Lenten reading: George Herbert on Being a Pastor

George Herbert, 1593-1633

George Herbert, the famous English pastor and poet, served in a small country Parish for three years before his early and untimely death. In those years he wrote poetry and The Country Parson. He penned this short text as a Rule of Life for himself, as something to “aim at” (pg 54). I just finished my first read through of it and found much of it helpful, some of it only applicable to his time and place, and some of it translatable into my time and place. I wanted to summarize and quote some of the most personally significant passages as a still new Pastor-Theologian, for my own personal edification, and hopefully the edification of others.

He opens the book with defining a pastor. A pastor, he says, “Is the deputy of Christ for reducing of man to the Obedience of God.” In this definition, Herbert argues is the reason and the goal of pastoral duty and authority, which is none other than Christ and his Gospel. First, he argues, humanity fell from God by disobedience, second Christ is the “glorious instrument of God for the revoking (restoring) of Man.” Third, Christ, in his ascension gave the church Priests to do what Christ did through the Power of the Holy Spirit both in “Doctrine and life” (55). At the heart of Herbert’s definition of the Pastor is the gospel of Christ lived out in the pastor and carried out in the life of the Church. The pastor is to preach the gospel, live a holy life, and exhort his parish to repentance, faith and obedience in Christ. Put simply, the pastor preaches and lives the gospel. So how does one become a pastor of Christ’s Doctrine and life?

In the second chapter, Herbert argues that preparation for ministry requires two things: study and asceticism. Not only do we need to labor to attain knowledge i.e., the right doctrine “but to subdue and mortify the lusts and affections: and not to think, that when they have read the Fathers, or Schoolmen, a minister is made and the thing done. The greatest and hardest preparation is within” (56). Thus, for the pastor to fulfill his duty, he needs both right doctrine and a life pursuing the virtue of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

As to these virtues, Herbert, in his chapter on the Parson’s Life, recommends above all patience and mortification: “Patience in regard of afflictions, Mortification in regard of lust and affections and the stupefying and deading of all the clamorous powers of the soul” to the end of fulfill his pastoral vocation (56). Mortification of lust and affection may sound harsh, but in the context of the Christian tradition, Herbert is basically arguing for putting to death the flesh and arising in Christ, as Paul talks about it in Colossians 3. While these two practices are essential for every pastor, Herbert next notes three particular practices for his context.

He argues that in country parish ministry, a pastor must avoid covetousness, luxury, and duplicity. He avoids these vices and practices their opposite as an example to his parishioners, who live poor, hard-working, and honest lives. And in order not to be a stumbling block to them; to be trustworthy in order to fulfill the duty of being a pastor: preaching and living the Gospel.

In sum, Herbert articulates the pastoral duty as living and preaching the gospel which means that the pastor must know doctrine deeply and have that doctrine deeply applied to their own soul, specifically focusing on patience and daily dying to self. Further, the pastor is sensitive to his context, noting what would prevent him from preaching and living as an example to his parish.

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