PASTORAL PRACTICE & A Summary of Willimon’s “Pastor: The Theology & Practice of Ordained Ministry”

by Carlus Gupton,, n.d.

If wide use is any indication, these are modern classics of pastoral theology. Pastor: The Theology and Practice is an attempt to draw from scripture and tradition to offer a coherent understanding of the core of pastoral identity and practice. Pastor: A Reader for Ordained Ministry is an anthology of substantive articles arranged in the same subject sequence as the other. It is designed as a supplement to the first.

In Pastor: The Theology, Willimon launches from four things that Richard Niebuhr says were characteristic of historical periods when the church had greater clarity about the pastoral role than they do today: “what its chief work was and what was the chief purpose of all of its functions; what constituted a call to the ministry; what was the source of the minister’s authority; and whom the minister served.” (12) Willimon seeks to answer each of these questions, but with an eye toward the current crisis in ministerial identity, and through the lens of the book of Acts, which he sees as “an early Christian narrative of the challenges of church leadership.” (12)

One of the reasons for Willimon’s popularity is that he answers Niebuhr’s questions above in light of the common tasks ministers engage. These include individual chapters on ordination, worship leadership, pastoral care, biblical interpretation, preaching, counseling, teaching, evangelizing, truth-telling, leadership, ethics, character, and disciplined endurance. Even when one may not agree with Willimon’s conclusions, there will always be reflective material in each chapter that grounds one’s practice more deeply in Scripture and enduring Christian tradition.

In one of the beginning chapters, Willimon looks at twenty-first century images of the pastor including media mogul, political negotiator, therapist, manager, resident activist, preacher, and servant. Some of these have more legitimacy than others, but he offers them as evidence that we are “groping for an appropriate metaphor for our work.” (70) He suggests that ministry is always countercultural to some extent, dwelling alongside the temptation to adopt styles of Christian leadership that are essentially accommodationist. This requires that we engage in continuing critical assessment by looking back to the classical tasks of Christian ministry: “to teach, to preach, and to evangelize through the ministries of Word, sacrament, and order.” (71) Willimon repeatedly turns to this emphasis throughout his book.

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