Friday, April 05, 2013

The Relational Pastor: A Review

It takes considerable skill and creativity to reconceptualize the definition of pastor for the 21st century. There seems to be a rather tight cultural lock on how the role of pastor is defined in our culture. Additionally, it takes some chutzpah to attempt to write a book that is simultaneously addressed to a popular audience and wrestles with neuroscience research, Bonhoeffer studies, Derrida, and more.

Andrew Root pulls it off. Root, who churns out a new book or two per year, writes with a breezy prose I wish more theologians would emulate. He risks simplifying his arguments a bit in order to make them accessible, but kudos to him, because people are actually reading Root.

If Andrew Root has a "shtick," it is this: he is concerned that even the notion of being "relational" or incarnational is at times in Christian ministry instrumentalized. In his first book, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation, he took issue with a type of youth ministry he observed happening (especially in evangelical circles) where relationships were cultivated not for themselves, but for the influence they might have to win youth for Christ.

Root offers an alternative, grounded out of Bonhoeffer, of "place-sharing" (Stellvertretung). In this model, relationships are not a means to an end, but are the ends themselves. The relationship is the ministry, regardless of outcomes or influence. We are called, in Christian faith, to share our lives and our places with each other.

When Root wrote that book, many readers immediately saw the implications of it for a wider set of ministries than simply youth ministry. Root waited a few years, then came back to the topic with this book, focused specifically on pastoral ministry.

Although pastoral ministry is a rich and complex profession, for the most part many theologians and church leaders (and even the popular culture) seems to know what it is they mean when they call someone a pastor. A lot of ink is spilled printing new books on pastoral ministry and ecclesiology. Much if not all of it continually plows again fields already furrowed. This is not all bad. We need to read things to remind us of who we are. We need innovative ideas and fresh approaches even if they are treading again ground we have already tread (for a list of great books about pastoral ministry, see

However, Andrew Root definitely moves the conversation forward, and will move readers with his compelling narrative. For my money, the most compelling proposal in the book is his early thesis, in which he writes (having concluded a two chapter survey of how previous eras of human history conceived of the notion of a spiritual leader or pastor):
The time is right contextually to recover and deepen the theological perspective (of ministry as participation in the life of Christ through the personhood of the other, through relationship), helping to redefine pastoral ministry beyond te priestly reader, moral exemplar or self-help entertainer. Instead, the aim is to see the pastor as convener of empathic encounter of personhood, as the one who invites congregation members into relationships of place sharing with those in and outside the church.
Root's book is not a how-to book, offering a model for successful ministry. For that, readers will need to look elsewhere. Instead, Root, in chapters on the definition of personhood, the neurological implications of relationships, and even an engaging chapter on the connection between the hypostatic union and relational ministry, steadfastly refused to instrumentalize relationality and sticks with an exploration of relationships for their own sake.

Because of this, it is somewhat hard to imagine, at times, what this proposal for pastoral ministry might look like in various contexts. Andrew offers winsome accounts of how relational ministry takes shape in his wife Kara's small south Minneapolis congregation. These stories alone (especially the chapter titled "What this looks like") as analogy for our various ministries are themselves worth the price of the book.  On the other hand, it is sometimes difficult to understand or imagine how relational pastoral ministry might work for pastors in rather large congregations (unless the relationships in which they convene empathic encounter of personhood are among the staff they lead).

However, this is more my failure of imagination than anything. Root's concept is new and challenging enough it requires creative iteration in congregational contexts other than the ones Root is himself closest (and married) to. The value of Root's narrative: he tells the story of congregations and pastoral ministry he deeply loves and cherishes.

Finally, a challenge and a recognition. One risk in Root's approach is to oversimplify. Sometimes he swims out into deep waters, then bails when it is rough. This is most often the case when he engages streams of philosophy. For example, he names the "impossibility of the gift" in Derrida, only to then abandon the theme and claim there are gifts that are possible--yet the gift he names as possible is precisely the kind of gift Derrida argues is impossible.

I would like to challenge Root, in future books, to dig in, remain with the difficulty of the material he encounters. This is itself, ultimately, more relational.

Then the recognition: I can hardly thank him enough for his final chapter. It is so much in alignment with my current thoughts on pastoral ministry that I felt as if someone standing close to my own heart had written it. The sub-title of the chapter, "leadership as letting relationships flow," is precisely how (on my best days) I hope to function. Rick Foss of Luther Seminary once told me, "Most jobs are a set of tasks with relationships embedded. Pastoral ministry is somewhat unique in that it is a set of relationships with tasks embedded."

Root says it this way: "We are professional persons, persons blessed with the gift (the financial, professional gift) of tending to our personhood as a way of tending to others." This is not personhood as individualism, but personhood as "being in relationship." It is true, and it offers a way forward for all pastors wondering how they shall be pastor in a culture and context where authenticity, networks, and time are such strangely different and precious commodities.

I have been recommending this book for young people (really, anyone) considering pastoral ministry. It will help readers see a way forward for imagining the emerging sense so many have of what Christian ministry will mean and can mean as it reclaims participation in Christ as participation in one another's lives.

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