In an age intoxicated by techniques, quick formulas, and market surveys, it is refreshing to receive advice on pastoral ministry that not only doesn't appeal to these things, but rejects them as insignificant to true Christian ministry.
According to William H. Willimon, the first question a minister must ask himself is not, "What ought I do?" but rather, "Who am I to be?" These two questions are connected, but must be considered in the appropriate order. A minister's identity is vitally linked to his sense of God's calling on his life. "What pastors do is a function of who pastors are... Our danger is that we might 'black out,' that is lose consciousness of why we are here and who we are called to be for Christ and his church" (p.21).
Only a strong sense of purpose arising from God's call can sustain a pastor in the hard work of gospel ministry. Willimon quotes Robert Wilson on this point, "You can't pay people to do the things that ministers routinely must do... They need to think God has called them, or ministry is miserable" (p. 22).
Neither the approval nor the needs of his parishioners must control the pastor's ministry, lest he lose sense of his true calling and purpose in the life of the church. "In a culture of omnivorous need, all-consuming narcissism, clergy who have no more compelling motive for their ministry than 'meeting people's needs' are dangerous to themselves and to a church that lacks a clear sense of who it is" (p. 24).
With this as a foundation, Willimon highlights the ethical challenges peculiar to clergy and "the way in which clerical character informs these challenges" (p. 12).
In his chapter concerning the character of the clergy, he argues that faithful ministers must have such a strong sense of God's calling that they are able to "love the truth of Christ even more than their congregation's affections" (p. 48).
In his discussion concerning the pastor in community, Willimon argues that the Pauline "test for the ethical appropriateness of a given practice is, Does this edify the body?" (p. 61). American Christianity is far too individualistic. Willimon laments, "I am conditioned by my culture to ask, 'What does this mean for me?' rather than to ask the corporate, 'What is the Bible saying to us?'" (p. 76).
In his chapter on crossbearing, Willimon argues that no true gospel ministry will be without troubles. If Jesus' ministry was wrought with troubles, rejection, and betrayal, contemporary ministers should expect no better. Like Paul, faithful ministry will demand that pastors are "willing to provoke division, call names, condemn, accuse, and judge" (p. 96) for the sake of the cruciform gospel they proclaim. Put simply, the "[c]ross produces conflict" (p. 111). Willimon warns that parishioners will not prefer this kind of ministry but will prefer a comfortable social club setting instead. Out of all the minister's responsibilities, the one last aspect of ministry that parishioners still approve of is personal counseling. Everything else is tolerated, even though considered irrelevant by most congregations.
Another aspect of crossbearing for the clergy is the time crunch that comes from their numerous commitments. Willimon, rather than giving the standard scheduling advice offered in most books on this topic, calls on clergy to give themselves away in ministry. The cross calls to service, sacrifice, and even suffering. "What is immoral is not one's suffering in service to the gospel, but rather one's suffering in service to triviality" (p. 113). Jesus does not take away burdens, but makes burdens worth bearing. However, the pastor must examine the way he spends his time by asking himself, "Is this service to the cross of Christ or merely servitude to the omnivorous desires of North American discontented consumers?" (p. 113).
He concludes with a chapter on God's new creation, emphasizing the hope that ministers have that all their labor will end in glorious fullness.
Willimon's book is a breath of fresh air for pastors. It is a book that presents many of the pitfalls and hazards of gospel ministry and addresses them, not with simple formulas, but by stressing the character of God's office-bearer and the need to secure one's identity in light of God's call and not primarily people's felt needs.