There are a significant number of stories in Scripture about possession which are hard to explain or relate to in a world that doesn't believe in either demons or possession. But that doesn't mean that such demons don't exist, or that possession isn't real.
Possession is very real - we try and possess people all the time, at one time we even made it legal! We speak unthinkingly of MY Husband, MY Wife, MY Children... But, if you really want to see a demon at work, you need look no further than at the sort of possession that ministers sometimes fall victim to... MY ministry, MY church, MY people. The harm that this can do is truly demonic ie divisive. ( The etymology of the Greek word for demon is from the verb daiesthai "to divide, distribute.")
I was asked this week if I was really able to take my sabbatical, to leave the Church in the care of others. Thankfully I believe that the answer is yes.. We have such well blessed Churches here that I genuinely have no fear or worries. The worship will be wonderful, the pastoral care second to none and the Churches will continue to grow in grace and holiness through this opportunity to explore ministry without me being there to tell people what to do.
I have seen the other side to this coin however.. I have seen a church divided and hurt by ministers who were so possessive that they simply could not let Your people go.
Ministerial possession really can divide and harm a Church. Whether through love, grace, guilt, insecurity or fear, ministers are the world's best at trying to 'own' the people that they are sent to share in the pastoral oversight of. They can get upset at the very idea that a member might prefer to be cared for by another minister, another Church, another preacher.. As though it is a competition, as though popularity is a valid measure of ministry... As though a minister has somehow failed if someone doesn't want the individual ministry being offered them.
Pastoral possession is ugly - and like all forms of possession it robs us of grace, love and reason.
Worse.. it works its mischief on the very people ministers are called to minister to. That same love, grace, guilt, insecurity or fear and sense of failure, begins to overshadow the pastoral relationship with the person needing care. Instead of being able to respond in grace to the pastoral need which provoked the possession, the minister takes on the role of the aggrieved one, the hurt and inconsolable one, in need of your love and support.. It's not that pastoral needs are neglected, but they often lack the fullest extent of the grace and love which would mark it as Christian.
This is in spite of the fact that time and time again, scripture teaches that your ministers are seldom popular - or loved when they are with your people. Look at Paul, or Timothy, Paul in particular wrestled with pastoral possession! But if ministers are true to their calling to follow you, then they will be ignored and slighted as well as loved and appreciated for their ministry. Ministry is both the best, and the worst calling that there is. Ministry is not about the ownership of souls but the cure of souls - an old odd expression, which means the nurture and care of souls through admonishment as well as teaching and sacrament. So Ministers are called to be offensive and challenging as well as supportive and comforting.
All of which means...
some of our members will like us and appreciate what we are trying to do
some never will.
Some of our members will always prefer the last minister they had.. even after we have left!
Of course this hurts because ministers care for the people they share in pastoral care for. One of the most amazing gifts of your grace has always been the bond that you establish between a people and those you send to minister to them in your name. But I have always found it a worthy hurt to offer back to you God, a token of my love.
Thankfully in Methodism we are encouraged to remember that no matter how many Churches are in a section, we never have sole pastoral responsibility, rather each minister is 'charged' to share in the pastoral care of your people with all of God's people. At local level we share with the pastoral committee and the stewards. At Circuit level we share with the circuit staff and Circuit officers, ditto for District level, and so on to Connexional level. The Connexion is an ecclesial expression of practical pastoral care. For Methodists, Pastoral care belongs to the priesthood of ALL believers, it is never one persons sole responsibility. Ministers might forget it sometimes, in their desire to serve your people well, but Church members seldom do.
They cure us of possession by reminding us - You call all of us to care - in your name.
And that's the glorious truth isn't it, the truth that sets us free to enjoy sabbaticals, to move stations, to minister to more than one congregation:
You didn't say to Peter 'Tend YOUR sheep, or feed YOUR lambs.. you made it perfectly clear - the sheep are not ours..
Tend my flock.. feed my sheep..
Your people are ours to love, feed and tend, not own.
Your people remain YOURS forever. (even when I'm on sabbatical!)
My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.
John 10: 27 & 28