Mystery and Ministry

By John Drury

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Clergy burnout is more rampant than ever. The stats bear this out. But pastors are also far better equipped, educated and resourced than ever. Despite the calls for intellectual, psychological or administrative increases in the ever-lengthening list of “ministerial” skills, pastors receive far better practical training than they used to. Yet well-trained clergy are leaving the ministry in droves.

I wonder whether an aspect of the problem lies in the very idea of ministerial training as the acquisition of aggregate skills. “If you have an intermediate skill level in these twelve loosely related areas, you will be qualified for a successful ministry.” Now I certainly want pastors to be good exegetes, good listeners, good preachers, good at running stuff, etc. But there must be something beneath all these skills that ties them together. There must be something that grounds them, motivates them and gives them life.

A clue to this puzzle dawned on me while reading Romans 10. The famous passage of the necessity of preachers for the salvation of the world actually follows directly Paul’s strange interpretation of the ascending and descending mentioned in Deut 30 as the death and resurrection of Christ. It is only on the heels of this elusive exegesis that Paul move into his praise for the necessity of preaching. He moves from the greatest mystery into the need for ministry, without a pause or transition. Mystery (typically reserved for ivory tower theologians) and ministry (the practice of those aggregate skills) stand side by side. And if you think this is just a fluke, then check out Ephesians 4 where Paul moves comfortably from a similar mention of the descent and ascent of Christ to the giving of gifts to the various ministers in the church. Apparently, it is the mysterious cosmic Lordship of Christ that unites, grounds and motivates a minister’s preaching, leading, listening, etc.

In other words, when asked why we do what we do as ministers, the short answer might go something like this: "Jesus is the resurrected Lord of the universe and I am pressed into his service."

Will this simple thought alone prevent clergy burnout? Certainly not. But maybe it can help us begin to think through the unity of theological education (both initial and continuing) that gets beyond the "grab bag of skills" mentality. Because being good-at-stuff won’t get one through a dark night of the soul.


At 4:43 PM, July 26, 2005, Samuel Bills said...

John Locke "The Reasonableness of Christianity"
John Toland "Christianity Not Mysterious"
H.S. Reimarus "Apology for Rational Worshipers of God"
John Wesley "Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason"
I picked up this list of titles as I took a historical survey last quarter. Regardless of content the titles alone are interetsing even "enlightening" (pun intended) I often hear the classic seminary structure (Bible, Theology, Practice) traced back to Schleiermacher. If this is true then there seems to be an assumption in the institution of ministerial training itself that is contrary to mystery. It seemed appropriate in light of your thoughts to reflect on how this assumption might be addressed. How do you involve people in mystery? What happens as more and more ministerial training looks more like IWU professional studies programs and less like a PTS? It seems that these new methods of continuing education are even more likely to become about getting good at stuff - rather than being involved in a some sort of shaping experience in the face of mystery that I would idealize education could be. Thanks for the thought stimulator...


At 10:57 PM, July 26, 2005, Keith Drury said...

The core question may not be "How can I be effective?" but "Did Jesus Christ rise from the dead." If he truly did indeed rise from death then "success" is less important than faithfulness to the truth. If He did not rise then I'd suggest taking more practical ministry courses for it is mostly up to us.
--Keith Drury


At 1:49 PM, July 27, 2005, pk said...

These thoughts are coming at a poignant time for me as I embark on full-time Christian ministry. Whatever skills I do have (and the many I don't have) are in some way secondary to living as a Spirit-led ambassador of Christ amongst a community of other Spirit-led ambassadors. As I go to Conferences and Training Gatherings and fine-tune many 'necessary' skills, these thoughts will be percolating in my mind.


At 3:18 PM, July 27, 2005, JohnLDrury said...


That list is a trip. A delight to see Wesley lumped in with those "rationalists" especially contra his reputation as a mere hot hearted pietist. Well done.

As for the structure of theological education [WARNING: HISTORY LESSON], although Schleiermacher is often credited with inventing the fourfold pattern (Bible, History, Theology, Practice), it was actually developed by the Encyclopedists who, among other things, were reacting against Schleiermacher's proposal. His structure (as found in his "Breif Outline for the Study of Theology") provides for the unity of theological disciplines. It is threefold:

1. Historical Theology (which is the careful study of the sources of the Christian religion, namely the Bible and Church History)

2. Philosophical Theology (which draws from #2 in order to restate the essence of Christianity for our own time and situation)

3. Practical Theology - a term he coined! (which initiates students into the essence of Christianity to know its identity so well as to preserve it into the next generation).

Hence for Schleiermacher, the sub-disciplines of theology are anything but the acquisition of aggregate skills. Even practical theology is more about the preserving and developing the identity of the Christian religion rather than being good at stuff.

Whereas Schleiermacher (always the Romantic) was inclined to see Platonic unities, the Rationalist Encyclopedists saw Aristotelean distinctions. Theology fit itself into the emerging encyclopeia (note how publishing is the tail that wags the pedegogical dog here) by dividing itself up into disciplines in which different people could become "experts", and hence get assigned to write the encyclopea article on this or that topic. From this tradition arose the ever increasing sub division of theological study that persists into our day.


At 3:27 PM, July 27, 2005, JohnLDrury said...


