Pastors in America today are being asked to fulfill more roles than ever. In addition to preaching, teaching, and providing pastoral care, they are often expected to be business administrators, personnel directors, conflict managers, CEOs, entrepreneurs, visionary leaders, professional therapists, personal coaches, community organizers, social reformers, etc. Pulled in so many directions, many pastors (despite outward smiles) are often tired, confused, and frustrated, and so are many in their congregations. What can be done? John Burgess, Jerry Andrews, and Joseph Small, recently published, A Pastoral Rule For Today: Reviving an Ancient Practice (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019), that seeks to address this question. Examining the lives of Augustine, Benedict, Gregory the Great, John Calvin, John Wesley, John Henry Newman, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the book proposes a contemporary “pattern for ministry that both encourages pastors and enables them to focus on what is most important in their pastoral task.” Managing Editor of Theology Matters, Richard Burnett, recently interviewed the authors to find out what motivated them to write this book and how it might make a difference.
TM: How did the idea for this book come about?”
Jerry: A brief Pastoral Rule was published by The Office of Theology and Worship (PCUSA) which outlined our hopes and made our suggestions for pastors pulled every way but up. It was received well and spread far. We thought we might be done. One day on a three- way conference call to consider if more would be needed and helpful, John asked us to read the Presbyterian Panel’s most recent poll. It reported that only 32% of pastors surveyed said (admitted?) they read the Bible at least weekly for non-instrumental purposes (sermon preparation, etc.). Joe said, “No wonder.” I asked what he meant. Joe said, “Jerry, since I’ve known you, you’ve maintained that we give every evidence of being an uncatechized communion. But Jerry, they’re not reading their Bibles even.” Alas, more was needed. So, a larger project was imagined to inform and inspire pastors to a greater faithfulness and fruitfulness. John took the lead.
John: The idea for the book came out of several years of discussion among Jerry, Joe, me, and other colleagues in the PCUSA. We see that minsters face many competing demands on their time and energies. They are expected to be organizers and administrators, counselors and personnel managers, compelling teachers and charismatic preachers, and many other things—and to do it all with a sense of humor! How in a society (and sometimes a church) that would like to reduce them to dispensers of “services” to religious “consumers” can they stay grounded in the core of their vocation: to witness in every life situation to God’s work in and through Jesus Christ? We have come to see the wisdom in defining basic rhythms and patterns of the Christian life that help pastors keep first things first—and we call these rhythms and patterns “a pastoral rule.”
Joe: I was a pastor in two different churches in the 1970s and 80s. I was painfully aware of multiple, often conflicting demands on my time and effort. It became clear to me that without a plan for study and prayer I would be reduced to merely responding to the priorities of others. I needed disciplines that would nurture my sense of vocation. I developed a rudimentary pattern of prayer, Scripture, and study that was often difficult to maintain. When I began to work in the Office of Theology and Worship, I committed the largest share of available resources to helping pastors nurture a deeply spiritual-theological vocational core that would deepen their capacity to proclaim the gospel in preaching, teach- ing, and mission (e.g. Pastor Theologian Consultations, Company of Pastors, ReForming Ministry, Excellence from the Start/Company of New Pastors, theology conferences, etc.). “A Pastoral Rule for Today” grew out of several Theology and Worship initiatives that aimed to be useful to pastors and their congregations.
TM: Many church folk, perhaps even some readers of Theology Matters, may be surprised to hear that so many pastors today are so inattentive to practices that were once considered central to their vocation, namely, focus on prayer, Scripture, and study. Can you explain, briefly, why these practices are no longer so central for so many pastors today?
John: Pastors do give time to prayer, Scripture, and study. But often they do so to fulfill their professional duties to others. They pray and read Scripture at hospital bedsides, and study to prepare sermons and Sunday School lessons. And then they are tempted to conclude, that’s enough, now I have other things to do. But what can get lost is listening for God’s living Word for them personally. I am a seminary professor, not a pastor, but I know how easy it is for me too to ignore these basic spiritual practices because I am so busy helping others. Nevertheless, deep down I know that what my students need is not only my academic knowledge but the witness of my life. Do they see that I am seeking daily to be fed in my own faith by prayer, Scripture, and theological study?
