Dealing With the Problem Children of God: a book review

The church is full of difficult people. Often they don’t mean to be divisive, but pastors have to navigate power plays from lay leaders or other people opposed to the minister’s ministry philosophy. Differences in theological convictions can lead to mistrust and questioning of pastoral motives. Sometimes lay leaders have convictions about how to deal strongly with sin in the congregation without seeing the full picture that the pastor sees in confidential counseling sessions. This often means that when ‘dragons’ act to nip a problem in the bud,  they cause undue hurt and consternation. Author Marshall Shelley calls these problem people, “Well-intentioned Dragons.” After all they aren’t trying to make life hell for those around them, but the end up causing much pastoral anxiety.

Ministering to Problem People in the Church helps pastors diagnosis problem people, set appropriate boundaries, create a culture of active lay participation and healthy leadership and confront these ‘dragons’ where necessary. Ministering to Problem People in the Church was originally published as Well-Intentioned Dragons. I actually read the earlier edition of this book and found it helpful of understanding the dynamics of fallen people in church. New to this edition was a chapter on electronic communication which gives pastors some principles for communicating well in a world of texts, email and social media (and not compounding problems!). Also Shelley has a chapter on dealing with those struggling with mental illness in the church, which is sensitive to the dynamics of treatment and affirms the full personhood of those who struggle without demonizing them.

I think Shelley’s shorthand of ‘well-intentioned dragons’ for difficult congregants is problematic (these are fellow image-bearers not mythical beasts) but he offers sound advice on how to navigate troubled waters. Despite the shorthand label, he advocates attempt to approach dragons with respect and understanding, sensitive to their past wounds. He also doesn’t think we are in the business of slaying dragons, but of winning them back to the body of Christ (following Matthew 18). So despite the nomenclature, Shelley humanizes God’s problem children in the church.

Another concern one might have while reading this book is, ‘what if the pastor is the the problem?” Spiritual abuse and clergy misconduct are real issues but that is beyond the scope of this book. Shelley assumes that the pastor is attempting to lead God’s people well. I would hate for abusive pastors to label all their opponents as ‘dragons’ as a way of silencing them, but that would be to ignore most of Shelley’s advice. But if you assume that this book is written to help pastors lead healthy congregations (which it was), and follow Shelley’s advice for creating a healthy leadership culture, their is little cause for concern here.

Pastors and ministry leaders will find  in Shelley’s helpful advice for shepherding God’s people, especially when they find themselves at loggerheads with those they seek to lead. This will be much more helpful to the ministry practitioner (its intended audience) than the general reader. I give this book four stars.

Thank you to Bethany House Publishers for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.



Pastors in Relationship: a ★★★★★ book review

Ministry is relational. This seems like a no-brainer; yet as ministers we often fail to nurture relationships.  We focus on  preaching and teaching and fill our time with other tasks. When we do “relational ministry” we are often seeking to expand our own influence (or the church’s influence) in our communities. For example, “friendship evangelism” or “incarnational ministry” are ways of using relationships to accomplish something rather than enjoy relationships for their own sake.

The Relational Pastor: Sharing in Christ by Sharing in Ourselves by Andrew Root

The Relational Pastor points to a different way of ministry which is relational, theologically-grounded and respectful of personhood. Andrew Root is associate professor of youth and family at Lutheran Seminary and the author of The Children of Divorce, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry and Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry.  In The Relational Pastor,  he widens his audience to address all pastors (not just youth pastors).  I think this is a great book and its message excites me.  Root offers a robust view of relationships, rooted in place. He commends a mode (not a model) of ministry which attends to personhood and participates in the life of God and other persons through the Incarnation.  If you are a pastor or in ministry, you need to read this book!

I know people just looking for a recommendation don’t  read overlong reviews online, so I am telling you upfront this is a ★★★★★ review and I am adding it to my essential ministry bibliography.  Below is a detailed walk through the sections of the book(the headings below are my own) and  some of the insights I find most helpful. [ If you skip down to the end, I’ll give you my thoughts on why this book is so valuable].

