A generation has come and gone since Joseph Sittler wrote his essay on the “Maceration of the Minister” in his book, The Ecology of Faith: The New Situation in Preaching (Fortress, 1961; reprinted in Grace Notes and Other Fragments, Fortress, 1981).
Much has changed in the Church in 36 years, but it still stings to read this observation: “The minister’s time, focused sense of vocation, vision of his or her central task, mental life, and contemplative acreage–these are all under the chopper.” We may feel like members of a dysfunctional family being awakened from a relatively comfortable cocoon of denial by the sudden slap of self awareness as Sittler reminds us that the vitality of the Church is threatened more from within than without. The “basic force” that saps the inner resources of church professionals, he writes, is a “loss of a sense of the particularity of the church” that works on several fronts:
Parish life is reduced to programming, so that ministers are not expected to bring grace to bear on ills and theological critique to bear on perversions of grace, but are reduced to running programs.
General church bodies reinforce this tendency as they squeeze out the Holy Spirit in the name of following proper channels and promoting the newest causes. They retard the formation of ministerial identity as they promote instead an over-specialization of concerns and operations.
Ministerial self-image, and our collective concept of ministerial identity have themselves been corrupted, not by the obvious and simple press of many duties and lack of time, but by a more fundamental “vocational guilt” that results when the minister “has been ordained to an Office, but too often ends up running an office.” That is, there are too few moments when a minister is engaged in genuine Word and Sacrament ministry. Simply reducing work load will not solve this problem; only a reordering of priorities to give more weight to the theological task.
It is when Sittler moves from diagnosis to prescription that I feel we need to carry the argument further and into different directions. And yet, even in his description of the nature of the problem I have some difficulty. He imagines that when our seminaries train persons in the disciplines of theology, they are thereby granting them a robust sense of pastoral vocation that parish life immediately flattens. I contend a fundamental truth has been missed here: Love of theology is not the same as love of the Church and its mission.
Indeed, in “Maceration of the Minister,” Sittler repeatedly calls for more theological reflection. The seminaries, he writes, should be much more courageous and critical advocates, helping students protect their “reflective future.” Ministers themselves can “fight for wholeness and depth” of a sense of calling through “a calculated ordering of one’s study.”
My own experience suggests to me that something should be added to this argument. I cherish my own seminary preparation. I remember graduating with a very strong love of what we called “doing theology” and a big personal library that made me proud and almost gave me a hernia when it came to moving day. But I also graduated with a hole to fill in my vocational spirit. It was and is with the help of other dedicated pastors and lay associates that I had to school my spirit in compassion for the people I served. Indeed, from a pastor I served under on a summer evangelism internship, I received a gift of advice that still corrects and shapes me. He said simply, “You won’t be worth two cents as a pastor if you can’t love your people.”
As wonderful as my seminary professors were, the curriculum and perhaps their own academically oriented natures, ensured that very few of them related to me as a whole person. They were interested in my ideas much more than my emotions, or my family life. Even if they were keenly aware of my theological attitudes, they exhibited little interest in evoking discussion about my flesh and blood faith struggles. Indeed, few people have been in this way pastoral to me so that I could learn what it means to be pastoral to others. But a few key colleagues in ministry have done this for me.
I am saying that for strong ministerial character we need a love of Church, not just a love of theology or reflection. Of course Sittler probably had this in mind, but I believe it takes more clear and forceful saying.
I think good theology backs me up on this. Often in the church we lurch back and forth between calls for more emphasis on the authority of sacred office and more emphasis on charisma and inner character. But, as Hans von Campenhausen, in his wonderful book Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power (Stanford, 1969) points out, the Church has steered between the arrogant rigidity of the one side and arrogant chaos of the other by subordinating both to the idea of faithfulness of testimony to the Word of God.
But what is that Word? Certainly it is not an academic subject. It is not to be simply equated to Scripture though in Scripture we find it in written form; but it is the living thought, judgment and compassion of God that took flesh in Christ and now animates Christ’s servant community. The Word lives in the people who bear witness to it in acts of caring and justice, and there the truthfulness of Scripture is proven every day.
So let’s be careful to add a nuance onto the concept of reflection that professor Sittler called for. Let’s call it action/reflection to be true to this necessity of our faithfulness to the Word.
Biblical scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann is a champion for understanding that the Church as faithful community shapes the living Word as much as the Word shapes the community. In The Creative Word (Fortress, 1982) he points out that the overall structure of the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures demands that we anticipate God speaking to us in several a ways. We can know the Word through the unquestioned Scripture as the Torah or Pentateuch models it, but also as we deal critically with Scripture, prompted by the voices of those experiencing oppression or pain in their lives. The canon itself, because it includes the prophetic books, is not an authority for us as in a piece of datum to study, but it presents the Word to us as a living dynamic of our obedience and interpretation in the mission context. Here reflection becomes an active response motivated deeply by the passion of God for all people.
