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Students at commencement

Ministry in Context

Wonderful, but messy

By and large, life is a wonderful gift. A bit messy, but good. By and large, ministry is wonderful. Very messy, but very good. We are in the season of Advent, with all the deep delights that accompany our trip back to the manger in Bethlehem. As you wonder and wander with the shepherds, may you find joy and peace in the days ahead.

But on occasion the messiness of life takes a darker turn. We encounter horrific pain or downright evil. In recent weeks we have seen glimpses of that dark reality as the news of apparent abuse has come out of Penn State University. It seems that repeated offenses by one person have been compounded by the actions, or devastating inaction, of others. The pain and suffering are hard to comprehend, and they will likely grow.

This article is not meant to assess the Penn State situation. I only want to offer two insights related to the situation that may be pertinent to pastors and interns.

The first is this: sometimes a person will come to a pastor and say, “I want to tell you something, but you need to keep it in strictest confidence.” The inclination of most of us pastors is to immediately respond, “Of course.” But that may not be the wisest response. It may be better to say, “I aim to be trustworthy in everything I hear. But if keeping in confidence what you share with me could significantly harm yourself or others, you need to know I will share what you tell me in order to safeguard you or others.”

Mandatory reporting laws vary from state to state. It is important to know them and live within them. It may be even more important to realize that even something as precious and good as the priest-penitent privilege can be perverted for harm. May you be both trustworthy and wise.

The second is this: in the midst of the turmoil at Penn State, there are pastors who are caring for people in their congregations in that community. As you well know, the community is comprised of many people—including some who are not easy to care for right now. Whether or not you know these pastors personally, they are there.

Sometimes it is hard to be a pastor. Often it is those hard times when a pastor is needed most. As you pray for victims, in this or other situations, please keep these pastors in your prayers, too. Someday, perhaps, you will be the pastor in a hard place. I trust others will be praying for you then, too.

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