‘The pastor as theological reader’, by Cynthia L. Rigby

Reading 2Last spring, one of the graduating M.Div. seniors at Austin Seminary asked us professors for a list of books he should read “sometime in his life.” A heartening request, but it got even better. In the last few months, John has made it clear that he does not understand “sometime” to mean an ever-receding future in which he will (he hopes) have the time to read. On the contrary, John seems to think that “sometime” began the day after graduation. Last week, in fact, I received an e-mail which revealed that John is on schedule to complete five classics—by à Kempis, Bonhoeffer, Dillard, H. R. Niebuhr, and Moltmann—by this December. Inspiring, isn’t it? But here’s the catch: he has not yet taken a call. Will he be able to keep on reading, once he becomes a pastor?

Pastors commonly lament that they aren’t able to keep up with the biblical languages. But in my conversations with pastors, frustration with keeping up with the theological literature is also conveyed. Frequent comments include: “There are just so many books out there—how do I know what to read?” “Why don’t theologians write shorter books? When I do have time to work through one, I feel like the author could have gotten to the main point a lot sooner,” and “Why don’t theologians ever write books for pastors?” My sense is that pastors yearn to participate in the wider theological conversation, but do not want to have to fight their way in. Any of us could generate a dozen ideas for how pastors can be helped with their theological reading. Seminaries could provide bibliographies—and, possibly, “book reports” on specific theological works—on-line. Pastors could form reading groups that meet weekly to discuss and encourage one another. Churches could include a weekly “reading day” in pastors’ job descriptions (try not to laugh).

Theology professors might help pastors strategize on how to read particular theologians, given their different emphases, styles, and contexts. For example, a professor might advise: (1) Be sure to keep a pocket dictionary of philosophical terms on your desk while reading Tillich; or (2) Don’t worry, when reading Barth, if your mind wanders, here and there. Let his words wash over you like a piece of music by Mozart . . . eventually, he’ll come back to whatever point you missed; or (3) Don’t immediately assume Gutiérrez is wrong, just because you don’t resonate with his argument. Allow him to let you “see” what theology looks like from a Latin American context.

While any of these strategies might be helpful in managing symptoms of the problem, I wonder if there is not also a need to address what underlies feelings of being overwhelmed, concerns about having too little time, and fears about wasting time on words that don’t have immediate application to the “real world” work of ministry. As helpful as “how-to” advice can be, I have come to believe that the fundamental problem pastors have with reading theology is not a dearth of information regarding what and how to read, but an absence of the conviction that the theological conversation is their conversation.

In the remainder of this brief essay I will propose four points for reflecting on “how to read a theology book” that focus less on the doing of the reading and more on our being as readers. Instead of pushing you to “just do it” (read theology), I reflect on what it means to “really be it” (a reader of theology). The theology of the Reformation, in contrast to our cultural wisdom, teaches us that we don’t create ourselves by doing. Nor does what we do (or not do) always reveal who we are, for we are sinful. Rather, what we do is to proceed from who we are: beloved children of God; brothers and sisters of Christ.

With this in mind, I suggest that the fundamental strategy for reading a theology book is to engage it as those who: remember who we are; revel in the richness of our inheritance; converse with our fellow heirs; and create with Christ as partners in the ministry of reconciliation. Let me explore the four facets of this strategy in greater detail.



Week after week, pastors remind members of their congregations of who they are. “You are children of God,” we tell them. “You are joined, at this Table, with Christians all around the world—from every time and place.”

But how do these affirmations come into play—practically speaking—when we pick up a theology book and steal an hour to read? If we think of reading theology as something we do outside of community, as a kind of hunting for provisions to bring “home” to our congregations, it is no wonder we’re frustrated when the hunt seems unsuccessful! In actuality, to spend an afternoon with a text like Calvin’s Institutes is not to close ourselves off from the community in order to “study.” Rather, it is to be intentional about creating a space to develop an intimate relationship with a fellow seeker of understanding, a crucial member of the community of faith. As we read, we hold in our hands a tangible link to brothers and sisters in Christ from “unseen generations.” Like the bread that joins us to those who partake in different times and places, so the theology book has a sacramental quality—participating in a reality larger than the sum of the meanings of the words inside.

I wonder if pastors neglect their theological reading because, on some level, they understand it to be in tension with their calling to be with people. If reading a theology book means leaving the community behind or sitting in the proverbial “ivory tower,” it’s no wonder that ministers—and their congregations—are hesitant to make it a priority. But what if we were convinced that to read theology was to sit in the midst of the community, inviting the saints separated from us by time and space to enter into the circle with us? When we read as rememberers of who we are in relationship to others, our communal life is enriched by the physically absent who are really made present.


WOULD LET ME READ! MY BOOKS!”—Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Theological books abound, it seems. Many pastors, like Browning, have inherited box after box of dusty old books. But how many of us have heard them beating under our pillows?

We might approach our theology books with dread, rather than joy-full anticipation, because we are afraid they might defeat us in our struggle to read. With no intention to “nibble here and there”—but only to succeed in our mission to conquer—we are back on the hunt. And who can fault us, in our competitive context, for setting our sights high? For wanting to master the material?

Recognizing that it is impossible to read every word of every book, students sometimes ask me to help them formulate an attack plan. Perhaps seminaries should offer courses in speed reading, some have suggested. That way, graduates would have some hope of keeping up once they leave seminary and take a church.

Drawn by Browning’s curious and playful spirit, I suggest that the “divide and conquer” approach to reading theology should be resisted. I wonder, instead, if “remembering” who we are as members of the Christian community can inspire us to approach our books with a spirit of revelry—knowing that the point isn’t to learn it all; loving how much theology there is; immersing ourselves in it. When we pick up a theology book, we might imagine ourselves sitting in a room full of the treasures that are our inheritance, basking in the wonder that we can’t begin to count how much there is. When we engage in our theological reading, we might envision ourselves encircled by colorful friends we can spend a lifetime getting to know. The goal of our reading, then, is not to master, control, or conquer, pleading for understanding whenever we haven’t done what we know we should do. Rather, it is to live into our identity as members of the body of Christ: to enter into relationship; to revel in the possibilities; to open ourselves up to the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us; to hear the pulse.



As rememberers who sit in the center of the circle and revel in the riches that surround us, one of our greatest joys is to enter into the conversation. To read theology books is not like entering a museum, where we might work our way around from display to display without feeling the need to announce our presence or opinions. On the contrary, if reading a theology book is about developing a relationship with a brother or sister in Christ, our active participation is required and desired. When we read a theology book, we are being called upon to make a thoughtful contribution to the circle itself.

Eager to engage the circle of witnesses who surround us, we should avoid reading theology books Siskel-and-Ebert style. The “thinking” which Locke advocates would shrivel from self-centered declarations about whether we agree or disagree with the author, or whether the book “works” for us. To offer a simple “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” in response to our theological reading is, again, to fall into a “hunt and conquer” rather than a “remember and revel” mentality.

Remembering who we are in relation to the authors of the theology books who surround us, we make theological ideas our own in the context of conversation. “Talking with” our theology books, then, requires committed attempts to understand what the other is saying, even when we disagree. It involves asking questions (OK . . . a bit difficult to do when you are reading a book and not talking to a “live” person . . . but try writing them in the margins and see if the author addresses them later). It respects the other enough to argue, rather than conveniently dismissing.

As we think about what we are reading, conversing with the witnesses who surround us, we will find that we are being shaped and molded in our Christian convictions. We begin, then, to read theology not only with the hope that we will find ideas for our next sermon or lecture series, but with the expectation that we will, indeed, be changed.



We read theology as creatures called to participate in God’s work of creation; as partners in the ministry of reconciliation and as ministers charged to tend the sheep of God.

But the charge to join in God’s ongoing creative work comes with a reminder: We are creators not as God is Creator, for we create only as creatures. Our creative ministerial acts flow not from omnipotence or a never-ending store of Wisdom, but from the reality of our own ongoing creation. The replenishing of our resources that we seek when reading theology will not translate into effective ministry unless we ourselves are replenished. For theology books to get our creative theological juices flowing, we have to be created by them. And if we ask the reasonable question—how can we be created by a mere book?—it’s time to go back to remembering. Theology books are not only books, but vehicles through which we enter into relationship with the communion of saints. Theology books are not to be attacked, and finished, and evaluated, but participated in, and conversed with, and nibbled again and again.

When we read theology in this way, our reading becomes less a matter of “something I work into my schedule because it’s important” and more a reflection of who we are. Reading theology doesn’t make us theologians; we read theology because we are theologians. As those who are called to speak words about God, how can we do otherwise than remember our relationship to the saints, revel in our inheritance, converse openly with one another, and create out of our ongoing re-creation in Christ? However we go about the logistics of our reading, let us seek to live into the truth that theology books are God’s open-ended invitation to join in communion.

‘The Minister’ by Anne Stevenson


We’re going to need the minister
to help this heavy body into the ground.

But he won’t dig the hole;
others who are stronger and weaker will have to do that.
And he won’t wipe his nose and his eyes;
others who are weaker and stronger will have to do that.
And he won’t bake cakes or take care of the kids –
women’s work. Anyway,
what would they do at a time like this
if they didn’t do that?

No, we’ll get the minister to come
and take care of the words.

He doesn’t have to make them up,
he doesn’t have to say them well,
he doesn’t have to like them
so long as they agree to obey him.
We have to have the minister
so the words will know where to go.

Imagine them circling and circling
the confusing cemetery.
Imagine them roving the earth
without anywhere to rest.

– Anne Stevenson, ‘The Minister’, in The Collected Poems 1955–1995 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 62.

Some stuff on the stove


Shouldn’t Baptist churches retrieve the practice of venerating the saints, that is, engaging in corporate worship acts designed not to worship the saints, but to remember, honor, learn from, and celebrate saints from our Baptist family and from other Christian communions? Until we regularly include commemoration of the saints in our worship celebrations, we will continue to neglect the opportunity to give proper value to those from our past who have borne courageous witness to faithful discipleship. Commemorative acts done in our Sunday morning services would provide a suitable accompaniment for the tradition some have already developed as part of their Vacation Bible School program, in which stories are told of great spiritual leaders worthy of emulation … [HT: Steven Harmon]

[Image: from Old Picture of the Day]

Review: Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving

Bob Burns, Tasha D. Guthrie and Donald C. Guthrie, Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told us about Surviving and Thriving (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2013). ISBN: 978-0-8308-4103-5; 312pp.

A guest-review by Kevin Ward.

This is a book which every person working as a minister of the gospel would benefit from reading – indeed, more than reading, but also reflecting on and, in light of that, making changes to how they live and work. We are all aware that many of those who enter ministry in response to what they perceive as a life time calling drop out within a relatively short period of time. Precious few of those I trained with nearly four decades ago are still in church ministry. What kills them off is not what goes into sermons or worship services but, as the authors of this book point out, matters of life skills, behaviour patterns and character. This book not only identifies the core issues but also makes suggestions of what needs to change and how to action that.

Rather than just building on anecdotal evidence or personal experience, the book is based on solid scientific research. The team created three pastoral peer groups or cohorts (who were primarily Presbyterian) who met three times a year for two years. They were interviewed to identify the ministry issues they wanted to discuss. They then read books on those subjects, listened to experts who were brought in and then discussed the issues in their groups. The discussions were recorded, transcribed and analysed.

From the transcripts, the researchers identified five themes that they believe are keys to sustaining pastoral excellence. These were:

1. Spiritual formation. Ministers can be so busy in the multiple tasks of ministry that they neglect their own spiritual wellbeing, the source from which ministry flows. They need to internalise the spiritual rhythms of reflection, worship, sabbath and prayer.

2. Self-care. The ongoing development of the whole person: physical, mental, emotional, relational. This involves a range of practical issues including identifying allies and confidants, establishing an exercise routine, planning intellectual development and holidays and creating and keeping good boundaries.

3. Emotional and cultural intelligence. These are related to being aware of oneself and also attentive to and aware of other people, places and social dynamics. Much has been written recently about the importance of emotional intelligence in leadership but the awareness of cultural intelligence, crucial in our increasingly diverse world, is only just emerging.

4. Marriage and family. Unlike many jobs ministers are never really ‘off the clock’, and so the demands of ministry can constantly intrude on marriage and family time. It is, then, critical to be intentional about giving focussed uninterrupted time to spouse and children. The significance of the contribution of the spouse to a minister’s resilience in ministry came through again and again.

