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by Dr. Tim Sensing, Associate Dean


While preparing to teach this January, I re-read M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet. Barnes is the president of Princeton Theological Seminary. I first encountered Barnes at a presentation where he discussed the first chapter of his book. I was hooked. I have re-read his book several times since then. He states,

            I’m a Pastor. I like pastors; I understand them and believe in their high calling. But this is not an easy time for us. My hunch is that it has never been easy, if the job was done well, but the ministry is now difficult for new reasons.

            The hardest thing about being a pastor today is not the long hours, the demanding congregations, the eclectic responsibilities, the fishbowl existence, or the relentless returns of Sundays. Those who have taken the vows of ordination have long shouldered all of that as the yoke of Christ. But only within the last two generations have the clergy been forced to bear an additional burden that is far from light – confusion about what it means to be the pastor.[1]

Barnes continues by rehearsing several contemporary images of a minister.

The professional literature, offering competing identities for ministers, has only exacerbated the contemporary confusion. Some authors assume that we are at heart therapists or specialists in family systems theory. Others write as if we are all religious entrepreneurs who are dying to build a mega church. Still others think of the pastor as a mystic wannabe who just needs to check into a monastery to be a monk for a day. Much of the current literature on leadership that is being taught in our seminaries has come from secular universities such as the Harvard Business School. It’s presented as if the principles of corporate management can easily be baptized for leaders of congregations.[2]

Pastors and ministers are sometimes influenced by the various agendas of the congregants. People’s expectations are often double binds that allow few options for resolution. Differing agendas that are placed at the minister’s feet contradict. Churches become consumers who simply want to be happy. Ministers design products that give customer satisfaction in the religious marketplace. So, a new sort of mission statement, “Becoming all things to all people so that I might please everyone”, defines the job role. And the court of public opinion tosses us to and fro by every wind and wave of people’s tastes and preferences. Success is defined by attendance, budgets, and comfort.

While there are many healthy images in Scripture, Barnes puts forth poet as one often overlooked but worthwhile in our 21st Century context.

The major poets, who are few and far between, provide enduring expressions of the deep truth of life. Minor poets have the more modest goal of inculcating that truth to particular people in particular places. … The vast majority of pastors are not major but minor poets whose humble calling is to spend their lives making sense of the major lines of poetry they have inherited from the sacred tradition to a specific gathering of people called the local congregation. … But the creativity of the minor poet is found not in the discovery of new truth, or in speaking and writing for every other people. It’s found in the fresh articulation of familiar old truths in a specific context. … Both pastors, however, have to be well schooled in over two thousand years of major theological poetry in order to know the Gospel truth they preach. And they both have to hone their skills as poets in order to present that Gospel to their congregations with all of the relevance and life-overhauling power that it had when Jesus spoke to Palestinian Jews in his ancient society. Most seminaries do a much better job of training their students how to do the first thing – knowing the truth. That’s what all of the courses on church history, theology, ancient languages, and biblical exegesis provide. It schools students in the major poets. But few have been trained in the exegesis of a local culture, a particular congregation, or human soul. The legacy of this is that we are better at knowing the deep passions and pathos of dead people than the ones we have vowed to serve.[3]

Just as you are on a lifetime journey of being transformed into the image of God, so too is the GST as an institution of graduate education. As you explore your own vocational identity as a minister, allow Barnes words about minor poets who know the words of the major poets inspire you. Similarly, Barnes words capture the GST’s aspirations. In 1999 and 2009, ACU’s Graduate School of Theology rolled out new curriculum structures that focused on contextual education as the primary way we achieve our mission. The GST aims to equip men and women for effective missional leadership for ministry in all its forms, and to provide strong academic foundations for theological inquiry. By equipping students with the requisite skills, knowledge, and experience, the GST aspires to produce graduates with trained minds and transformed hearts for the sake of the world. Barnes’s challenge to seminaries in the paragraph above resonated with our initiatives back then. In 2019 the GST again embarks on a journey to reexamine how we accomplish our mission. Curriculum revision seemingly never ends. Contextual matters and an embodied theology will be the focus again. The major poets who sing about our incarnate God inspire no less.

Let us pray for one another.

[1] M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 4.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Ibid., 24-27.