Letters to Our Students: “Healers, Not Doctors”

We cared so much for you that we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us (1 Thessalonians 2:8).

There is a really bad idea out there that the truly effective pastor should either be a free wheeling entrepreneurial sort who fits right in with the trendy troupe in Silicon Valley, or a prophet-like figure who distantly removes himself from the everyday affairs of man to give himself to isolated, devout study. He comes out of his “pastor cave” only to give forth the Word, generally in rather dour and sober tones, from his time in the “heavenlies.”

Both of these ideas are stereotypes and polarized ones at that. Yet there is a way that we, particularly in what I refer to as “the post seminary stress syndrome” (not yet recognized by the American Psychological Association), can fall into these traps. As a freshly minted MDIV, out to teach systematic theology (that is to teach my professor’s entire systematic theology) in eight lessons, and plant a church and school, and save the world (and wondering why no one really saw the genius in me that I saw), I hit the wall. No one knew it, I guess. Maybe if you talked to some laity there now, they would say they saw it coming. Maybe my wife will tell you about it. But it was there. While no one could ever accuse this Martyn Lloyd-Jones-want-to-be (whose memory and ministry I cherish) of fitting into Silicon Valley, I did somewhat fit the part of a prophet-in-waiting.

The problem with all of these things is that it misses the essential mark of the very heart of St. Paul: a gentle man who gave the Gospel and his very life to his people out of his deep love. He was a man who did not use his authority (verse 6, “…though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ”) but was like a nursing mother among the people, whom the Apostle considered his own children (“But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children”). He was a gentle, maternal-like figure ready to give his own life to the congregation who was feeding on Christ from within his own affectionate heart. This marked his ministry. And do you think they loved him then?

I have a theory, tested only on myself and those assistants I have mentored, that congregations shape pastors as much as does the seminary. We at RTS do the work of preparing you, like a medical school prepares a physician, but it is at the bedside of a sick child that a fledgling physician learns to apply his study of diagnosis with love. It is in the eyes of the child looking to him for hope, that the doctor becomes a healer. We need more healers and fewer doctors. It is in the eyes of a widower, who is looking to you for answers, that you must locate the love of God in your life to give to him. It is during those moments, as much as in the study or in considering the latest sociological trends, that you become a pastor. We need more who seek to be healers and true physicians of the soul in the pulpit and the parish and fewer who aspire to be prophets and entrepreneurs.

Here is what I want to say to you, dearest pastoral students: minister with passion, out of the love you received in the Lord Jesus Christ, and love the flock of God out of the overflow of love you have known from Jesus in your life. And you will say of your people what Paul said of his, “…you had become very dear to us.” Be sure, also, that they will say that of you as well.

This installment of Letters to our Students is dedicated with love to Dr. and Mrs. Don Sweeting. This Thursday, February 10th, 2011, marks his inauguration as President of Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, Florida. My friend Don has lived and lives out this Gospel portrait of a pastor with much grace.

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About Michael Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D. (University of Wales, Trinity Saint David's College), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author. He is, also, an alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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