On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part VI

In a previous post in this series, I drew attention to a study leave project undertaken by Diane Gilliam-Weeks. I suspect that Diane is right (especially so long as the practices she is encouraging are built in to the formation process rather than treated as an isolated subject), but the issue painted thus threatens to individualise both problem and solution. For the high rate of clergy burnout reflects not only sick persons but also sick institutions; churches, as PT Forsyth put it,

‘that seem to live in an atmosphere of affable bustle, where all is heart and nothing is soul, where men decay and worship dies. There is an activity which is an index of more vigour than faith, more haste than speed, more work than power. It is sometimes more inspired by the business passion of efficiency than the Christian passion of fidelity or adoration. Its aim is to make the concern go rather than to compass the Righteousness of God. We want to advance faster than faith can, faster than is compatible with the moral genius of the Cross, and the law of its permanent progress. We occupy more than we can hold. If we take in new ground we have to resort to such devices to accomplish it that the tone of religion suffers and the love or care for Christian truth. And the preacher, as he is often the chief of sinners in this respect, is also the chief of sufferers. And so we may lose more in spiritual quality than we gain in Church extension. In God’s name we may thwart God’s will. Faith, ceasing to be communion, becomes mere occupation, and the Church a scene of beneficent bustle, from which the Spirit flees. Religious progress outruns moral, and thus it ceases to be spiritual in the Christian sense, in any but a vague pious sense’. – The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ, 119.

Rick Floyd, too, has recently reminded us, rightly in my view, that ‘much [though certainly not all: beware the scapegoat!] of what passes for burnout is merely the symptoms of an untenable arrangement’. He continues: ‘Clergy have both sold and been sold a bill of goods that they can neither deliver to the church nor receive delivery from the church. And since the mainline churches (at least in America) are an institution experiencing a half-century of precipitous institutional decline the opportunities for failure and disappointment are almost limitless. The measures of success the world values will most likely elude the minister. Indeed, a “successful minister” is an anomaly in a faith with a cross at its center. It takes a hearty sense of Christian vocation to handle this. For many the very nature of the task will get you quickly to burnout. And, as the models for ministry has become increasingly professionalized, more and more ministers will find themselves wondering what they have got themselves into. The prescriptions for burnout typically ignore this fundamental disconnect between Christian vocation and cultural expectation. They only address the symptoms … So clergy burnout seems to me to be largely about the identity crisis of the mainline church, and the vocational crisis of its ministers. And a realistic assessment of the situation from a worldly point of view offers little to be hopeful about’.

There are, of course, other things that might be profitably explored in a series of posts like this, such as how a theology of creation, of vocation (as Rick highlights), and of Sabbath might inform the habits and identity of ministers of Word and Sacrament and of the communities of the baptised they serve with. But I want to suggest a different tact here, and it’s one motivated by what I observe as a distinct lack of christology (and its anthropological and ecclesiological implications) in the conversations that typically take place whenever discussions on clergy welfare arise. I am here guided by those insightful words from Karl Barth: ‘An abstract doctrine of the work of Christ will always tend secretly in a direction where some kind of Arianism or Pelagianism lies in wait’ (CD IV/1, 128).

We must not attempt to veil or bury the issues and pains that attend pastoral ministry by hiding behind theological jargon. Rather, we must, in fact, to do the opposite – to expose these issues and pains. And the Christian theologian will want to undertake such exposure in light of the ministry of God in Jesus Christ, and that in order to, among other things, see if there are what Lorine Niedecker calls ‘atmosnoric pressure[s]’ at work. My conviction is that there is much to be gained in thinking more deeply through some of the implications of what it means when the Church claims that to follow Jesus’ cruciform example by suffering with those who suffer, and working to relieve and eliminate suffering, carries one into the place of God’s own suffering in the world. While I am passionate about the urgency of promoting and practicing better clergy ‘wellness’, anyone who has drunk from 2 Corinthians (and other places) will know that there remains something inherently fundamental in the very nature of Christian ministry itself that will not and cannot and must not seek insulation from the cruciform suffering that attends our witness to the God of the cross and which constitutes the ethical dimension of the theology of the cross found throughout the NT and in the Christian tradition. [I have touched on this elsewhere]. The living Christ remains the crucified one, and cruciformity means Spirit-enabled conformity to, and participation in, the life of the crucified and resurrected Christ. It is the ministry of the living Christ, who re-shapes all relationships and responsibilities to express the self-giving, and so life-giving, love of God that was manifest in the action of the cross. Although cruciformity often (and perhaps always) includes suffering, at its heart cruciformity is about faithfulness and love. Cruciformity, moreover, is concerned with what a friend of mine calls ‘kenotic, and not self-abnegating love’, a love for God, for others, and for oneself as a child of God and member of God’s community whether proleptically or ‘already’. What I mean is that while there is a suffering which comes from sin, hardness of heart, selfishness, hatred and greed, etc. – i.e., from a refusal to live in the reality of our forgiveness and to embrace the means of grace given us – there is also a suffering which comes in the cause of the Gospel itself (2 Cor 4.7–15; 6.4–10; Isa 50.4–11). This includes, but is not limited to, the suffering that arises in seeing people’s hearts harden to the Gospel. Such is the privilege of service: ‘Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’ (1 Cor 13.7). And at the same time faith actually grows under the pressures (Acts 5.41; Jn 15.18–27). Barth may have been thinking along these lines when he penned these words:

‘For when man stands in the service of God, he must be able sometimes, and perhaps for long periods, to be still, to wait, to keep silence, to suffer and therefore to be without the other kind of capacity … The power which comes from Him is the capacity to be high or low, rich or poor, wise or foolish. It is the capacity for success or failure, for moving with the current or against it, for standing in the ranks or for solitariness. For some it will be almost always be only the one, for others only the other, but usually it will be both for all of us in rapid alternation … Either way, it is grace, being for each of us exactly that which God causes to be allotted to us’. (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3/4 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1961), 396, 397)

Uncle Karl also knew that the ministry of the gospel is also a cause of constant joy, not because suffering in and of itself is enjoyable but because it involves at its heart a participation in the life of the God of joy. So, he wrote: ‘The real test of our joy of life as a commanded and therefore a true and good joy is that we do not evade the shadow of the cross of Jesus Christ and are not unwilling to be genuinely joyful even as we bear the sorrows laid upon us’. (Barth, CD 3/4, 396, 397).


Other posts in this series:

From the sentiment of Christ’s babyhood to the fellowship of his death

A word of encouragement to those who may be preaching on Philippians 2.5–11 this week:

‘The centre of the Incarnation is where Christ placed the focus of His work—not at the beginning of His life, but at its end; not in the manger, but in the cross. The key to the Incarnation is not in the cradle, but in the cross. The light on Bethlehem falls from Calvary. The virtue lies in some act done by Christ; and He Himself did no act in His birth, but in His death He did the act of the universe. The soul of the Incarnation does not lie in His being born of a pure virgin; but it lies in the death of His pure soul and the perfect obedience of His will as a propitiation for the sins of the world. God was in Christ as reconciler, not as prodigy. The key to the Incarnation lies, not in the miracle performed on His mother, but in the act of redemption performed by Himself. Christ’s great work on our behalf was not in assuming our nature at birth, but in what He did with the nature we call assumed. Men were not redeemed by Christ being born as He was, but by His dying as He did. It is that which establishes His power over us sinners. It is that which makes His real value to our souls, because it is there that He atones, expiates, reconciles. It is that which gives chief value to His entrance in the world—not that He was miraculously born, but that He was born to die and redeem. The saving humiliation was not that of the manger but of the cross. It was a humiliation not inflicted or imposed, but achieved. And the self-emptying behind all was one to be explained, not by anything happening to Him in His humble birth, but by what happened through Him in His humiliating death. If He had not been born in that way, and yet had died as He did, He would still have been our reconciliation with God, our Redeemer from the curse, and our Saviour from the sin of the soul and of the race. The power of His Incarnation has become so weak among men, for one reason, because its explanation has been sought at the wrong end of His life. The wonder has been transferred from Good Friday to Christmas, from the festival of the second birth to the festival of the first, from redemption to nativity, from the fellowship of His death to the sentiment of His babyhood’. – PT Forsyth, God the Holy Father, 40–1.

A love which overflows from fullness

The Incarnation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God (edited by Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall and Gerald O’Collins) is a fascinating collection of essays from a theologically and ecumenically diverse group of scholars, including  NT Wright, Gordon Fee, Jean-Noël Aletti, Sarah Coakley, Stephen T. Davis, David Brown, and others. It also includes a piece by C. Stephen Evans in which he defends a brand of kenoticism, convinced (rightly in my view) that some form of kenotic christology does most justice to the NT’s accounts of Jesus and that it is possible to provide an account of kenoticism that does not in any way abrogate the claims of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. This is precisely what Evans sets out to do in this essay.

In conversation with Stephen Davis, Ronald Feenstra and Richard Swinburne (why does he go there?), Evans proposes that God’s gracious decision to enflesh – because it is a decision fully laden with soteriological intent – is necessarily best understood as a decision to assume certain limitations. This is the shape of love. Along the way, Evans cites this beautiful passage from W.H. Vanstone, among whose many further contributions, as Jim Gordon reminded us some years back, was to ‘sell the vicarage furniture to pay for the repair of the church roof!’ (Paul Fromont also posted some good stuff from Vanstone some time back). Anyway, enough waffle, here’s the quote:

‘Trinitarian theology asserts that God’s love for his creation is not the love that is born of ‘emptiness’ … It is the love which overflows from fullness. Its analogue is the love of a family who, united in mutual love, take an orphan into the home. They do so not out of need but in the pure spontaneity of their own triumphant love. Nevertheless, in the weeks that follow, the family, once complete in itself, comes to need the newcomer. Without him the circle is now incomplete; his absence now causes anxiety: his waywardness brings concern; his goodness and happiness are necessary to those who have come to love him; upon his response depends the triumph or the tragedy of the family’s love … Love has surrendered its triumphant self-sufficiency and created its own need. This is the supreme illustration of love’s self-giving or self-emptying – that it should surrender its fullness and create in itself the emptiness of need. Of such a nature is the Kenosis of God – the self-emptying of Him Who is already in every way fulfilled’. – William Hubert Vanstone, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense: The Response of Being to the Love of God (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1977), 69.

