Musings on Ministry and Theological Education

Anne MallabyA guest post from Anne Mallaby

Coming to the end of a formal pastoral leadership at Box Hill Baptist Church creates a moment to reflect upon ministry as it has been experienced in the local church context, and in my involvement in theological education within the formal educative process. Often this may have appeared to be a dance between separate spheres of academic theology and its practical outworking that could be at best considered a tension, and at worst placed as polarities. However, for me the concluding of formal pastoral leadership responsibilities does not mean that my love for the church as it strives to express the love of God in the world will stop. It continues, albeit in a different mode but contributing to both in ways that hopefully serve the realm of God expressed locally and more broadly.

For many years, I have lived out a model of ministry that sought to apply academic thought to practice by intentionally considering how academic thinking informs my practice, and, in turn, how my practice prompts more rigorous examination and understanding. The conversation between the two has provided a rich base for ministry, with experience informing theological thinking and the resources of the academy enriching my pastoral practice. I’ve delighted in that interesting dialogue that takes seriously the challenges of engaging with people, religious systems, and social phenomena, and that seeks to reflect theologically upon them. And, in truth, I’ve never been tempted to see this conversation as a one-sided one. We need the academy to distil the social data, the sources of our tradition, and the richness of our text. And the academy needs the practitioner to ask the questions, to prompt the exploration, to seek understanding. This has never been an either/or approach. The academy and the practice of ministry delight together in a dance that rises and falls, seeking to catch the rhythm of God with us.

Often when we turn our attention to intentional rigorous thought, searching to make sense of the many conundrums that come our way in ministry, we shy away from thinking of this as academic research. But to truly grapple with issues that lay before us, we need to understand deeply and fully as much as we can. If ministry on the run is our sole approach, we are likely to run full headlong into complex situations that have been over-simplified or run away from the opportunities for rich learning and engagement that will inform how we live.

I’ve needed the rigor of the academy to make sense of my practice, to stimulate my thinking, and to prompt me to extend my ideas and practice. But there is a compromise of resourcing and time. Trying to be abreast of the most current thinking, responding thoughtfully and intelligently to trends and contemporary questions, requires thinking through the implications and considering fresh paradigms of thought with as much energy as we can gather. We need the means of gathering that research and the skills to interpret it within our contexts, and we need people who have those skills and the time to support us in this endeavour.

Of course, we are all practitioners. We engage in community life with real people seeking to live well in God. We are practitioner-theologians in one sense. That said, we can’t all be on top of everything, and if we are to delight in new discoveries and to be open to new insights in our learning, then time and space need to be available for this. If I’m honest, even keeping up with the latest research is a challenge, let alone contributing to it!

As my formal ministry leadership role in a local church comes to an end, the question may be asked if I have sold out to the desire to live in books and ideas? This is not only a simplistic view of the Academy; it is flawed. Just as I’ve needed the rigor of academy to offer input and clarity along the way, so too I will need the community of God to raise up some of the questions that are important and that need to be explored. We all need people who have the capacity to discern clearly and to think deeply about important subjects that inform our living.

I am committed to informed and integrative learning as the way forward for our churches and our formational programs. And being informed requires thoughtful, intentional, attention to research and discovery. I’m excited to be a part of a team who are committed to doing this together.

§

Ed. Some related posts can be read here and here.

 

A Theology of Relational Ministry, with Andrew Root

I’m very pleased indeed to announce that Andy Root will be coming to Melbourne early next year to teach a one-week course on the theology of relational ministry. The course will be of interest to all involved in Christian ministry and leadership, from children’s ministry workers and youth pastors, to congregational ministers (ordained or lay), and to those working in aged care and various chaplaincy roles. More details will follow in due course, but here are the basics:

Promo 1

Promo 2

Pastors can’t win

Can't win

This all seems to ring true for women clergy too, for whom I’m sure that a number of further statements might be added. I’m not confident, brave, or stupid enough to speak for them, but invite their comments below.

On a more serious note, I’m really glad that pastors can’t win. Their job is, after all, meant to be impossible.