5. Leadership and management. I found these chapters full of good insight and found helpful the way they talked about these as the ‘poetic’ and the ‘plumbing’ side of leadership, both of which are essential to good and resilient ministry. The management side can be found addressed in many books but the poetic side of leadership is much more intuitive and harder to explain and there are some helpful concepts here.

As well as having lots of good information the book has questions for personal evaluation and reflection throughout, as well as suggestions for further reading and exploring through media. This is an area I have taught in for the past 15 years or so, and this book is as a helpful as any I have come across. It is both informed and practical. As well as its personal use for ministers, it would be ideal for a group of ministers to read and discuss together and perhaps also to work through with the lay leadership in their church. I certainly intend using it as an important text for my students.

[Those interested in reading more on this topic might like to check out Jason's series On the Cost and Grace of Parish Ministry]

October stations …



Link love

Leunig love

Leunig-iPad-The Lost Art

Leunig - Words for mystery

[Source: The Age]

Orders of Service for a Tangihanga and an Unveiling: A resource manual for worship leaders

Te Paepae Tapu o Te Maungarongo ki Ohope

The Rev Wayne Te Kaawa, the Moderator of Te Aka Puaho (the Māori Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand) has helpfully produced a bilingual Māori and English resource for ministers and worship leaders who may need resources to aid them with a tangi, funeral and unveiling. It can be downloaded here.

Sally Lloyd-Jones and Sam Shammas, The Jesus Storybook Bible Curriculum Kit – a review

JSBBSally Lloyd-Jones and Sam Shammas, The Jesus Storybook Bible Curriculum Kit (Grand Rapids: Zondervan; 2012) – a review

A guest post by Judy Goroncy (the great)

Over the past two terms, our church’s Sunday School has been using The Jesus Storybook Bible Curriculum, the focus of which is to teach ‘the Story beneath all the stories in the bible’. As the product description has it:

There are lots of stories in the Bible, but all the stories together tell one Big Story: The Story of how God loves his children and comes to rescue them. It takes the whole Bible to tell this Story. And at the centre of the Story, there is a baby.

The Jesus Storybook Bible (JSBB) includes 21 stories from the Old Testament, and 23 from the New Testament. Each week’s accompanying lesson is based on one of the stories and follows a similar structure ­– a time to recap previous stories, a relevant activity, the story time (which can be presented by either the teacher, or with the use of the accompanying DVD/CD), unpacking the story (technically called exegesis), reflection on Jesus’s location in the story, prayer, learning the memory verse, and completion of a hand-out. One of the real strengths and blessings of the programme is that it is concerned at every point to teach the great Story of the Bible rather than focus attention on presenting a series of seemingly unrelated ancient religious stories that remain largely unconnected to their principle purpose. Every part of the JSBB, in other words, is concerned to bear witness to the One who is God’s principal revelation; namely, Jesus. ‘Every story in the Bible whispers his name’.

We have found the programme to be geared more towards children aged 4–7. However, those aged 2–10 seemed to all benefit from and enjoy it too. Accounting for holidays and other ‘interruptions’, the curriculum takes about a year-and-a-half to work through. The lessons are easy to prepare, are clearly set out, and come with various helpful media aids. Because the lessons are presented chronologically, connections can be made between the stories and so enable children – and their teachers too – to build on what they have learnt in previous weeks. Hand-outs provide not only an opportunity for children to revisit the teaching and memory verses, but also assist and encourage parents/caregivers to be aware of what the kids are learning at Sunday School, and so encourage further discussions about the Story beyond the Sunday morning.

Despite there being so much focus on the Bible, learning memory verses, learning books of the Bible, etc., we have felt it imperative that the children look up the verses in their own Bible (a real one and not the JSBB). While this component is not specified in the curriculum, we believe that it is vital that the children have an understanding that all the stories come from the ‘actual’ Bible and that they become familiar with and are able to look up books, chapters and verses in their own Bible.

As we draw near to the end of the Old Testament section, the children are enjoying opportunities to present what they have learnt to the rest of the congregation, typically through the Sunday morning service. They present an overview of the key events and people in the Old Testament in the form of drama, bible readings, memory verses and song, using all to bear witness to God’s Great Rescue Plan in Jesus.

I cannot recommend this curriculum highly enough. Too often, our children’s programmes are so geared at entertainment, or are so diluted of content, that the true message of what Christ has done is lost. This programme takes seriously God’s love, our sin, and that we need Jesus, our Saviour, to redeem us and our lost world.

‘Ministry As Difficult As It Ought to Be’, by Will Willimon

weeping jesusWill Willimon’s latest piece, a version of an article previously-published in The Christian Century, is well worth the read. It’s entitled ‘Ministry As Difficult As It Ought to Be’, and I thought it worth reproducing here. Willimon’s words speak powerfully to pastors, to theological educators, to church committees set up to discern/assess calls about future pastors, and more:

“See our big buildings?” asked the Medical School Dean as he swept his hand across the panorama of the Duke Medical Center.  “Their purpose is production of a handful of doctors who can be trusted to be alone with a naked patient.  Takes us four years.”

I repositioned the Dean so that he faced the less impressive neogothic Divinity School.  “That’s where we teach our seminarians to be in awkward situations with naked, vulnerable parishioners.  It only takes us three years.”

After two quadrennia as a church bureaucrat, slogging in the muck and mire of ecclesiastical trenches — sending pastors to remote, unappealing locations where Jesus insists on working — I’m again teaching in that amazing countercultural phenomenon called a seminary.

I was honored to serve with eight hundred fellow clergy who risked United Methodism in Alabama, though I leave behind a subpoena and three law suits; don’t tell Governor Bentley that I’ve now fled the state.

Being bishop gave me a front row seat to observe ministry in the Protestant mainline that is being rapidly sidelined.  Pastoral leadership of a mainline congregation is no picnic.  My admiration is unbounded for clergy who persist in proclaiming the gospel in the face of the resistance that the world throws at them.  Now, as a seminary professor, I’m eager to do my bit in the classroom to prepare new clergy for the most demanding of vocations.

Consumer Corrupted Clergy

From what I saw, too many contemporary clergy limit themselves to ministries of congregational care-giving – soothing the fears of the anxiously affluent.  One of my pastors led a self-study of her congregation.  Eighty percent responded that their chief expectation of their pastor was, “Care for me and my family.”

I left seminary in the heady Sixties, eager to be on the front line in the struggle for a renaissance of the church as countercultural work of God.  By a happy confluence of events, the church was again being given the opportunity to be salt and light to the world rather than sweet syrup to enable the world’s solutions to go down easier.

Four decades later as bishop I saw too many of my fellow clergy allow congregational-caregiving and maintenance to trump other more important acts of ministry like truth-telling and mission leadership.  Lacking the theological resources to resist the relentless cloying of self-centered congregations, these tired pastors breathlessly dashed about offering their parishioners undisciplined compassion rather than sharp biblical truth.

North American parishes are in a bad neighborhood for care-giving.  Most of our people (at least those we are willing to include in mainline churches) solve biblically legitimate need (food, clothing, housing) with their check books.  Now, in the little free time they have for religion, they seek a purpose-driven life, deeper spirituality, reason to get out of bed in the morning, or inner well-being – matters of unconcern to Jesus.  In this narcissistic environment, the gospel is presented as a technique, a vaguely spiritual response to free-floating, ill-defined omnivorous human desire.

A consumptive society perverts the church’s ministry into another commodity which the clergy dole out to self-centered consumers who enlist us in their attempt to cure their emptiness.  Exclusively therapeutic ministry is the result.  I saw fatigue and depression among many clergy whom I served as bishop.  Debilitation is predictable for a cleros with no higher purpose for ministry than servitude to the voracious personal needs of the laos. 

The 12 million dollar Duke Clergy Health study implies that our biggest challenge is to drop a few pounds and take a day off.  If you can’t be faithful, be healthy and happy.  I believe that our toughest task is to love the Truth who is Jesus Christ more than we love our people who are so skillful in conning us into their idolatries.

Seminaries, Wake Up

Yet I must say that by comparison, the poor old demoralized mainline church, for all its faults, is a good deal more self-critical and boldly innovative than the seminary.  Our most effective clergy are finding creative ways to critique the practice of ministry, to start new communities of faith, to reach out to underserved and unwelcomed constituencies, and to engage the laity in something more important than themselves.  Alas, seminaries have changed less in the past one hundred years than the worship, preaching, and life of vibrant congregations have changed in the last two decades.

As bishop I served as chair of our denomination’s Theological Schools Commission. Most of our seminaries are clueless, or at least unresponsive, to the huge transformation that is sweeping through mainline Protestantism.  We have so many seminaries for one reason: the church has given seminaries a monopoly on training our clergy with no accountability for the clergy they produce.  Increasing numbers of our most vital congregations say that seminary fails to give them the leadership they now require.  Oblivious to our current crisis, seminaries continue to produce pastors for congregational care-giving and institutional preservation.   The result is another generation of pastors who know only how to be chaplains for the status quo and managers of decline rather than leaders of a movement in transformational faith.  As a fellow bishop said, “Seminaries are still cranking out pastors to serve healthy congregations, giving us new pastors who are ill equipped to serve two-thirds of my churches.”

In just a decade, United Methodists, various Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians will have half of our strength and resources – judgment upon our unfaithful limitation of ministry to a demographic (mine) that is rapidly exiting.  After decades of study, finger-pointing and blaming, we now know that a major factor in our rapid decline is our unwillingness to go where the people are and to plant new churches.  Yet few traditionalist mainline seminaries teach future pastors how to start new communities of faith.

My new pastors repeatedly told me: “We got out of seminary with lots of good ideas but without the ability to lead people from here to there.”  “I’ve learned enough to know that something is bad wrong with the current church but I don’t know where to begin to fix it.”  Seminaries produce clergy rich in ideas but impoverished in agency, well-intentioned in care giving but deficient in leadership.

After interviewing a dozen seminarians at one of our prestigious seminaries, I asked my District Superintendents, “How many interviewees could be helpful in the work that we believe God has assigned us in Alabama?”

They identified two of the twelve.  “Seminaries are run by professors whose life goal is acquisition of academic tenure,” said one DS.  “Why ask the seminary to give us innovators who take risks and hold people accountable for their discipleship?”

We found that too many of our pastors want to be John on Patmos, dreaming dreams and seeing visions, when what we badly need is Paul in Corinth, doing the tough, persistent, measureable work required to initiate new communities of faith.  If that much touted moniker “servant leader” means anything, it means someone who is willing to submit to what the institution now needs doing for the common good in this time and place.  Mainline churches who want to be part of God’s future need leadership by impatient instigators rather than patient caretakers for the ecclesial status quo.

Our Board of Ordained ministry habitually asked candidates unrevealing questions like, “What are your gifts and graces for ministry?”

Surprise, the would-be pastors were incredibly gifted.

I got the Board to ask behavioral questions like, “When is the last time you started a ministry?”  “Tell us about your most recent failure in the church.  What did you learn?”  No ventures, no leadership; no failures, no initiatives.

Don’t dismiss my criticism of seminaries as due to anxiety about a dying institution.  Though anxiety is an appropriate response to death, my impetus for concern is Christological.  Scripture renders a living agent on the move. “God never rests!” thunders Barth.  The Lord of the church means to reign over a far more expansive realm than the church.  Nothing in the message or work of Christ justifies a settled, parochial, sedate, care-giving style of ministry that comforts one generation (the average Methodist is 59), cares for aging real estate, and ceases all efforts to get the news to a violent, despairing world that, in Jesus Christ, God is decisively doing something about what’s wrong with the world.

So in this semester’s The Local Church in Mission class rather than have students write a paper on their theology of mission, I’m having them attempt to start up some mission in a church context.  Then they are to tell me what they have learned about the leadership skills they need to obtain if they are to be a pastor in a North American church that finds itself in a missionary situation.

One of my pastors succeeded in planting a congregation in a marginalized, primarily Spanish-speaking community (where we have closed three churches in the past ten years).  I spent a day with her, primarily to urge her to go back to school and finish her seminary education.  During the course of the day she told me that in her previous life she had started three restaurants.  Two failed, one finally succeeded.  I not only understood why God had used her so effectively in this church start but also why I ought to put her in charge of our new church development rather than send her to seminary.

Seminaries have got to find ways to listen to the church’s cry for bold, transformative clergy leaders to serve the church in the present hour or seminaries face a bleak prospectus.