Steve Holmes evaluates McCormack’s TF Torrance Lectures

After posting his four reflections, Steve Holmes (who is obviously not lecturing this week and so has more time to devote to blogdom) now stands back and asks, ‘How to evaluate McCormack’s novel account of kenosis?’ He writes:

On trinity: ‘… it seems to me that [McCormack’s] basic position is securely orthodox, certainly much more so than all of the recent theology that, misled by the word ‘Person’, insists on finding three instances of many or most divine properties (will; operation; knowledge; …) within the Godhead.’

On creation: ‘If there is a criticism which is in danger of sticking, I think it is to do with creation.’

On kenosis: ‘McCormack’s account of kenosis is, or at least could easily be rendered, orthodox. Is it, however, compelling? Alongside the constructive work in these lectures was a line of critique of classical Christology which established the need for the fresh construction. Simply and bluntly, I found this critique unconvincing. It was, in essence, Herrmann’s critique of metaphysics: the problem with Christology prior to Schleiermacher was its investment in certain metaphysical commitments that were alien to the gospel. This led to irreconcilable tensions, in patristic Christology, which only Cyril’s (supposed) Origenism allowed him to escape, and throughout the tradition into the nineteenth century, with the incompatibility of the anhypostasia and dithelitism coming to the fore. It is these metaphysical commitments, giving rise to the tensions they do, that drive the need for a revisionist Christology … I don’t feel the pressure that is driving Bruce.’

Full post here.

Bruce McCormack’s TF Torrance Lectures – Lecture 4

Steve Holmes has posted his fourth reflection of McCormack’s recent TF Torrance lectures at St Andrews. He writes of Bruce’s proposal:

Let me approach it like this: it is a standard thesis of classical theology that God’s being is His act; further, God’s act is single, and simple. This is, of course, already a problem, at least if one wants to continue to maintain that God’s existence is independent of the created order: St Thomas devotes considerable ingenuity to explaining how God’s act of creation can happen without any change in God (1a q.45 arts 2 &3). When Barth brings the doctrine of election into the doctrine of God (it is treated in the second part-volume of vol. II, not the first of vol. III), and links election closely to incarnation, the problem becomes acute. However, the gains of Barth’s novel doctrine of election are sufficiently obvious that almost every serious (Protestant) theological proposal of the second half of the twentieth century chose to face the problems, rather than lose the gains.

In general, and in one way or another, the problems were eliminated in the later twentieth century by the simple expedient of losing the axiom of impassibility, properly understood: if God’s life is allowed to be dependent on creation, there is no problem. The single greatest merit of Bruce’s proposal, it seems to me, is that he is not prepared to play this game. Instead, he develops a novel account of kenosis.

Read the full post here. I have linked to all of Steve’s notes here, and I hope to post my notes from these lectures sometime soon.

Also, around the traps …

  • Locke and Mill both believed in being open to the other side’s ideas. Read here.
  • Andy and Jim (part 1; part 2) have both posted reviews on Rob Warner’s, Re-inventing English Evangelicalism 1966-2001: A Theological and Sociological Study
  • Barry Smith of Birkbeck College London gives a lucid account of Wittgenstein’s conception of Philosophy in this MP3.
  • Stanley Fish asks, ‘Will the humanities save us?’. He concludes:

Teachers of literature and philosophy are competent in a subject, not in a ministry. It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then do they do? They don’t do anything, if by “do” is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.

    To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said … diminishes the object of its supposed praise.


    ‘And thus we shall have to posit the incarnation itself precisely in the fact that he, the eternal Son of God, the second person of the deity, gave himself over into the form of human limitation, and thereby to the limits of a spatio-temporal existence, under the conditions of a human development, in the bounds of an historical concrete being, in order to live in and through our nature the life of our race in the fullest sense of the word, without on that account ceasing to be God. Only so does there occur an actual entrance into humanity, an actual becoming-one with it, a becoming-man of God; and only so does there result that historical person of the mediator which we know to be the God-man’. – Gottfried Thomasius, ‘Christ’s Person and Work. Part II: The Person of the Mediator’, in God and Incarnation in Mid-Nineteenth Century German Theology (ed. Claude Welch; A Library of Protestant Thought; New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), 48.

    O where, o where have all the good kenoticists gone? Christology needs them now more than ever.