The Heart of the Matter
ed. Erick Sawatzky. Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2004. 275 pages.
Erick Sawatzky’s collection of seventeen essays offers a thorough commentary on the nature and authority of pastoral ministry as practiced in the Mennonite Church. They appear after a generation of intentional and searching discussion of this theme by the faculty of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. This discourse is rooted in a “Dean’s Seminar” instituted by Ross Bender in the late sixties and early seventies, a time when the nature and authority of pastoral ministry was a subject of intense debate. Now, the faculty of AMBS offers to a broader audience, mainly within the Mennonite Church, the fruits of this work. The overriding issue stimulating this process of study and discernment is the tension between position and function in the way pastoral leadership is conceived and executed.
The essays fall into two categories. About a third of the essays address the historical and theological dimensions of the tension between a pastoral position and function. While the debate around this issue has been creative and productive, it does not seem to be resolved. Karl Koop suggests that Anabaptist anticlericalism in the sixteenth century did not necessarily translate into a rejection of clerical position or authority, but rather was a drive for renewed integrity in the execution of that office. Jacob W. Elias observes that in the writing and ministry of Paul as discerned from Acts and the larger collection of Pauline epistles, what ministers and leaders do receives much more attention than matters of office, ordination, and position. The writers seem content to go forward in a dynamic tension between these two perspectives.
Even more stimulating are the remaining essays that examine the work of the pastor through a variety of images, roles, and metaphors, e.g., the pastor as teacher (Perry B. Yoder), as public servant (Mary H. Schertz), as healer (Willard M. Swartley), and as improvisational artist (Rebecca Slough). These thoughtful reflections, seasoned in practice and grounded in research, stretch the reader’s imagination. Both pastors and congregants will come away from these readings inspired by the rich possibilities and varied avenues open to pastors and lay persons in congregational ministry. Implicit in such calls for pastors to be, for example, attentive listeners (June Alliman Yoder) but also skilled managers of conflict and agents of change (J. Nelson Kraybill) is a very high view of pastoral ministry. Pastors and would-be pastoral caregivers, both formal and informal, may find themselves overwhelmed when such a high bar is set for pastoral performance. Some explicit assistance with the inevitable task of needing to discern the shape of one’s own healthful contribution amongst such wide-ranging possibilities would have been a helpful addition to this discussion.
As useful and challenging as this collection of essays is, it remains safely within the boundaries of Mennonite diversity in its imagination and analysis. At least one opportunity to engage the larger Christian tradition of pastoral care seems to have been missed. These writers acknowledge that the “priesthood” of all believers lies, at least to some degree, behind the positional and functional tension in our understanding of the pastorate. Thus, even those who emphasize the functional and laicized definition of pastoral care, at the expense of the positional and clerical, invoke a priestly idiom. A discussion of the pastor as priest from a Mennonite perspective would have been a creative and stimulating addition to this collection.
The stretch might not be as challenging as one imagines. In his essay, Daniel S. Schipani already invokes the “sacramental community” (201-2) and the “representational” (203) role and function of the pastor as caregiving sage. Mennonites should ask if their pastors serve, or should serve, as priests as well as prophets. Furthermore, writers dealing with priestly ministry also recognize some of the same tensions highlighted in Sawatzky’s volume. Richard D. Nelson’s Raising Up a Faithful Priest: Community and Priesthood in Biblical Theology (1993) and T. F. Torrance’s classic, Royal Priesthood: A Theology of Ordained Ministry (1955, 1993), both discuss the same concerns central to the AMBS discussion.
Finally, what remains at “the heart of the matter,” as connoted by Sawatzky’s title? Editor Sawatzky in his conclusion writes, “Leadership is more than position and performance. Leadership, understood positively, is essentially a matter of the heart. It is a relationship” (230). The positive and constructive finding of this generation-long discussion is that whatever traditional model or creative metaphor is employed to explore pastoral ministry, it is the relationship of the pastoral caregiver to and with God, the congregation, the wider community, and the world that lies at the crux of being effective and faithful.