As its title indicates, Pastor combines pastoral theology with advice on the practice of ordained ministry.

pastor - willimon

The combination appears too ambitious for a book under 400 pages. Although Pastor is excellent on both topics as far as it goes, neither topic is treated sufficiently. Moreover, Willimon’s advice on pastoral praxis is often so engaging that it distracts the reader from following the structure of his pastoral theology. The upshot is that Willimon’s interweaving of the two subjects seems a bit jumbled.

The introduction and first few chapters offer the best and most intensive material on pastoral theology. In the introduction, Willimon offers four valuable ideas about the nature of a pastor: (1) his chief work and purpose, (2) the substance of his calling, (3) the source of his authority, and (4) whom he serves. All are central to pastoral theology.

Chapter two describes the modern view of a pastor and serves as a negative contrast to the more biblical view Willimon offers in subsequent chapters. I say “more biblical” because Pastor is not a pure biblical theology of pastoral ministry. Instead, it reflects the historical development of the pastoral role from the early church down to its present understanding within Methodism.

Even so, Willimon’s view of the pastor is closer to the ancient model than some would suspect. In the ancient church, each elder was probably the leader of a single house church. Together, those house churches constituted both the larger church and a plurality of elders within a particular city. Thus the ancient model of pastoral care aggregated up to a plurality of elders. In contrast, the model for many churches often begins with a plurality of elders that doesn’t involve individual constituencies for each elder. One result is that preachers often fill the void in groups where elders/pastors are more like managers than shepherds. In such groups, preachers may approximate Willimon’s model of the pastor more than the officially designated elders/pastors.

Willimon is especially helpful on the sensitive issue of worship. For him, the purpose of worship is not (1) the evocation of innate religious impulses, but rather (2) the imposition of a story that will determine the kind of religious experiences adherents will have. The first is subjective while the second is objective. Eliciting expressions of inner religious life is inviting, but imposing a story that comes to shape experiences in particular ways will often be uncomfortable. That dichotomy is the essence of the “worship wars” currently tearing many congregations apart– an insight that should help many pastors work through conflict over worship styles.

Willimon breaks up his book with six “interludes” that introduce supporting theologies at appropriate points. The last interlude on failure in ministry is needful, but often neglected. The title of the fifth interlude, “Irresistibility of Jesus,” is confusing since the material under that label doesn’t actually support that conclusion, and to some extent argues just the opposite.

Willimon presumes much about the nature of the “pastor’ (e.g., the practice of assigning pastors to churches), and those presumptions are, by their very nature, not explicitly addressed. There is much that Willimon takes for granted and it is naturally based on Methodism. The resultant view of a pastor is one that fits some religious groups better than others. For example, Willimon’s “pastor” may be represented in some groups as a combination of preacher and elder minus the priestly attributes.

Willimon’s organization of the text is meaningful, but its basis is not entirely clear. The subject matter of some chapters overlaps so much it’s difficult to see why it merits separation; e.g., “The Pastor as Interpreter of Scripture” versus “The Pastor as … Servant of the Word.”

My preference would be to organize the material around the five functions of the church in Acts 2:42-47. For example, what is the pastor’s role in edification, in fellowship, in service, in worship, and in evangelism?

Another interesting way of organizing the material would have been address the subject in the context of “marks.” What are the marks of the church? What are the marks of a Christian? Then finally what are the marks of a pastor?

Willimon uses the language and concepts of postmodernism well. He knows the awesome power of words– how they create reality and predict experience. The pastor encourages private faith, proclaims the common faith, and as interpreter of scripture, shapes the corporate faith for the local community of believers. He uses ethical principles that are timeless to work out the morality for particular communities at particular times and places. Moral failures must also be worked out within community. The pastor helps by shaping a community where confession of sin is a safe thing to do.

In most cases, I agree with Willimon’s approach and conclusions. I disagree with him, however, on his view of women pastors in that, contra Willimon, women leaders are theologically and sociologically problematic in addressing three major, but related problems facing the church– gender confusion, institutional effeminacy, and acceptance of homosexual behavior. Willimon’s brief references on the latter are not surprising in hinting at some kind of accommodation with the gay lifestyle. Ironically though, that accommodation would be a violation of the cultural confrontation Willimon encourages.

Along the same line, Willimon occasionally insinuates the liberalism that is killing his denomination. His insinuations ring hollow, however, in pretending a prophetic stance against evils that no responsible segment of society would try to defend. An example would be the performative effect of Willimon’s story about American soldiers allegedly burying Iraqi opponents while some were still alive. The implication is that the church would be taking a bold position against a structural evil when, in reality, it would be risking nothing because no one in power favors the deed in question. His characterization of a prophet as “someone who stands left of the Democratic Party” further illustrates Willimon’s occasional quasi-endorsement of historically falsified political beliefs.

I have read several books by Willimon and have found them all packed with deep insights into the nature of the church, church history, religious community, and Christian life. Pastor is no exception– preceding criticisms notwithstanding.


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