Public Theology as Pastoral Ministry: a book review

Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan aim to recover a theological vision for pastoral ministry. The Pastor As Public Theologian diagnoses our contemporary anemia as “[t]oo many pastors have exchanged their vocational birthright for a bowl of lentil stew (Genesis 25:29-34; Heb. 12:16): management skills, strategic plans, “leadership” courses, therapeutic techniques, and so forth”(1). Pastors are recast as CEOs, therapuetic gurus, managers, life coaches, community activists, storytellers, political agitators and a host of other images borrowed from secular culture (7-9). With the bifurcation of academic theology from practical disciplines, pastors increasing are leaving theology to the academics and rooting their identity in these secular cultural images.

9780801097713So Vanhoozer and Strachan propose recovery. The publican theologian is a scholar saint deeply invested in people’s lives, sound doctrine, and biblical faith. They unfurl their proposal with a brief introduction (written by Vanhoozer), an examination of biblical and historical images for pastoral ministry (Strachan), and an exploration of the purposes and practices of pastoral theologians. Vanhoozer and Strachan point out the pastor’s role as an organic intellectual who builds up the body of Christ (22). Theology is too important to leave in an ivory tower. However, Strachan and Vanhoozer are both career theologians and not pastors. Between their chapters are short reflections by twelve other scholars: mostly pastors (with the exception of Cornelius Plantinga), all male, and generally Reformed. These little snippets provide an ‘on-the-ground’ view of how these ideas work out in real life. These are written by people like Josh Moody, Gerald Hiestand, Melvin Tinker, Todd Wilson, Jim Samra, Wesley Pastor, Kevin DeYoung, David Gibson, Bill Kyes, Guy Davies, and Jason Hood.

Strachan is professor of theology and church history at Boyce College and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His contribution to this book explores biblical and historical images for pastoral theologians. In chapter one, he looks at the Old Testament and how Yahweh’s wisdom, truth and grace was mediated to the people through kings, prophets, and priests. While acknowledging differences between Old Covenant contexts and New Testament and contemporary realities, Strachan uses these images (of priest, prophet and king) to give us a biblical theology of the theological office in the pastorate. In chapter two he gives an overview of church history, highlighting the importance of theology  in the tradition for pastoral work. Early church theologians, Reformers,  Puritans and the leaders of the First Great Awakening (especially Jonathan Edwards), and Neo-Evangelicals like Harold Ockenga all prized the practical importance of good theology for ministry and mission; however,  Medieval Scholasticism divided theology and ministry (76-77) and contemporary populists placed no premium on theology for practical ministry (86-90).

Vanhoozer’s chapters present the fetures of their positive proposal. He argues that pastors are generalists who use theology to help form people in Christ’s image:

Christian theology is an attempt to know God in order to give God his due (love, obedience, glory). Jesus Christ is in the thick of it: he is both the ultimate revelation of the knowledge of God and our model of how rightly to respond to this knowledge. Pastoral-theologians, too, are in the thick of it: they represent God to the people (e.g. through teaching by word and example) and the people to God (e.g. through intercessory prayer). Changing a lightbulb is child’s play compared to teaching people to walk as children of the light (Eph. 5:8). Far from impractical, the pastoral-theologian is (or ought to be) a holy jack-of-all-existenital-trades. (104).

Vanhoozer than presents a compelling vision of the pastoral theologian’s task: expressing the gospel , with biblical, cultural and human literacy, with wisdom and love in the image of Christ. “What are theologians for? What is the distinct service of the pastor-theologian? We reply: for confessing comprehending, celebrating, communicating and conforming themselves and others to what is in Christ” (125). In chapter four, Vanhoozer walks through the peculiar tasks of pastoral ministry (i.e. evangelism, counseling, visitation, preaching, teaching, liturgy, prayer, apologetics) and show how public theology enriches and enables real ministry.

This is a well reasoned account of the importance of theology in pastoral ministry, one in which I am in deep sympathy. Studying is spiritually formative for me, so I resonate with Vanhoozer and Strachan recovery of a robust theology for ministry.  My own ideas of pastoral ministry have been shaped by my reading of Eugene Peterson. As I read this book, I thought of Peterson as the public-theologian par excellence. He certainly embodies the sort of combination of thoughtfulness, active attention and pastoral concern that Strachan and Vanhoozer describe and argue for.

