Friday, February 09, 2007

Book Review

Book Review: Re-Calling Ministry. James E Dittes.

‘…the discovery that the minister is mostly in a wilderness, that ministry is in that wilderness.’ (139.5)

I began reading this book with several thoughts about the prospect of studying pastoral care this semester. How much reference would there be to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ? Would I recognize the gospel in the readings? This book provided plenty of references to Jesus. I gave up noting references or allusions to him after reading page 63. (63.8) Yet I am not sure I recognised any descriptions of the gospel in this book. No doubt this reveals more about me than the book. However I did learn something about ministers of the gospel. Many passages confirm my growing conviction that, if God really does work in the world, the gospel of God is worked out through the weakness of men and women. I was also concerned by the way in which this book confirmed my doubts about the very role of one person as the pastor in one church. I have a theory that ordained pastoral ministry began to die with the success of the Reformation. My problem is that it has taken three years of ministry training for me to test that theory, a theory that became apparent on working closely with pastors and ministers in churches in Glasgow, Scotland. Congregations remain tied to the idea of one senior pastor.

I read the Editor’s Preface and the Foreword. These did not encourage me to continue reading. In the long list of identities in Dittes’ career Capps did not list church pastor, and in the rest of the book I could not find any evidence that Dittes had ever been the pastor of a church. The foreword discouraged me even more. It read like an apology for the masculine emphasis in the book. (4.3, 4.7, 4.8, 5.3, 5.4) Au contraire! The book is powerful because it has a masculine emphasis. My frustration with mainline denominations, in particular, Presbyterianism, is that decades of gender equality have made no noticeable impact on the shape of ministry and church government. Committees now have males and females but they perpetuate the same organisational frustrations that have ever stifled pastoral ministry. This book charts those problems in four parts. (The editor has done an astonishing work. I had to be reminded that the book was a compilation of articles and chapters from other works.)

The Prologue encouraged me greatly. There was a reference to JC almost immediately (10.3). I began to query his definition of ministry from the first paragraph: if ministry is about going to the people, why do ministers insist on church buildings for people to congregate within? Is there really such a thing as ‘the minister’ without structures? (10.5) I recognised the metaphor of sexual roles from my reading of another writer on this subject, Larry Crabb. (10.7) And I was amused by reading that I should always be concerned about my performance, about being up enough. (10.3) Physically, perhaps, but otherwise not.

Part One contained some of the best material I have read about the nature of Christian pastoral care and ministry. My only doubt was about the idea or role of ‘minister’/‘pastor’ that Dittes had in mind. Most of the material in the book seemed to assume a church context (e.g. 18, 19), or an acknowledgment of being in that role (as the examples in 72, 73 require). This assumption seemed to me quite dated. Perhaps this reflects my experience of Christian ministry in a country where the church is disappearing at an alarming rate. Ministry as grief work described ministry as an inevitable struggle, a calling to be shackled into new (not better) forms of ministry. (27.8)

Part Two continued this excellent, provocative material. Chapter 6, Thirty-eight Years on the Verge concluded with a section that made me consider the weakness of Dittes’s assumptions. I was left asking the question, ‘What is ministry?’ To write that events only find meaning in retrospect (82.7), and that we need to look for ministry in our life (82.9), is not peculiar to the life of Christian pastors. Indeed, why do I feel as if I need to look for ministry opportunities as a pastor? Why do I feel as if I need to be in the ‘real’ world again to really minister in my life?

Part Three (chaps 9-11) was puzzling for me. They confirmed my sense that Dittes and I have a different understanding of what a minister or pastor should be doing. This was especially true in chapter 9. I found it remarkable that Dittes did not understand why a pastor might need to give attention to administrative tasks. (108.3) Ministers do not choose to do the amount of administration that they do, contrary to the thoughts behind paragraph 114.8. Denominational structures and social constructs impose this work on ministers. The sharp polarity (112.3) between administration and other tasks a pastor must do, simply suggests to me that our current models of church pastor are misguided. Our denominations have messed up and confused pastoral ministry with ideas such as the role of chief executive or chief administrator officer. This is a major concern that few books I read ever recognize or analyze.