I was intrigued that you contrasted IWU's professional studies with PTS' classical approach. I personally experienced it the very opposite way. PTS is highly subdivided (because of its size, independence, pluralism, and acadmemic ethos) and I find it rather frustrating. Recently a seminarian's spouse said to me that she was confused by her husbands claim that he doesn't do theology, he's just an NT guy. She thought we were all doing theology. She though her confusion was out of ignorance. But she was asking the question that we all forget in our narrowness: the we are here to study God, and when we get out we will be asked to speak on behalf of God even if we don't want to.

The opposite was the case at IWU, where we learned philosophy from a NT scholar (Schenck), pastoral care from a philosopher (Horst), pastoral ministry from an historian (Bence), ecclesiology from a christian education (Drury) and theology from a OT scholar (Lennox). I think it has something to do with the college context, where the whole religion department is expected to represent the study of God in the midst of everything else. It also had to do with size, and as the department continues to grow I'm sure we will see increased specialization (as is already happening).

Bottom line: the question that keeps the skills together is one of truth. As long as that's there, you can be thoroughly "practical" and "skills"-oriented, at least as far as I'm concerned. To clarify: I am not calling for increasing theory and decreasing praxis. I am calling for an abolition of the distinction.


At 3:29 PM, July 27, 2005, JohnLDrury said...


Since I know you don't think it is "just up to us," how do you view your own courses beyond skill acquisition? Is there a certain disposition or habit of mind that you are seeking to initiate your students into? Is this a conscious objective, or something that happens intuitively?


At 3:32 PM, July 27, 2005, JohnLDrury said...


so glad you chimed. you are so right to identify those first years of ministry as crucial for nailing down the "why" of what you are doing, especially since the immediate day-to-day pragmatic needs will easily distract you. often those who burnout said they didn't see it coming. they were working hard and well for years then boooom -- nothing left. so it starts now. I am so excited for what God is going to be doing through you in this new season of your life!


At 10:59 AM, July 28, 2005, Amanda said...

After a day of planning, confirming, writing, connecting, reading, studying, organizing-bowling-trips, etc. Nothing was more exciting than a short conversation with my senior pastor reminding me to preach Christ.

I was plesantly suprised at how that simple reminder could be more motivating than making ten check marks on my to-do list (and I like to make check-marks).


At 11:48 AM, July 28, 2005, Samuel Bills said...

Hey dru-
Thanks for the history lesson. I tried to tread softly knowing I had only commonly understood that hist. dvlpt. thanks for the correction.
The other part of my comment was directed at the distinction between IWU's "professional studies" program - I agree about the undergrad. experience we had and think that is why I am most excited about the possibility of teaching in an undergrad. school. When I left the comment my initial thought was that it seemed easier to make theological education happen as more of a formational waltz with mystery in a traditional type monastic (in the true sense of the word) seminary - which I may have wrongly characterized PTS to be. Does the fact that more ministerial training courses are being taught over the internet than in classrooms (I don't know if that's true) have any effect on the kind of subdivisions of theolical educ. that you are talking about.
Let me criticize myself before I post this...I think I might be confusing the mystery of the institution of higher ed. with the mystery of Christ in my comment (OOh the tweed suits the horn-rimmed glasses, the big dark library it is so mysterious) What I want to get at I guess is that it seems more difficult to me to think about being submerged in the experience of the risen Lord through theo. ed. if most of my ed. is done in my robe at my computer (mystery will have to come from somewhere else) Experiences of living and learning together - worshipping with the people you go to class with - it connects formation that is a response to who Jesus Christ is and education that prepares us to serve this risen and eternal one. Any experiences on the relationship of formation and education in a "virtual" classroom. Maybe formation isn't the best word.
Okay I must go and do penance for such a long post.


At 11:55 AM, July 28, 2005, Samuel Bills said...

One more thing...not only the idea of doing class at the computer but the trend to add ministerial ed. on an already heaping pile of stuff. I know a woman in a class I am taking this summer who last week was preaching revival services at night was transitioning into a senior pastor role at a new church who has a family and young kids etc. and learning about Hebrew participles. If theo. ed. doesn't make her better at stuff she doesn't have time for it. This seems to me to be quite an average description of how people fit in ed. Does this have any implications on your point in the post?


At 2:28 PM, July 28, 2005, JohnLDrury said...


No worries on the history. That's what I am good for.

Perceptive distinction b/w mystery of Christ and the mystery of theological education. That may help sort out a lot of our back-and-forth. It is also helpful to know that you were comparing the IWU M.A. with PTS's M.Div. (though I know very little about the former). I sympathize with your desire to teach college rather than seminary for similar reasons.

As for on-the-job training, I agree with you entirely that the immediate needs of practical ministry necessarily detract from the patience required for contemplating the mysteries of Christ. However, programs designed for "on-the-job training" are best suited for such aims - though the student may learn just as much at conferences, seminars, and lunches with other pastors than from classes. However, I have observed that this desire for pragmatic-immediacy has seeped into full time theological education. Sure, colleges and seminaries are not doing a good job at "training" ministers. I am questioning whether they should try to do this at all. What you are terming "formation" is exactly what I am talking about: worshiping together, studying together, being discipled, etc. -- these are the kinds of bedrock motivation & mindset developers that colleges and seminaries can and do provide. So I think you are on the right track.


At 2:32 PM, July 28, 2005, JohnLDrury said...


Your story perfectly illustrates the difference between the two kinds of ministerial job statisfaction: the satisfaction of execution and the satisfaction of motivation. Acquired skills certainly help the former, but only an initiation into Christ himself will supply the former. As your story shows, the difference has nothing to do with theory vs. practice or academic vs. experiential. Execution of the tasks of ministry and reflection on the motive for ministry are not mutually exclusive.