Prophet or Pastor

Prophet or Pastor


When we try to tell our children that they have fallen short of their potential, they often feel we are being harsh and unfair. They feel like we don’t like them, might not even love them, and their fears about that complicate our relationship with them. Parents who always want to be their child’s best friend, never able to point out things that need improvement, fail to live up to their own potential in the relationship. Children need to learn a higher way. They need to learn to live into expectations for their behavior. They need some sort of accountability. That’s a hard part of parenting but mighty necessary.

Another important part of parenting is comforting our children when they are hurting, letting them know that we care for them and will always be there for support and nurture. Children need to learn that their failures don’t ruin them as people and their failures don’t ruin our relationship with them. Children need daily reminders that they are loved, not just for what they do, but, for who they are.

Parents have tough jobs. They pass judgment on their children’s choices as they help them live into their potential. And they nurture and support their children on a regular basis. Certainly the better job we do of showing our children love and nurture, the better chance we have to relate to them helpfully when we are correcting them.

It’s probably safe to say that most parents are better at one of these things than the other. When I meet with couples in pre-marital work, I usually ask them which is the stricter one and which is the softer one. If they have children from another marriage, they already know the answer. If they don’t have children but have pets, they often have already discovered who is better at enforcing rules and who is better at nurturing and encouraging. Ideally parents can swing back and forth between accountability and nurture but none of us is an ideal parent all the time.

My life as a priest seems to swing between prophet and pastor. Priests are like parents in that they typically are better at one of those jobs than the other. But every priest is called to be both prophet and pastor. If priests only harp on what you aren’t doing well enough, or if they only express to you your shortcomings, it gets hard to listen after a while. If all you hear from your priests has to do with your prejudices, greed, and self-centeredness, you’ll probably either start tuning us out or look for another place to worship. If all we offer you is affirmation of your choices and lifestyle, something is missing. We don’t want platitudes from our priests. We want authenticity.  We need our priests to stay in touch with us well enough to have accurate things to tell us about what we have done and what we could do as followers of Christ. Priests are set among us at least as much as they are set apart.

Though this example is a bit too militaristic, it has been a helpful image for me about leading churches. “Leading a church is like leading soldiers. You have to get out in front of them so they’ll have someone to follow. But if you get too far in front, they will mistake you for the enemy and shoot you.” Much of my life as a priest is spent stepping out in front, trying to get us to go somewhere, then coming back to the group to reconnect and make sure I know who we are together are and what we are dealing with.

The ideal priest is both prophet and pastor but, like parenting, it’s really impossible to do both of those at the same time. What we end up doing, if we’re any good at what we do, is to swing back and forth between prophet and pastor. If all I am doing is telling you what you’re doing wrong, I’m a crummy priest. But if all I am doing is telling you that your choices and actions are justified, I’m a crummy priest too. Being a priest is about being in relationship with people and in relationship with the gospel – back and forth – coming to know who we are and helping us all to live more fully into the gospel imperative.

The gospel of Christ comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. A good Christian swings back and forth between being comforted and being afflicted by the gospel. Most of us probably prefer to comfort ourselves with the gospel and afflict others with it. All of us are called to steep ourselves in the gospel in such ways that it soothes our sorrows and emboldens us for selfless acts.

God made us and God loves us. And God wants more from us, more with us. We are of great value and we are loved. But we are not fine just the way we are.


Yours faithfully,

Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.