With Dr. Bruce Hartung
Q: Over the years of teaching [for several decades at the elementary level in the LCMS system], I have noticed that my own faith life is not what it was at one time.
When I first graduated, I was sort of “on fire” for teaching and for evangelism in our schools and churches. I felt close to Christ as my Lord and Savior and I saw my personal story as part of the story of the church. My life, my spiritual life, and the life of the school and the church seemed very exciting and provided lots of mutual energy to move forward in my ministry and my work. My faith life felt alive and energizing.
But something has happened to all that. I expected to have less vibrancy at work as the years went on. I did not expect that my closeness to Christ, my spiritual life, my sense even of salvation would become so dead. … Not that my faith is dead, but … I do not feel the same passion that I once felt in my faith.
I have talked about this at some depth with my pastor. He shared, [since] he has about the same amount of time in ministry as I, that he also has experienced some of this distance or deadening in his faith life.
Is this unique to my pastor and me? What should I do to recapture the closeness that I once felt?
Q: Thanks for putting into words what I have heard from other LCMS church workers, and that I have struggled with myself.
I believe that you have identified a major vulnerability of being a worker in the church — that matters of faith become data for use in ministry and bypass our own experience. We teach and preach the facts of the faith as well as minister to others with the reality of the faith. But somewhere along the line, our own hearts have erected barriers to the personal application of the Gospel in our own lives. We become practitioners rather than penitents, lecturers rather than experiencers, objectifiers rather than personalizers. I think that this is a natural process, but it is not a healthy one.
So, to answer your first question, I do not believe that this is unique to you and your pastor. I think this is a somewhat natural consequence of being a “professional” church worker and therefore a real vocational vulnerability.
But what do we do about it? I am convinced that the first step is actually not to do anything but flee into the loving arms of Christ. As Lutheran Christians, we confess that “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel … .”
Regardless of how dead you feel in relationship to Christ, He lives always in relationship to you — beginning with your baptism. Regardless of your seeing a loss of passion that you once felt in your faith, Christ faithfully retains His passion for you. Christ’s promise is to be close to you through the end of time, regardless of how close you do or do not feel to Him.
Given the assurance of Christ’s relationship to us because it is His gift, we do have opportunities to use the gift of the body of Christ, especially as it is incarnated in other followers of Christ.
Thus, the second step is to seek out a spiritual counselor, guide, or director — someone who can empathically explore with you how your spiritual life is actually going.
I plan to offer more specific recommendations about this in the next “Pressure Points.” In the meantime, other readers may chime in with their ideas, which I encourage.
Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is dean of Ministerial Formation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Re-posted Sept. 8, 2009