Hauerwas on Christian Ministry and Speaking Christian

‘God knows what possesses anyone to enter the ministry in our day. The lack of clarity about what makes Christians Christian, what makes the church the church, and continuing ambiguity in our diverse denominations about ordination itself should surely make anyone think twice about becoming a minister. Moreover the lack of consensus about what it might mean for anyone to act with authority in our society and the church cannot help but make those of us who are not ministers wonder about the psychological health of those who tell us they are called to the ministry.

Too often I fear the ministry is understood by many Christians as well as many who become ministers, to be but one expression of the more general category of something called a “helping profession.” A minister is a social worker with “a difference.” “The difference” is thought to have something to do with God, but it is not clear exactly what difference that difference is to make for the performance of your office.

As a result many who enter the ministry discover after a few years of doing the best they can to meet the expectations of those they serve— expectations such as whatever else you may do you should always be nice—end up feeling as if they have been nibbled to death by ducks. They do so because it is assumed that since pastors do not work for a living those whom the minister serves, or at least those who pay them, can ask the minister to be or do just about anything. Though it is often not clear how what they are asked to do is required by their ordination vows, those in the ministry cannot say “no” because it is not clear what their “job” is in the first place.

Many in the ministry try to protect themselves from the unlimited demands and expectations of their congregations by taking refuge in their families, some alternative ministry such as counseling, or, God help us, a hobby. Such strategies may work for a while, but often those who employ these strategies discover that no spouse can or should love another spouse that much; that even after you have done C.P.E. you are still stuck with the life you had before you were trained in C.P.E.; and a hobby turns out to be just that—a hobby.

The failure of such strategies, I think, throws some light on clergy misconduct. I wish I could attribute the sexual misconduct characteristic of some Methodist clergy to lust, but I fear that most people in the Methodist ministry do not have that much energy. I think the problem is not lust, but loneliness. Isolated by the expectations of the congregation, or the challenge of developing friendships with some in the church without those friendships creating divisions in the church, too often results in a profound loneliness for those in the ministry. Unfortunately, the attempt to overcome that loneliness can take the form of inappropriate behavior.

There is another alternative. You can become a scold urging the church to become more socially active in causes of peace and justice. This may earn you the title of being “prophetic,” but such a strategy may contribute to the incoherence of the ministerial task. For it is not at all clear why you needed to be ordained to pursue causes of peace and justice. It is a great challenge for ministers who would lead their congregations to be more socially active to do so in a manner that does not result in the displacement of worship as the heart of the church.

… what you have learned to do in seminary is read. By learning to read you have learned to speak Christian. That you have learned to read and speak means you have been formed in a manner to avoid the pitfalls I have associated with the contemporary ministry. For I want to suggest to you that one of the essential tasks of those called to the ministry in our day is to be a teacher. In particular, you are called to be a teacher of language. I hope to convince you that if you so understand your task, you will discover that you have your work cut out for you. But that is very good news because you now clearly have something to do.

Yet in the book of James (3:1-5) we are told:

not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

The problem, according to James, is no one has found a way to tame the tongue. Because the tongue cannot be tamed it becomes a “restless evil, full of deadly poison.” The tongue is the source of discord because it at once makes it possible to bless the Lord and Father yet curse those who are made in the image of God. That we bless and we curse from the same mouth is but an indication of how dangerous the tongue is for those who have learned God will care for his world through patient suffering.

If James is right, and I certainly think he is, then how can I suggest to you that if you are to serve the church well in the ministry you must become a teacher and, in particular, a teacher of a language called Christian? I do so because I think the characterization of the challenges facing those going into the ministry is the result of the loss of the ability of Christians to speak the language of our faith. The accommodated character of the church is at least partly due to the failure of the clergy to help those they serve know how to speak Christian. To learn to be a Christian, to learn the discipline of the faith, is not just similar to learning another language. It is learning another language.

But to learn another language, to even learn to speak well the language you do not remember learning, is a time-consuming task. You are graduating from seminary, which I assume means that you have begun to learn how to speak as well as teach others how to talk, as we say in Texas, “right.” For as I suggested there is an essential relation between reading and speaking—it is through reading that we learn how to discipline our speech so that we say no more than needs to be said. I like to think that seminaries might be best understood as schools of rhetoric where, as James suggests, our bodies—and the tongue is flesh—are subject to disciplines necessary for the tongue to approach perfection.

That the tongue is flesh is a reminder that speech is, as James suggests, bodily. To speak well, to talk right, requires that our bodies be habituated by the language of the faith. To be so habituated requires constant repetition. Without repetition—and repetition is but another word for the worship of God—we are in danger of losing the grammar of the faith. At least part of your task as those called to the ministry is to help us, as good teachers do, acquire the habits of speech through the right worship of God’.

– Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Speaking Christian: A Commencement Address for Eastern Mennonite Seminary’, The Mennonite Quarterly Review 84 (2010), 441–44.

3 comments

  1. Does not Jesus spent a lot of his time in conflict with ministers who want the ‘ordinary’ folk to be more religious and put more and more theological burdens on them while Jesus just askes people to be good and caring no matter what the cost.

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