Where We Are

Root begins his book by riffing off of  Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathetic Civilization (Penguin, 2009).  Rifkin argued that when societies shift to new forms of energy,  a new social consciousness is born. Root draws out the pastoral implications of Rifkin’s theory. In the hunter-gatherer era, ministers were the cosmic storytellers. In the agricultural transition, we see the birth of the priesthood, and religion was ‘the proprietor of civilization’ (30). The first industrial revolution (steam and coal) saw  ministry as ‘perpetuating and protecting a way of life (33).’ Often pastoral ministry in this period was blended with nationalism.

The shift to electric and managed oil energy has given birth to the model of ministry which has dominated in the latter part of the twentieth century. In this era, ministry is seen through the lens of programs of intervention ( 38) and the pastor has become the entrepreneurial manager and self-help entertainer. This period has focused on ministry to individuals and meeting individual needs.

Root (with Rifkin) believes we are on the precipice of a new energy shift which paves the way for some major rethinking.  Root urges a shift away from individualism, and managerial models of ministry towards relationships and personhood. Certainly the Emergent Church movement has raised a similar critique of late modernity. The buzzwords of relationship and community abound in their writings. What Root provides here is more constructive and theologically robust view of “what relationships are and how they mediate the mystery of God’s very presence” (43).

From Individuals to Personhood

One of the hallmarks of individualism is that we each act with our own self interest in mind.  Ministry in the oil regime (the era of individualism) leads us to concentrate on entertainment and a self-help message as we pander to the interests and wants of individual congregants (48-51).   Furthermore, individualism results in the objectification of other people (51).  People are either useful to us to achieve our own ends or they represent an impediment. This poisons relationships and means the best we can hope for where individualism reigns supreme is a ‘you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours agreement” (53).

And yet we long for connection–to see and be seen–and to participate in the lives of those around us . Root argues that persons are their relationships and we understand ourselves through our connection to other people and God (62-3). This means that pastoral ministry (as it is being recast) has less to do with the functions of ministry and more to do with the pastor responding to God’s call to ‘open her or his spirit up to the spirit of the flock’ (68). This doesn’t negate pastoral tasks (i.e. preaching, ministering the sacraments, evangelism, etc.),  but the functional wants of our job should not crowd out ‘the personal.’

Root argues that personhood is defined by mutual indwelling (remember we are our relationships). How do we indwell one another?  We indwell by acting with and for the other (76),  through communication (79),  through sharing in embodied and spiritual realities because people are embodied-spirits (81-6), and by entering into the brokenness of another (86).

Empathy and Incarnation

Root explicates this mutual indwelling by exploring empathy and the implications of the Incarnation for personhood. The language of empathy is borrowed from Rifkin (The Empathic Civilization) and represents a response  to the call towards indwelling  by our responding to the brokenness of the other. In the era of self-help entertainer, feelings were avoided or managed and manipulated. However in this emerging era, empathetic sharing values the mutual sharing of feelings. Ultimately our ability to share in the suffering of others is the Spirit’s work not our own.

The Incarnation provides the theological basis for relational ministry, our ability to indwell one another and share in God’s life. Root describes the hypostatic union (that Christ was fully God and fully human) as the ground for our personhood and mutual indwelling. In his Incarnation, Jesus shared in our humanity and we share in the Godhead. This means that through Christ real relationship with God and one another is possible. The implications of this are far reaching.

In the modern era, the incarnation is often spoken of as God’s ‘means’ for affecting influence over us. When pastors, and ministers appropriate the language of ‘Incarnation,’ they also tend to mean ‘living with people in order to influence them towards salvation.’  Root critiques this by saying that the incarnation is not a method or technique employed by God (or anyone else) to get His way. Rather the Incarnation describes God’s sharing of Himself with us. The Incarnation is not a technique but an  outpouring of Godself and invitation to share in his life. We do not appropriate the incarnation as a technique but respond to God’s self revelation in Christ, discover our own personhood and invite others to share with us.

What Does This Look Like

In Root’s final chapters he brings home what this looks like (or could look like). This isn’t a ‘how-to’ section or a model (relationships are not static models).  Root argues that one logical consequence of the incarnation and our embodiment is that relational ministry involves carving out and curating a space for mutual sharing. A pastor leads as ‘a person.’ She or he does not manipulate others into ‘sharing life’ but invites them into a deeper relationship with God and one another. This means seeing congregants as persons and not annoyances, obstacles, or assets.  It also involves corporate expressions of prayer and modelling storytelling. This has implications for liturgy and for preaching.

