Widening the Dialogue of Classic Christianity: A Review of A Pastoral Rule for Today

August 8, 2019
Title: A Pastoral Rule for Today: Reviving an Ancient Practice
Author: John P. Burgess, Jerry Andrews, and Joseph D. Small
Publisher: InterVarsity Press
Publishing Date: May 14, 2019
Pages: 208 (Paperback)
ISBN: 978-0830852345

The authors of A Pastoral Rule for Today seek to liberate pastors from competing and confusing demands in order to point them “toward authentic freedom in Christ” (163). Jerry Andrews, Joseph Small, and John Burgess came together to produce their book as participants in a movement called “the Re-Forming Ministry Initiative of the Office of Theology and Worship,” a group “seeking to understand where God is leading the Presbyterian Church (USA) and how we can strengthen its ministry in a difficult time of social and ecclesiastical change” (164). The results of their work can reorient pastors not only from their Presbyterian and other Protestant mainline denominations but also from any Christian community in North America. This is true because at the heart of the book is the ancient concept or rather, the catholic practice of a “rule.”

By a pastoral “rule,” the authors mean “a disciplined way of life that keeps us grounded in the principal calling of a pastor: to be faithful to God and God’s will for us and the people we serve” (5). The authors acknowledge that the word “rule” can elicit negative connotations regarding “something or someone with power and control over another” (5). But, in contrast to such a deadening emphasis on legalisms and regulations, the authors emphasize the word “rule” in a second sense, such as a measuring stick set in place by an authority. In that second sense of the word, a pastoral rule offers “a set of criteria for measuring faithfulness to the gospel” and “delineates basic rhythms and practices” that can lead pastors away from confusion and anxiety and in the direction of clarity and peace (6).

To emphasize the contrast between the path of anxiety and the path of peace, we can imagine pastors (and caring members of their congregations) choosing between different sets of primary issues for attention. On the one hand, they can brood over membership losses, budget constraints, and potential church divisions regarding questions of politics and human sexuality. On the other hand, without ignoring the challenges of congregational life, pastors can focus primarily on historic and essential practices such as prayer, scriptural studies, theological and other literary reading, Christian fellowship, and service to neighbors from all backgrounds. The authors, of course, encourage the second set of priorities—not out of a denial of reality, but rather out of the belief that “pastors also have a responsibility to shape our reality” (5).

Seven significant, reality-shaping pastors from the history of Christianity are offered in this book. These classical figures include: Augustine, Benedict, Gregory the Great, John Calvin, John Wesley, John Henry Newman, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Each chapter is devoted to each of these pastor-theologians and includes biographical sketches, theological summaries, and explorations of how to translate their historical examples into contemporary life and work.

Lest the word “theological” seems too academic or abstract for congregational life, we can note that in the case of Augustine, the theological reflection has to do with friendship; in the case of Calvin, profound attention is given to working closely with other pastors and church members; and in the case of Wesley, the theological goal has to do with encouraging conversations in which gossip and backbiting give way to grace and speaking the truth in love. Benedict can help pastors connect obedience to collegiality, while Gregory challenges pastors to pursue both contemplation and right action. In his chapter on Newman, Burgess relates the prayer life of pastors to the kind furniture in their studies that encourages deep thinking; in his chapter on Bonhoeffer, Burgess stimulates thought regarding bodily presence among Christians in an age of disembodied social media.

The authors conclude their book with a chapter and a concluding section in which they guide pastors today in rule formulation that reflects the covenantal way of life we receive from Jesus. They provide a couple of examples of pastoral rules today, and just before quoting Mark 1:15 and 17, which portray Jesus both announcing the kingdom and calling disciples, they observe a set of twin truths that go as follows: “Jesus encouraged his disciples and held them accountable. The risen Christ continues to offer us encouragement and accountability. Here we find blessing. Here we find our true pastoral vocation” (180).

While carrying out their historical investigations, the authors acknowledge that their survey of pastoral examples and wisdom from the Christian tradition does not include the important role of women in Christian communities, organizing and guiding. They admit further that their “historic rules do not include insights from global Christianity in its entirety” (12). Therefore, they encourage their readers to call on the rich spirituality of figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, and Gustavo Gutierrez (13). The authors see these and other diverse figures as offering needed “wisdom to supplement what we in this book have distilled from the ‘classics’” (13).

With regard to widening the dialogue with other writers and contemporaries, it was interesting to me that while I was writing this review, I came upon an interview of another Presbyterian (USA) leader and writer named Tod Bolsinger. Bolsinger’s popular book, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, emphasizes that, as pastors face unprecedented challenges, they can learn from business models without reducing their pastoral work to numbers and dollars. Bolsinger works even more with the examples of the explorers Lewis and Clark and how much they learned from the Native American woman, Sacagawea. Having read Burgess, Andrews, and Small, I now feel prompted to engage with colleagues and others who embody Bolsinger’s insights. I look forward to bringing Augustinian reflections on friendship into dialogue with contemporaries who stand in the tradition of Sacagawea.

Pastors and other Christians who read this book by Andrews, Small, and Burgess will benefit from it both by deepening their exploration of the “classics” and by widening their dialogue to include other writers and contemporary colleagues, friends, and strangers. With regard to deepening our dialogue with figures such as Augustine, Calvin, and the rest, pastors will find the chapters helpful, and perhaps even inspiring enough to read or reread the subjects themselves.

Reading this book has also deepened my union with Our Lord, who urges me to widen my dialogues because “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” (Matthew 13:52).

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