And the truth is, I believe, that to almost each and every priest or church minister there have been doubts, hesitations, moments of resistance, bewilderment and re-evaluations, along his or her path into ministry as well as through the years in service.
But, of course, there are as many answers to the question as there are priests and pastors. No one is like the other. In my own case, coming from a Christian but multi-denominational background, I have never experienced fundamental doubts as to God and the Divine reality being the “Ground of Being”, to quote Tillich. When that happens – as it sometimes does, even to the point of converting to outright anti-faith hostility – it is of course a tragedy, both spiritually, emotionally and intellectually.
Having seen some church denominations “from inside”, functioning as institutions, it is the very issue of institutions and institutionalism that has been my matter of doubt and skepticism. Human institutions, being in the care and custody of human beings, are always frail and errant. Holiness never appertains to a church as an institution, as an external framework. Of course it never appertains to human beings either. It only appertains to the Source of faith and, possibly even, to the way in which faith is lived in truth and honesty.
When at a mature stage of life I converted to the Evangelical Lutheran faith and eventually became one of its ministers, I did so out of a deliberate, conscious choice. To me Luther's “By faith alone”, “By Grace alone”, became the key to understanding the Gospel and the essence of Christianity. But I also realize that there are other keys to both Christian faith and faith in God as “the Ground of Being” in general. Luther said – if we put it in a somewhat simplified manner: “If you believe, good deeds will follow as the fruits thereof.” Muslim, Jewish and surely also many Christian theologians of other denominations would go the other way round and say: “Do good deeds – and you will find the greatness of God and the blessings of faith.”
Does this really make a crucial difference? In the words of St. Augustine: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” This goes for us all – not only Jews, Christians and Muslims; it goes for each and every human being across the world, consciously or unconsciously.
A priest or a pastor is not a prophet, like Isaiah. But inevitably, a part of the pastoral vocation lies in a prophetical duty of some kind. And prophecy always is about making some sort of difference, especially in situations when the most fundamental moral values are at stake – be it only by simply saying no, speaking up, or just refusing what external authorities are requiring of you at the moment. In both World Wars, Catholics as well as Protestants were fighting on either side of the front line, killing one another – their fellow believers – with the blessings of their clerics. And now lately, in the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia (yes, Russia), we have seen pictures of pious Orthodox priests, Ukrainian and Russian respectively, blessing guns, killings and killers on either side of the front line. What a horrendous parody of the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
True prophets are sorely needed in our time. But prophets do not necessarily have to be ordained by a bishop or a synod. They have to be ordained by God and their God-given conscience.