Theological Refurbishment

Seminaries must remember that the most interesting thing about clergy is not that we have acquired savvy management skills or have been given esoteric knowledge that is unavailable to the lowly baptized.  The One who calls and makes clergy, the One who is in ministry and mission rocking the world (whether we are or not) is ultimately the only good reason to be a pastor.  Leadership in the name of Jesus is inherently energetic, transformative leadership that challenges and enables Christians to participate in the ever-expanding Realm of God.  Pastors have the privilege of expending our lives for someone more important than ourselves or our congregations.  We get to serve a people on the move because they are in the grip of a God who refuses to be God alone and leave us to our own devices.

After my prattling about how the sixth century prophets inform our work as pastors, a surly seminarian piped up, “So Jesus explains how you got to be pastor of a large church and a bishop?”  Being a seminary professor is more difficult than it looks.

As I look out upon the students in my Intro to Christian Ministry class, I hear Jesus say, “Hey, I’m doing my part to give your church a future.  I’m giving you all the resources you need to be faithful.”

Then I hear Jesus sneer, “Would you people at Duke try not to bore to death those whom I’ve summoned to give your church a future?”

I agonized with a pastor about what he could do to stop his congregation from self-destruction.  Had he tried a consultant? Yes.  Had he secured a crisis counselor?  Yes.

“I keep thinking that maybe our disintegration is not something I did or didn’t do,” the pastor said, “or even due to our bad history.  I wonder if our demise is caused by Jesus.”


“Maybe Jesus has used our way of being church as much as he intends. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is moving somewhere else?  Only Jesus can birth a church; maybe he’s the only one who’s got a right to kill it.”

How willing are we clergy to risk service to such a demanding Savior?
Seminary’s grand goal?  Theological education makes ministry in the name of Jesus Christ as difficult as it ought to be.  In sending each new wave of pastors, seminaries have the opportunity to theologically regenerate the church, giving the church and its pastoral leaders some canon of measurement greater than institutional health or cultural relevance.  Seminarians come to us more adept at construal of their world through a-theistic categories, most of them purloined from the reigning social sciences, than theological canons.  Our job is to train the church’s leaders in a rigorously theological refurbishment of the church.

Training people to minister in the name of Jesus is a huge challenge — because of Jesus.  His vision of a new, reborn humanity, the extravagant reach of his realm, the constant outward, Trinitarian momentum, the command not only to belief the faith but also to enact and embody the faith, Christ’s revelation of the God whom we did not expect, Christ’s determination to save sinners, only sinners, all make leadership in Jesus’ name a daunting task.

I received a heated email from a long-time member of one of my churches complaining that during the Sunday service the pastor had prayed for the salvation of Osama bin Laden.  “We don’t pay a preacher to pull a stunt like that,” whined the lay leader.

I called the pastor, explaining to him that his behavior was difficult for the laity to handle, asking him if he had used good judgment to pray such a thing during our national crisis.

With distinct annoyance the pastor replied, “Just for your information bishop, I happen to believe that the Jew who said, ‘Pray for your enemies and bless those who persecute you,’ is the Son of God.”

In my courses I face a two-fold challenge: responsibility to hand over what we’ve learned in two thousand years of leading in the name of Jesus, indoctrinating a new generation of pastors into the God-given wisdom of the church and taunting would-be pastoral leaders to step up and help the church think, pray, and act our way out of our present malaise.

“Here kid, watch me now,” I say in my classes, “here’s the way my generation tried to serve the church and its mission.  Now, here’s my list of failures and disappointments.  God has sent you to overcome my generation’s limitations in doing church.  Go for it!”

In spite of my best intentions, my classes in ministry sometimes degenerate into techniques for success, managerial tips and tricks, and irresistible, knock down arguments for effective ministry; atheism that ministers as if God doesn’t matter.

Still, my students keep calling me back to the theological wonders that convene us, another benefit of working almost exclusively among those who outrageously believe that they have been summoned, commandeered, called by God to leadership in the Body of Christ.  Whatever God wants to do with the world, God has decided to do it with them.

The paradigmatic story of their enlistment is Exodus 3, the call of Moses.  (We made our entering students read Gregory’s Life of Moses to prepare them for Duke Divinity.)  When summoned to leadership, Moses asks, “Who are you that you should send me?”

Moses cannot represent a deity without knowing the peculiar identity of the God who sends him against the empire.  Nor can we.  The best work we do in the seminary classroom is investigation and reiteration of the identity of the Triune God who, in every time and place, summons the people required to help the church to be faithful, giving them the grace needed to keep ministry as difficult as God needs it to be.

I begin my class by asking students to describe, in less than five pages, how they got to seminary, “My Call to Christian Leadership.”  Reading those papers is a faith-engendering experience.  People jerked out of secure positions in perfectly good professions, bright young things commandeered and shoved into a very different life trajectory, a nurse to whom Jesus personally appeared on a patio.  All I could say, when I finished reading those papers was, “Wow. Jesus is more interesting (and dangerous) than even I knew.”

The Hobbit(s) and the call to ministry

On Mondays, Wednesdays and the occasional Saturday evening, ministers are a little bit like hobbits. As a result of his encounter with the ‘fierce and jealous love’ of the dwarves, Bilbo Baggins, we are told, ‘got up trembling’:

He had less than half a mind to fetch the lamp, and more than half a mind to pretend to, and go and hide behind the beer barrels in the cellar, and not come out again until all the dwarves had gone away. Suddenly he found that the music and the singing had stopped, and they were all looking at him with eyes shining in the dark.

For some of us, that’s how the call to train for pastoral ministry happens – where love and joy lead to confusion and timidity which in turn lead to the cessation of music and to finding oneself in the spotlight examined carefully by probing ‘eyes shining in the dark’.

When our assumptions are challenged, when our faith is stirred, when things once familiar become the new unknown, when we find ourselves travelling ‘too near the mountains’ in unguarded territory seldom traversed by ecclesial wayfarers, and when all we have in our kit are ‘old maps’ which are of ‘no use’ in this new terrain, it may be that at that point we have begun, like Abraham and Sarah and Mr Baggins, on a quest that will leave us and the future different.

Colourful and noisy and undersized hobbits enter the quest, as Tolkien reminds us in his ‘Notes on W. H. Auden’s review of The Return of the King’, not to preserve ‘this or that polity, such as the half republic half aristocracy of the Shire’, but rather to engage in ‘liberation from … evil tyranny’. Such words serve as a reminder of our calling too, that the people of God are not called to preserve that familiar life that they had known in the Shire but rather to imagine a future in which all of life’s enemies have been overcome, and to direct all their efforts towards that end. Along the way, they not only lose their reputation, but they also carry unanswered questions, all the while knowing that there can be no going back. Nor, as Bilbo was to discover, can there be anything to be gained by going sideways. And it is precisely in both the refusal to abandon questions and the determination to move forward nonetheless that Bilbo and his company of friends discover that prudence is not about worldly cleverness but is rather about uncomplicated minds and wills conformed to a life of virtue, of boundless mercy, and of unbending devotion to the destruction of that which would undo their very being. It is to this end, we hope, that the church’s hobbits will direct their efforts.

And along the way, may they learn from Galdalf and Aragorn and their other companions that

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost,
From the ashes afire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken:
The crownless again shall be king.

Towards a Modest and Messy Manifesto for Pastors: a draft

In just over a week, the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership will be welcoming a new group of ministry interns. This is often nearly as exciting as it is sad to say goodbye to those ones who are completing their studies with us. In addition to writing some new lectures, I’ve also been thinking about putting together a wee list of items of counsel for new (and old) ministers to consider and discuss. Of course, such a list could be endless, or radically brief. But here are 54 little tidbits that I came up with/stole today:

