Teaching Church Practice (III)
We are on the cusp of bidding farewell to John Leith and his provocative assessment of seminary professors, pastors, seminary students, and the man and woman in the pew. Leith was a man who had a great deal of experience both as a seminary professor as well as a pastor and we would do well to listen to what he has to teach us. In a number of ways he swims against the proverbial tide and conventional wisdom; he cuts against the grain of our modern praxis. He has provided us with valuable insights of how seminaries have derailed in the past and, simultaneously, has pointed us to measures he believed would rectify those problems.
For the longest time, we in the modern Church have been inundated with Barna-esque stats and methodologies, so much so that I fear we have lost our pastoral compass; and when I say “we” I mean all the various groups to which Leith has been referring. Unless we are constantly and consciously measuring our progress and weighing our choices the scenario ends up looking something like this: The seminary professors do their thing and seminary students adore them. Pastors take calls to congregations only to regurgitate what they learned from the professors and then pass all of this along to the members of their congregations—if they even bother to have membership. If the professors have not adequately emphasized the importance of solid exegesis, the study of theology, a strong concentration upon preaching, teaching, evangelism, and administration, the results are calculable.
Students leave seminary with visions of grandeur dancing about in their heads only to get mugged by the reality that they will not earn a six-figure salary right out of seminary and that they are “stuck” in a small congregation rather than a “flagship” church. In short, far too many seminarians want to be the Admiral before they have been an Ensign. In fact, quite a number of the seminary professors—not all, so relax!—have not been effective Ensigns first either. This leads to a very unhealthy church practice. But rather than listening to me on this point, I want us to listen to what Leith has to say. After that, if time and space permit, I want to spend just a little time outlining what I believe constitutes an effective home visit by the Pastor/Elder. This is a much neglected aspect of the pastoral ministry and an area that needs our undivided attention. Some of you responded to me last week about this so I’d like to give a thumbnail sketch of what a home/hospital/nursing home visit might look like. Each of these areas has its own peculiarities that I hope to touch on. But for the present, let’s begin by listening to Leith.
In this section I want to concentrate on two quotations from Leith that set the table for what needs desperately to be explained.
The first quote reads as follows: “The preparation for ministry in small congregations is in part theological and pastoral, an understanding of the meaning of a call and a willingness to accept a call that requires sacrifice.” This is a pithy, succinct statement that cries out for further elaboration, especially in our modern church milieu. Leith begins by suggesting that a small congregation serves a very important function and that preparation for ministry in such a congregation includes both theological training as well as the pastoral side of things. This strongly suggests that pastors should be competent theologians and that theologians should be effective pastors. The two are not mutually exclusive and I would think that being good at the one would better qualify you for the other.
And it is precisely within the context of the smaller congregation that preparation for ministry causes both Pastors and their fellow-Elders to get to know the members and the members’ real spiritual needs. Of course this takes time, effort, and a real, genuine love for God’s people. Pastors know how easy it is to get to know like-minded people, people who share their “vision”—aren’t we done using this word yet?—, and people with “deep pockets” who can fund our pet “visions.” The point here is that the Pastor/Theologian and those who work with him—I assuming that every Pastor and church planter agrees wholeheartedly with the need to have Elders in place before you begin your work. Yeah, right!—need to become acquainted with and show hospitality to all the members of the congregation or Shepherding Group. At our church, the congregation is divided among the Elders and each one is responsible for a number of families or individuals called a “Shepherding Group.” You can call it what you want—the a-rose-by-any-other-name syndrome—but the important thing is that each member receives a home visit yearly.
If the first part of Leith’s statement took us by surprise the second part falls like a lightning bolt in the playground of the modern Church. It’s a tough sell for a young church planter to talk about sacrifice as he walks across the marble floors of his home as he heads for the hot tub. In the past, we called this unwillingness to sacrifice a “generation gap” and I fear that the chasm between “then” and “now” is only widening and I have to wonder to myself to what degree seminary professors are spending time talking to their students about “sacrifice” within the context of a call to the pastoral ministry. Sacrifice? I fear that the modern generation is so far removed from the meaning of that word, especially as it applies to the pastoral ministry, that it is a foreign concept to them. Sacrifice in modern parlance tends to mean “not getting to shop at Nordstrom’s this week,” not having a gourmet meal, or not getting to purchase our next “toy.” Seminarians, pastors, and church planters need to understand that less emphasis is needed on being “cutting edge” and more emphasis is needed on being willing to sacrifice for the sake of the practical experience that must attend being a Pastor and for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Look, I’m not advocating eating MREs and getting your clothes at the Salvation Army, the nearby Army/Navy store, or a thrift shop. I suppose a good exercise for young(ish) pastors would be to ask themselves what would have to happen to them in terms of sacrifices that would cause them to leave the pastoral ministry. I’m convinced that this is a spiritually healthy exercise and should be contemplated prior to entering the ministry of the Word. If we could not have the salary we expect, the house that we desire, the location that pleases us the most, the director of music that we demand, or anything else along these lines, would we still do it, love it, and thank God for it?
Leith’s second comment reads like this: “Seminary graduates will be ineffective pastors until they have learned ‘how to do’ the work of evangelism, administration, education from the teaching of a professor who has actually done it effectively.” Again, just for the sake of making certain that we’re all on the same page, let’s break this down into its most salient parts.
First, Leith warns seminary graduates that they will be ineffective unless certain criteria have been met during their seminary education. He designates three key areas: evangelism, administration, and education. I would most definitely have used a different order beginning with education. To my mind, the pastoral education of the flock encompasses preaching, teaching, and visitation. By the way, modern pastors should expect to do all three on the same day if called to do so. Administration is not everyone’s forte, but it is a necessary, indispensable aspect of church life and pastoral duties. Putting off administration or being sloppy in it or at it will only have detrimental results in the congregation. Evangelism is a key task for the pastor for then he, in turn, can train the members of his congregation to go out and know how to evangelize their relatives, friends, neighbors, and work colleagues. The Pastor be adept at evangelization but should also train his congregation to be able to give a cogent, coherent, and easily followed presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Second, Leith presents us with the caveat that seminary professors themselves should have been effective in the above-mentioned areas if they expect to teach seminarians how to do it. This is a place where practical experience comes in pretty handy, especially when you’re teaching others how to educate, administrate, and evangelize. Granted, not every seminary professor needs to know how to perform every aspect and facet of the pastoral ministry equally effectively, but they certainly should have rather extensive pastoral experience that they can pass on to their respective students. This really isn’t asking too much and it provides an effective remedy to having an educated but inexperienced seminary professor teaching a student how to do what he himself has never done or never done effectively.
Most certainly, there must be a place in our seminaries for solid scholarship. The “core” courses of biblical languages, Church History, Systematic Theology, Ethics, and Preaching must be taught well. There must be time for the professors to research their respective disciplines, but this must also be with a view to aiding the seminarians better to serve Christ’s Church.Since I ran longer than I expected, I’ll describe the concept of visits as part of the pastoral ministry, Lord willing, in our next issue.