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By Dr. Philip Thompson, Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Heritage

The Changing Nature of Pastoral Ministry

Last week we introduced a five-part series that is challenging some of the commonly held beliefs about the educational process.  President Henson introduced the series by sharing why theological education should focus on developing people to live out the gifts they have been given instead of developing people for the “job” of pastor.  This week, we explore the changing nature of pastoral ministry.

For some years, surveys of religion in American life have shown a steady increase of “nones,” persons who span a range from “spiritual but not religious” to agnosticism to atheism and claim affiliation with no form of “institutional religion.”  They now make up roughly one quarter of the adult U.S. population, and their numbers are expected to increase.

Quite often, when such findings are published, I will notice posts by “Facebook friends” bemoaning and lamenting the loss of faith in our time.  And indeed, the wave of secularization that has long beset other countries in western Europe, Australia, and Canada has broken with full force on our shores, and reaches even the heartland.  A few months ago, however, in response to yet another such survey result, a wise friend who teaches in a large university made a different sort of observation.  “What this means,” he wrote, “is that it is no longer socially advantageous in most places to be a church member.”  His point was entirely correct.  The church does not have the same status or role in U.S. society.

With the changes in the church’s status have come changes in the nature of pastoral ministry. It’s not the same as the challenges that have to do with the function of pastors, such as those created by technologies of communication and production of experiences, new configurations of church governance, and the phenomenon of hyper-specialization (executive pastors, teaching pastors, care pastors, worship pastors, etc.).  These all deserve critical reflection since each brings new possibilities and new challenges.  My task, however is to reflect on the change in the nature of pastoral ministry in light of this seismic change in the church’s status in contemporary U.S., and indeed, western society.

The British philosopher Philip Blond has summed up our existence, “We live in a time of failed conditions.”  Ours is a time characterized by contradictions created by lavish material excess juxtaposed to crushing material need, the blind confidence in science touted by the “new atheists” and of selfishness praised by the devotees of Ayn Rand’s principles, and the sense of despairing longing for something transcendent even as the institutions that mediated that transcendence are dismissed.  All around us, we see manifested what the 20th century Catholic theologian Karl Rahner called, “the radical insufficiency of everything attainable.”

We see, in short, even in its fuller flowering, the abject failure of secularism.  It was captured by the Christian poet T.S. Eliot in 1934:
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust. (“Choruses from The Rock”)

It is the nature of pastoral ministry in our time to be, in and through many functions and roles, stewards of divine wisdom which forms a community wise to discern the signs of the times.  This leads, I believe, to the need for the recovery of certain functions that have been ingredient in pastoral ministry from the earliest decades of our faith, but perhaps with different names, and fulfilled in and through the roles and jobs of pastors in our own time.

While there are certainly more, I will note four: 1) it is the nature of the pastor in our time in their many roles to be a catechist (one who sounds again Christian wisdom that the early Christians called the “True Philosophy” so that it can re-sound in our own time); 2) it is the nature of the pastor in our time in their many jobs to be a mystagogue (who unfolds Christian worship as an embodied wisdom that directs our hearts to the love of God and neighbor); 3) it is the nature of the pastor of our time in their many functions to be an exorcist (for our battle is not against flesh and blood; as Zac Hicks has said, Christian worship, and I would add Christian life, is unceasing prayer and unending warfare); and 4) it is the nature of the pastor in our time in their many responsibilities to be an evangelist (because with Timothy we are to guard and pass on the treasure that is entrusted to us).

Next week, we explore the idea of developing people as they pursue their calling as opposed simply equipping or educating people.  We hope you’ll continue in the discussion with us.

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