[Image: via Peter Weeks on Facebook]

Theology for ministry

Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi, Untitled, 1972

Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi, Untitled, 1972

Alister McGrath’s very good and timely comment on the Church of England’s Resourcing Ministerial Education document echoes observations made by many others. John de Gruchy, for example, in his excellent little book, Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis: A South African Perspective, writes:

In Germany the title ‘theologian’ refers in the first place not to the academic theologian but to the pastor. It is the primary designation within the Protestant churches of an ordained minister. Yet few priests or pastors would regard themselves as such, especially within the Anglo-Saxon world. In his book Ferment in the Ministry, the north American pastoral psychologist Seward Hiltner imagined the possible responses which ordained ministers would give to a Gallup Poll which asked the question: ‘Do you regard yourself as a theologian?’

  • 31% said, ‘Well, I am a minister, but you could hardly call me a theologian.’
  • 22% said, ‘It is true I have studied theology, but I am not really a theologian.’
  • 17% replied, ‘Brother, I sure ain’t. I’m only a simple parson, not one of those highpowered book guys.’
  • 8% admitted, ‘Well, I guess I am, in a way, but I am more interested in serving people than in theology.’
  • 7% said, ‘Where did you get that idea? And don’t do it again.’
  • 4% replied, ‘I am about twice a year, when I go back to the alumni lectures.’
  • 2% said, ‘Pardon me, I have to rush to a funeral.’
  • 1% snorted, ‘I wonder who thought up that question?’
  • 0.9% said, ‘Yes.’

Why is there this reluctance on the part of ordained ministers, to regard themselves as theologians, and, on the part of some, especially Anglo-Saxons and their heirs, why is there such antipathy towards theology? In the Germanic world the traditional tendency and temptation is precisely the opposite, to glory in the title ‘theologian’, and to create theologies remote from Christian praxis and existence in the world. Helmut Thielicke has a German audience in mind when, in his A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, he writes about the ‘pathology of the young theologian’s conceit’. Yet even in Germany the idea that the ordained minister’s self-perception is that of a theologian cannot be assumed. At Christmas in 1939 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter to his former students:

How superficial and flippant, especially of theologians, to send theology to the knacker’s yard, to make out that one is not a theologian and doesn’t want to be, and in so doing to ridicule one’s own ministry and ordination and in the end to have, and to advocate, a bad theology instead of a good one!

This attitude parallels the tendency within the church generally to disparage theology in the interests of ‘practical Christianity’.

Theology has a bad name amongst many theological students and ordained ministers, not primarily because of their modesty but because they fail to grasp its vital necessity and relevance to their vocation. Indeed, they may even regard it as something detrimental to their calling and the life and mission of the church. There are theological students who regard the study of theology as an unfortunate requirement for ordination, rather than as that which should provide the focus for their work. The image of a theologian is academic, intellectual, and far-removed from the everyday tasks of the parish minister. Much of the blame for this must be laid at the door of university departments of theology, theological colleges and seminaries, and those of us who teach in them. Theology has too often been taught in ways which reduce it to idealistic abstractions, and result in its rejection as a useful, indeed, essential part of the mission of the church and therefore of the ordained ministry. After all, the value of theology taught as a series of independent academic disciplines lacking both coherence or direction and unrelated to biblical vision or faith, is not self-evident for the Christian community struggling to be faithful in the midst of the world. This situation needs to be radically transformed if theology is to become the vocation of the ordained minister, and central to the total ministry of the church, and not simply be regarded as the peculiar province of scholars.

In John T. McNeill’s magnificent A History of the Cure of Souls, there is what we might call a ‘give-away’ comment which reinforces my argument that the ordained minister, is primarily a theologian. McNeill refers to the fact that ‘Jean Daniel Benoit, the expert on Calvin’s work in the cure of souls, states boldly that the Genevan Reformer was more a pastor than theologian’, but he then continues, ‘to be exact, he was a theologian in order to be a better pastor’. Conversely, in his introduction to Karl Barth’s essays, Against the Stream, Alec Vidler has this perceptive comment about the theologian’s theologian, Karl Barth: ‘I was aware of a quality or style about him which is hard to define. It may perhaps best be called pastoral, so long as this is not understood as a limitation.’ Christian pastors are called to be theologians, and those whom we normally designate theologians may well be pastors …

The primary task of the ministry of the Word and Sacraments is to enable the upbuilding of the church in such a way that it is always pointed beyond itself to the reign of God in Jesus Christ in the midst of the world. Its task is to keep the People of God mindful of the tradition of Jesus, crucified and risen, and what this means for their lives and the praxis of the church today. Its task is to enable the church to be faithful to its identity as the People of God in the world, discerning who God is and what God requires of them. In this way the ministry of the Word and Sacraments is, literally speaking, church leadership because it provides theological direction for the mission of the People of God in the world.