Final Thoughts

This is the most helpful and best ministry book I’ve read in awhile. There is a lot to chew on here.  I think that more theological reflection needs to be done in terms of our personhood and what mutual indwelling means. A  lot of what Root says dovetails nicely with some of the insights of Trinitarian Theology and Ecclesiology (Zizioulas comes to mind). I loved the emphasis on the Incarnation and how that undergirds personhood and the role of pastor.  Root’s re-tooling of the pastoral role as creating and curating a place for mutual indwelling and person-sharing seems fundamentally correct and true to my experience. I want to incorporate more of his insights on prayer, place and story-sharing.

I really appreciated his critique of  “Incarnational Ministry.” As someone shaped in ministry by the influence of the  Missional Church and development organizations like CCDA, I recognize my own tendency to turn Incarnation into a technique or a strategy to gain influence. Root critiques this by positing that the Incarnation isn’t something ‘we do’ but something done by God in Christ which enables real relationship and sharing of personhood to flourish.

I found Root an interesting author. He likes the same TV shows and movies I do, he reads some of the same books to his kids and shares interesting stories about his family and his friends in pastoral ministry.  I felt like he shared himself in this book, not in a narcissistic self-absorbed way, but in a way which invites me (the reader) to share myself more and participate in what God is doing in our midst.

Finally I respect that Root doesn’t turn “relational ministry” into a technique like “Friendship Evangelism” or “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Ultimately he describes personhood, mutual indwelling and relationship as the Spirit’s work and a gift. Pastors still have a crucial function, but they don’t “make relationships” or “make stuff happen.” Their job is to pay attention, to act on behalf of the other, to communicate themselves, to respond to the brokenness of the other, and to pay attention to what God is doing in the midst of His persons. This is absolutely fantastic and should inspire some re-thinking (re-feeling?) of how ministry needs to happen.

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. Now go and get it.

Its not the Size it is the Motion: a book review

Steeple Envy by Vic Cuccia

Vic Cuccia had a cushy ministry job at a popular mega-church but realized something was amiss. He had bought into the commodified, American-Dream-Infected vision of life in ministry which said BIGGER is better and MEGA is majorly better. He had bought into the idea that in order to minister to the people who were coming to his church, people in a certain tax bracket, than he needed to keep up a certain standard of living, have a nice home, drive a nice car, etc. And then he had an uh-huh moment and realized that somewhere along the way his Americanized/commodified vision of the gospel was compromised in several respects.

Now Cuccia is the leader of a small community (around 75 people) and has started 12X12 Love Project, a ministry which builds homes for the needy in Guatemala.  Steeple Envy is his story of learning to see and discovering that as he unplugged from the mega-church, he saw just how prosperity infected and off base it was. Far from building his own empire, Cuccia is now engaged in extending the mission of God to those in his community and abroad. They are moving out, trusting in God to provide and seeing that provision in miraculous ways.

But please note that this not a book that is bent of criticizing mega churches per say. Some of Cuccia’s heros are or were mega church pastors (i.e. Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, Francis Chan, etc.). He isn’t saying a big sized church is necessarily bad; what he is saying is that in his own experience on being on staff with a mega church, he got off track in his understanding of the gospel getting caught up in the cultural trappings in that setting. This is his story about re-discovering what it means to live faithful to his calling as a minister of the gospel.

I liked this book. I really liked the first half of the book where he confronts the soul deadening elements of his ecclesial life.  The title chapter (chapter six) talks about ‘Steeple Envy’ and the whole temptation towards Christian empire building. Cuccia’s critique is profound if laden with double entendres The second half the book is good, and it is interesting to see how Cuccia’s  re-thinking of how to do church has led him to lead a community which gives sacrificially and is delightfully not polished.  Cuccia left a successful ministry job to work on the margins in ways that he felt were more faithful to the gospel. I am grateful that he saw fit to share some of the insights he’s gained on his journey.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.