Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Pastoral Identity

My “Preparing for Seminary” column (below) was focused on helping those who anticipate going to a theological seminary or divinity school and studying for ministry to be academically prepared for the experience.  I didn’t focus on other kinds of preparation, e.g., being a person  who has cultivated good habits of prayer and biblical study; having experience as a layperson in visiting the sick or shut-ins, or helping folks with problems; short-term volunteer missions projects; hard work outside the professional classes, especially farm work or or union labor; practice in sharing one’s faith with others in a natural way, etc.–It could be argued that such experiences are as important, if not more so, in preparing for success in ministry–if not in seminary–than the academic preparation I stressed.

But many of the comments on that post, especially the disagreements over the importance of the biblical languages, were more about what should or should not be in a seminary/divinity school curriculum rather than what would be good preparation for the seminary experience as most such programs now exist.  I think these disagreements about what should/should not be emphasized in seminary curricula in preparation for pastoral ministry are rooted in disagreements about what a pastor should be.  It seems to me that several rival models are currently in vogue–at least in the U.S. scene I know best.  (International readers could enlighten me as to the rival models in their contexts. I am always trying to get beyond the “U.S. blinders” I know I have–and currently my opportunities to travel abroad are quite limited.)

  • The pastor as counselor or “cure of souls.”  Most, maybe all, of these images have biblical precedents, but this model took on much of its current shape in the Middle Ages–with modification since the rise of modern psychology.  If this is our dominant image of a pastor, then we want ministerial preparation to emphasize the skills of pastoral counseling, of visiting the sick and shut-ins.  We want seminary curricula to have tough requirements in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and we want ministers to know when they are in over their heads and need to refer counselees to others–depending on our theologies those “others” could be anything from exorcists to psychiatrists.
  • The pastor as evangelist-in-chief.  Now, far too many churches want their pastors to do ALL the evangelism of the congregation/parish.  I am going to assume readers agree with me in rejecting that idea.  I am also going to assume, given “Paul’s” advice to “Timothy” (this is how the text portrays things and I am bypassing debates over authorship for the purposes of this post) that most people take for granted that “the work of an evangelist” is part of pastoral identity.  But in this model evangelism is, perhaps, THE major function of the pastor and leading/empowering the congregation to be better evangelists as well.  Churches with this model often quize potential ministers for statistics on how many lives they have “reached for Jesus.” (Since it is impossible to look into people and see how many have “really been converted,” they use other stats–numbers of baptisms, increased church attendance, numbers of new members added, etc.)   If this is the model we adopt, then we want pastors who have been trained to be effective evangelists and effective at leading congregations to be evangelistic.
  • The pastor as worship leader.  Depending on theological tradition, this model can focus on the pastor as priest/celebrant of the sacraments, or the pastor as “cheerleader” (for lack of a better term) in focusing the congregation’s praise.  But regardless of worship “style,” if this is the model, one obviously wants seminary education to focus on liturgical theology and on preparing the pastor to be a worship leader, to celebrate the sacraments/ordinances and to shape the congregation/parish as a worshipping community.
  • The pastor as C.E.O.  This model is usually adopted by mega-churches and applies to the “SENIOR” pastor of a large staff of ordained and unordained ministers, plus office and support staff.  As my college friend “Fish” remarked in an earlier comment, there are business aspects to any church. I have served on finance committees (never my favorite task and my wife, Kate, is so much better–which is why she is in charge of the family finances!!) and I have been involved in drafting (or, later, modifying) articles of incorporation for a congregation.  Though a church is a non-profit (or, rather, the profits aren’t the kinds of things that accountants or the Internal Revenue Service can measure), it does have to make ends meet.  Ministries need money and buildings need repair, staff must be paid, church school curricula have to be purchased (in most cases), etc.  So, one wants ministerial preparation that includes business or accounting courses, courses in management and leadership style, and such matters.  But, the “pastor as CEO” model, it seems to me, overemphasizes the similarities of a church to a business–divides the laity from the “professional” staff, and tends to concentrate far too much power into the hands of the Senior Pastor.  Power tends to be from the top downward and, at least in the Free Church ecclesiology to which my own Baptist loyalties are part, that is wrong. The laity ARE the church and the leadership are to be servant-leaders.  The business and professional aspects of the church’s identity are real, but do not require anything like the CEO model for the church.
  • The pastor as social change agent.  Few pastors are called to be prophets in the same way as the Hebrew prophets. The minister as prophet usually has to function from the margins of traditional ministry, even as did the biblical prophets function largely from the margins.  And there is a corporate prophetic ministry for the church as a whole, apart from an individual charism.  But this model sees the pastor leading the congregation in a socially prophetic role–in engaging social injustice and working to correct it.  If this is our model, then we want ministerial preparation to emphasize the skills of community organizing as well as public speaking, and even skills in negotiating with people in power. 
  • The pastor as community leader.  A variation of the above model sees the pastor not so much as a community organizer, but as a public intellectual.  This model happens especially in smaller communities where, no matter who the elected or corporate figures are, the religious leaders of the community wield informal-but-real power to influence public opinion.  Here the pastor is likely to serve on several local committees or even the Chamber of Commerce, or, perhaps, has a column in the editorial section of the local newspaper.  If this is our model, we want a ministeral education that emphasizes the ability to articulate core values to wide audiences and, especially if the congregation is of a religious minority (e.g., a Pentecostal church in a heavily Catholic area; a Christian church in a Muslim nation, etc.) the pastor must know how to be the visible presence and “first interface” of the church with the wider culture.  But even in contexts where the town/community has a large overlap with the church’s membership, the pastor as community leader is still articulating the faith of the congregation in a more “public” or even “pluralistic” way than in other models.
  • The pastor as scholar.  The Christian church did not grow from the Jewish temple, but from the synagogue–an institution which developed in the Diaspora, that is where Jews were NOT the majority.  In this context, where they were aliens in strange lands, the rabbi was the interpreter of Torah, helping them learn to be faithful and follow the Law in conditions for which the Law was not designed.  The rabbi had to be a scholar.  So, likewise, from the beginning, Christian pastors have had to be interpreters of Scripture–including, after it was written and collected, the writings we call the New Testament.  Since, prior to the eschaton, we are permanently in Exile, ALWAYS aliens in strange lands (and the minute a Christian congregation thinks it is part of a “Christian nation,” it has begun to lose its identity), a major function of the pastor must be in aiding the congregation to know and live out the Story.  If this is our model, then we want ministerial preparation to incorporate habits of study and skills of interpretation.  I am not saying that every pastor needs to be a brilliant biblical scholar who could be published, e.g., in The Journal of Biblical Literature, or a brilliant theologian who will write the next Church Dogmatics, brilliant philosophers, or even brilliant church historians.  I do note that most of the great theologians have spent time as pastors (or missionaries, hospital chaplains, etc.) and that pastors who work at any theological discipline and enable the congregation to be, in their own way, disciple-theologians are a great service to the Church universal.

The difficulty for seminaries and for ministerial students, it seems to me, is that too many churches want pastors who are all of these things, in equal measure, all at once.  No one can do it all–which is an argument for plural ministry and empowered laity. 

September 12, 2007 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, labor, ministry, theological education | 7 Comments