The matter is also taken up directly by Karl Barth. In his Evangelical Theology, written in part to speak to ‘the present-day younger generation’ and clearly with an eye on encouraging budding preachers, Barth raises issues that remain relevant to our own time, and aims his challenge not at the feet of pastors alone but also at the feet of the entire Christian community, and of those who consider themselves to be ‘Christian’:

Since the Christian life is consciously or unconsciously also a witness, the question of truth concerns not only the community but the individual Christian. He too is responsible for the quest for truth in this witness. Therefore, every Christian as such is also called to be a theologian. How much more so those who are specially commissioned in the community, whose service is preeminently concerned with speech in the narrower sense of the term! It is always a suspicious phenomenon when leading churchmen [and churchwomen] (whether or not they are adorned with a bishop’s silver cross), along with certain fiery evangelists, preachers, or well-meaning warriors for this or that practical Christian cause, are heard to affirm, cheerfully and no doubt also a bit disdainfully, that theology is after all not their business. “I am not a theologian; I am an administrator!” a high-ranking English churchman once said to me. And just as bad is the fact that not a few preachers, after they have exchanged their student years for the routine of practical service, seem to think that they are allowed to leave theology behind them as the butterfly does its caterpillar existence, as if it were an exertion over and done with for them. This will not do at all. Christian witness must always be forged anew in the fire of the question of truth. Otherwise it can in no case and at no time be a witness that is substantial and responsible, and consequently trustworthy and forceful. Theology is no undertaking that can be blithely surrendered to others by anyone engaged in the ministry of God’s Word. It is no hobby of some especially interested and gifted individuals. A community that is awake and conscious of its commission and task in the world will of necessity be a theologically interested community. This holds true in still greater measure for those members of the community who are specially commissioned …

A little later on Barth says that all theology ought to be undertaken for the sake of the Community and its witness to the Word of God; neither of which, by the way, are served particularly well by the high levels of egotistical testosterone that characterise much academia:

Theology would be an utter failure if it should place itself in some elegant eminence where it would be concerned only with God, the world, man, and some other items, perhaps those of historical interest, instead of being theology for the community. Like the pendulum which regulates the movements of a clock, so theology is responsible for the reasonable service of the community. It reminds all its members, especially those who have greater responsibilities, how serious is their situation and task. In this way it opens for them the way to freedom and joy in their service.

(One of the things highlighted (some 17 times!) in the C of E report is the focus on so-called ‘lay’ ministry (still an ugly, clumsy, and theologically-preposterous concept. Can’t Anglicans, who might still, even in these darkened years, be the champions of theo-speak in the Anglophone world, find a better word?). Interpreted kindly, it’s a nod to the fact that the church in toto is a theological community, and an expression of the fact that theological education is on the way to being liberated from its clergy-centric shackles, even if many of the pressures for such a move have principally not been theological in nature.)

Whenever I think about the strange place of a pastor as a member and resident theologian of a theo-hermeneutical community, I remember one of my favourite passages in Jürgen Moltmann’s autobiography, A Broad Place:

With my doctorate, I at first felt a fool standing in the pulpit in front of this farming congregation. But earlier I had lived with workers and farmers in ‘the hard school of life’, and it was out of these experiences that I preached, not from my Göttingen lecture notes. This congregation taught me ‘the shared theology of all believers’, the theology of the people. Unless academic theology continually turns back to this theology of the people, it becomes abstract and irrelevant. For the fact is that theology is not just something for theological specialists; it is a task laid on the whole people of God, all congregations and every believer. I only got into difficulties when I used the same sermon for the student congregation in Bremen and the farmers in Wasserhorst. The farmers were not interested in questions about the meaning of life and were not going through any adolescent orientation crises. They trusted in God and loved the Ten Commandments. When my elders rolled their eyes, I knew that I had lost them. So they guided me and preached to me.

My own personal theology developed as I went from house to house and visited the sick. If things went well, on Monday I learnt the text for the following Sunday’s sermon, took it with me as I visited the congregation, and then knew what I had to say in my sermon. Here a ‘hermeneutical circle’ developed, not the one between textual interpretation and one’s own private interpretation, as in Bultmann, but the one between textual interpretation and the experience of a community of people, in their families, among their neighbours, and in their work. In conversations, in teaching, and in preaching I came to believe that this was a shared theology of believers and doubters, the downcast and the consoled.