  1. Remember your baptism. Creep back into the font regularly.
  2. ‘Let nothing be done by force; let everything be done in freedom and love’.[1]
  3. Do not neglect the gift of prayer. Pray especially when you don’t have time to pray, when prayer makes the least sense, and when God’s aliveness seems the least likely version of reality.
  4. Read Scripture devotionally. Immerse your mind, your heart, your wallet, your time and your conscience in Scripture. This means reading the Bible for your sake, and not merely in order to mine passages that can be ‘used’ for some purpose other than hearing the Word of God for yourself. To read devotionally also entails a commitment to letting Scripture read you.
  5. Read Scripture in a scholarly way. Commit yourself to the disciplined study of Scripture, preferably in the original languages. Pastoral ministry is about three things: Exegesis, exegesis and exegesis. ‘Plow [Scripture] like a farmer, furrow after furrow’ (Eduard Thurneysen).
  6. Read newspapers in a scholarly way. Commit yourself to disciplined study of the newspaper. Pastoral ministry is about three things: Exegesis, exegesis and exegesis.
  7. Immerse yourself in the thought and writings of 2–3 significant thinkers for the next 20 years or more. Let them teach you, pastor you, advise you in various pastoral situations. Argue with them heaps, and learn from them.
  8. Always have (at least) one serious theological book on the go. Something like Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov or St Basil’s treatise On the Holy Spirit are worthy options.
  9. Regularly read paragraphs from P.T. Forsyth’s Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind and The Soul of Prayer, from Karl Barth’s The Word of God and the Word of Man, from Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, and from Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.
  10. Always have (at least) one novel or collection of poetry on the go, and read from it daily. Not only will this increase your chances of avoiding insanity, but it will make you a better theologian, pastor and preacher. Like sore thumbs and monotonous crickets are those untrustworthy and boring souls who don’t read novels and/or poetry.[2]
  11. Whatever the situation, always begin by asking the ‘Who’ question; i.e., ‘Who is Jesus Christ today, here and now?’[3] There may well come a time when you feel that the ‘Why’ and ‘How’ questions matter too, but they can wait their proper turn.
  12. In every situation, recall that humanity has been given one Great High Priest and that such a person is not you. Christian ministry has no justification or power or acceptance except that it be a participation, by the Spirit, in the vicarious humanity of the Son who, as the second (or last) Adam, leads creation and its priests into the worship and joy of the Father and into the service of the Father’s world.[4]
  13. In every situation, remember that every believer – and not just those with dog-collars (or their ‘secular’ equivalents) – receives from God all of the Great High Priest’s benefits and shares in what he is doing now.
  14. Every now and then, read 1 Peter 4 and, more than every now and then, 2 Corinthians.
  15. Learn to trust the people close to you.
  16. Learn to be suspicious of the people close to you.
  17. ‘Many people will want to give you advice. Mostly this says more about them than about you’ (Mary-Jane Konings).
  18. Hang out regularly – and informally – with a more seasoned minister. When you meet, beer and pizza should be the only additional default items.
  19. Hang out regularly – and informally – with peers. When you meet, beer and pizza – or beer and good Indian food – should be the only additional default items.
  20. Hang out regularly – and informally – with those you can mentor. When you meet, beer and pizza – or just beer – should be the only additional default item(s).
  21. Keep a whiteboard marker in the shower for those moments of inspiration.
  22. Despise and avoid romantic visions of Christian community. So Bonhoeffer: ‘God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own laws, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself. Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by his call, by his forgiveness, and his promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what he does give us daily. And is not what has been given us enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of his grace? Is the divine gift of Christian fellowship anything less than this, any day, even the most difficult and distressing day? Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Christ Jesus? Thus, the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by the one Word and Deed which really binds us together – the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship’.[5]
  23. Give thanks often and don’t complain about your church, not even to God: ‘If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ. This applies in a special way to the complaints often heard from pastors and zealous members about their congregations. A pastor should not complain about his congregations, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men. When a person becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him into this predicament. But if not, let him nevertheless guard against ever becoming an accuser of the congregation before God. Let him rather accuse himself for his unbelief. Let him pray to God for understanding of his own failure and his particular sin, and pray that he may not wrong his brethren. Let him, in the consciousness of his own guilt, make intercession for his brethren. Let him do what he is committed to do, and thank God … What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God. Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature’.[6]
  24. ‘Your church is not a reflection of you. It’s success doesn’t make you great; it’s failures don’t make you one. It’s really not about you’ (Carolyn Francis).
  25. Retain a private phone number, and that if for no other reason than that your partner and kids will be grateful.
  26. Remember that God has been calling people do to this impossible stuff for long before you came on the scene, and that you’re dreadfully unlikely to be the last.
  27. Don’t seek honour and don’t give a toss about who is the greatest (see Luke 9.46). As Bonhoeffer put it, ‘The desire for one’s own honor hinders faith. One who seeks his own honor is no longer seeking God and his neighbour … Every cult of personality that emphasizes the distinguished qualities, virtues, and talents of another person … is worldly and has no place in the Christian community; indeed, it poisons the Christian community … The Church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus … The root of all sin is pride’.[7] Or, as Jesus put it, ‘change and become like little children’ (Matt 18.3).
  28. Fish, or garden, or tramp, or climb trees, or keep bees, or just do something that reminds you that you and this earth belong together, that you are made of dust, and to dust you will return. There is, we are reminded, ‘no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman’.[8]
  29. Learn a musical instrument, or paint, or cook. Human vocation involves undoing the curse of tastelessness and boringness that exists within creation, of adding value to creation itself, and of bearing witness to the wonderful truth that in the end all is music.
  30. Avoid ecclesiocentricity. The end game, after all, is not the church but the new creation. Consequently, those whose entire identity is wrapped up in churchly matters are not only living a lie but are failing to bear witness to the true nature of reality.
  31. Avoid ecclesioisolation: ‘Let him [or her] who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him [or her] who is not in community beware of being alone’.[9]
  32. Cultivate the gifts of friendship. This is a biggie, and its neglect is the cause of much pain in the minister, of much scandal in the church, and of much lying in the world.
  33. Start to seriously worry if you never change your mind about important things.
  34. Anticipate being surprised about God’s location and shape: ‘I can never know beforehand how God’s image should appear in others’.[10]
  35. While we’re speaking of anticipations, if you anticipate wanting something changed at the manse, or in the proposed ‘job description’ (Is there anything more ugly or category-confusing for a minister to have to contend with than one of these awfully-heretical documents?), agree on it early and be done with it.
  36. Because there is an inevitable unfinishedness about the routines of ministry, many ministers find it helpful to ‘pursue a hobby where you can complete projects regularly’ (Mary-Jane Konings).
  37. Minister out of your love life with God. Better still, minister out of God’s love life with you.
  38. Love the people that God has entrusted to your care. Live in solidarity with them, rejoice with them, cry with them and, if called upon, die for them. This includes your own family.
  39. For those with partners, never underestimate the gift that your partner’s eyes (and those of your kids too) are for noticing things within and outwith you that you need to know.
  40. At home, keep a strong-handled basket somewhere handy into which you can throw things during the week that you need to take to church on Sunday, and bring home things (like books that you’ll never read but someone thinks you should) that others give you. When at church, keep this basket on the front pew and make it known that this is what it is for.
  41. Develop ways of learning to speak the local lingo. ‘Laity sometimes complain that their young pastor, in sermons, uses “religious” words like “spiritual practice,” “liberation,” “empowerment,” “intentional community” … that no one understands and no one recalls having heard in Scripture. Such “preacher talk” makes the pastor seem detached, alien, and aloof from the people and hinders leadership’. (William Willimon)
  42. ‘At the same time, prepare yourself to become a teacher of the church’s peculiar speech to a people who may have forgotten how to use it. This may seem contrary to [the previous] suggestion. My friend, Stanley Hauerwas, says that the best preparation for being a pastor today is previously to have taught high school French. The skills required to drill French verbs into the heads of adolescents are the skills that pastors need to teach our people how to speak the gospel. Trouble is, most seminarians are more skilled, upon graduation from school, to be able to describe the world anthropologically than theologically. They have learned to use the language of Marxist analysis or feminist criticism better than the language of Zion. We must be persons who lovingly cultivate and actively use the church’s peculiar speech’. (William Willimon)
  43. ‘Keep telling yourself that the difference in thought between the laity in your first parish and that of your friends back in seminary is not so much the difference between ignorance and intelligence; it’s just different ways of thinking that arise out of life in different worlds. I recommend reading novels (Flannery O’Connor saved me in my first parish by writing true stories that sounded like they were written by one of my parishioners) in order to appreciate the thought and the speech of people who, while having never been initiated into the narrow confines of the world of theological education, are thinking deeply’. (William Willimon)
  44. ‘Remind yourself that while the seminary has an important role to play in the life of the church, it is the seminary that must be accountable to the church, not vice versa. It is my prejudice that, if you have difficulty making the transition from seminary to parish it is probably a criticism of the seminary. The Christian faith is to be studied and critically examined only for the purpose of its embodiment. Christians are those who are to become that which we profess. The purpose of theological discernment is not to devise something that is interesting to say to the modern world but rather to rock the modern world with the church’s demonstration that Jesus Christ is Lord and all other little lordlets are not’. (William Willimon)
  45. ‘Be open to the possibility that the matters that were focused upon in the course of the seminary curriculum, the questions raised and the arguments engaged, might be a distraction from the true, historic mission and purpose of the church and its ministry’. (William Willimon)
  46. ‘On the other hand, be open to the possibility that the church has a tendency to bed down with mediocrity, to accept the mere status quo as the norm, and to let itself off the theological hook too easily. One reason why the church needs theology explored and taught in its seminaries is that theology (at its best) keeps making Christian discipleship as hard as it ought to be. Theology keeps guard over the church’s peculiar speech and the church’s distinctive mission. Something there is within any accommodated, compromised church (and aren’t they all, in one way or another?) that needs to reassure itself, “All that academic, intellectual, theological stuff is bunk and is irrelevant to the way the church really is.” The way the church “really is” is faithless, mistaken, cowardly, and compromised. It’s sad that it is up to seminaries to offer some of the most trenchant and interesting critiques of the church. Criticism of the church ought to be part of the ongoing mission of a faithful church that takes Jesus more seriously and itself a little less so’. (William Willimon)
  47. ‘Your life would be infinitely easier and less complicated if God had called you to be an accountant or a seminary professor. Most of the stuff that you read in seminary will only prepare you really to grow and to develop after you leave seminary. Think of your tough transition into the parish as the beginning, not the end, of your adventure into real growth as a minister. Theology tends to be wasted on the young. It’s only when you run into a complete dead end in the parish, when you are aging and tired and fed up with the people of God (and maybe even God too) that you need to know where to go to have a good conversation with some saint in order to make it through the night. Believe it or not, it’s much easier to begin in the ministry, even considering the tough transition between seminary and the parish, than it is to continue in ministry. A winning smile, a pleasing personality, a winsome way with people, none of these are enough to keep you working with Jesus, preaching the Word, nurturing the flock, looking for the lost. Only God can do that and a major way God does that is through the prayerful, intense reading, study and reflection that you can only begin in three or four years of seminary’. (William Willimon)
  48. ‘Try not to listen to your parishioners when they attempt to use you to weasel out of the claims of Christ. Much of the criticism that you will receive, many of their negative comments about your work, are just their attempt to excuse themselves from discipleship. “When you are older, you will understand,” they told me as a young pastor. “You have still got all that theological stuff in you from seminary. Eventually, you’ll learn,” said older, cynical pastors … God has called you to preach and to live the gospel before them and they will use any means to avoid it. Be suspicious when people encourage you to see the transition from seminary to the parish as mainly a time finally to settle in and make peace with the “real world.” Jesus Christ is our definition of what’s real and there is much that passes for “the way things are” in the average church that makes Jesus want to grab a whip in hand and clean house’. (William Willimon)
  49. ‘The next few years could be among the most important in your ministry, including the years that you spent in seminary, because they are the years in which you will form your habits that will make your ministry. That’s one reason why I think the Lutherans are wise to require an internship year in a parish, before seminary graduation, for their pastors and why I think that a great way to begin is to begin your ministry as someone’s associate in a team ministry in a larger church. In a small, rural church, alone, with total responsibility in your shoulders, in the weekly treadmill of sermons and pastoral care, if you are not careful there is too little time to read and reflect, too little time to prepare your first sermons, so you develop bad habits of flying by the seat of your pants, taking short cuts, and borrowing from others what ought to be developed in the workshop of your own soul. Ministry has a way of coming at you, of jerking you around from here to there, so you need to take charge of your time, prioritize your work, and be sure that you don’t neglect the absolute essentials while you are doing the merely important. If you don’t define your ministry on the basis of your theological commitments, the parish has a way of defining your ministry on the basis of their selfish preoccupations and that is why so many clergy are so harried and tired today. Mind your habits’. (William Willimon)
  50. Speaking of habits, remember that ‘The pulpit is the real arena of the Kingdom of God’ (Karl Barth). In the busy demands that attend parish life, order your priorities accordingly.
  51. Woe to that minister who sub-contracts their pastoral care responsibilities to others and in so doing divorces the cure of souls from the ministry of the Word.
  52. Always strive to represent the local church to the church catholic, and the church catholic to the local church.
  53. Prepare three envelopes:

‘In a certain city there lived a young pastor who was starting her first day at her first solo pastorate. She had met the staff, put all her books on the shelves, and was arranging her desk when a curious thing happened. She opened the desk drawer, and there were three sealed envelopes, numbered one, two, and three, encircled with a rubber band, and with a note attached.

She eagerly unfolded the note, and this is what it said: “Dear Successor. Welcome to the Old Church on the Green. When I arrived here many years ago I found three envelopes in my desk as you just have. They were from my predecessor and his note told me to open each of them in turn whenever I found myself in difficulty in the parish. This was very helpful to me, so I am providing you with three numbered envelopes to open when you need them. Blessings on your ministry. Your Predecessor.”

She didn’t know what to make of this, but soon forgot about the envelopes amidst the whirlwind of starting a new ministry, meeting new people, putting names with faces, in the general excitement and anxiety of the first months. And truth to tell, she had a joyful honeymoon period where she learned to love the congregation and they learned to love her, and everybody was very happy and content.

But in the fullness of time some discontents could be discerned among the faithful. Well-meaning advisors came to her to tell her things they had heard, not that they felt that way, but others did. None of the complaints were major, but they ate at her morale. Some said she had annoying mannerisms in the pulpit, that she was never in the office, that she didn’t do enough pastoral visitation, that she had been seen coming out of a yoga class during the daytime when honest hard-working people are at their jobs.

All these things got her down, and one day she spotted the forgotten envelopes in her desk drawer. She wondered if she should open the first one, and after some struggling and prayer about it, she did so. Inside was a single sheet of paper and on it were the words: “Blame your predecessor.”

She had once taken interim ministry training so she knew how to do this and immediately put the strategy into play. She told her boards and committee that congregations were really dysfunctional family systems and the dysfunction was caused by the former pastor. They all nodded their heads and agreed to be healthier, and they forgot all about their complaints against her, since it is always easier to judge someone that isn’t around. And once again everybody was happy and content.

There came a time, however, when new discontents emerged. The economy went South, pledges were down, fuel cost were up, the endowment which many worshipped had taken a hit, new members were slow to arrive to help pay the bills. She was no longer the new pastor, and there were hints and rumors that a different kind of a leader might fix the problems. She didn’t know what to do. She tried everything she could think of. She went to a centering prayer workshop, she got a Day-Timer, and she attended the Alban Institute conference called “When your Job Sucks.” But none of it seemed to help, so one day, after much struggle and prayer, she opened the second envelope. Once again it was a single sheet of paper and on it were the words: “Reorganize.”

So she convinced her board to create a long-term planning committee, write a new mission statement, and re-write the by-laws. And everybody got very busy, and worked hard together, and there wasn’t enough energy left to complain, and the church thrived for many seasons, and everybody in the congregation felt proud of themselves for having such a well-organized church and such a clever pastor. And, once again, everybody was happy and content.

By this time our pastor was frankly getting a little bored, and not a little burned-out, and wondered just how long she could put out the energy it was taking to keep such a well-organized church going. And her soul was disquited within her.

Once again she tried everything she could think of. She joined a pastor’s support group, she went on a Conference Committee on pastoral excellence, she bought herself a smart-phone and started a blog. But none of it seemed to help, so finally one day in desperation she went to her desk drawer and she opened the third envelope. Once again inside was a single sheet of paper and on it were the words: “Prepare three envelopes.”’[11]

54.  Remember your baptism.

Suggestions will be gratefully received.

To be continued …

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (trans. John W. Doberstein; New York: Harper and Row, 1954), 66.

[2] See Michael Jinkins, Letters to New Pastors (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), 49–55.

[3] See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christology (trans. John Bowden; London: Collins, 1966), 58ff.

[4] See Jason A. Goroncy, ‘”Tha mi a’ toirt fainear dur gearan”: J. McLeod Campbell and P.T. Forsyth on the Extent of Christ’s Vicarious Ministry’ in Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (ed. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow; Princeton Theological Monograph Series. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 253–86.

[5] Bonhoeffer, Life Together 27–29.

[6] Ibid. 29–30.

[7] Ibid. 95, 108, 109, 113.

[8] Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It.

[9] Bonhoeffer, Life Together 78.

[10] Ibid. 93.

