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Gregory of Nazianzus on Pastoral Ministry

This week Matt Crawford, who is doing doctoral work in patristics, pointed me to Gregory of Nazianzus’ (c. 329-390) second theological oration which he preached after having initially fled from his ordination as bishop.  Reading this oration, its influence on Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care was obvious.

The writing is tedious at times and the way works are referred to is concerning as in others at the time.  However, it is fascinating to see what these early leaders saw as central to pastoral ministry.  It is clear that Gregory saw this task as focused on “watching over” and “guiding” souls.

Much of the oration is focused on the need for holiness in pastors.  Here are two quotes (references are to paragraphs):

But in the case of man, hard as it is for him to learn how to submit to rule, it seems far harder to know how to rule over men, and hardest of all, with this rule of ours, which leads them by the divine law, and to God, for its risk is, in the eyes of a thoughtful man, proportionate to its height and dignity.  For, first of all, he must, like silver or gold, though in general circulation in all kinds of seasons and affairs, never ring false or alloyed, or give token of any inferior matter, needing further refinement in the fire; or else, the wider his rule, the greater evil he will be.  Since the injury which extends to many is greater than that which is confined to a single individual. (10)

nothing is so easy as to become evil, even without any one to lead us on to it; while the attainment of virtue is rare and difficult, even where there is much to attract and encourage us (11)

These two quotes illustrate what Gregory saw as the central aim of pastoral ministry:

But the scope of our art is to provide the soul with wings, to rescue it from the world and give it to God, and to watch over that which is in His image, if it abides, to take it by the hand, if it is in danger, or restore it, if ruined, to make Christ to dwell in the heartby the Spirit (22)

One branch of philosophy is, however, too high for me, the commission to guide and govern souls – and before I have rightly learned to submit to a shepherd, or have had my soul duly cleansed, the charge of caring for a flock… (78)

Gregory rebuked those who fought within the church for slight causes.  He prized unity and noted the importance of the church’s public witness in this way.  However, he also noted that there is a time to contend for the sake of truth.

“…to say the truth, I go so far as to praise and congratulate them.  Yea! would that I were one of those who contend and incur hatred for the truth’s sake -  or rather, I can boast of being one of them.  For better is a laudable war than a peace which severs a man from God -  and therefore it is that the Spirit arms the gentle warrior, as one who is able to wage war in a good cause.” (82)

The witness of the church across the ages is clear- pastors are not called to “run churches”, manage programs, or amass crowds. We are called to watch over and nourish souls.  May we be faithful to this task so that we might please the Great Shepherd to whom we must give account (Heb 13:17, 20-21).

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