So McGrath: ‘It’s the theology, stupid’.

Bearing the Unbearable: Trauma, Gospel and Pastoral Care

Next week, Dunedin will host Professor Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger. During her stay, she will deliver a public lecture (details below). If her books on pastoral care be any guide, this will be a ‘Do Not Miss’ event. If you are in Dunedin, I strongly encourage you to come along and, in the meantime, to help spread the word.

D van Deusen Hunsinger poster

An ordination liturgy

Mundane Appreciation

In my perpetual hunt for liturgical resources that are theologically judicious (which means, among other things, being grounded enough in the earth as it is so as not to be spouting liturgical bullshit) – something which is not as easy a task as one might hope – I happened across this ‘Ordination Liturgy’ from the Methodist Church of Singapore:

We are not ordaining you to ministry; that happened at your baptism.

We are not ordaining you to be a caring person; you are already called to that.

We are not ordaining you to serve the Church in committees, activities, organisation; that is already implied in your membership.

We are not ordaining you to become involved in social issues, ecology, race, politics, revolution, for that is laid upon every Christian.

We are ordaining you to something smaller and less spectacular: to read and interpret those sacred stories of our community, so that they speak a word to people today; to remember and practice those rituals and rites of meaning that in their poetry address human beings at the level where change operates; to foster in community through word and sacrament that encounter with truth which will set men and women free to minister as the body of Christ.

We are ordaining you to the ministry of the word and sacraments and pastoral care. God grant you grace not to betray but uphold it, not to deny but affirm it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Well put, Methodists!

 

God and Story in Church and Doctrine: a seminar with Paul Fiddes

Fiddes seminar

Carlton Johnstone’s Embedded Faith – a review

Carlton Johnstone, Embedded Faith: the faith journeys of young adults within church communities (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013). ISBN: 9871625641236; 213pp.

 A guest review by Geoff New

I have been aware of Carlton Johnstone’s work for some time. The thought of reading his book was akin to the thought of going to the dentist; I probably need to but I’m scared of the pain that will no doubt result. The anticipated pain of reading this book was centred on the anxiety I held about the young adults in my congregation. Why? I’m jealous for the young adults in my congregation because I have pastored them since they were in primary school. The prospect of reading this work was like hearing what your children have been up to from other ‘concerned parents’. Denial was a tantalising option. Nevertheless, I decided I needed a check-up so I read the book. Spoiler alert: insofar as the emotional effect upon me as a pastor, it was exactly as a dental assistant once said to me, ‘Today dentistry is a painless exercise’. Surprisingly!

Allow me to begin with a generalisation. For a busy minister who will be choosy about what they read and for how long, Embedded Faith is not an easy read. It is very academic in style and its main discipline is sociological rather than theological. If you are intending to buy this book, it’s important to know that. Also, this is not a how-to book; it is a what’s-happening-and-why book. As a reader, you will find a helpful map of what lies ahead in the Introduction (pp. xvi–xvii). Orientate yourself with this and then begin reading with your own people in mind.

Allow me to continue with what might appear as a painfully obvious point. Different chapters and sections will resonate and challenge leaders depending on the nature of their context and the length of time they have been in such a place. For me, I was intrigued with the chapters entitled ‘Worship and Modes of Engagement’, and ‘Preaching and Interpretative Communities’. What struck me about the findings articulated in these chapters was that with good authentic relationships with young adults, anxious leaders do not have a lot to be anxious about. Urban myths about what younger generations are after are debunked by the stories, experiences, and aspirations shared in these pages. Yes, there is work to be done but there is less of a them-and-us dynamic going on than is often claimed. This book, to a significant degree, is actually a tribute to the spirituality and conscientiousness of young adults that God has graced the church with.

The book reaches a conclusion where Carlton coins the phrase ‘two-timing’ to describe the spiritual practice of young adults attending two churches. At risk of over-simplifying this conclusion, a main feature is that it takes more than one church for the participants described in this book to enjoy spiritual nourishment. Outrageous? Well, in reading that section my mind went to Revelation 1–3 when the ascended and glorified Christ appeared to the apostle John on the island of Patmos. He then addressed the seven churches of Asia Minor at that time. His opening comment to each of the churches featured one or more aspect of the original description of Christ in Revelation 1.12–16; but no church had the entire vision presented. In other words, it took all seven churches to present the full vision of Christ. Maybe that’s where this research is heading? By the book’s end I was wishing for more application and reflection in terms of ‘what-now?’ It is there, but it is all too brief and general.