Rick Floyd on the lost soul of the procedural church

Some years ago now, my dear friend Rick Floyd shared a wonderful wee parable about pastoral ministry. It was called ‘Prepare Three Envelopes’. He then followed it up with an insightful midrash which bears repeating:

One of the rules I live by is to never explain a joke, but I’m going to break that rule to talk about my recent post: Prepare Three Envelopes: A Parable about Pastoral Ministry.

As several of you have pointed out it is an old joke. John McFadden said he “kicked the slats out of his crib laughing” the first time he heard it. Several of you told me different variations on the one I told, which I think I first heard from Peter Wells, my canny former area minister.

Many of you said it was both funny and painful. Bob Grove-Markwood said, “I laughed, I cried.” Verlee Copeland said she wished “it were funnier for that bell tolls for us all.” It surely resonated with many clergy, which is no accident.

The joke itself was just the frame I used for the picture I wanted to draw. I put the joke in an extended shaggy dog style to accomplish several things. First, I wanted the heroine to be a bit of a cipher and not a fleshed-out character, so that clergy could fill in their own particulars and relate to her situation. I made her a woman pastor so that the parable wouldn’t be seen as strictly autobiographical, although there is more of my own story in it than is entirely comfortable.

I wanted to evoke a certain kind of congregation, what I will call here the procedural church. Now such a congregation doesn’t exist as an ideal type, but I believe most mainline congregations have features of what I will describe.

As I have written elsewhere (“Introduction” to When I Survey the Wondrous Cross) I believe the dominant mode of reflecting on congregational life in our time is not theological (as I believe it should be), but managerial, psychological, and political.

So a managerial congregation will borrow outlooks and methods from the corporate world, and be preoccupied with metrics, goals, objectives, and outcomes largely cast without use of the church’s historic grammar. My reference to the second envelope was a small swat at this approach.

The psychological congregation sees its life in therapeutic terms, and employs the language of health and pathology, of addiction and recovery, and co-dependence. This model loves to talk about boundaries. My little dig at interim ministry comes from my conviction that the family systems model employed by many interim ministers is a blunt tool to deal with complex congregational life, and often scapegoats former pastors, which the Intentional Interim Network dismissingly refers to in their training as BFP’s, Beloved Former Pastors. As a beloved former pastor myself I feel this outlook is disrespectful to dedicated leaders who have given their lives for the church.

The political church sees itself as a change-agent in an unjust and oppressive society, and understands its mission to advance a series of predetermined causes. The bond between congregants is political like-mindedness, and those who don’t “get it” are likely to be driven away without regret. This kind of church, usually liberal in the mainline, fosters a paranoid style, which demonize those who disagree with it. They are always railing against the Religious Right, but actually provide a mirror image of those they fear and distrust, a shadow side Religious Left.

Now I must insert the mandatory self-evident truth that there are genuine insights in all these approaches, and wise leaders should avail themselves of whatever is useful in the culture. Having said that, what is striking to me about the procedural church is the dominance of its perspective over the church’s own grammar.

Congregations can partake of all three of these procedural approaches in various combinations, but what they all share is a procedurally driven church whose agenda takes little account of the church’s own rich heritage of congregational self-understanding derived from scripture and tradition. Ecclesiology, the sub-category of theology that thinks deeply about the church, has a long and deep ecumenical storehouse of insights on how to be the church that are largely ignored or forgotten. Leander Keck, in his fine book, The Church Confident, once compared the contemporary church with folks who inherit a fine old mansion, but choose rather to live in a pup tent in the back yard.

So notice that in Prepare Three Envelopes I never mention God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, the Scriptures, the sacraments, the creeds, or Christian doctrine. Our heroine does pray, but whether it is Christian prayer is left an open question.

I tried to evoke a kind of flatness in this imaginary congregation. We don’t see our pastor preparing or delivering a sermon, baptizing a baby, presiding at the eucharist, praying by a sickbed, or standing by a grave, even though these activities take up a good deal of any pastor’s time in real life. What we do see her doing is strategizing and attending meetings, the hallmarks of the procedural church.

Now at the end of the parable our heroine is burned-out because she has been driving this frenetic congregational juggernaut out of her own soul, which is now seriously depleted. And if there is one feature common to all three kinds of procedural congregations it is this endless frenetic activity, what P.T. Forsyth once called “The Sin of Bustle.”

The procedural church is functionally atheistic, in that everything depends on us, and nothing depends on God, other than to bless and sanctify the works of our hands.

Morale is bad in the procedural church. Brad Braxton’s sudden and sad departure from Riverside Church has lit up the blogosphere with comments from clergy who feel ill-used by their congregations. There is always plenty of blame to go around in any church kerfuffle, but my perception of many congregations is that their fights and preoccupations about procedure, in Braxton’s case over his salary package, arise because they do not know how to be church.

They know how to manage organizations, they know how to analyze family systems, and they know how to drive a political agenda. But when it comes down to being the church of Christ, to hear his living voice in sermon and text, to eat his sustaining bread, to share his cruciform life, to know that it is his ministry we are called to share and not just be our own voluntary association, not so much! And clergy can blame toxic congregations all they want, but isn’t it the work of the ordained ministry to keep these things before them?

Without sound teaching, faithful preaching, lively and sacramental worship, and enriching group life, the congregation can have all the procedures down and still have lost its soul.

‘A Cure of Souls’, by Denise Levertov

The pastor
of grief and dreams

guides his flock towards
the next field

with all his care.
He has heard

the bell tolling
but the sheep

are hungry and need
the grass, today and

every day. Beautiful
his patience, his long

shadow, the rippling
sound of the flocks moving

along the valley.

– Denise Levertov, ‘A Cure of Souls’, in Poems, 1960–1967 (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1983), 92.

Hearing and responding to Jesus Christ

So what is happening when a person hears and responds to Jesus Christ? Two things strike me. The first thing to say is that someone is not acting out on their own bat, so to speak. Every movement towards God is a movement that is already happening inside the triune life, and so it’s a kind of prayer, a listening and participation in the divine conversation. Here I am reminded of a recent sermon by Rowan Williams in which he writes:

When I pray, I ask God to bring me into that mystery of love, to bring me into that pouring out and pouring back of love between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I ask to be dropped into that ocean and carried along with its energy, its life.

Out of that, of course, come all sorts of other bits of praying. If you start there it makes sense to acknowledge that you have got things wrong, to acknowledge that you have failed – as in that wonderful song we sang earlier, ‘I am free to fail’, one of the most important messages any Christian can have. If I know that I am dropped into the ocean of God’s love, then I am not afraid to acknowledge just how much I have got wrong, just how much growing I still need to do. As I drop into that mystery I can say, ‘There is no comparison. Your goodness, your love, your abundance, your generosity are so immense that I cannot hold a light to them – I know how awful it must look. But hey, here I am in the ocean anyway. Let it come in, let it flood me through’. That is how our prayer includes confession.

And then in the context of that dropping into the love of God, we can also say to God, ‘You, God, must be passionate for the healing and the peace of my neighbours. You must care for their life, their openness to love and forgiveness. So I bring them to you knowing what you want for them. I put them in your hands because I know you want their life’. That is how we pray for one another, how we pray for peace in the world, and how we pray for our fellowship as a Church. Saying to God, ‘We know what you want for us and our neighbours’. That is the prayer of intersession, as we pray for each other.

The second thing to note is that a miracle has taken place; specifically, a miracle about the nature of Christian preaching itself. As one theologian put it, ‘No one has ever heard the gospel from the lips of a human being’; i.e., from the lips of a human being other than Jesus. If I have heard the gospel, then the who that I have heard is not the preacher but Jesus Christ. This reality describes both the possibility and the impossibility of preaching.

So when a person hears and responds to Jesus Christ (who is the Father’s right hand) one is gathered up by the Spirit (the Father’s left hand) to share in the inner relations of God’s own life and love with Christ by the Spirit in such a way that the very life of God is made to reverberate in us, and our very life is brought to reverberate in the spaciousness of God’s. This is sheer gift. As this happens, the Church recognises her true nature and purpose as centered with Christ in God in such a way that all her faith and obedience is a joyful and thankful sharing in and with the actual mission and ministry of the living Christ.

Straining to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches

It’s always encouraging to hear ministers asking questions about what it means to be ‘church’ in a particular time and location. Here’s a clip of the Rev. LeeAnne Watkins, Rector at St. Mary’s (St. Paul, Minnesota), giving voice to some of the challenges that she is facing as she seeks to live out her ordination vows with faith, and to lead the people of God in her neck of the woods with courage:

To be sure, there’s much more conversation that needs to happen here – about the nature of church itself and of the church’s participation in the missio dei, about the task of witness, about the shape of Christian vocation in the world, about the nature of ‘the world’ itself, about the church’s teaching role, about the prophetic role of ministry, about what and who sets the agenda for the church’s and minister’s work, about where the body of Jesus is to be found, about the isolation, support, networking and emotional health of ministers, about why the consumer/attractional model of church is a fizz, &etc. – and it’s not as if LeeAnne is the only one engaged in this important conversation, but she at least articulates how many minister’s feel as they, with others who have an ear to hear, strain to ‘listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches’ (Rev 2 & 3).

Walter Brueggemann on the imagination and preaching

In his wonderful book, Rabbit is Rich, John Updike offers the following observation: ‘Laugh at ministers all you want, they have the words we need to hear, the ones the dead have spoken’. Here Updike is suggesting that religious language, the Bible’s language, or what he calls ‘the words … the dead have spoken’ are the very bread and butter of a ministers vocabulary, words which determine not only the content of a minister’s speech but also the conduct associated with a minister’s speech. Indeed, ministers are permitted to speak only that which has been given. All other words are only waffle, a foul and unholy wind. No wonder that Bonhoeffer said that ‘teaching about Christ begins in silence’. For the words which the dead have spoken are, as Walter Brueggemann reminds us in his book on the psalms, ‘words that linger with power and authority after their speakers have gone’. Brueggemann understands the psalmists and prophets to be the great poets of our tradition, who speak to God out of the fullness of the human condition. He considers the entire psalter as a collection of three kinds of psalms: there are psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of new orientation. ‘Poets exist so that the dead may vote’, said Elie Wiesel, and they vote in the Psalms. ‘They vote for faith’, says Brueggemann. ‘But in voting for faith they vote for candor, for pain, for passion – and finally for joy. Their persistent voting gives us a word that turns out to be the word of life’. Brueggemann is concerned about the kind of exclusively happy-clappy churchianity that exists, saying that ‘the problem with a hymnody that focuses on equilibrium, coherence, and symmetry (as in the psalms of orientation) is that it may deceive and cover over. Life is not like that. Life is so savagely marked by incoherence, a loss of balance, and unrelieved asymmetry’. True poets, painters, musicians etc. take the fullness of creaturely life seriously and, insofar as they do this, open up space in which the Holy Dove of God has room to flutter her wings.

Revelation, healing, hope, forgiveness, worship, prayer, the transformation and redemption of human community – what are these if not fundamentally engaged with the matter of the human imagination. The psalmists new this. The prophets new this. And Brueggemann calls upon preachers today to embrace a like posture with the utmost seriousness. He begins his book The Prophetic Imagination with the following words:

The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or to act. This enculturation is in some way true across the spectrum of church life, both liberal and conservative. It may not be a new situation, but it is one that seems especially urgent and pressing at the present time. That enculturation is true not only of the institution of the church but also of us as persons. Our consciousness has been claimed by false fields of perception and idolatrous systems of language and rhetoric.

The internal cause of such enculturation is our loss of identity through the abandonment of the faith tradition. Our consumer culture is organized against history. There is a depreciation of memory and a ridicule of hope, which means everything must be held in the now, either an urgent now or an eternal now. Either way, a community rooted in energizing memories and summoned by radical hopes is a curiosity and a threat in such a culture. When we suffer from amnesia every form of serious authority for faith is in question, and we live unauthorized lives of faith and practice unauthorized ministries.

The church will not have power to act or believe until it recovers its tradition of faith and permits that tradition to be the primal way out of enculturation. This is not a cry for traditionalism but rather a judgment that the church has no business more pressing than the reappropriation of its memory in its full power and authenticity. And that is true among liberals who are too chic to remember and conservatives who have overlaid the faith memory with all kinds of hedges that smack of scientism and Enlightenment.

He continues:

 … The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us … So, my programmatic urging is that every act of a minister who would be prophetic is part of a way of evoking, forming, and reforming an alternative community. And this applies to every facet and every practice of ministry. It is a measure of our enculturation that the various acts of ministry (for example, counseling, administration, even liturgy) have taken on lives and functions of their own rather than being seen as elements of the one prophetic ministry of formation and reformation of alternative community … [I]f the church is to be faithful it must be formed and ordered from the inside of its experience and confession and not by borrowing from sources external to its own life.