Jerry: I think the practices of the vocation and even of broad discipleship have not been modeled for a couple of generations and, like much of what was once valued but is not now current, it simply fell into disuse by neglect and silence. Giving account of these practices, no matter how ‘personal,’ was once public. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a conversation with another pastor in which we gave each other the blessing of the knowledge of each other’s Bible reading and prayers.
Joe: The institutionalization of the church has placed a premium on ecclesial “success.” Personal characteristics and managerial/entrepreneurial techniques are employed to bolster church programs, membership, and budgets. Pastoral effectiveness is judged by performance in markers of institutional well-being. Time spent with Scripture, prayer, and disciplined reading is invisible to the congregation, and is only tangentially related to institutional advancement. So, with multiple demands placed on pastors, the easiest things to let slide are those with “private” activity and marginal institutional payoff.
TM: Forms of institutionalization, professionalization, careerism, etc., of course, have been with the church practically from the start. Is it different today?
John: What is different about our time is that pastors easily lose a sense of what is at the core of their calling. Yes, institutional pressures and realities have always been there, but past ages have valued pastors for their spiritual, theological wisdom and leadership, whereas today many people judge pastors almost exclusively in terms of secular definitions of organizational success. A pastor grounded in disciplines of prayer, Scripture reading, and theological reflection will develop a capacity to keep first things first.
TM: I’ve heard it said that Christianity in Palestine was a relationship. In Greece it became an idea. In Rome it became an institution. And in America it became an enterprise. Do you think there is anything exceptional about the challenges pastors in America are facing today?
Joe: The short answer is “yes.” America has always been the site of multiple denominations, all caught up in forms of competition. But denominational loyalty was once commonplace. Presbyterians supported Presbyteri- an missions, used Presbyterian educational resources and hymnals, married Presbyterians, and bred more Presbyterians. It was the same with other denominations. But denominational loyalty is now a mere memory. So, competition is more overt and pressures on the CEO/entrepreneur/marketer are more intense, and all in an era of declining interest in the religious goods and services on offer by denominations and their congregations.
Jerry: I am not aware of the expectational pressures on pastors in times past but to say that now the ever growing strength of the congregation far outweighs any sense of the holiness of the pastor. Richard Baxter’s claim, “The greatest gift I can give my congregation is my personal holiness,” is foreign to us.
TM: Eugene Peterson wrote more than thirty years ago, “The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, … They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns—how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the
customers will lay out more money.” You, by contrast, are upholding a more traditional understanding of what it means to be a pastor. Do you see any signs that Christians in America might be growing tired of having shopkeepers for pastors and want the sort of pastors you are commending?
Joe: Maybe. Many of those who are tired of shopkeepers simply don’t go to the shop anymore. Those who remain may desire deeper nurture in the Faith, in prayer, in discipleship, and in mission. Our book is an attempt to help pastors deepen their own faith, prayer, discipleship, and mission, thus being better able to nurture the best longings of congregations.
John: Not long ago I told a group of seminary students about my family’s efforts to observe a practice of daily prayer when my children were still small. One of the students asked, “How could I do that with my kids?” He thought it was a great idea, but he had no clue how to organize it. I think that’s sometimes the situation in our congregations. People can get fascinated with these basic spiritual disciplines of the Christian faith, but they really aren’t sure that they know how to pray, how to read the Bible. Pastors who are practicing these disciplines know the joys, challenges, and possible pitfalls of keeping them and can offer practical guidance. In my family we had a Bible reading and a prayer around the kitchen table at breakfast. Sometimes the juice was spilled or a child was upset, but we didn’t worry about that. We did the best we could. Pastors can help church members find what can work for them.
Jerry: The wise traveler puts the oxygen mask on herself first, then is able to help others.
TM: Yet some pastors may be reluctant to practice these disciplines for fear of appearing too spiritual, monastic, bookish, detached, other-worldly, or ‘so heavenly- minded that they’re no earthly good.’ After all, some pastors get more points from their congregations for mowing the church lawn or showing up at a soup kitchen than for studying the Bible or serious theology, even though mowing the lawn or showing up at a soup kitchen is so much easier. What would you tell pastors who entertain such fears?
