January 16, 2021

Paul Zahl: Grace in Pastoral Ministry


The Sower, Van Gogh

The Sower, Van Gogh

He will not break a bruised reed
or quench a smoldering wick
until he brings justice to victory.

– Matthew 12:20, NRSV

* * *

Pastors see many things. It is easy to get angry in ministry. One can become overwhelmed by brokenness, dysfunction, and trouble in people’s lives. A pastor feels responsible. A pastor feels called to bring Jesus to people so that he can touch their lives and work faith, hope, and love in them. Results are not always apparent, and this is immensely frustrating. Living with a congregation can lead to sleepless nights and paralyzing anxiety. The Apostle Paul himself testified that his greatest trial was the daily weight of concern he felt for his churches.

Faced with these facts, some ministers give up and go do something else. Others hang around, suffering a low grade fever of discouragement and fading hopes. The strong in spirit decide they won’t put up with lukewarm Christians and take control. They develop a strategy, surround themselves with faithful lieutenants, and build a church in their image. They fortify their power base, disallow any dissension, root out “problem people,” and forge ahead to “success.” People in the church are deemed successful when they toe the line and fit into the program. The majority of ministers fall somewhere in between, savoring those seasons when things are going well and the church family seems healthy, persevering through the tough times, and often finding themselves wondering if there isn’t more they can do to move the church forward into spiritual health and maturity.

All ministers face the temptation to be God the Father, laying down the Law, God the Son, overturning the tables in the Temple, and the Holy Spirit, cutting the congregation to the quick. It’s up to us, isn’t it? This is our calling, right? We mustn’t settle for anything less than “radical” Christianity.

In his book, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life, Paul Zahl urges a different way.

The main feature of pastoral care rooted in grace is non-proactivity. This is another way of saying that the main feature of pastoral care rooted in grace is passivity. Grace in pastoral care eschews control and acts out of response rather than action. This means that pastoral care from grace consists mostly of listening and watching.

. . . Ministers see no evil, and yet they see everything. This is the reality of imputation. Pastoral care is not “proactive,” a big word in our lives today. Pastoral care observes, yet decides not to see. This is the essence of grace in practice. You look out on a group of people on a Sunday morning and observe bickering mothers and daughters, sullen and resentful sons, sexually frustrated men and misunderstood wives. You feel the rising infidelities and the hurt feelings and the palpable mourning for mothers and fathers who are no longer present. You see all this if you have an eye to original sin and total depravity. Yet you speak the word of imputed righteousness: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). The blanket of condemnation that the discerning eye cannot fail to see is replaced by the “garments of salvation” (Isaiah 61:10).

This means that pastoral response is always the response of listening and passive reception. It is not the response of trying to fix things. Every conversation you ever have in ministry is a piercing conversation from the standpoint of the pastoral listener. He or she has heard it all before, many, many times. Yet it has to come out. It has to be heard with full acceptance, even sorry acquiescence. Grace never tries to fix, but trusts God to do this. Grace listens.

In caring for people in the setting of a local church, the idea is first to relax control and the idea of control. No more micro-managing! This only takes place in the vacuum provided by the absence of human control. It is the fruit of the Spirit to create love where there was resentment, and creativity where there was blockage. This happens among everyday people when the control of the law is lifted.

– pp. 240-243


  1. Robert F says

    “This means that pastoral response is always the response of listening and passive reception. It is not the response of trying to fix things. ”

    Sounds good. I like it. Trusting the movement of grace is important to living the Christian life, and to living the Christian life together in community. It would be a good thing if pastors reflected this trust in their own vocations as leaders of the community.

    But, it seems to me, there are limits to this. One such limit would be if a pastor became aware, through watching and listening to his congregation, that some sort of abuse was occurring in the midst of the deep dysfunctions of some members and their families. In that case, it seems to me that a pastor would have to become an advocate for those suffering abuse, and indeed proactive, in order to be faithful to her vocation. In this case, and others too, she might have to support the establishing of boundaries that look very much like law, though they would in fact be grace embodied as the kind of limits communities need to have a humane, and a Christian, life together.

  2. I would agree that listening and watching is an important thing, and probably the first thing. But by no means do I want to accept the language of passivity.

    Proactivity is not the same as wretched urgency, and thus should not be feared.