Brueggemann identifies another way of knowing and being faithful to the Word, modeled by the wisdom literature of the Bible: we let our own personal experiences shape our interpretation of Scripture even as we interpret our experiences in the light of Scripture. This leads me to my final critique of Sittler’s notion that it is in seminary that the pastoral vocation is so well served. Professor Philip Hefner of Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago recently shared with me his own disappointment with the quality of discourse between sem students and their Profs. He said that the students frequently seem unable to be honest or spontaneous with their most strongly felt perspectives about theology, Church life or their own faith-life struggles. They appear to be afraid that unflattering or misconstrued reports about their words will get back to their candidacy committees or otherwise be used to impede them in their vocations.
Seminary, like all schooling, fosters this kind of fear because, like all forms of schooling it is based on the idea that you think and communicate not to further knowledge, but prove to others that you have knowledge. Pure reflection and learning has never been the hallmark of seminary, but submitting yourself to examination by others who determine the worth of your thoughts.
Sadly, these fears don’t necessarily subside with graduation, but simply change texture and shape. It is very difficult for us in the ministry to speak to one another concerning doubts we have about the call process or the ELCA’s statement on homosexuality when we worry about how our ideas will be represented to our mutual ministry committees, or bishops.
I believe that if we are to foster a deep sense of vocational integrity, we need to deal in a healthy way with our rampant self-censorship. Self-censorship run amok is not the same as humility or a repentant attitude toward the Almighty. It is the tyranny of our own “little faith.” If we genuinely believe in a dynamic, creative, living Word of God, active in the servant community, then we will honor that Word by eagerly exploring and sharing what we are learning from our own perspective on the work of ministry.
I agree with Sittler that the forces that work to macerate the minister are legion and well ingrained in the fabric of parish and denominational life. I agree also that it requires what he called a “sheer violent effort” if our ministers are to “become the calling.” But to the discipline of a well ordered study life I would like to add a couple recommendations in line with my observations.
Be a faithful member of a pericope study group made up of ministers who are passionate about being pastoral
. Make your formal and informal agenda the furtherance of the movement of Christianity, and not just the preservation of the image of the institution–and the support of one another in faithful Word and sacrament ministry.
I must say that in the past seven years of ministry in the Chicago area, which, for me have been marked by many discontinuities, the one constant source of blessing has been such a group. We meet weekly for two hours. This gives us about an hour for prayer, breakfast, and informal conversation about our present joys and concerns and another hour for a devotion and a study of the common lectionary for a week and a half ahead. We are all busy people, but we work hard to be present and even when we are absent we know the group is praying for us. We have also worked hard to keep confidence and to be the kind of supportive people that can handle the deepest personal issues with prayer and genuine compassion.
But perhaps the most distinctive thing is that all of the members of the group love the people they serve. We acknowledge problems in the parish as signs that all people need God’s grace, and all parishes need good leadership. Our group is a good place to go to remember why we are called. And since God’s Holy Spirit works through our reflection on the Gospel in the context of ministry, we are always re-energized for our work.
Make yourself the first audience for judgment and grace in your worship and devotional life
. It will not do to suggest yet another “must do” item for the minister’s “Fat Chance You Will Ever Get To All This List.” And no two people are served in the same way by the same spiritual regimen. But we can make a conscious effort to make all our words and gestures or adoration and prayer authentic. Liturgical scholar Evelyn Underhill wrote a beautifully pastoral letter to her archbishop which was reprinted in The Christian Century some years ago under the title, “God Is the Interesting Thing.” In it she asserts that besides “genuine love of souls,” what the laity want from their ministers is “spiritual realism.” “We instantly recognize those services and sermons that are the outward expression of the priest’s interior adherence to God and the selfless love of souls. These always give us a religious experience.”
It is my experience that such authentic worship also gives the minister a religious experience. The chief effect of is to blow away the oppression of the false belief that the efficacy of our work depends on our effort. When I am genuinely present in the Eucharist I am gently reminded that what the people require is not more pieces of me, but more pieces of a Love that holds us all in everlasting arms. The ciborium and chalice are more full than I will ever be; and that is very good.
In particular write as a process of discovering your calling and “the particularity of the church.” Since the habits of self-censorship and fear are so ingrained in us, we require disciplines that will enable us to become practiced at using our voices. Teachers who try to save students from the fear of writing that schooling breeds within them often encourage free-writing. So accustomed are students to being critiqued, that their own self-critical mechanisms are very keen indeed. So, clever teachers tell them to free-write or write without any stopping for 15 or so minutes at a time just to discover what wonderful and creative thoughts can come out when we stop judging ourselves so harshly.
Associates in ministry and pastors should write a lot. They should try journaling. They should become e-mail junkies and try out theological ideas on the net. They should harass their old professors with radical rethinking of accepted dogma. They should submit articles to local theological journals such as Let’s Talk. They should do this as a constant reminder to themselves and others that as we must “sin and sin boldly but believe in the grace of God more boldly still,” the same goes for venturing emerging ideas. Unless we risk a little heresy now and then how will we ever discover what orthodoxy is for our place and time?
As sainted Dr. Sittler has said, we must strive to become our calling. This indeed demands serious reflection, but reflection that takes place deep within the context of a servant community, that is soaked with spiritual authenticity in worship and devotional life, and that is bold enough to freely claim as true what God is saying to us in our pastoral experiences.