So in calling upon preachers to take seriously the role of the imagination, Brueggemann is not asking us to discard our own tradition and to take on something new. Rather, he is inviting us to do what God’s prophets and apostles have always done – to hear and to see and to taste and to touch and to speak the word of God, and to do so with all the powers of new imaginings that God has given to us, even in our own tradition, so that we might wrestle with the Word of God, with the old old story, as if for the first time, and have our lives formed by it.

In another book, Finally Comes the Poet, Brueggemann turns his attention specifically to preachers:

The gospel is too readily heard and taken for granted, as though it contained no unsettling news and no unwelcome threat. What began as news in the gospel is easily assumed, slotted, and conveniently dismissed. We depart having heard, but without noticing the urge to transformation that is not readily compatible with our comfortable believing that asks little and receives less.

The gospel is thus a truth widely held, but a truth greatly reduced. It is a truth that has been flattened, trivialized, and rendered inane. Partly, the gospel is simply an old habit among us, neither valued nor questioned. But more than that, our technical way of thinking reduces mystery to problem, transforms assurance into certitude, revises quality into quantity, and so takes the categories of biblical faith and represents them in manageable shapes.

He continues:

When truth is mediated in such positivistic, ideological, and therefore partisan ways, humaneness wavers, the prospect for humanness, is at risk, and unchecked brutality makes its appearance. We shall not be the community we hope to be if our primary communications are in modes of utilitarian technology and managed, conformed values. The issues facing the church and its preachers may be put this way: Is there another way to speak? Is there another voice to be voiced? Is there an alternative universe of discourse to be practiced that will struggle with the truth in ways unreduced? In the sermon – and in the life of the church, more generally, I propose – we are to practice another way of communication that makes another shaping of life possible; unembarrassed about another rationality, not anxious about accommodating the reason of this age.

The task and possibility of preaching is to open out the good news of the gospel with alternative modes of speech – speech that is dramatic, artistic, capable of inviting persons to join in another conversation, free of the reason of technique, unencumbered by ontologies that grow abstract, unembarrassed about concreteness. Such speech, when heard in freedom, assaults imagination and pushes out the presumed world in which most of us are trapped. Reduced speech leads to reduced lives. Sunday morning is the practice of a counter life through counter speech. The church on Sunday morning, or whenever it engages in its odd speech, may be the last place left in our society for imaginative speech that permits people to enter into new worlds of faith and to participate in joyous, obedient life.

To address the issue of a truth greatly reduced requires us to be poets that speak against a prose world. The terms of that phrase are readily misunderstood. By prose I refer to a world that is organized in settled formulae, so that even pastoral prayers and love letters sound like memos. By poetry, I do not mean rhyme, rhythm, or meter, but language that moves like Bob Gibson’s fast ball, that jumps at the right moment, that breaks open old worlds with surprise, abrasion, and pace. Poetic speech is the only proclamation worth doing in a situation of reductionism, the only proclamation, I submit, that is worthy of the name preaching. Such preaching is not moral instruction or problem solving or doctrinal clarification. It is not good advice, nor is it romantic caressing, nor is it a soothing good humor.

It is, rather, the ready, steady, surprising proposal that the real world in which God invites us to live is not the one made available by the rulers of this age. The preacher has an awesome opportunity to offer an evangelical world: an existence shaped by the news of the gospel. This offer requires special care for words, because the baptized community awaits speech in order to be a faithful people. What a way to think about a poetic occasion that moves powerfully to expose the prose reductions around us as false! … Because we live so close to the biblical text, we often fail to note its generative power to summon and evoke new life. Broadly construed, the language of the biblical text is prophetic: it anticipates and summons realities that live beyond the conventions of our day-to-day, take-for-granted world. The Bible is our firm guarantee that in a world of technological naivete and ideological reductionism, prophetic construals of another world are still possible, still worth doing, still longingly received by those who live at the edge of despair, resignation, and conformity. Our preferred language is to call such speech prophetic, but we might also term it poetic. Those whom the ancient Israelites called prophets, the equally ancient Greeks called poets. The poet/prophet is a voice that shatters settled reality and evokes new possibility in the listening assembly. Preaching continues that dangerous, indispensable habit of speech. The poetic speech of text and of sermon is a prophetic construal of a world beyond the one taken for granted … This poetic/prophetic utterance runs great risk. It runs the risk of being heard as fantasy and falsehood … The more tightly we hold to settled reality, the more likely the alternative construal of the poet will be dismissed as ‘mere fiction’. The poet/prophet, however, does not flinch from ‘fiction’, for the alternative envisioned in such speech is a proposal that destabilizes all our settled ‘facts’, and opens the way for transformation and the gift of newness.

And so Brueggemann encourages us to think of preaching as ‘a poetic construal of an alternative world’, the purpose of which is to ‘cherish the truth, to open the truth from its pervasive reductionism in our society, to break the fearful rationality that keeps the news from being new …  After the engineers, inventors, and scientists, after all such through knowledge, “finally comes the poet”. The poet does not come to have a say until the human community has engaged in its best management. Then perchance comes the Power of poetry – shattering, evocative speech that breaks fixed conclusions and presses us always toward new, dangerous, imaginative possibilities … This speech, entrusted to and practiced by the church, is an act of relentless hope; an argument against the ideological closing of life we unwittingly embrace’.

It is precisely this posture towards and way of thinking about the poetic and fantastic (i.e., from fantasy, fiction, etc.) nature of reality and the shape of divine revelation that is just so imperative, not only for preaching but also for prayer, for pastoral encounters, for crafting liturgy, for choreographing church leadership structures and meetings, etc. Surely one of the main roles for leaders of faith communities is to help transform and foster our imaginations with the rich and fundamental traditions and texts that have formed us as a people, and to help God’s people to hear those afresh, as if for the first time. And for leaders of Christian faith communities, this means fostering an imagination baptised in the promises and stories of the Bible, seeing and hearing and tasting them as God’s ever-new speech.

And what art encourages is the opening up of hermeneutical space wherein our questions are taken seriously, where we can feel safer to explore them with God and with God’s people. Such a posture is something of a confession too; a confession that (i) there is truth that desires to be known; and (ii) we do not and cannot monopolise and control the truth of things.

Brueggemann reminds us that the meeting of the community of faith is an odd kind of speech meeting which ‘has the potential of evoking a new humanity’. And he suggests that in order for the new reality to be birthed, four partners need to be present:

1. The first partner in the meeting is the text. The congregation gathers with a vague memory of the text – a memory that has the text mostly reduced, trivialized, and domesticated.

2. The second partner in the meeting is the baptized. The community, he suggests in Finally Comes The Poet, ‘gathers to be shaped by a text that addresses us, an articulation of reality that lies outside of us that we cannot conjure and need not defend. The ones gather have been baptized. They may understand in an inchoate [i.e., tentative, embryonic, etc] way, but they have in fact made some vague decision about the cruciality of this text. They do not have a clear articulation of the text’s authority. Or they have a clear articulation that has become so scholastic as to be without use. Nonetheless, they are prepared to accept, in a general way, that this text is their text, the voice of life addressed to them’. He continues:

The baptized then, have been struggling with this text. The ones gathered are those who have either been other texts and have found them wanting, or have greatly resisted other texts and need this text reiterated Once again. Either way, out of compromise or resistance, the community gathers not for entertainment or private opinion, even for problem solving, but for the text made available yet again. They gather to hear the text that is shamelessly theological, candidly kerygmatic, and naively eschatological. The community waits for the text that may be a tent for the spirit. It waits with the hopeful yearning that the ‘house of authority’ is still intact. But if the text is to claim authority it will require neither the close reasoning of a canon lawyer, nor the precision of a technician, but it will require an artist to render the text in quite fresh ways, so that the text breaks life open among the baptized as it never has before.

3. Third, Brueggemann avers, there is ‘this specific occasion for speech’. Here he notes that ‘when the music stops and the rheostat is turned down, then there is this precious, awesome moment of speech’:

It is not time for cleverness or novelty. It is not time for advice or scolding or urging, because the text is not any problem-solving answer or a flat, ideological agent that can bring resolve. This moment of speech is a poetic rendering in a community that has come all too often to expect nothing but prose. It is a prose world for all those who must meet payrolls and grade papers and pump gas and fly planes. When the text, too, has been reduced to prose, life becomes so prosaic that there is a dread dullness that besets the human spirit. We become mindless conformists or angry protesters, and there is no health in us. We become so beaten by prose that only poetic articulation has a chance to let us live.

Into this situation, in this moment, the preacher must speak. She does not get to speak a new text. She must speak an old text – the one everybody knows. From the very first syllable, the ending is already known. But it is a script to be played afresh, so that in this moment of drama the players render the play as a surprise to permit a fresh hearing, a second opinion. It is an artistic in which the words are concrete but open, close our life but moving out to new angles of reality. At the end, there is a breathless waiting: stunned, not sure we have reached the end. Then there is a powerful sense that a world has been rendered in which I may live, a world that is truly home but from which I have been alienated. The speaker must truly be a poet. After the scientist and the engineer, ‘finally comes the poet’ (which Israel calls prophet) – to evoke a different world, a new song, a fresh move, a new identity, a resolve about ethics, a being at home.

4. Brueggemann’s fourth and final cadence concerns the fact that in the voice that takes the old script and renders it to evoke a world we had not yet witnessed (cf. Isa 43.19), a ‘better world [is] given as fresh revelation’. ‘Something’, he insists, ‘is revealed’, and ‘we know not how’. He continues:

A probe behind the closed parameters of religion too-long settled and politics too easily comfortable. It is not only truth disclosed, but it is life disclosed. Life unclosed, Life made open, certitudes broken so that we can redecide, images moving, imagination assaulting ideology. We find new configurations of life yet unformed, unthought, but now available. The old slogans sound unconvincing. I thought I had come for certitude, but the poetic speech does not give certitude. As I am addressed by the gospel, I hear anew that possibility overwhelms necessity in my life. The only available absolute given me is a ‘fiction’ to which I must trust myself – a gracious ‘fiction’ on which I stake my life, authored by God who also authors the text and the speech.

The congregation departs. Same old quarrels in the car on the way home. Same old tensions at dinner. Same tired beginning on Monday. Now, however, there is disclosed a new word, a new hope, a new verb, a new conversation, a new risk, a new possibility. It is not a new truth, but rather one long known that had been greatly reduced. That long-known truth is now greatly enhanced in riches, texture, availability, demand. My life is mapped in mystery and I accept that new life; but it is also mapped in vulnerability and it frightens me. The mystery gives regal authority and freedom in the face of an IRS audit. The vulnerability permits me to come out from behind my desk, my stethoscope, my uniform, my competence, my credentials, my fears – to meet life a little more boldly. Yet again, as the word is spoken one more time, we move through the wearisome death-ridden days of our life and come back once again to Easter to be stunned into disbelief, and then beyond disbelief, to be stunned to life, now filled with fear and trembling.

The meeting involves this old text, the spent congregation believing but impoverished, the artist of new possibility, the disclosure. The Prince of Darkness tries frantically to keep the world closed so that we can be administered. The Prince has such powerful allies in this age. Against such enormous odds, however, there is the working of this feeble, inscrutable, unshackled moment of sermon. Sometimes the Prince will win the day and there is no new thing uttered or heard. Sometimes, however, the sermon will have its say and the truth looms large – larger than the text or the voice or the folk had any reason to expect. When that happens, the world is set loose toward healing. The sermon for such a time shames the Prince and we become yet again more nearly human. The Author of the text laughs in delight, the way that Author has laughed only at creation and at Easter, but laughs again when the sermon carries the day against the prose of the Dark Prince who wants no new poetry in the region he thinks he governs. Where the poetry is sounded, the Prince knows a little of the territory has been lost to its true Ruler. The newly claimed territory becomes a new home of freedom, justice, peace, and abiding joy. This happens when the poet comes, when the poet speaks, when the preacher comes as poet.

‘Uneasy Rider? The Challenge to a Ministry of Word and Sacrament in a Post-Christendom Missional Climate’

The Inaugural Lecture for the 2012 academic year for students at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership was delivered by my colleague the Rev Mark Johnston. A copy of the lecture – ‘Uneasy Rider? The Challenge to a Ministry of Word and Sacrament in a Post-Christendom Missional Climate’ – is now available for download (pdf,ppt). Previous inaugural lectures can be downloaded by visiting here.

