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“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” — Luke 9:35

Re-Forming Ministry
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Karen Russell
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Pastoral ministry today

Contemporary pastors are beset by a bewildering range of congregational and denominational expectations. Demands on pastors' time and energy include regular visitation and successful stewardship programs, membership growth and an efficient committee structure, presbytery service and good sermons, community outreach, and an attractive program for children and youth. The list is endless.

The difficulty goes deeper, however. Beneath every demand on time and energy lies the reality that the vocational core of ministry is no longer discernible. Because the church does not have a cohesive understanding of ministry that can be shared by pastors in congregational settings, pastors are presented with an unstable bundle of disparate images, each depicting the essence of ministry: preacher, teacher, community builder, programmer, marketer, therapist, change agent, care giver, manager, entrepreneur, the list goes on! These images are more than another collection of tasks, however. They are comprehensive models of ministry that offer competing options without a compelling rationale for choice.

The difficulty goes even deeper. Those who might be expected to help pastors out of this confusion are themselves enmeshed in the disorder. The church does not have a cohesive understanding of ministry because it lacks a cohesive understanding of itself. A church pulled by jumbled understandings of its life proposes ever-changing, competing understandings of the pastoral vocation. Professors seek to prepare persons for ministry, yet find the church incapable of providing a consistent vision of the pastoral life. Church officials attempt to encourage and develop pastors and congregations who are pursuing confused and incompatible visions of congregational vitality.

Pastoral uncertainty in the face of competing models of ministry is fostered by educational and ecclesiastical systems that lack a comprehensive vision of pastoral identity. The existing pastoral-ecclesial culture is inadequate to aid men and women in their quest for a congruent, richly contoured vocational purpose. Recruitment and education, supervision and credentialing, and oversight and support are all disordered by uncertainty about the shape of ministerial practice.

Uncertainty about pastoral practice is related to a deeper difficulty. Many congregations and judicatories lack a cohesive, compelling vision of the Christian life — deeply shared faith, consistent practices and coordinated mission. An indiscriminate range of ecclesiastical and pastoral options encourages congregational perplexity about ecclesial identity and organizational purpose. Many contemporary pastors are affected by congregational and judicatory confusion even as they participate in its perpetuation.

Good ministry

Excellence in pastoral ministry is grounded in the central theological vocation of all ministry — serious, sustained attention to the core of Christian faith. The theological vocation of pastors should not be confused with academic vocation. Rather, the church's ministry is constituted by the calling to know, understand, and set forth the gospel through word and sacrament. Good ministry involves many personal qualities and organizational activities for which there are generally accepted criteria. Unless these qualities and activities are shaped by the gospel, however, they are not characteristics of good ministry.

Serious, sustained attention to the core of Christian faith is the sine qua non of good ministry. Ministry's indispensable focus on the core of Christian faith is sustained by discrete marks of pastoral excellence.


Ministers are called to disciplined apprehension of the gospel, the culture, and the church. Such apprehension depends upon continuous probing of Scripture and tradition, ongoing analysis of contemporary culture and persistent analysis of the wider church and the actual congregation.


Ministers engage in a broad range of Christian practices and a narrower range of specifically pastoral practices. These practices are diverse, ranging through reading, care for the body, hospitality, visiting the sick and more. Christian practices become specifically pastoral practices as they are focused by the calling to discernment. Christian practices embody the gospel. Thus, discernment shapes and is shaped by intentional Christian ministerial practices.

Spiritual wholeness

Pastoral ministry is "a hard way to make a living." Good ministers are aware of their need to receive grace, love and communion as well as give it. Spiritual disciplines — grounded in Scripture and prayer — are essential elements that nourish pastors' faith, engender pastors' hope and prompt pastors' love.


It is a managerial truism that successful workers are able to prioritize. The priorities of good ministry, however, are shaped less by organizational imperatives than by the wisdom of pastoral discernment and the nurture of pastoral practices. They are neither reactive to organizational pressures nor driven by institutional imperatives. Rather, they are ordered by regular theological discernment and recurring Christian-pastoral practices.

Personal integrity

Serious, sustained attention to the foundations of Christian faith makes possible a quality of ecclesial discernment that is grounded in Christian and pastoral practices, nourished by spiritual disciplines and shaped by appropriate priorities. All of this helps to constitute an "order of life" that is marked by fidelity to the One who calls and to the ones who are called.

Pastoral excellence is not a self-sufficient objective, of course. Good ministry is for the sake of good congregations. Pastoral discernment, practices, wholeness, priorities, and integrity nurture congregational discernment, practices, wholeness, priorities and integrity. Good ministry leads a congregation beyond its present into a more fully gospel-shaped future.

Theological vocation — teaching office

Pastors are at the center of congregations. Congregations are the basic and fundamental form of religious institutions. Religious institutions are significant forces for nurturing societal wholeness. These three integrated convictions point to the reality that pastoral excellence cannot be sustained apart from a cohesive approach to the pastoral-ecclesial system. We are convinced that such an approach must seek to recover the broad theological vocation of pastors within a sustaining ecclesial culture of pastor/congregation, theological professor/seminary, and church official/judicatory. A cohesive, theological approach to the pastoral-ecclesial system will encourage and sustain pastoral excellence, congregational excellence, educational excellence and church institutional excellence.

As ministers claim and deepen their vocation to "think the faith," they are better able to discern the shape of distinctly Christian pastoral and congregational life in the midst of disparate cultural and ecclesial claims. Pastoral discernment that encourages congregational discernment is necessary for the church's renewal in the gospel. By underscoring the pastoral-ecclesial system, we recognize that pastoral ministry is either enhanced or inhibited by its relationship to other significant loci of ministry.

Although pastors are the focal point of Re-Forming Ministry, church officials and seminary faculty are not merely supporting players. Sustaining ecclesially oriented excellence among professors and church officials bears independent value. However, like efforts to sustain pastoral excellence, efforts with faculty and church officials will have deeper, more enduring results when they are integrated into a comprehensive engagement of the broad pastoral-ecclesial system.

Recovering the shared teaching office of the church

One can turn the kaleidoscope of mainstream Protestantism in many directions and see it as a crisis of membership, or a crisis in organization, or a crisis of cultural and religious disestablishment. But we believe that theology is the most important ingredient in the Presbyterian predicament and that the recovery of theological vision is also crucial for the reform of American Presbyterianism and mainstream Protestantism.

—Coalter, Mulder, Weeks; The Re-Forming Tradition

To a great extent, the many problems that are besetting the mainline churches today stem from the fact that churches do not seem to be able to offer their members a compelling vision of the Christian life.

—Osmer, A Teachable Spirit

There is, of course, no single reason for the current decline in vigor of mainstream Protestantism and no single "solution" will address the problems besetting the churches. Nevertheless, one apparent contribution to the current malaise in the Presbyterian Church is its unfocused theological identity.

—Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy


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