March 24, 2009
The Poetry of Pastoring
Is “poet” a biblical model for ministry?
"What the congregation needs is not a strategist to help them form another plan for achieving a desired image of life, but a poet who looks beneath even the desperation to recover the mystery of what it means to be made in God's image." So says pastor-professor, and poet, M. Craig Barnes, in his new book: The Pastor As Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life (Eerdmans, 2009).
Wisdom needs to be the name of the pastoral game. Wisdom finds its way into the poetic (not as in rhyming and verse), and not enough of us are committed to a life intent on wisdom. I wish more pastors (and Christians) were committed more to wisdom than to success.
How can the pastor get beyond the ordinary, the routine, the boring, the mundane, and the concrete realities that (sometimes, often) numb the joy out of life? What perspective can the pastor find that leads behind and beneath and beyond?
If this is what you are wondering, this is the book for you. The prose is graceful, the thoughts emerge from experience, and the perspective as fresh as it is old: the wisdom of the poet.
"When an exhausted pastor is entertaining serious thoughts about applying to law school, it's usually not because the theology failed. Often it's because somewhere along the way it became impossible to make sense of that theology in the midst of the ordinary and relentless messiness of congregational life" (18).
Barnes distinguishes truth (the deeper issues) and reality, and sees reality as a portal into the truth. President Lyndon Johnson was a realist; Martin Luther King Jr. was the poet.
When the pastor is poet, she (or he) looks for the portal of reality to peer deeper into life - into the soul of it all. Most pastors are "minor" poets and not "major" poets. They unveil particular truths to particular people in particular places. The major poets are the Biblical authors, and in a lesser degree, the greats of the Christian tradition.
In a not very elegant, and clearly not condescending, manner, Barnes describes the pastoral task as being the poet to the un-poetic. The task is to bid the parishioner to search for the mysteries beneath the surface of the ordinary.
But the poet must delve deeply into his own soul, and here he refers to pathos and gravitas. Gravitas "refers to a soul that has developed enough spiritual mass to be attractive, like gravity. It makes the soul appear old, but gravitas has nothing to do with age" (49). Scars make the pastor's soul attractive. He reveals that the "fishbowl" factor is small potatoes; the real issue is having "spiritual visibility" (53).
The first half of this book is the theoretical "what is a poet-pastor?" part; the second half is about the craft of being poetic, and here he focuses on preaching.
Poets don't make arguments, they reveal mysteries. I like that. I hope you do.