Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us
by Christine D. Pohl
Wm. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich. 213 pages
reviewed by KENNETH E. KOVACS
The insights contained in these pages emerged from an extensive project that Christine D. Pohl developed, funded by the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence initiative of the Lilly Endowment. She gathered 12 pastors, three leaders of intentional communities and three professors, who together met over a two-year period to discern best practices for developing and sustaining vital communities. They identified four essential practices: “promise-keeping, truth-telling, gratitude and hospitality.” These are not the only practices necessary for effective communities, but they are foundational requirements.
The book is divided into four parts, one for each core practice. Pohl grounds these aspects of community experience within the biblical story and then fleshes them out theologically, ethically and, most significantly, practically, providing useful illustrations that come (mostly) from parish life. Because promise-keeping, truth-telling, gratitude and hospitality are “at the heart of God’s character and activity,” they offer a vision toward which God’s people are to be moving, the kind of character and activity being embodied in God’s people.
How do we get there? Pohl provides a way, offering a theological taxonomy of these practices — defining them, describing them, identifying what strengthens and weakens them. It’s her analysis that makes this book both helpful and hopeful — because it’s so honest. Pohl is straightforward about the deep undercurrents that sometimes thwart the best intentions of individuals and groups. She understands the damage that can be and is being done within congregations, often unintentionally. The section on truth-telling is probably the strongest part of the book. Due to the power dynamics inevitably involved, truth-telling is complex and difficult. And yet, consider how much damage has been and is being done because of deception.
These insights could prevent a lot of pain in congregations. Richard Armstrong, who taught at Princeton Seminary, used to say much of ministry is “sanctified common sense,” and there’s a lot of that here.
Given this praise, a nagging question pervaded my reading. Pohl acknowledges that emphasizing best practices can sound like “tricks” and “techniques,” admits that “[w]e are not saved by our practices or doing them well” and confesses that practices can easily become “idols.” But then how exactly does the “character and activity of God” become embodied in us? If we are echoing the “goodness, grace, and truth” of Jesus, then where, how do we actually encounter and hear him? This isn’t Pohl’s question, but it’s an associated critique of the “turn to practice” movement in recent years. It can be plastic when little space is provided for the movement of the Holy Spirit who equips and invites us to move toward the image of community that Pohl calls us to live into.
KENNETH E. KOVACS is pastor of Catonsville Presbyterian Church and the author of “The Relational Theology of James E. Loder.”