    • I prefer Eugene Peterson’s language of “participation.” The pastor pays attention and learns what God is already doing and wanting to do, and then seeks to participate in that. Zahl is using more extreme language to make the point that God is the ultimate Actor. I agree with this but think Peterson’s language is more accurate and helpful.

      • Very much agreed, participation is the best way to put it.

        I’ve read that this was John Wesley’s method of evangelism as well. The first thing he would do in a new location was sit somewhere for hours, watch, and listen. He wanted to understand what God is already up to before opening his mouth.

  3. “…This happens among everyday people when the control of the law is lifted.”

    Law must be there. it must not be diluted but be strong.

    “Not one jot or tittle of the law will be removed…”


    That said, and that done…then the gospel is freely handed over to those who don’t deserve it and who are in desperate need of a Savior.

    Grace acts. It speaks the absolution.It passes out the body and blood of Christ.

    Those who are in need of grace, listen.

    For “faith comes by hearing and the Word of God.”

    • And here comes the theological debate over the proper definition of the word “Law”…

      Looking at the life of Jesus (the One Who said, “Not one jot or tittle…”) in the Gospels, it seems He didn’t spend nearly as much time talking about the Law (either the natural moral law, or the Jewish covenant) as He did living it, and teaching the Kingdom, and showing grace to sinners.

      I deeply admire Lutheran theology in many ways, but I suspect that its Law/Gospel distinction, formulated in a period when the majority of the populace were both steeped in biblical background data and had a societal expectation to live up to it, isn’t the proper fit for reaching modern Americans with the Gospel of the life, death, resurrection and kingdom of Christ.

      • Robert F says

        My understanding of the relationship between law and grace is different than Steve’s. But I think you inflate the degree of biblical knowledge among the pre-Reformation populace, as well as the degree to which their lives were shaped by any expectation that they live by such knowledge or “background data.”

        Widespread illiteracy, poor and scant religious instruction, the Latin mass, etc., left a spiritual vacuum in many people’s lives, especially the majority who lived in rural poverty, a vacuum which was predominately filled by folk beliefs and practices that stretched all the way back to pre-Christian pagan times.

        When Luther toured the countryside, he was astonished to find widespread ignorance of the most elementary aspects of Christian beliefs and practices, and this among people who had grown up in the Roman Catholic church before the Reformation. That’s why he developed his Small Catechism, so that pastors could teach their congregations things that they were ignorant of, like the Ten Commandments, the Apostles Creed, and even the Lord’s Prayer.

        • I chose my term carefully. 😉 I know there was widespread illiteracy and ignorance of the full content of Scripture. However, there was still a Christianized backdrop to society – everyone was baptized, everyone attended Mass, everyone believed in God, heaven and hell as givens (no matter that their exact notions were likely mistaken). That is what *we* don’t have – a cultural backdrop against which the Lutheran Law/Gospel construct makes sense to people.

          • Robert F says

            Yes, I was aware of your careful choice of words. But I’m afraid that for many, the background data that you refer to was not much more than background noise for us. I think you underestimate the degree to which pagan belief was still operative and influential in the rural areas, where most people lived, and over which Christian faith was very often only a thin veneer. Mass was in Latin, which most people in the pews did not understand, and lay people generally only received Holy Communion once a year, in the Easter Season, when it was their duty to do so. There was much superstition of every kind surrounding the practice of Christianity, and the practice of folkways held over from paganism.

            Actually, not very different from today, now that I think about it, except I would wager that modern people have far less fear of what might befall them in the hereafter than medieval people did, just as we have less fear of darkness than our forbears.

    • “Law must be there. it must not be diluted but be strong.”

      And once again, it’s like I was offered grace only for it to be snatched away…

  4. Jesus interaction with people in the New Testament shows us a picture of rebuke…and forgiveness.

    None of that is needed without ‘the law’.

    • I don’t see that Jesus’ ministry displays a pattern of rebuke and forgiveness at all. He came announcing the arrival of the Kingdom and its availability to those who believe and follow him. He did not preach law but pure grace. He himself fulfilled the law, he did not demand that of his hearers. He pointed people to himself not the law. That is one serious problem with the simple law/grace dichotomy — it does not allow for other legitimate biblical categories, like Kingdom.