Nevertheless I found this book limited in a couple of respects.First, I am on board with this vision but I have served and attended churches where good theology was not valued. What this book doesn’t do is present a way to bridge the gap from the modern therapeutic/CEO models of ministry to their public theologian proposal. More work needs to be done on how this works out practically, especially in churches and contexts that ‘don’t get it.’ Second, for a book that includes contributions from fourteen people, it is exceptionally narrow. White. Protestant. Reformed. Male.  Calvinists aren’t the only Christians who value theology and the life of the mind.  Methodists, Radical Reformation churches, and Pietists deserve their due (there is one Evangelical Free Pastor, so Pietists are marginally represented). Women and minorities would bring different perspectives and concerns. I wish that Vanhoozer and Strachan widened their net beyond their own boys’ club.

But these demurrals aside, I liked this book, agreed with it and find aspects instructive for ministry and mission. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from Baker Academic in exchange for my honest review

Pastors Prepare For What’s Next!: a book review

I am at the beginning of a pastoral succession process. The church I start leading on Sunday, has had a pastor for the past twelve-and-a-half years who is loved by the church and the wider community. This is a woman who has networked, started ministries which reach out to the community and has prayerfully led the church through difficult circumstances. She has a heart for racial justice, community outreach and mission. She leaves this position to focus more in these areas and she will still be part of the church family.

I am the ‘noob.’ I care about many of the same things as the previous pastor and want to see the church impact the wider community but am still at the beginning of learning how to lead a church. I want to do that well. So I read Next: Pastoral Succession That Works with interest hoping to garner whatever kind of wisdom it had for me at this moment in my pastoral career. Authors William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird have years of experience in helping church leaders lead effectively. In  this book, they research successions that work, successions that fail and how church boards and pastoral leaders can plan for a good succession process.

This book wasn’t written directly to me, but for out-going pastors, search committees and elder boards to help them think ahead. Vanderbloemen and Bird noticed that many successful pastors stay in their role past their prime, with no real plan of succession. As a result, the church looses momentum and when the inevitable switch happens it falls off mission and loses membership. They suggest intentionality about the succession process. After all, every pastoral position (or really any position) is temporary. All pastors are interim pastors who steward the church for a term, and they should be thoughtful about how to prepare the way for their successor.

Because Vanderbloemen and Bird base their findings on qualitative research, this book is full of stories of the succession process at various different kinds of churches (both glorious successes and epic failures). They observe that some of the best succession stories happen when churches groom someone from their staff or membership to take the place of the out-going pastor. This makes sense to me, though I think large mega-churches are more likely to have the pool to draw on for this sort of succession (and I am kind of glad the church I was hired at didn’t follow that route).  Also, they speak highly of father-son successions without any worry about nepotism (i.e. Joel Osteen is one of their ‘success’ stories).

However, they do not have a formula ‘one-right-way’ approach. They assert that if God is in it, successions will work. Three pieces of salient advice I found helpful were: (1) intentionality about the succession process-especially in the first 100 days, (2) help from the out-going senior pastor, (3) new pastor honoring their successor and the church’s past.

I think churches will benefit from reading this book, especially when they are in the midst of a search process. Vanderbloemen and Bird talk about the intentional, good sort of succession, but they also address succession problems when a leader unexpectedly dies, has a moral failure or resigns early. A board with proper foresight can plan for every contingency. Vanderbloemen and Bird suggest creating a succession plan and revisiting annually.

At times I disagreed with their pragmatic bent. They seemed to  measure the success of a succession in terms of congregational attendance.  Organizations go through ebbs and flows and I think a church that shrinks from thousands to hundred when the new pastor comes but is more faithful to the gospel, has had a successful succession even if their metrics do not bear this out. God can be in apparent failures too. This doesn’t mean that new pastors should not strive to bring in new sheep and to bear fruit in their ministry. It means that the picture of what it means to be a good, and faithful pastoral servant is more complicated than the picture that Vanderbloemen and Bird suggest.

