Part of what drew me to the ordained ministry was a particular image of that calling: the minister as a field-based teacher and scholar. It is in many ways a rabbinic model. Rabbi means “teacher.” Rabbis were teachers who were based not primarily in the school, university, or academy but in the community—in congregations and in the public square. Their task was to teach and to interpret a way of life for the people and community in which they lived. How does the faith of our people and tradition relate to this concern or that question of the day? How do the stories of our faith speak to a challenge in someone’s life? How are the pastors and teachers of the church like the scribes of the kingdom of which Jesus spoke when he said, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:52)? Such scribes brought the old wisdom and ancient stories to new times and places. As a young man, I found such an understanding of ministry both compelling and challenging.
Does such an image of the office and calling of the ordained clergy have any meaning or relevance today? Or is it hopelessly romantic and outdated? Can the ordained function as field-based and community-based teachers and theologians, or have other more pressing or culturally appealing or relevant roles rendered this one either passé or simply way down the list of priorities? Ministers, pastors, priests, and rabbis can do so many things. There are so many possible understandings of our role and responsibility. How can one take pride in the calling?
Another way to ask these questions is to frame them in terms of congregations. Can congregations be teaching and learning communities? Or is that asking too much or too little? Are congregations to be something more or something different from this? Again, the possible and appropriate understandings of the purpose of congregations are many. Congregations may be centers of personal healing and spiritual growth, communities for activism and social change, centers of family life and nurture, institutions that offer an array of programs to meet varied human needs, or communities of worship.
While pastors and congregations must make choices among the array of possible priorities before them, my argument is not so much that the pastoral role of teacher and theologian and the congregational one of a teaching and learning community are to be preferred to others. Rather, my argument is that such an understanding gives order and coherence to the many functions and activities of clergy and congregations. We are in the business, or so it seems to me, of teaching and embodying a way of life, a particular way of being human in relationship to God. In all that we do, both as religious leaders and as congregations, we teach. Sometimes the lessons we teach are not consistent with the faith and values we profess, but right or wrong, faithful or derelict, we teach, we model, we form, and we inform.
The great truths of Christian faith, our core convictions, are saving truths. They make a difference. They make a difference by forming humans who are humane and truthful. They make a difference by pointing the way when we have lost our way and the way. They make a difference by shaping congregations and communities to become more vital. These saving truths create and sustain congregations. Those who seek and find such congregations discover a healthy community in which to grow, struggle, be changed, and be sustained. In the midst of the many forces that regularly distort and diminish life as God has created it to be, these saving truths create God’s intended community. Most of all, these truths save by bringing us into relationship with the true and living God.
I envision pastors and congregations teaching these saving truths not only in formal ways through classes and study, but also, and perhaps even more important, in the informal ways that communities always teach: through role models and mentors, by interpreting shared convictions in times of crisis and loss, and by giving shape to those convictions in our daily ways of living. To be sure, this is not an easy endeavor, nor is it even one that will be completed in a person’s lifetime. But those caveats make this calling, at least for me, more compelling. To be one among others who conveys and interprets the faith once received in fresh and lively ways and to be a community of learning and teaching (what organizational consultant Peter Senge has called a “learning organization” in his book The Fifth Discipline) seem to me to be tasks worthy of a lifetime.
That I draw inspiration for this understanding of both ministry and congregations from the Jewish faith is perhaps revealing. The Jews have long known what it is to struggle to sustain a particular faith and way of life amid societies that were not necessarily friendly to them. This, it seems to me, is increasingly the situation of Christians. We live in a society that is officially secular, is religiously pluralistic, and in values and lifestyles offers more a smorgasbord than a set menu. For the most part, I do not regret these realities. I am not among those who believe a Christian way of life can or ought to be legislated and mandated for all citizens. Faith is not a political ideology or agenda. While it should speak to political and social issues, faith that is captured in a political ideology or agenda has become something other than the faith and way of Jesus Christ, who came not to lord it over others, but to serve (Mark 10:42-43).
But the secularization and pluralism of North American society give a new priority to teaching and formation, to the minister as teacher and practical theologian, and to the congregation as a teaching and learning community. Neither ordained ministers nor congregations can assume, as we once did, that most people who come of age in North America have learned the basics of faith simply by growing up here. By basics, I mean the core convictions, biblical stories, hymns, and practices that constitute the way of life of believers. While counting on the culture to form Christians was probably never a very good idea, there may once have been a time when clergy and congregations could rely more on the culture at large to do so. That is no longer true. These changes in our culture and in the place of the church bring the pastoral role as teacher and theologian and the congregational role as teaching and learning community into higher relief.
Vital congregations in this new time will look more Jewish in the sense that they will be more intentional about teaching and embodying a way of life, about doing Christian formation. Not long ago, the pollster George Gallup Jr. set out to determine what those who seek a church today most want from that experience. He noted three things in particular: sermons that are instructive and believable, opportunities to deepen one’s own spiritual life, and a church that helps people to have a better understanding of the faith.
We might think of these things as the roots of faith. As any farmer or gardener knows, trees whose roots are not planted in healthy soil and nurtured with water and occasional fertilizer will not long bear fruit. In some measure, the problem of mainline congregations has been that we have gone to the trees decade after decade, asking a great harvest of fruit (programs of service and activism, ministries of outreach and care) without tending the roots. The result is predictable. This is not to say Christian or congregational life is an either-or: either roots and spiritual growth or fruits and ministries of service and care. Root-bound congregations are in as much a danger as fruitless ones. Roots or fruit is not an either-or; it is a both-and, as any healthy apple tree testifies.
Much of the clergy’s teaching will be in the midst of the life of the congregation and its people. This doesn’t mean always having the answers; indeed, it may mean having the question. It does mean putting the little dramas of life in community and of our lives individually into the context of the great story of God’s redeeming and relentless love and purpose. It means making the connections between God’s story and our stories, because in reality they are not two different stories but one story. Tell the story with love. Tell it with confidence. Tell it with joy. Amen!
Adapted from What’s Theology Got to Do with It? Convictions, Vitality, and the Church by Anthony B. Robinson, copyright © 2006 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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