      • As formulated by Walther, the Law/Gospel distinction is intended as a hermeneutic designed to rightly keep our confidence in the promises of God from being based on law keeping (which is impossible); it was not intended as any kind of controlling paradigm, so I think that ideas like kingdom can fit right alongside LG in its proper use.

        I think any idea taken axiomatically becomes at best limiting and at worst debilitating in Christian thought and discipleship. One area where I disagree with some is the idea that the Law has to be preached on a consistent, frank, loud basis. Humans already have the law written on our hearts, and I have met very few people who aren’t struggling with their inadequacies and sins, even if they aren’t thinking in those categories. I think this is why a great deal of Jesus teaching doesn’t seem to fit the “law/gospel” paradigm. Jesus wasn’t ignoring God’s law, but he also did not have it as a program to beat people down with it.

    • Dana Ames says

      Abraham (many years before Moses) trusted God, and it was reckoned unto him as righteousness/faithful living. (Rom 4.3, Gal 3.6, James 2.23)

      When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3.4-5)

      Do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? (Rom 2.4)

      None of the sermons in the book of Acts is an exposition of “the Law.”

      I respect the committed Lutherans here. I identify with Luther in that I have had a very strong need for Assurance. I am a recovering perfectionist and know all about using law against myself, and that right strongly. I’ve been in plenty of churches that have done it, too. It never, ever made me love God – only fear him. Eventually I had Assurance, because I remained a good medieval Catholic, even after I left the Catholic Church for Protestantism, as was Luther – but still had no good news to offer anyone.


    • Clay Crouch says

      Steve, if you haven’t read it, I recommend Robert Capons’ Between Noon and Three – Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace. But take your blood pressure pills first. 😉

  5. David Cornwell says

    To listen is difficult for most pastors. But one must absolutely learn to do it. Look and listen. Look at people’s faces in church on Sunday morning, or when you interact with them during the week. You can tell a lot by close and prayerful observance. Also listen closely. Learn to listen without interruption. By observation and listening a pastor can begin to know when to ask the proper questions and to offer a good word. What Sean says about the practice of Wesley is something we can all learn from.

    And yes– given up control. Invite God into situations, and then wait. The Word of God will come to someone at God’s choice of time and place. It may come during worship, the sermon, the liturgy, or sacrament. Or it may not. Rational arguments seldom work.

    Also, stay away from gossip or rumors within the congregation. Even the smallest things can get blown way out of proportion. Some types of rumors can be corrected from the pulpit. Others require another approach. Never participate in them or give them credence. Don’t engage in gossip that can damage another person. Refuse to criticize another person if at all possible.

    Some of this seems like common sense; but don’t be fooled, this kind of sense is in short supply.

  6. Upon reading this article, I can’t help but think of a methodist pastor that I’ll call Pastor T. He was a conservative kind of a methodist with a british accent and at one point in my life he pastored the only church in walking distance. Busses didn’t run on Sundays, so that was where I was going.

    I was pretty out of church life at that point, distrustful of christians in general, but particularly gunshy about “church people”. Still, something drew me back about once or twice a month sometimes for several months in a row. Despite being in the black sheep section of the greater christian church family, I couldn’t quite give up on Jesus.

    So on those Sunday mornings that I felt inspired to do so, I’d walk down to Pastor T’s church. I’d sing the hymns, participate in the simple liturgy of that brand of methodism, and then as soon as the transition to the sermon started, I would walk out. I was pretty scarred by things said from the pulpit as I was growing up, so while I trusted nothing too bad would happen during the liturgy, I had no such trust in the unknown contents of the sermon. Who knew what would come out of a pastor’s mouth then?

    I must have been doing this for about year when one morning I arrived to see a lot more cars in the parking lot than I was used to. I pushed through my nervousness and walked in just as the sermon was starting. I had missed the daylight savings time change! Well, I wasn’t feeling rude enough to walk right back out, so I sat down and listened to my first sermon there. On the way out, I had to shake the pastor’s hand, and he finally learned my first name. Then he said, without a hint of reproof in voice, “You know, you’re welcome to stay for the sermon more often.”

    Here’s the thing – I didn’t take him up on it. I came back more often for the liturgy, but nothing else changed. He never had the opportunity to speak to me again, and never saw any fruit of his patience at my prominent skipping of his sermons. He’d always smile at me when I came in, but he never got any feedback from his efforts. I moved away without ever letting him know I was leaving. It must have seemed like something of a failure from his perspective.

