So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
…For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!
– 1 Thessalonians 2:8, 19-20
IVP Books (March 4, 2013)
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The pastor’s joy is found in sharing a common life with real flesh and blood people.
In fact, this is the joy of human life itself. For, although each of us is a unique self, we only find our humanity in relationship to others.
This is what Andrew Root argues in his fine book, The Relational Pastor. As he puts it, “This book makes the claim that at our core we human beings are our relationships, that God encounters us in relationships and that pastoral ministry at its base is about facilitating relational encounters.”
Unfortunately, in recent history, following the trends of cultural development, pastoral ministry has been framed as being about influence, which is more about pastors using relationships to further other purposes. Root rejects this. Relationships are not tools we use to accomplish the mission, building relationships is the goal of the mission. We share the very life of God in Jesus Christ when we share in each other’s lives. As Eugene Peterson paraphrased Acts 2:42, the first believers “committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.”
Being a pastor is about living in Christ and sharing a common life with the people of my congregation, extending that life into the neighborhoods around us and inviting others to share that life with us.
“Relational ministry” is not a strategy to help our church grow or be more vibrant. “Relational” as a method may put people in more interactive settings, but the true goal of such an approach is pragmatic: to get them to become more loyal to the idea of Jesus and the faith, more active in Christian service, more generous with their time and talents for the church and kingdom. And while these may sound like good things, many people can ultimately tell the difference between a church or pastor that only wants to influence them and a community that loves them.
In order to clarify his point, Andrew Root makes a distinction between viewing people as “individuals” and viewing them as “persons.”
An individual in a rationalistic, materialistic, and consumer-oriented society is one who is the sum total of his or her opinions, lifestyle choices, roles, and wants. In ministry we have learned to market the Christian faith so that we can influence such individuals to embrace ideas, change their behavior, fulfill various functions, and buy into our Christian subculture rather than other alternatives. With this view of people, we can do all this, even with such “relational” tools as small groups and “one-on-one ministry,” and never become truly personal — sharing in each other’s lives and in the life of Christ together.
On the other hand, to be a person and to view others as persons is to recognize that the very nature of our humanity is relational — we bear the image of the relational God who is Three in One. We are our relationships. We are “human beings bound to others in love and fear. Personhood demands that I see the other as a mystery to encounter, and not as a will to mold through influence.”
As an example, Root points to the Good Samaritan. He saw the hurting man by the side of the road as a person and responded to him as a person, sharing in his suffering, acting with him and for him as a fellow human being, sharing in his very life. He was not an object to be fixed but a neighbor to be loved. The Samaritan entered his life and shared a space called “neighbor” that those who passed by little understood. It may be that they were more committed to ideals than they were to actual persons. The priest and Levite after all would have become ritually unclean by touching and assisting the suffering traveler. However, as Root comments, “The problem with idealism is that even when it sees need, it converts it into an idea, allowing us to avoid the concrete life of our neighbor.”
So to see need is not to convert it into an idea or program but to open your person to it, to seek to walk into the place of need to encounter the embodied spirit of the other. Idealism seeks the integrity of the ideal; the realism of personal encounter seeks the God who became person found in the need of the suffering of the cross. Idealism uses the idea as the measure of sharing. You are called to share the idea with another, but only called to the other person as long as the ideal remains pure. If the person challenges or threatens the ideal you have given your interest to, then the other person must go, so the integrity of idea remains and you as an individual remain pure.
In contrast, the realistic work of relating involves what Andrew Root calls “indwelling.”
To indwell something is to participate in something that is not us. It is to share in something so deeply that what is not us becomes part of us.
…Your life becomes a part of mine and mine becomes a part of yours. …Our lives are distinct but overlapped; we are each our own person, but our own unique being has penetrated the being of the other through the relationship itself.
…It is indwelling another that gives us our personhood. A brother, mother or friend is called such because each indwells another; their lives dynamically overlap. …They share so deeply in the life of another that they are what they are only by sharing in the life of another.
The pastor’s joy, therefore, is to own his or her name — a name that describes a truly relational approach to life and ministry. A “pastor” is one who participates in life-sharing relationships with people in Christ as one of them, and also as one called and ordained to encourage and nourish those relationships.
Perhaps “pastor” is not ultimately the best term because the metaphor does not fully capture the rich humanity of the people among whom we dwell. Familial terms (brother, sister, father, mother) as well as “minister” (a household term in NT times = servant) may in the final analysis be preferable. These designations remind us that there are no “leaders” and “followers” in the church. Indwelling must go both ways or it is not a mutual relationship. It becomes one person trying to influence another rather than engaging in the true, mutual, sharing of life in Christ.
The pastor’s duty is therefore not to “lead” (there go half the books in most ministers’ libraries!). Rather, as Andrew Root affirms, “The ministry of the pastor in our time is to make the church the location of the personal, for it to be a community rich in the spirit of personal encounter.”
The Relational Pastor ends with an appendix written by various ministers from different congregations. In it they talk about some of the ways they have tried to help their churches share in “the common life” of mutual indwelling with one another and among their neighbors. One of the contributors concludes with these words:
You could feel the connections being made; you could feel the Spirit at work. This unexpected space to share had become the place in which Christ was powerfully present, bringing people together in profound ways.
In life and in ministry, there is no greater joy.