In my view, this work calls forth a commitment to a particular kind of open-hearted relationship with young adults. As mentioned earlier, it is not an easy read due to its academic style and referencing; but it is an empowering voice for young adults and encouraging for over-anxious pastors who feel like they are in the dentist chair.

 

_____________________________________

Ed. In the spirit of both full disclosure and sheer delight, Carlton is one of my students. This means, among other things, that I am particularly happy to give his book a wee plug here at PCaL. – JG.

 

The 1884 Model Minister

The 1884 Model Minister

It seems that Qoheleth was right, yet again:

All things are wearisome;
    more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
    or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
    ‘See, this is new’?
It has already been,
    in the ages before us. (Eccl. 1.8–10)

[The image is taken from Ian Breward, ‘1871–1901: Clamant Needs, Determined Battlers’, in Presbyterians in Aotearoa, 1840–1990, ed. Dennis McEldowney (Wellington: Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, 1990), 50.]

Abused by a priest

image

[Source: The Age, 17 May 2014]

Waiting Without Justification: Broodings on Vocation in Conversation with Merton’s Letters

The Hidden Ground of LoveA guest post by Chris Green

Last summer, I read a collection of Thomas Merton’s letters, The Hidden Ground of Love (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1985). I was affected most deeply by some of Merton’s responses to the letters of then up-and-coming feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, exchanges that took place in 1966 and 67, near the end of Merton’s life—he died in December 68—and at the beginning of Reuther’s career.

The correspondence begins with Ruether’s letter of August 12, 1966. She is grateful to have heard of Merton’s appreciation for an article she had recently published, and wonders if she might send him the manuscript of her work, The Church Against Itself. Their earliest letters are warm if lively exchanges, the friendly back-and-forth of kindred spirits. He’s direct about his struggles with Catholic hierarchy—“I do wonder at times if the Church is real at all … Am I part of a great big hoax?”—and he always writes under the assumption that she shares his vision and his experience. Early in 1967, however, Ruether delivered a few stinging criticisms of the monastic life. In the following few letters, he writes with an edge, attempting to correct what he takes to be her fundamental misapprehension of his vocation. At points he stops just short of out-and-out rebuke. Still, he never hides the fact that her criticisms open old wounds in him, wounds that obviously have not healed and are not healing.

For example, in a letter dated 19 March, Merton remarks how he finds himself wanting to shake off his monastic orders, to make his way out to the “big-time struggle” in the world beyond his hermitage. Bluntly put, he wants to be “more effective” in real-world matters. He nonetheless insists that he cannot abandon his given way of life. To do so, he insists, would mark a “real betrayal of the Kingdom.” In his experience, most if not all of the monks who abandon the monastery in hopes of making a more significant impact in the wider world soon lose their way entirely. So, in spite of himself, he knows he’s not going to up and leave his post.

A few weeks after (in a letter from 9 April), Merton seems to reach a kind of resolution, writing that he’s convinced he must pursue his own way, “marginal and lost” as it is, without any rationale or apology. The monk’s life, he says, is not supposed to be explained, only lived.

But judging by the letters that follow, he hadn’t really convinced himself.

***

Taken as a whole, these letters suggest that even after a quarter century of immersion in the monastic life, Merton could not rest in his calling. We sense, in and under his words, an agonizing unsettledness. If just for a moment he seems to have found his footing—some surety about what he’s bound to do and why it’s good for him to do it—the very next moment the ground drops out from under him. What troubles him most, it seems, is a nagging sense that he’s not living truthfully, that somehow he’s been deceived and so is deceiving others. In one of the March letters, Merton had admitted to Reuther that his previous responses weren’t adequately honest, and that her criticisms, inaccurate as they may have been on some points, had nevertheless struck a nerve. He acknowledges the depth of his uncertainty:

Problem: unrecognized assumption of my own that I have to get out of here. Below that: recognition that life here is to some extent (not entirely) a lie and that I can no longer just say the community lies and I don’t. With that: sense of being totally unable to do anything about it that is not a feeble gesture. But the genuine realization that this is my vocation, but that I have not yet found the way of being really true to it. Rock bottom: I don’t know what is down there. I just don’t know.

