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“But who do you say that I am?” Matt. 16:15

Re-Forming Ministry
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Karen Russell
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The pastoral-ecclesial system

Good ministry develops from the complex interaction of ecclesial discernment, appropriate practices, spiritual wholeness, professional priorities and personal integrity. Underlying all of these, however, is the capacity to explore the foundations of Christian faith so that the congregation can be nurtured in mature belief, confident trust and faithful living. Apart from a deeply theological vocation, pastoral practices can become matters of ministerial technique or institutional marketing. The theological vocation of pastors is not a narrow concern for academic abstraction, for it encompasses a range of spiritual, intellectual and communal practices that generate the development of congregational life shaped by the gospel.

Re-Forming Ministry grows out of the Office of Theology and Worship's experience in shaping programs designed to encourage and sustain pastoral excellence. We have learned that although initiatives designed exclusively, or even primarily, for pastors are important and valuable, they do not address the pastoral-ecclesial system that is central to sustaining or inhibiting pastoral excellence. Re-Forming Ministry addresses the pastoral-ecclesial system — a complex culture characterized by the interaction of three historic loci of ministry: pastors and their congregations, theological faculty and their schools, and church officials and their judicatories.

The shared teaching office: pastors, professors, and church officials

The pastoral-ecclesial system has the capacity to sustain or to inhibit foundational pastoral practices, and thus the capacity to encourage or discourage faithful and vital congregational life. Pastors, theological faculty and church officials share a responsibility for the teaching ministry of the church. Yet the three ministerial offices have become disconnected; they do not exercise a shared teaching office in and for the church, and their restricted exercises of the teaching office suffer from a lack of full ecclesial engagement.

Of the three principal ministerial offices in the system, pastors are the most affected by the system and the least able to affect the system. Theological faculty work within independent institutions that respond principally to scholarly, educational and organizational dynamics. Yet they shape the degree programs and continuing education events that prepare women and men for theological, liturgical, educational, pastoral and missional work. Church officials work within structures that respond to organizational goals and bureaucratic dynamics. Yet they shape the requirements and procedures that define the ecclesiastical space within which men and women live pastoral ministry. Pastors, on the other hand, work within individual congregations that are often small, often isolated from other congregations, and far from influential educational and policy setting institutions. Too often, the pastoral-ecclesial system operates upon pastors, frequently in ways that inhibit pastoral fulfillment. Too often, pastors are disengaged from seminaries and judicatories.

Pastors are central to congregations, and congregations are the church's primary centers of practical theological discourse. Thus, congregations and their pastors share a central role in thinking, praying and living Christian faith. Faith is nurtured in congregations through enduring practices of worship, nurture, service and mission that give shape to the personal, family, occupational and community living of church members. Pastors are primary teachers of the faith, and their teaching office is essential in helping congregations receive the deep tradition of the church and interpret that tradition in lived fidelity to the gospel. Yet pastors cannot fulfill this calling in isolation from other loci of the church's teaching office. Moreover, theological faculty and church officials cannot fully exercise their teaching offices in isolation from pastors and from each other.

Theological faculty often bear only a contingent relationship to the church's teaching office. They are invited to be learned guests, dispensing their expertise to congregational forums, presbytery meetings and denominational committees. While these appearances are stimulating and helpful, faculty remain outsiders. They are unable to exercise an integral role in the church's teaching office alongside pastors and church officials in and for congregations and the whole church.

Church officials are widely regarded as the least likely occupants of the teaching office. Although they exercise considerable ecclesiastical influence, they frequently lack the sustained engagements with pastors and congregations that would enable them to speak incisively to congregations' theological needs. At the same time, they lack the prestige and authority granted to academic theologians. Yet church officials are in a unique position to explore Christian faith and life in light of their experience with multiple congregations across a wider region. The absence of their full participation in the teaching office weakens the church's ability to think and speak the faith.

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