”

      So if I were telling someone, “Don’t become a minister unless it’s the only thing you can do,” I would have to add “because ordained ministry is not what you think it is.”

      Unless your motivation is to wear the cool robes and be the one in charge with everyone listening to you. And I was not unacquainted with that desire myself.


  3. ruralpastor says:

    Thought provoking article… yes, ordained pastors do have a tough situation… but be a provisional member… I feel I must jump through the many hoops of church, supervisor, and BOM. I have grown churches, helped to close a church which was dying, increased our ‘apportionments’ to 100%, and continue to travel over 15,000 miles a year just for Sunday worships, and weekly schedules. Yes, I too question, do I want to become a member of this so called elite of ‘ordained’ United Methodist Pastors?


  4. Mike says:

    As someone in the process of trying to become an ordained elder in the UMC, I’ve also felt there is a bit of bait and switch. As a now retired mentor pastor told me, the ordination process produces great clerks who are so conditioned to jump through the many hoops of the BOM and so grateful to finally get in the fraternity of elders that they tend to keep their heads down and do administer as much or more than minister. After a few years, creativity and courage come back, but it’s certainly not encouraging to realize that there is some truth to that statement. There does seem to be a preoccupation to perpetute the institution of the church.

    The other issue I have is that little is done in the candidacy process or seminary to truly help candidates for ministry discern their gifts and find the best fit among the multitude of possibilities. Yes, I am one of those with a passion to serve but have shown little fruitfulness in parish ministry. However, I’ve also had the providence of falling into hospice chaplaincy in which I truly feel alive in ministry and been far more effective. Yet each year when I seek commissioning, I’m turned down by boards loaded down with church pastors who tell me that’s not “real” ministry and I need to continue discerning my call to the pulpit.


    How about affirmation and blessing to serve God as one is gifted and led whatever that may look like rather than try to fit all clergy within one mold?


So what are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s