The monastic life, he acknowledges bluntly, is “an idol.” Not that he despises his fellow monks. They are “idiots,” he knows, but they remain nonetheless God’s idiots—and just so are his brothers, his responsibility. He recognizes that it’s his vanity that aches to belong to “a really groovy worldly in-group,” and he knows better than to surrender to such temptation. The solidarity required of him begins with loving these very idiots, many of whom have given themselves over to what he can see as this idolatrous form of the monastic life. Such a life, which he cannot but experience as “exile, humiliation, desperation,” he knows is nonetheless the chosen way for him—and better than whatever alternatives he might find for himself.

Again, however, Merton’s resolution, such as it is, holds only for a little while. After a few months, the language of despair surfaces again:

I hang on in desperation to what I think I have been called to, trusting not in it but in the mercy of Christ, who knows better than I that it isn’t real, but that it is at least a choice. And there don’t seem to be more meaningful ones around, for me, all things considered.

***

What sustained Merton through all of this “exile, humiliation, desperation”? Not mere resignation—although he certainly sounds fatalistic at times. No, I think he had in his depths some small but lively hope that God was in fact using his unsettledness somehow for his (and others’) good. He trusted, even against hope, that through this disquiet God was working to deliver him from damning fantasies and pretentions, saving him from delusions about the effectiveness of his work and from “wish-dreams” about the community to which he was called. He wanted to live free of such idolatries. And I think he tried at least to offer that kind of hope as a cry for mercy.

Maybe there is a kairos coming, but I have no notion where or when. I am in the most uncomfortable and unenviable position of waiting without any justification, without a convincing explanation, and without any assurance except that it seems to be what God wants of me and that this kind of desperation is what it means for me to be without idols—I hope.

***

Frederick Buechner has said that we find our vocation just at the point that our “deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” For some people, perhaps, that turns out to be true. But at least for a few of us, vocation is not nearly so gladdening or fulfilling. For some of us, finding and living our calling feels at least at times like protracted martyrdom.

If that seems unnecessarily dire—or “unhealthy,” as we are wont to say—we should perhaps recall the Lord’s response to Paul’s desire to have his “thorn” removed (2 Cor 12.7). I suspect that some of us simply cannot remain true to the gospel in any serious sense if we do not at least at times find ourselves “thorned” into desperation, if we are not riled by a sanctified and sanctifying discomfort. Like Merton, we won’t be free to find the truth of our calling—or to learn how to be true to it—without also facing how untrue it all feels to us. Maybe we’re never going to move into our vocation until we learn what it means to wait without justification or assurance in the fires of idol-destroying desperation? Perhaps such endurance becomes possible only as we’re wasting away on the margins of what seems most important? Maybe it’s only in exile that we find our way?

‘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.

REMEMBER.

“TO SIT ALONE IN THE LAMPLIGHT WITH A BOOK SPREAD OUT BEFORE
YOU, AND HOLD INTIMATE CONVERSE WITH [PEOPLE] OF UNSEEN GENERATIONS—
SUCH IS A PLEASURE BEYOND COMPARE.”—Kenko Yoshida

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.

REVEL.

“BOOKS, BOOKS, BOOKS . . . LIKE SOME SMALL NIMBLE MOUSE BETWEEN
THE RIBS OF A MASTODON, I NIBBLED HERE AND THERE AT THIS OR
THAT BOX . . . THE FIRST BOOK FIRST. AND HOW I FELT IT BEAT UNDER
MY PILLOW, IN THE MORNING’S DARK. AN HOUR BEFORE THE SUN
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.

CONVERSE.

“READING FURNISHES THE MIND ONLY WITH MATERIALS OF
KNOWLEDGE;IT IS THINKING THAT MAKES WHAT WE READ OURS.”—John Locke

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.

CREATE.

“YOU ARE THE SAME TODAY THAT YOU ARE GOING TO BE IN FIVE YEARS
FROM NOW EXCEPT FOR TWO THINGS: THE PEOPLE WITH WHOM YOU
ASSOCIATE AND THE BOOKS YOU READ.”—Charles Jones

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

Graveside

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

wood-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 …

SAMSUNGReading:

Listening

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.”

What?

“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.”

Do you love me?

Stanley Hauerwas is always worth listening to. Here he is preaching on Jesus’ words, ‘Do you believe in love me?’, at the recent closing convocation at Duke Divinity School: