How Goes It With Your Texting?

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After five years of pastoring, I’ve reached a paradox. Texting is good: it helped me shepherd at least two people well. Texting is bad: it hurt my ability to minister to the congregation I served.

The Good: Consistent Connection

On the one hand, I texted to connect with two men struggling to follow Christ. Phone calls were ignored, and meetings were stilted. But a consistent barrage of texts let them know I was thinking about them, praying for them, and available when they needed help. Staying consistently connected allowed me to help one man through complex marital and family health issues. With the other, I was the person he called at rock bottom. By God’s grace and work, they are both walking faithfully.

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The Bad: Distracted and Fearful

On the other hand, texting was a terrible distraction in pastoral ministry. It was borne of fear: if I am not in constant contact with my parishioners, people may think I’m not productive or busy enough. It was a problem. This kind of texting is bad for pastors and parishes for two reasons: Constant distraction prevents us from the undistracted work of contemplating God in Scripture and being present to our flock. Texting hurts the parish. Texting tempts us to imagine that we will save the sheep through our constant availability. It tempts the parish to idolize us as we feed our pride.

I needed help ordering texting to God and my vocation. I found five helpful things: 

  1. Deep Work by Cal Newport 
  2. Clarity about my pastoral vocation 
  3. Contemplating God 
  4. Accepting my creaturely limits 
  5. The Gospel

Deep Work

In Deep Work, Cal Newport divides work into two categories: Deep and Shallow. Deep work is undistracted work that is cognitively demanding and produces great things. Shallow work is non-cognitively demanding, quickly repeatable logistical work (Deep Work, 3,6). 

Texting is almost always either shallow work or distracting. And yet, we are attracted to shallow work. We fill our schedules with texting, meetings, and activities. We are free to talk while studying for our sermon and struggle to find time to study. Why? Sometimes it’s because we simply do have a lot of meetings. But, sometimes, it’s because we avoid difficult and fruitful deep work. The Christian life and the ministry are high calls that shape Christians to the likeness of Christ. Think of the Psalmist’s desire to meditate on God’s Law–God’s presence and grace–day and night (Psalm 1:2); that is a call to deep work.

There are at least two reasons we tend to prefer shallow over deep work: shallow work is easy, and undistracted study of scripture and theology is hard. 

The ease of shallow work reveals a fundamental sin in pastoral ministry: the fear of others. Shallow work makes us look and feel productive, even if we are not. Of course, we have to do administrative stuff, emails, and texts. But why are we doing these things? I was doing it because I feared people would judge me for looking “unproductive.” I feared man more than God. Scripture is clear here: “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts the Lord is safe” (Proverbs 29:25).

The deep work of ministry can appear unproductive, which is why we need the clear teaching of Scripture to guide us. Paul commands Timothy to teach the doctrine and godliness of Christ, to live as an example of holy and faithful conduct, and to be “devoted” to the public reading and teaching of Scripture (1 Tim 4:11-13). Here Paul describes our calling, our work, and requires undistracted effort, it is cognitively demanding, and by God’s grace, it produces what it is meant to: the mighty works of God amongst his people. Pastoral ministry is deep work. So, how do we desire deep work?

Clarity

Harold Senkbeil’s book The Care of Souls helped clarify my understanding of pastoral ministry. I am a sheepdog of Christ, the shepherd, and my vocation is to administer his forgiveness and healing in his word and sacraments. Like Peter commissioned by the True Shepherd to “feed my sheep,” pastors are commissioned to feed the sheep of Christ with Christ because we love Jesus Christ (John 21:15-18). As a minister of the word, I preach and teach Scripture to bring the gospel to the lives of Christ’s body. All Scripture is for the instruction of the church because it is the word of the living God who commands us to preach (2 Tim 3:16-4:3). As I administer the sacraments, I offer the presence and power of Christ in the visible and effective signs of his gospel:  Baptism and Holy Communion. Like Israel, we walk through the water of the Red Sea, we eat of the heavenly feast manna, and we drink from the Rock that is Christ (1 Corinthians 10:1-4). 

Baptism is our entry into Union with Christ and is the pattern for our daily life in him: dying to sin and rising to Christ daily (Romans 6:1-14 and Colossians 3:1-17). As Pastors, we administer “baptismal therapy” (a favorite phrase of Senkbeil’s), proclaiming and communicating the reality of baptism to our church: Christ forgives you. Christ is healing you in his Name. 

The Eucharist is the mobile feast of grace that grows Christ’s likeness in us by faith. In Holy Communion, we give Christ’s life-giving body and blood to our church so they may have life in him (John 6:52-56). At this table and altar, God draws the church into the healing completed work of Christ as he sanctifies his church through the power of the Holy Spirit.

As under-shepherds, all we give is Jesus Christ. It is grace-filled work. If this is pastoral ministry, it simply is deep work. It couldn’t be anything else. So, how do we grow in deep pastoral work? We go to the source: God in Scripture.

Contemplation

As pastors, we must embrace what John Webster calls the contemplative and apostolic vocation of pastoral ministry. Webster argues that pastors must contemplate God and all things in relation to God and share their contemplation in ministry. The Shepherd trains the pastor to learn to desire one thing: to dwell in the house of the Lord and gaze upon his beauty (Psalm 27:4). We hope and long for Christ. We want to see His face (Psalm 27:8). Christ teaches us to desire Him and cast aside all else by contemplating God in Scripture. We study Scripture first to encounter God in his Word for ourselves and only then for the church.  

When we meet God, we confess, we repent, and he leads us to desire and love him. And love for God always takes us to our neighbor. As pastors we participate in Christ’s ministry to his church: “l will tell of your name to my brothers, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you” (Psalm 22:22). We need the deep work of contemplating God in Scripture because we need to encounter the living God we proclaim. As we encounter God, he takes our idolatrous shallow works and gives us Spirit-filled deep work. 

Two vices tempt us in contemplation. Either contemplating God for ourselves and not others or preaching and pastoring without contemplating God. Both of these result in selfish idolatry and feed our pride. Pastor, we cannot choose between the two, even if our disposition leans towards one or another. As under-shepherds, we return to the fountain of life to drink deeply and share the abundance of His life. We must do both. Our vocation does not give us any other option: we must contemplate God deeply and share his good news.

Creaturely Limits

That said, deep work tempts us to transgress our creaturely limits. When we seek God in contemplation, pride knocks at our door. It is tempting to imagine that we have the fountain of life and are light. Don’t fool yourself into denying it. We are creatures, not the creator. We have God-given limits. Deep work in contemplation and action makes us open to the work of God. It does not make us God. Only God has and is the fountain of life. It is only in his light that we will see light (Psalm 36:9). As Pastors, we point away from ourselves to the Lord of Life, who was, and is, and is to come (Revelation 1:8). There is freedom in recognizing our limits: we rest and trust because God, in his tireless generosity, is always at work ministering to his body in his eternal changelessness. Embracing our creaturely limitations frees us from the idol of self-sufficiency and cultivates honest humility about our limits.

The Gospel

All this may sound like more tasks, guilt, and space for failure. The engine that drives ministry is not our effort but God and his Gospel. Thanks be to God, the gospel of Christ is for us distracted texting pastors too. You have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer you who live, but Christ in you (Galatians 2:20). Set your mind on Christ as he takes your selfish, self-fulfilling, lazy contemplative-pastoral work and gives you his Spirit-filled work in word and sacrament (Colossians 3:1-17). In the power of the gospel, let us abandon the lie of shallow work and go deep into the boundless ocean of our Triune God for the sake of the world.

A Few Suggestions

But how do we keep the benefits of texting while mortifying how it tempts and distracts? 

Prioritize deep work. Put your phone on “Do not disturb” and “focus mode” as you study and pastor your congregation. We will be tempted to think: “We will miss out if we are not connected.”  The truth is this: God is good, sovereign, and trustworthy enough for us to turn our phones off.

Treat texting as a tool within limits. Use texting within limits, not mindlessly, impulsively, or to itch the “stay busy” scratch. This will require self-examination and honesty about our motives for texting. Try choosing two times a day to text people to stay connected for the sake of gospel ministry, and then leave it alone. 

Trust God. God is in charge of his church and your ministry. Do we trust God enough to turn our phones off and surrender to his calling on our life to spend uninterrupted time with him and his people in their proper place and setting? 

Be patient. Contemplative pastoral work requires patience. Receive the patience of Christ (Galatians 5:22), and be patient with yourself as you learn new deep work habits. Be patient with others who don’t understand why you are setting limits on your technology. Be patient. Don’t give up. It feels like a risk to limit our texting and go deep. It isn’t. It is a gift from the Giver, who gives us himself.

Published on

May 1, 2023

Author

Ethan Harrison

Ethan Harrison is the associate priest at Immanuel Anglican Church in Destin, Florida, where he lives with his wife, Lindsay, and daughters, Maren, Lisette, and Joelle.

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