Saturday, October 2, 2010

LHP Reviews: Parish Life Autobiographies

Barnes, M. Craig. The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009. 152 pages. Paper. $18.00.

Daniel, Lillian and Copenhaver, Martin B. This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009. 254 pages. Paper. $16.00.

Autobiographical books concerning the lives of pastors must be tough to write, considering the primary audience to which one is writing—other pastors. Pastors are a tough crowd. Therefore, a pastor writing about parish ministry better offer outstanding theological and personal insights from which another pastor may learn. For the parish pastor considering reading such a work, the thought crosses one’s mind, “Why should I read about someone else’s parish experience when I have my own? I could tell stories all day long. Wait, I’ll write a book . . .  .” The assumption is that someone will actually care enough to read about another pastor’s decades of joys and heartaches experienced in the little corner of God’s kingdom to which he has been called.

Both of the above books are autobiographical in nature. The three authors all have their stories to tell: the early, uncertain years of ministry; the painful lessons learned as new pastors; the frustration of the middle parish years; the parishioners in pain, the difficult ones—and the quirky ones—in need of the love and mercy of Jesus. These things are the common fabric of every pastor’s life.

I am used to consistent theology from my own church body’s publishing house. Both of these books from Eerdmans exhibit a wide divergence. Craig Barnes comes from Presbyterianism, whereas Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver are from the United Church of Christ. Between these two books there is one point of common ground and that is the inclusion of female clergy. In Barnes’ book, the reader can, with a watchful eye, excise the pronouns “she” and “her” when coupled with “pastor” and “clergy.” Though slightly annoying to the Lutheran reader, much can still be gained from this book. But Daniel and Copenhaver, coming from the UCC, are much more bold and blatant. For the pastor who believes that Scripture speaks of no calling for women into the office of pastor, this might be a very distracting obstacle.

So, on to Pastor as Minor Poet. The book is divided into two parts. The first half begins with the chapter, “The Call of the Minor Poet.” Barnes makes the case that the pastor is the resident poet in the parish. He is not the chief poet; that is reserved for the Triune God (17). But the pastor has been called to proclaim God’s Word to people with pains and joys. People in need of pastoral care deserve carefully chosen words. Barnes leads the pastor reading his book to consider choosing quite carefully and poetically what he pastorally says to his people. Barnes’ example which begins Chapter 3, “The Unpoetic Congregation,” is well worth the read for any pastor who struggles with making small talk in the parish. Can this in any way be poetic? Barnes is spot on in his answer.

Because this book is full of so many worthwhile quotes, some long, many short, I’ll give you a brief sampling. Remember, in Barnes’ scheme of things, poet = pastor.

A good poet is hard to find, and there is nothing more tragic than wasting one in a busy office. (Who is the Pastor, 13)

No major poet ever lived to see what happened to the holy ministry they proclaimed. (The Parish Poet, 25)

God has good self-esteem and can handle as much anger as we can dish out, as the psalmists apparently believed, but it’s clear that nothing infuriates God more than being left out of the conversation. (The Unpoetic Congregation, 39)

Nobody really wants a perfect pastor. (The Poet’s Pathos, 52-53)

After wasting far too many years trying to do the spectacular, it has finally occurred to me that God loves routine. (The Poetic Community, 63)

The second half of the book, The Craft of the Minor Poet, takes the reader through a delightful and refreshing approach to Scripture. His treatment of the woman at the well in John 4 deserves a couple of careful readings as Barnes turns over stones I had not yet seen. (81-86) For the pastor struggling with difficult texts or the same every-year ones, this section of the book will freshen up the exegetical task, taking into careful, poetic account, the pastoral care of the hearer. And as if the reader hasn’t had enough good stuff, the fifth to the last paragraph of the book beings with these words, “The Four Gospels never depict Jesus in a hurry.” The thought continues, “Can we move as slowly as Jesus to see what God is doing.” (135) I never thought of that. Perhaps you haven’t either—until now. That’s worth a whole Advent or Lenten midweek series right there.

And there are more pithy, poetic thoughts to the very end of the book. Pastor as Minor Poet is well worth a read.