A few thoughts on hospital visiting

I. ‘I am my body’.[1] This is the title of a book by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel. The anthropological – not to mention the christological and ecclesiological – implications of such a claim, ‘I am my body’, are extraordinary, and are further deepened when we take into account something like Paul Ricœur’s profound insight that ‘the selfhood of oneself implies otherness to such an intimate degree that one cannot be thought of without the other, that instead one passes into the other’.[2] In other words, only in community can one possibly exist as an individual. Who I am cannot be realised apart from the society of relationships that I am placed in, and which I create, and, indeed, apart from the race in toto. One’s essence – and, we might add, one’s salvation – is inextricably knotted into the whole, and all without loss of genuine personality. St Paul’s way of putting this is thus:

But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it … (1 Cor 12.18–26)

II. Above, it seems that St Paul lists suffering as one of the unavoidable realities of human life in the world; a fair assumption, based not on general empirical observation but rather on the shape of divine kenosis in our midst, and on faith’s claim that ‘God has so arranged’ things in a particular way. Moreover, the way that Paul’s metaphor works also speaks to a personal, and not only to a corporate, reality; namely, that it is impossible to distance ourselves from our bodies. When my foot hurts, ‘I’ hurt. And when my conscience is struck, ‘I’ ache from the very depths of my person. Suffering reminds us, among other things, that we are vulnerable and broken. To visit the sick is to visit a public and private ‘person’ and not merely a hospital’s ‘patient’. To visit the sick is also to attend to the self. To receive a visit is equally to attend to the other. Here, at the bedside, it is not uncommon for two ministers to be together. That one has pyjamas on is beside the point.

III. Amazingly, and with not a little unexpectedness, it is precisely in – and not despite of – our vulnerability and brokenness that God, in the freedom of his cauterising love, tends to be present to minister to us and through us and in spite of us. That God sometimes wears pyjamas, and at other times nothing at all, is precisely the point. Moreover, it may be, as one writer put it, ‘through the pain and suffering of the sick that we somehow see the dignity and the beauty of humanity in all its fullness’.[3] To so see is to be exposed to the image of the image of God.

IV. Like not a few other pastoral encounters, those which occur in hospitals occasion opportunities to feel humanity at a different level than what is ‘normal’, and ministers and others are graced with opportunities to witness, and to bear witness to, the deep and transforming love of God in Jesus Christ – the God for whom the experiences of sickness, visitation, fear, abandonment, vulnerability and even death are not foreign. As James Torrance taught us, God does not heal us by standing over us as a doctor does. Rather, in Jesus Christ, God becomes the patient.

V. And yet, the role of the parish minister in the modern hospital is not clear. Ministers rarely enjoy the sense of intelligible knowledge (whether perceived or real) and acceptability about their role as ministers amidst the hospital’s personnel and patients (both in-patients and out-patients[4]) than do hospital chaplains, for example, and very little literature has been concerned to bring clarity to bear on this matter.[5] Little wonder then that we are not only ‘setting out on a journey through uncharted country and without guides’[6] (as one writer overstated it some 40 years ago), but also that many ministers are felt by hospital staff to be like ‘alien bodies’. One internationally-prepared report noted that ‘the role of the religious counsellor or spiritual guide in general hospital therapy is understood by only a few people’, and spoke too of ‘embarrassment and reluctance among hospital staff’ and of ‘the failure of the religious institutions and their official representatives to communicate what it is they have to say and hope to do’.[7] The question of whether or not we’ve moved on or gone backwards in this area since this half-century-old report is not really the point. For the fact remains that there are few clear pictures of the role of the minister in the modern hospital. So Heije Faber:

We might perhaps say that while the minister is formally accepted in the hospital, he [or she] is nevertheless not ‘noticed’, and hence has no clearly defined place – often, in fact, he [or she] has no room or staff. This is partially, at any rate, because his [or her] work is little understood. For the minister himself [or herself] this raises some significant problems. He [or she] comes to realize that his [or her] place in the hospital rests on weak foundations: in the progressive secularization of society, which affects the hospital deeply, how long can he [or she] count on the place he [or she] has at present? He [or she] asks himself [or herself] whether this place is perhaps his [or hers] at present only because of a kind of ‘guilt feeling’ on the part of the medical staff, which is aware of its one-sided relationship with the patients. But how long will this last? He [or she] realizes that he [or she] must clarify his [or her] place and role in the hospital both to himself [or herself] and to the hospital staff, not only in order to keep his [or her] position, but in order to fulfil his [or her] task properly. In so doing he [or she] will also need to integrate his [or her] place and role into the whole complex of the staff through good contacts.[8]

VI. Clarify yes, but for God’s sake don’t counter this trend towards unnoticeableness by trying to be ‘professional’ or, still less, ‘successful’, or, as Faber goes on to aver, ‘credible’. Credibility is the death of Christian ministry. Or, if you prefer, in the oft-quoted words of Updike‘s Pastor Fritz Kruppenbach: ‘Do you think this is your job, to meddle in these people’s lives? I know what they teach you at seminary now: this psychology and that. But I don’t agree with it. You think now your job is to be an unpaid doctor, to run around and plug up holes and make everything smooth. I don’t think that. I don’t think that’s your job … Make no mistake. There is nothing but Christ for us. All the rest, all this decency and busyness, is nothing. It is Devil’s work’.

VII. While the context demands some different ‘rules’ (These are basically common sense. For e.g., never sit on the bed, check with the nurse first if the patient wants to go for a walk outside with you, etc), hospital visiting is at core simply a more disinfected version of any other form of pastoral ministry. In other words, it is best approached as merely another form of the ministry of the Word (Calvin is very good on this). If you are ‘the minister’, remember that you are there neither to be a friend, nor to be a collared version of a Hallmark card. The former needs to bring fruit or flowers or the iPod charger and need not necessarily witness to anything beyond the friendship itself. And the latter is nothing more than expensive and/or pretentious BS. So resist the temptation to speak only of ‘happy’ things, leave your Mr Collins impersonations in the carpark, and try something oddly different for a change – tell the truth about things. Hospital patients, like most other human beings, don’t enjoy verbal debris. And those few who do will find no shortage of such from others in the hospital setting who like to keep both reality and the outside world at bay. Even Freud and Tolstoy knew that.

VIII. Insofar as it may help when preaching on a particular topic (e.g., ‘prayer’ or ‘puberty’ or ‘bodily resurrection’) if one has actually experienced the reality first hand, so too it may help (though does not guarantee and may indeed get in the way) with ministry in a hospital if one can recall their own experience of actually being in a hospital as a patient. Henri Nouwen appropriately reminds us that ‘it is easier to lead someone out of the desert when you have been there yourself’.

IX. Of course, your task is not to lead anyone (not even yourself) out of the hospital anyway. Moreover, the food in deserts is nearly always to be preferred than what is ‘served’ up in hospitals, but Nouwen’s point reminds me of something else – a moment in the TV program The West Wing where Leo McGarry, who is the White House’s chief of staff, and a dry-alcoholic, is having a conversation with the Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman. Josh has just finished an intensive therapy session set up by Leo with a trauma therapist after Josh cut his hand on some glass. Leo suspects, rightly as it happens, that Josh has a drinking problem. They run across each other in the hallway:

Leo McGarry: How’d it go?
Josh Lyman: Did you wait around for me?
Leo McGarry: How’d it go?
Josh Lyman: He thinks I may have an eating disorder …
Leo McGarry: [bemused] Josh …
Josh Lyman: … and a fear of rectangles. That’s not weird, is it?
Josh Lyman: I didn’t cut my hand on a glass. I broke a window in my apartment.
Leo McGarry: This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you, can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up ‘Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. ‘Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here’. The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out’.[9]

This moment in the show recalls another great moment – the moment of moments! – the movement of the Word of God from the right hand of the Father to arms of a frightened young virgin-mother in order to be Immanuel – God with us. So while such action marks the beginning of Slavoj Žižek’s critique of God – ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here’ – the reply comes from the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea – ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out’.

X. Bear witness to this moments of moments. Bread and wine help here!

XI. Don’t be like Job’s ‘friends’ who missed the gift of the view from the ash heap because their words and their failure to touch – i.e., to become a voluntary pain bearer – got in the way. Bread and wine help here too, especially if you remember that you are not the host!

XII. Remember that you are present not in order to get something done. You are present to be present and to pay attention and to call attention to what is going on here – realities, to be sure, beyond your grasp or business. But prayer is always appropriate. And again, bread and wine help!

XIII. I like to think that Jesus had pastors (though not only pastors) in mind when he said, ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you’ (Matt 7.12). It’s good to keep these words in mind when engaged with all ministry to vulnerable and trapped (whether geographically, as in a hospital bed, or a prison cell, or a refugee camp, or elsewhere) persons. Simon Wilson, who has himself spent significant time in hospital as a patient, writes:

It is interesting to see the reactions of patients when visiting time is over. As the ward empties and settles down, some lie back in exhaustion. After all they are ill yet feel that they somehow have a duty to put on a brave face for the sake of the visitors and even to entertain them! Others feel loneliness as, after an afternoon of distraction and stimulation, they face the reality of another night exiled in this strange environment. When you share a ward, you cannot help noticing the dynamics going on between patients and their visitors and several people have admitted to me how much they enjoy the secret pleasure of working out how people are related to one another! One experience, which will always remain with me, relates to a man who spent several days in the bed next to me. Every day without fail, his family would arrive before 9.00 in the morning and they would stay ‘entertaining’ him until the end of visiting some eleven hours later. Eventually the ward Sister had to introduce ‘special restrictions’ on the lengths of their visits to give the poor fellow some rest and privacy. Many will testify that during spells in hospitals, visits by friends and family were a vital lifeline to the outside world. To know you are missed, worried about and prayed for helps ease the feelings of self-pity and abandonment. Without doubt, visits from my wife, parents and close friends have been the high points of hospital days. Some relationships have actually deepened due to the time spent at the hospital bedside. Indeed, that is how my wife and I first got to know each other. I have realized how in ‘normal life’ we fail to spend time just sitting and talking and sharing about what is going on in the world and in our own lives. One woman who spent several weeks in hospital was struck by how much her appreciation and ‘awareness of small kindnesses’ developed as she was touched by gifts, cards and visits from well-wishers. ‘One small thoughtful act can really make a huge difference.’ Some visits though are less helpful. In the state of illness, you have no control over who comes through that ward door and to your bedside. Your personal space is constantly open to trespassers. Most people can point to visits, which despite good and caring intentions have actually had the opposite effect.[10]

In case you missed the earlier memo: do to others as you would have them do to you. This means that the minister is present to serve the time-frame of the patient; the patient is not present to fill in the time frame of the minister.

XIV. Reflect often on Charles Causley’s poem, ‘Ten Types of Hospital Visitor’. It may even be your salvation:

The first enters wearing the neon armour
Of virtue.
Ceaselessly firing all-purpose smiles
At everyone present
She destroys hope
In the breasts of the sick,
Who realize instantly
That they are incapable of surmounting
Her ferocious goodwill.

Such courage she displays
In the face of human disaster!

Fortunately, she does not stay long.
After a speedy trip round the ward
In the manner of a nineteen-thirties destroyer
Showing the flag in the Mediterranean,
She returns home for a week
– With luck, longer –
Scorched by the heat of her own worthiness.

The second appears, a melancholy splurge
Of theological colours;
Taps heavily about like a healthy vulture
Distributing deep-frozen hope.

The patients gaze at him cautiously.
Most of them, as yet uncertain of the realities
Of heaven, hell-fire, or eternal emptiness,
Play for safety
By accepting his attentions
With just-concealed apathy,
Except one old man, who cries
With newly sharpened hatred,
`Shove off! Shove off!
`Shove … shove … shove … shove
Just you

The third skilfully deflates his weakly smiling victim
By telling him
How the lobelias are doing,
How many kittens the cat had,
How the slate came off the scullery roof,
And how no one has visited the patient for a fortnight
Because everybody
Had colds and feared to bring the jumpy germ
Into hospital.
The patient’s eyes
Ice over. He is uninterested
In lobelias, the cat, the slate, the germ.
Flat on his back, drip-fed, his face
The shade of a newly dug-up Pharaoh,
Wearing his skeleton outside his skin,
Yet his wits as bright as a lighted candle,
He is concerned only with the here, the now,
And requires to speak
Of nothing but his present predicament.

It is not permitted.