Joe: I would tell them that they are responsible to the Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit before they are responsible to the expectations of the congregation.
John: As important and necessary as mowing the lawn is, it is not at the heart of a pastor’s vocation. The one thing that a pastor must do is to tell the truth about God. And a pastor can tell the truth about God only if a pastor is seeking to know God—and not just as an object of intellectual study but as a living presence. Thank goodness for resources of prayer, Scripture reading, and theological reflection that invite pastors into living relationship with this God, so that they may speak rightly about God.
Jerry: I would tell them to teach the congregation. The three I’ve served all made progress in understanding the value of my spiritual and relational growth and deepening. They also wanted this to benefit them––that was the promise. I needed to show that benefit. So, in short, I would say, use the time well and for their sake. This is not self-centered.
TM: Given that there are pastors who do not use their time well or their studies to the benefit of the congregation, what would you tell congregational leaders who want to support their pastors in living out the disciplines you describe?
Jerry: This is tough. But there are real elders out there who can be persuaded that for the sake of the wellbeing of their congregation the pastor needs to become a fully formed teaching elder. And then give them time, space, accountability for it. My first church was small and rural. They trusted me for this and were at least understanding and tolerant. My second church was very well educated and filled with Wheaton faculty. They were encouraging. My third church expected it and expresses appreciation for it. Congregational leaders who attempt to persuade a pastor of this need to promise and keep the promise that if they want intentional formation as a first priority then they cannot later make church growth the basis of evaluation.
Joe: This is a question that needs an extensive answer. But for now: pastors should develop a rule, then spend time with the session explaining the rule and why it is needed. Then ask the elders what they might add or modify. Finally ask for the session’s endorsement and promise regular check-ups. I also recommend that pastors ask the session to commit to a time of study and prayer within each session meeting (more than an opening “devotional”). The session might then report all of this to the congregation.
John: A session could commit itself to practicing a rule of life together. As Joe says, that could include committed prayer and study at each session meeting. It could also include a rule of daily prayer in which each member of the session lifts up, each day, every other member of the session, including the pastor. What pastors so often need (actually, what every Christian needs) is a person or group that both gives encouragement and calls for accountability in living a more holy life. How could a session model for the whole congregation a way of life together grounded in prayer,
Scripture reading, and theological reflection? And could such a rule give pastors the space—and stimulus—to exercise their core vocation, namely, to be pastor- theologians and spiritual leaders?
TM: Perhaps many have simply not considered seriously enough the benefits or blessings of such a life. Granted, they are not a consequence of works, any calculation, or quid pro quo. Rather they are a matter of grace, which means they are always beyond our control. But what would you say about the fruit of such disciplines or the potential blessings of such practices?
Joe: It is all too easy for pastors to forget that they are shepherds/leaders secondarily. They are disciples/ learners first. Disciple = disciplined life. The blessing of a disciplined life is being drawn ever deeper into union with Christ.
Jerry: The blessing is knowing God, having some humble sense of being a fit tool in God’s hand for the work God is doing, of knowing by these ordinary means that the Spirit is forming us more and more into the image of Christ.
John: The fruits and benefits of such disciplines are not always obvious. But they provide daily spiritual
nourishment that sustains ministry for the long haul. The words of the Scots Confession concerning the Lord’s Supper are equally applicable to disciplines of prayer, Scripture reading, and theological reflection: “Although the faithful, hindered by negligence and human weakness, do not profit as much as they ought in the actual moment . . . yet afterwards [each discipline] shall bring forth fruit, being living seed sown in good ground; for the Holy Spirit . . . will not deprive the faithful of the fruit of that mystical action” (chapter XXI).
TM: Friends, thank you for extolling these disciplines and also for practicing them. Your lives, your work, and your witness have been a blessing to many. ____________________________________________
The Reverend John P. Burgess, Ph.D., is James Henry Snowden Professor of Systematic Theology, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
The Reverend Jerry Andrews, Ph.D., is Senior Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, San Diego, California, and serves as a Director on the Board of Theology Matters.
The Reverend Joseph D. Small was the former director of the P.C.U.S.A. Office of Theology and Worship, and now serves as a consultant to the Presbyterian Foundation.