Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Pastor as Minor Poet

Over the past couple of days, I finished reading a new little book by Craig Barnes, professor of leadership and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and senior minister at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in that city. The book was titled, The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life; I found the book extremely helpful in several ways.

First, the entire image of poetry to capture the ministerial life is extremely provocative. Of all the literature I've read, it comes closest to evoking Max Dupree's view of leading as an art form rather than a technique or science. And clearly, pastoral ministry is an art--the ability to see below the surface, below the "text" of a given situation or even the biblical text to the deeper "meaning" buried between the lines, within, above, or under a given situation, is hugely important. It is important not just for survival (important in its own right), but to minister the Gospel in such a way that it meets the person's real need, not simply the presenting issue.

Second, in reconstructing pastoral identity away from being "a quivering mass of availability" (Barnes uses this wonderful phrase from Stan Hauerwas), Barnes draws repeatedly, deftly, and quietly on the resources of the Reformed tradition: it is not your ministry, it is Christ's; it is not your identity, but Christ's in which we participate through union with him; the Gospel is not about you, but you are about it; and the sufficiency of God's love in Christ to sustain us despite (not because of) our performance. So much of our tradition echoes through the book but is done so deftly (can't think of a better word) that I found it a rich theological feast.

Third, Barnes was wonderfully realistic about the pastoral life. The fact is that the congregation can be quite "unpoetic" at times, blind to the meaning beneath their lives' texts, unable to recognize that the presenting issue is not the real issue, content with the often pointless and yet safety of small talk. And yet, the pastoral role is to "mole" beneath the surface and travel in the subterranean highways of the human soul--in order to do this, there must be an equal sense of comfort with the "major poetry" (the Bible and Christian tradition) and the particularity of this human with whom I'm talk about the weather. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and found it stimulating, especially reflecting on five years of ministry here in St. Louis and an upcoming transition back to congregational ministry Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Above all, I appreciated Barnes' concluding words: "The pastor lives by the belief that Jesus Christ holds all things together, and it is for this Savior that the harried souls in the pews truly yearn...So there they sit, frantic and frazzled, but daring to hope that there really is a sacred Word that can fill their deep yearning. The name of that word is Jesus Christ, and the minor poet gets to reveal his mysterious presence every Sunday."


Frances Alston said...


Chris said...

Intriguing review, thanks for commending this book. I just ordered another book of Barnes' on Spirituality. Sounds like Minor Poet is worth a look as well.