As we look at pastoral theology and life, the temptation is to look at current trends and jump on the band wagon of the latest technique, the sure fire method of leading the church. But Eugene Peterson offers another look for us in his book Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. More than 30 years ago he observed the temptation to follow the latest fad, and the corresponding lack of pastoral use of older resources. He comments:
Instead of subtly nuanced abilities in pastoral visitation we get training in mass visitation movements, misnamed evangelism, that promise to fill the pews on Sundays. Instead of letters of spiritual counsel we get slogans designed for mass media. Instead of models for patience we get pep talks and cheerleader yells to work up church spirit. And if our lumpish congregations refuse to wave their pom-poms on signal, we stalk off to another congregation, and another, until we find some people dumb enough to put up with such antics. (p. 13)
While he wrote that before email, internet, Facebook, twitter, etc., he identifies the substitutes for pastoral ministry still evident today. Even more he continues with the exhortation to not overlook the prior work done by God through others:
But we are not the first people to stand over the rubble and wonder which stone to put where in the rebuilding work. The “tell” of pastoral work is a considerable mound on the plain of ministry. And the strata of occupation are clear: there is an Augustinian layer, a Benedictine layer, a Franciscan layer, a Lutheran layer, a Calvinist layer, a Wesleyan layer, a Kierkegaardian layer—all using biblical stones. The one thing we must not do is wander off and try to find a new building site. (p. 13)
Pastoral ministry can be lonely, difficult, agonizing, joyous, fruitful, discouraging, encouraging, and more. Lest we think ourselves facing something new, by studying the previous generations of pastors we find that our circumstances are not new. Rather they bring about faithful ways of service in a new environment. We can learn from those who have gone before us.
This is true for the great writings of previous generations. But it is equally true for men who have served long years as pastors who can bring a young pastor alongside to watch, listen, and learn. In that sense pastoral theology is as much caught as it is taught.
As I look back over the past 30+ years, I discover that God placed me under the influence of several faithful men who shared their lives and ministries. They did so, not by holding up “successes,” but holding up life and failures, and most importantly how God works in the midst of all that.
Where I have failed, I know others who have as well. When I struggled with depression, I thought I was alone. Yet I learned not long ago that Luther battled depression. That was an eye-opener for me. But they were still used by God to achieve His saving and sanctifying work.
I learned forgiveness, restoration, reconciliation in the midst of life’s agonies. In the trenches of life scarred by sin—including my own—I learned about pastoral theology and life. Eugene Peterson’s book has been part of that journey as well. He points us to God’s Word to be used in ways that may be unique for our era, but they have been proven in ancient ways for providing care for God’s people.