On a personal note, I recently completed the Doxology program (, a most excellent clergy and parish renewal effort directed by Drs. Harold Senkbeil and Beverly Yahnke. Pastor as Minor Poet is a good follow-up to such topics as burn-out (27-28), anger (38-41, 93), mindfulness and observation (44) and the pastoral-therapeutic partnership (87-91).

Now onto the other side, and, I’m afraid, a theologically darker side. This Odd and Wondrous Calling seems to have the not-so-subtle agendas of feminist theology, diversity and inclusivity while actually excluding orthodox Christianity as handed down from the prophets and apostles.

When reading Pastor as Minor Poet the Lutheran pastor will find himself often shaking his head in agreement and only once in awhile in disagreement. Not so with This Odd and Wondrous Calling. I found myself shaking my head the wrong direction too much of the time.

Daniel and Copenhaver use the word God often; the words Jesus and Christ are not. In fact, one can read for pages and never bump into Jesus. When the name Jesus is used, the name of the Lord is most often part of a prepositional phrase, such as “. . . of Jesus.” Jesus rarely ever gets top billing at the beginning of the sentence. He just isn’t the subject of the book, which then leaves the only other options to begin a sentence with “You,” “I,” or “We.” Even when it looks like the authors are getting close to the mark with the use of the word Christian, well, it is just plain hard to tell what that means because the reader isn’t quite sure who Christ Jesus Himself is. Much is made of what Christians should do, but little, if anything, is said about Christ Jesus who has already done something to make one a Christian, to make the sinner a “little Christ.” And not that there necessarily has to be a quote from the Bible on every page, but these authors take three chapters and 23 pages to finally get one in.

This sad state of writing theology should not surprise anyone following the United Church of Christ. Five years ago in convention the UCC debated whether the denomination would still confess that Jesus is Lord. After much negative publicity from the outside, the inside of the convention finally left the decision to each UCC congregation. One can see that very theological defect infecting this book.

The ordering of the book gives the odd chapters to Lillian Daniel, the even ones to Copenhaver. They leap frog over each other in tone and topic.

The social structure of the congregation is described with some accuracy, even for Lutheran parishes. Potlucks, grumpy people (43-50), expectations of holy days being difficult for both lay people and pastors (204-210), these are common to the life of parishes. I’m not sure one has to buy a book to discover these obvious things. There are some scenes recounted which will make the reader smile, but even then the lack of deep, strong theology makes the conservative pastor ache for the clear message of Jesus and His gift of forgiveness. But such congregational church basement fellowship is placed far above that of the gifts of the Lord Jesus and what He brings to the table.

This convoluted approach is particularly evident in Chapter 3, “Entertaining Angels Unaware,” by Lillian Daniel. At the center of the chapter is a gay couple, Tim and Jack, who end up entertaining the congregation in their “beautifully appointed Victorian home in the historic section of New Haven.” (22) One can almost hear the elderly ladies sitting on the love seats, whispering to one another in Austenian tones, “Aren’t they just pets?” The approach to homosexual men isn’t inclusive or diverse. It’s condescending.
Remember above when I described that Christians in this book are defined by what they do, not first by who they are in Christ Jesus. The reader may very well conclude in this chapter that Christianity is homosexual hospitality, because they do it so well. Now, that is a stereotype, and the Lutherans I know who struggle with same gender attraction would be offended by what really worn-out depictions of gay men being fussy about antique chairs and doilies. Yet this is the one chapter (18-28) I would recommend a Lutheran to read, if only to struggle with how a Lutheran pastor and a congregation would react with all the richness of the Law and Gospel Jesus brings to the proverbial tea table. Give that a try at the next circuit pastors’ conference and see where you end up in the discussion. 

I found myself often shaking my head in agreement and only sometimes in disagreement while reading The Pastor as Minor Poet. The exact opposite was true for me when reading This Odd and Wondrous Calling. My conclusion is this: It is better to be a poet than to have an odd calling.

“M. Craig Barnes is the Robert Meneilly Professor of Leadership and Ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and serves as senior pastor of Shadyside Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh” (back cover, edited).

“Lillian Daniel is senior minister of First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and co-host of the Chicago-based television program 30 Good Minutes” (back cover, edited).

“Martin B. Copenhaver is senior pastor of Wellesley Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Wellesley, Massachusetts” (back cover, edited).

The Rev. Shawn L. Kumm is pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, Laramie, Wyoming and a regular QBR contributing reviewer.