    That was 12 or 13 years ago. Today, I sit on the parish council at my church and am one of the music directors. I am a pretty happy, healthy, and whole person. Pastor T gets a lot of credit for that. He could see a bruised reed for what it was, and he was wise enough not to break it. He never personally saw any results of that, and he’ll probably never know what dividends his efforts payed on this side of heaven. He was the first christian leader to show me what pure grace looked like.

    • Thank you Tokah. Wonderful example.

    • That was beautiful. Thank you.

    • Thanks for that short story, it almost made me speak in tongues! I read Paul Zahl’s book and any other that I am able to get my hands on and they have changed me as a believer and as a minister. Many times when we minister from a perspective of giving grace and trusting in the movement of God in others lives we just don’t see as much fruit. Therefore; the temptation then is to want to become “proactive” wanting to taste the fruit of our labor. There is a time when others are being hurt to step in with a gospel centered desire to have both offended and offender reconciled first to God and to also with one another. The greatest struggle is to frame our identity in regard to how much fruit we are seeing in our ministry and when there doesn’t seem to be enough we try to force it to grow. That always leads to sorrowful results. Trusting in God’s grace isn’t easy but it is the only way real change will occur.

    • Rick Ro. says

      Great story, Tokah. Thanks for that. There’s something in your message that fits with what I’ve been mulling on lately: that Jesus interacted with people without knowing whether or not they would ever understand and accept and believe. When he healed the ten lepers, he did so not knowing (or maybe “even knowing”) that only one would come back and show gratitude.

      Luke 17:15-19: Now one of them, when he saw that he had been healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice, and he fell on his face at His feet, giving thanks to Him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine—where are they? Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?” And He said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has made you well.”

      Anyway, I think the message is, “Help who you help without expectations or conditions.” (Easier said than done, certainly!)

      • Reminded me of a quote:

        “If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives: Be kind anyway.

        If you are successful you will win some false friends and true enemies: Succeed anyway.

        If you are honest and frank people will try to cheat you: Be honest anyway.

        What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight: Build anyway.

        If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous of you: Be happy anyway.

        The good you do today, will often be forgotten by tomorrow: Do good anyway.

        Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough: Give your best anyway.”
        ? Mother Teresa

    • Dana Ames says

      Thank you, Tokah.

      I pray every day for all the pastors and teachers who have helped me turn to God. I’m grateful even for the ones who bumbled, or went way beyond bumbling into manipulation, etc. It has taken a while for healing and understanding for some of them, but it has all been gift and has shown me a path where I found the Lord.


  7. “A pastor feels called to bring Jesus to people so that he can touch their lives and work faith, hope, and love in them.”

    You lost me right here. I’d like to meet such a pastor. I only ever seem to find them online.

  8. Rick Ro. says

    I don’t like the word “passivity” and wish he’d chosen a different one. The German people were passive when Hitler took power. Passivity leads to lukewarm-ness, to sitting by and watching bad things happen and doing nothing about them.

    That said, I do like his take on pastors “relaxing control” and “no more micromanaging.” And I like this, too: “Grace never tries to fix, but trusts God to do this. Grace listens.”

    • Christiane says

      ‘the German people’ . . .

      one fifth of our country’s population is of German descent . . . including my spouse whose father WAS German

      and we have examples of great Christian people among the German population in those days, and I think of Eric Bonhoeffer as a Lutheran saint AND martyr for Christ

      I suspect we all wonder at the phenomenon that took place in Germany under Hitler, and how it could be that the people supported such a monster, and I excuse none of what was done (I am an advocate for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum),
      but part of what comes to us out of that terrible time, is the lesson not to judge a whole people, as was done by the Nazi’s to the Jews . . .

      there are national characteristics, and some of them are better than others,
      but all human kind bears the wounds of the Fall and all mankind struggle with problems of morality and sin. At. least from the Nazi’s we can study what happens when hatred and prejudice towards a whole people is permitted to go unchallenged as people are taught to hate and to mark others as ‘less than’ themselves in worth and human dignity.

      If anything, the German people today are more alert to the dangers that took them down in Nazi times . . . they are more alert now than many of our own American citizens are who choose to vote for extreme candidates who foster homophobia, islamophobia, misogyny, and contempt for the poor and marginalized.

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