The fourth attempts to cheer
His aged mother with light jokes
Menacing as shell-splinters.
`They’ll soon have you jumping round
Like a gazelle,’ he says.
`Playing in the football team.’
Quite undeterred by the sight of kilos
Of plaster, chains, lifting-gear,
A pair of lethally designed crutches,
`You’ll be leap-frogging soon,’ he says.
`Swimming ten lengths of the baths.’
At these unlikely prophecies
The old lady stares fearfully
At her sick, sick offspring
Thinking he has lost his reason –
Which, alas, seems to be the case.

The fifth, a giant from the fields
With suit smelling of milk and hay,
Shifts uneasily from one bullock foot
To the other, as though to avoid
Settling permanently in the antiseptic landscape.
Occasionally he looses a scared glance
Sideways, as though fearful of what intimacy
He may blunder on, or that the walls
Might suddenly close in on him.

He carries flowers, held lightly in fingers
The size and shape of plantains,
Tenderly kisses his wife’s cheek
– The brush of a child’s lips –
Then balances, motionless, for thirty minutes
On the thin chair.

At the end of visiting time
He emerges breathless,
Blinking with relief, into the safe light.

He does not appear to notice
The dusk.

The sixth visitor says little,
Breathes reassurance,
Smiles securely.
Carries no black passport of grapes
And visa of chocolate. Has a clutch
Of clean washing.
Unobtrusively stows it
In the locker; searches out more.
Talks quietly to the Sister
Out of sight, out of earshot, of the patient.
Arrives punctually as a tide.
Does not stay the whole hour.

Even when she has gone
The patient seems to sense her there:
An upholding

The seventh visitor
Smells of bar-room after-shave.
Often finds his friend
Sound asleep: whether real or feigned
Is never determined.

He does not mind; prowls the ward
In search of second-class, lost-face patients
With no visitors
And who are pretending to doze
Or read paperbacks.

He probes relentlessly the nature
Of each complaint, and is swift with such
Dilutions of confidence as,
`Ah! You’ll be worse
Before you’re better.’

Five minutes before the bell punctuates
Visiting time, his friend opens an alarm-clock eye.
The visitor checks his watch.
Market day. The Duck and Pheasant will be still open.

Courage must be refuelled.

The eight visitor looks infinitely
More decayed, ill and infirm than any patient.
His face is an expensive grey.

He peers about with antediluvian eyes
As though from the other end
Of time.
He appears to have risen from the grave
To make this appearance.
There is a whiff of white flowers about him;
The crumpled look of a slightly used shroud.
Slowly he passes the patient
A bag of bullet-proof
Home-made biscuits,
A strong, death-dealing cake –
`To have with your tea,’
Or a bowl of fruit so weighty
It threatens to break
His glass fingers.

The patient, encouraged beyond measure,
Thanks him with enthusiasm, not for
The oranges, the biscuits, the cake,
But for the healing sight
Of someone patently worse
Than himself. He rounds the crisis-corner;
Begins a recovery.

The ninth visitor is life.

The tenth visitor
Is not usually named.[11]

(Kenneth Gill also warns clergy of a number of pitfalls.[12] Some are too ‘busy’ to listen to the patient who is left feeling like a tick on a things-to-do list, others are too ‘austere’ arriving, praying, blessing and leaving before their feet touch the ground, as if they will somehow be tainted by the ill if they hang around too long. Many can relate to the ‘insecure’ priest and her forced jokes and recognise the ‘untidy’ one with his poor personal hygiene. The ‘loud’ priest leaves us in acute embarrassment and the ‘indiscreet’ one causes absolute confusion.)

XV. ‘So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all’ chaplains and hospital staff (Rom 12.18).

XVI. While sensitivity is a key (not every visit needs to feel like some sort of ‘pre-funeral visit!’), a robust christology bears witness to the Key upon whom all good keys are modelled. It is Jesus Christ who makes himself available in the hospital ward, and in doing so confronts and renews, puts to death and makes alive. The minister and hospital visitor would do well to stay out of the way, not only for the sake of the patient, but also for their own sake. And, as I have it on good authority, also for God’s sake; because God is literally sick to death of tripping over well-meaning messiahs.

XVII. Our witness to Christ includes a number of realties, among which is offering reminders of God’s promise to remain faithful and to provide. The Scriptures recount this promise which lies at the heart of Christian faith (e.g., Gen 26.3; Deut 31.23; Isa 41.9–10; Matt 7.7–8; 28.20, and John 4.10; 14.16–17), and the sacraments too bear tangible witness to these evangelical promises. We may rely on God because God remains faithful. Our witness to Christ is also manifest in the decision to fully embrace – rather than exclude – the sick and dying – and well as their families! – into the life of the Christian community. This ought not be odd, for the Christian community begins with the confession of sickness and dying in the act of baptism. What is out of step with the Christian confession is the acceptance of the practice of building community life around the so-called healthy, clean and ‘righteous’. Mark 2, among other passages, reminds us also of the deep relationship between sickness, healing and the forgiveness of sins, realities which tend to be neglected in much of the contemporary ‘pastoral’ literature. One outstanding exception to this trend can be found in Eduard Thurneysen’s wonderful book A Theology of Pastoral Care.

XVIII. Getting some basic advice from a serious pastor-theologian is always wise, whatever the topic. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s treatment of the subject at hand appears in his book Seelsorge (German – ‘Pastoral Care’ but translated as ‘Spiritual Care’), at least one section of which is worth citing at length (even if we may wish to challenge Bonhoeffer on some statements):

Sick visits should be regular. Bear in mind that they are there for the sake of the sick person. People never expect others to show up so much as they do when sick. It is best to schedule the visit in advance so the sick person can get presentable. Announced visits are more worthwhile than surprise visits. The pastor mustn’t ignore a scheduled visit. You can’t imagine how much damage you’ll do if you don’t show up. Scheduling regular visits pledges the pastor to be prepared and the sick person to be ready. If possible, the visits should always be scheduled at the same hour and on the same day of the week.

Regular visits are also good for the pastor. He should be present with the sick often. In such a way he will learn that sickness and health go together. This is not abnormal. Sickness and pain are a law of the fallen world. A person who happens to experience fallenness in this special way is an image of the One who bore our sickness and was so afflicted that people hid their faces from him (Isaiah 53). If Jesus came among the sick, that signifies that he bore the law of this world and fulfilled it. “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” (Matt. 8:17). Jesus saves in that he bears. His salvation has nothing to do with magic, which is able to make people well from a distance. In Jesus’ healings the cross is prefigured. Healing shows that Jesus receives and bears the sick in their weakness, a weakness he will bear on the cross. Only as the crucified One is he the healer.

Among the sick we learn more about the world and come closer to the pangs of Jesus’ cross than we do among the well. Guilt, sin, and decay are more recognizable where everyone participates in the subjection of those who suffer without any particular discernible reason. The same curse rests upon us all. Some, however, experience it more deeply and painfully than all the rest. Such participation helps us recognize the true condition of the world. Our health is endangered in each moment. All sickness is enclosed within our health. The law of this world calls for a cross and not health. It’s not good that the sick are shut up, concentrated in large hospitals to put them far out of sight of the well. At Bethel the sick and the healthy live with one another, sharing as a matter of course daily life and worship: a continual reminder to the sick of wholeness.

Love toward sick members should have a special place in the Christian congregation. Christ comes near to us in the sick. The pastor who neglects the visitation of the sick must ask whether or not he can exercise his office on the whole.

Sick people ask for healing. They cry for release from this body of death into a new and healthy body. They cry for the new world in which “God will wipe away every tear, and there will be no more suffering or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4). Insofar as this happens, the sick inquire about Christ more than do the well. Christ fulfills this conscious or unconscious expectation through his promise, “I am the Lord, your physician” (Exod. 15:26). Nevertheless the proclamation should not be limited to this one aspect. No proper spiritual care occurs without the offer of the forgiveness of sins. The mandate to proclaim the forgiveness of sins applies here, too. Often concrete sins will come to light. Not only past sins come to light, but also those related to the sickness and those the sickness itself creates. Sickness can make one egocentric and sullen, driven to extreme resistance toward Christ, a resistance which is itself unhealthy. The sickbed then becomes burdened with great guilt. So in spiritual care compassion cannot stand alone; we must also bring the whole truth of sin and grace.

To parishioners who are faithful at worship the pastor might bring the Sunday sermon. “I come because are not able to come.” He will tell the other, “You should know that the church is particularly attentive and pledged to the sick even when they are not able to attend church.” Many people might wonder and silently suspect that someone wants something from them, perhaps is looking to use their condition toward some cheap end. It must be made clear to them that the church comes to the sick without ulterior motives simply to be with them and to help wherever help is desired. Through simple presence we show that God is with the sick and that sickness may be interpreted as a sign of God’s nearness. The presence of the church and the offer of help are never more than pointers to that Help who is God.

There are disagreeable and selfish people. They offer no apologies; after all, they have been torn from their work, they cannot go home, and they fully expect the world to revolve around them. They need to see that their pretensions are groundless; they are, in fact, dependent on the love and friendship of others, and they only do more damage to themselves by such self-seeking behavior. They live in order to receive help. They should be thankful that this is so and learn to be patient when things don’t go as fast as ‘they would like. If they abjure thanksgiving and patience, then they destroy what blessing their illness may hold.

A special problem is presented by the big wards where people are crowded together. There is a lot of bickering in these wards, especially among old women. We might gently remind people that it is undignified to carry on so when we will all soon stand before the judgment seat of Christ. A conversational opening may be to ask how long the person has been ill and, above all, how his or her patience is holding out. One has to extend the right to the sick person to talk about how things are going. Just don’t let the story become too long. Sick folks love to gab and they will go into as great detail as possible about their illness. Better information will be available from the patient’s nurse …

The sick person must not get the impression that, in his condition, he is unnecessary and useless. The pastor can give him such information and tasks that he will be able to see himself on the sickbed as if he were in the midst of the congregation. His chief task will be to intercede for the congregation as a whole and for specific needs, for the pastor and his ministry, for the life and struggle of the church, and also for the other sick people and for a good spirit of community. No one knows that as well as he does. He should know that this ministry, under the circumstances, is more important than all the hurried activities which well people are conducting outside the hospital …

Truth belongs at the sickbed. The pastor should never come with cheap and false comfort that life will soon be all right once more. How is he to know that? On the other hand he shouldn’t say that it will soon be all over. He has no certainty of that either. What the sick need to know in any event is that they are special and uniquely lodged in God’s hand, and that God is the giver of life whether in this world or the next. Vision and heart must always be made opened up to that other world. “Be at peace and let your life rest quietly in God.”

For spiritual care with the sick, it helps if the pastor knows as many Bible verses and hymn stanzas as possible by heart. The memorized Word is more effective and more easily implanted than our own. One might consider creating a booklet for the sick and dying with texts and songs.[13]

XIX. For the sake of convenience, and of good theology, let’s just assume that God got there first.

XX. Much remains unsaid. I’m OK with that.

[1] Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, I Am My Body: A Theology of Embodiment (London: SCM Press, 1974).

[2] Paul Ricœur, Oneself as Another (trans. Kathleen Blamey; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 3.

[3] Simon Wilson, When I Was In Hospital You Visited Me (Cambridge: Grove, 2001), 5.

[4] On ministry to out-patients see Herbert Anderson et al., Ministry to Outpatients: a new challenge in pastoral care (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1991).

[5] For some historical perspectives see Graham Mooney and Jonathan Reinarz, ed., Permeable Walls: historical perspectives on hospital and asylum visiting (Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2009).

[6] Heije Faber, Pastoral Care in the Modern Hospital (trans. Hugo de Waal; London: SCM Press, 1971), vii.

[7] Taken from Elizabeth Barnes, People in Hospital (London: Macmillan and Co., 1961), 97. Cited in Faber, Pastoral Care in the Modern Hospital, vii.

[8] Faber, Pastoral Care in the Modern Hospitalvii–viii.

[9] The West Wing, Season Two, Episode 10, ‘Noël’.

[10] Wilson, When I Was In Hospital You Visited Me, 7.

[11] Charles Causley, ‘Ten Types of Hospital Visitor’ in Collected Poems (ed. Charles Causley; London: Macmillan, 1992), 232–37.

[12] Kenneth Gill, Sick Call (London: SPCK, 1965), 7–12.

[13] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Spiritual Care (trans. Jay C. Rochelle; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 55–9.

On the Cost and Grace of Parish Ministry

Pieter Bruegel , 'The Fight between Carnival and Lent' (detail)

With every intention of getting back to this series next year, here’s the links so far to my series of posts on the cost and grace of parish ministry: