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Gentle Shepherding: Pastoral Ethics and Leadership


"Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh of hosts;
the whole earth is full of God's glory."
(Isaiah 6:3b, author's translation)

How does the vocation to pastoral ministry relate to the church's ministry as a whole? How do pastor and congregation cooperate for ministry and mission? How do we respond in faith to God who has called us to service? How do pastor and congregation alike relate to the wider society in terms of moral responsibilities and expectations? These questions underlie this book on the ethics of pastoral care and leadership. Previous chapters have examined in greater detail some of the particular moral responsibilities that can be operative in the relationships among pastor, congregation, and the wider community. These final two chapters, however, look more broadly at a theology of vocation that calls us into leadership and service for the glory of God. Here the thesis is that we must see the vocation of the pastor within the wider context of the vocation of the church, of human society, and, indeed, of creation itself. These will be considered in reverse order.

Vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, "to call," and literally means "calling." Vocation is a religious idea, turning our attention to the One who calls. It is important to recognize this religious dimension, since the language of a secular culture tends to identify vocation synonymously with one's work, one's job, a career, or a profession. Much of this book, too, has been about ethics on the job--the professional ethics for clergy in their careers of ministry. But it is necessary to affirm this religious dimension to the work of ministry: it is vocation from God.

Creation's Vocation
Theologically, we can begin by recognizing and affirming vocation in creation itself. All of creation is called to give glory to God. Psalm 19 expresses this poetically:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims [God's] handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4)

Many of the Psalms (such as 98; 104; 148) portray creation praising the Creator. The well-known hymn by Saint Francis resounds like these Psalms: "All Creatures of Our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing Alleluia!"1 With the psalmist and with Saint Francis, we, too, can sing of this vocation of creation to glorify the Creator.

The Westminster Confession, written in 1647, affirms that God created the world "for the manifestation of the glory of [God's] eternal power, wisdom, and goodness."2 Humanity's "chief end" is similar--to glorify and to enjoy God.3 This is our first vocation, with all of creation--to reflect God's glory and to glorify God. Humanity shares this vocation with all other creatures: all animals and plants, air and water, earth and stars.

Jonathan Edwards provided another "classic" theological statement of this sense of creation's vocation in his "Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World," originally published posthumously in 1765. Edwards argues logically and from Scripture that "the glory of God" is the last or "ultimate end" for which God created the world. Edwards argues that God's own glory finds expression within God's creation. God's creatures are moved to express this glory through the love and enjoyment of God. Creation emanates the glory of its Creator. Humanity, as a part of creation, shares in this glorification of God.4

The call of the prophet Isaiah is instructive at this point. In Isaiah's vision, the first thing he hears is one heavenly being declaring to another that the "whole earth" is full of Yahweh's glory. Isaiah's response to this is not an immediate recognition and embracing of his own call. Rather, he despairs: "Woe is me! I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips" (6:5a). Only after one of the heavenly beings in his vision touches his lips with a hot coal is he able to hear God's call, "Whom shall I send... ?" and is he able to respond, "Here am I; send me!" (6:8) Isaiah's call to ministry is set within the whole creation, giving glory to God. This is our first vocation: to glorify God with the rest of heaven and earth.

Note that Isaiah is being formed for ministry even before he is able to hear and respond to God's call. His encounter with the heavenly being and the hot coal prepares him to hear and respond to God's call. For us, too, discernment of our vocation occurs within the wider project of our spiritual formation. This is God's doing--a matter of grace we are to receive with faith. God's Spirit does more than simply "call." The Spirit births us, prepares us, forms us, calls us, helps us to hear, empowers our response, and equips us for service. At times we feel very much aware of the Holy Spirit's involvement in this process, but many times we do not. Still, in times of uncertainty, as well as in times of confidence, the Spirit is forming us in love and calling us to some vocation. Whether or not one's vocation is within the institutional church, it will be within creation and to God's glory.

However, having affirmed our vocation with the rest of creation to glorify God, we must admit that we are not always faithful in serving this vocation. We do not act to God's glory when trust is betrayed or when the vulnerable are harmed. We do not act to God’s glory

- when parents violate their children
- when clergy abuse those in their charge
- when lawyers betray their clients' interests
- when business leaders embezzle company funds
- when doctors fail to promote life and health
- when scientists apply themselves to destructive technology rather than to enlightening knowledge
- when heads-of-state wage war for self-serving political motives

These activities--destructive to the rest of creation--are not glorious. Regardless of how noble or prestigious the status we gain in society's estimation, such actions are not in service of divine calling. God's call is always a vocation for justice.


1Francis of Assisi, "All Creatures of Our God and King" trans. William H. Draper, Chalice Hymnal: Worship Leader's Companion (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1998), 22.

2"The Westminster Confession of Faith," Chapter IV, "Of Creation," para. 1, in The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part I Book of Confessions (Louisville: Office of the General Assembly, 1996), 6.022, p. 130.

3"The Shorter Catechism," Q. 1 and "The Larger Catechism," Q. 1, 7.001 and 7.111 in Book of Confessions, pp. 181, 201.

4Jonathan Edwards, "Dissertation I: Concerning the End for Which God Created the World," Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 8 Ethical Writings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 403-463.