But practical advice is important and I think that this book will be read with benefit. My own case is not the typical succession and I am blessed to have the input of the previous pastor, a good and faithful servant, mentor and friend. I give it four stars: ★★★★

Thank you to Baker Books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Tripp Hazard: A Book Review

Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry
Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry  by Paul David Tripp

There are vocational hazards associated with pastoral ministry. Whether you are aware or not,  your pastor is in the middle of their sanctification and is susceptible to falling into ungodly attitudes–pride, greed, lust, anger and bitterness. Knowledge of theology and the biblical text is no guarantee that your pastor will do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God. Sometimes over-familiarity with biblical truth results in a loss of wonder, pride and failure to passionately pursue God.

Paul David Tripp has written a book which is a powerful diagnostic tool for pastors,  identifying where we ministers have gone a miss. Rooted in his own experience, Dangerous Calling examines how pastors can lose sight of the gospel of grace. Tripp shares vulnerably of times where he has personally lost sight of his purpose and passion in ministry and he exhorts pastors to take care lest they lose sight of their own relationship with God, and all He has done on their behalf.

Tripp addresses three dangerous aspects of pastoral life. In part one of this book, he examines ‘pastoral culture.’  Pastors are people who are theologically trained, are leaders of the congregation and often serve as examples for the church. Unfortunately this has resulted in pastors being knowledgeable about God without necessarily growing in spiritual maturity and cut off from the congregation (sometimes placed on a pedestal). Tripp challenges pastors to cultivate their devotional life and to not set themselves ‘over the congregation’ while forgetting that they are also part of it.

In part two, Tripp hones in on the way pastors can sometimes  forget who God is. Pastors sometimes lose their awe of God because they are over-familiar with  Scripture but fail to cultivate a daily life with God.  Sometimes pastors are overcome with anxiety about themselves, others, circumstances beyond their control or the future. Sometimes they stop maturing spiritually because they act as though they arrived. Tripp exhorts us to pay attention to where we have failed to look with wonder at all that God is doing in our midst and to passionately pursue our relationship with Him.

In part three, Tripp looks at the way pastors forget their unique identity. Pastors sometimes ‘do ministry’ for their own glory–build empires and amass their reputation. Other times we devote ourselves to ‘preparing for ministry’ but forget to cultivate our own spiritual life.  Our tendency to separate ourselves from the flock may result in our thinking that our élite status separates from the ordinary Christian. Tripp reminds us that we sit under our own preaching and must humbly and actively pursue our own spiritual health.

I found this book helpful in examining my heart and motives in ministry. In his capacity as executive director of Pastoral Life and Care, Tripp has walked along side a number of pastors in ministry and he is well aware of the dangers. I think that this is a helpful resource for pastors to remind them of to attend their own spiritual health. I think this could be used profitably by all who are in ministry.

Nevertheless I have two small critiques. First, Tripp seems to assume that ‘pastor’ implies male and he fails to use gender inclusive language.  Women in ministry can use this book profitably because there is nothing in his advice that is male specific. Secondly, I think this book is helpfully read alongside other books which talk about clergy self-care. In a couple of places I wanted to augment Tripp’s advice with other treatments on the topic. For example, Tripp rightly identifies the problem of clergy isolation (pastors are part of the church, not over the church) and suggests that pastors be involved in a small group that they do not lead (79). I think this makes sense but I also wish that Tripp said more about establishing appropriate boundaries as a pastor and managing expectations from parishioners (i.e. people in a pastor’s ‘small group’ can sometimes behave as though they are in the pastor’s ‘inner circle’ and therefore demand more attention and care than others in the congregation). This doesn’t  negate the many fine things Tripp says, but I wouldn’t treat this book as the final authority on clergy self-care.

Tripp’s approach is based in his experiences in ministry and his own reading of scripture. So he offers a lot of practical insights. I recommend this book to people in ministry and I feel like this is the sort of book which will help pastors make sure they are shining the light of Christ and not just casting their personal shadow.

Thank you to Crossway Books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.