I recently finished reading M. Craig Barnes’ book “Diary of a Pastor’s Soul: The Holy Moments in a Life of Ministry.” Utilizing weekly journal entries, this fictional account chronicles a pastor’s final year before retirement. The pastor reflects on his past years of ministry as well as his present circumstances, exploring where he experienced God in the midst of his failures and successes and how his soul was cultivated through relationships with his congregation, fellow ministers and family.
This was the perfect book to read as a mother of a young child, attempting to both parent and work from home. As individual journal entries, the “chapters” are short. I have not had long stretches of focused time for reading during the pandemic. But, I can read three or four pages at a time. The subject was light enough to be easily consumed while my child played beside me. Yet it was deep enough to contain some wise insight.
Still, I wrestled with the book as I read it. As much as I enjoyed its “Mitford Series” feel, the circumstances of this pastor’s call felt almost too good to be true, at least in an age in which Christendom is ending in the United States and churches don’t hold the same status they used to. The pastor of this book has been with the same congregation for more than 30 years, a congregation large and wealthy enough to have at least one associate pastor on staff for many years as well as a world-class music director (and, of course, other administrative staff). The congregation appears to be diverse in regards to age — children, teenagers, young adults, middle aged adults and senior adults all have a role to play in the book.
There is no hint of angst about his congregation struggling financially or declining in membership. And yet, statistically, fewer and fewer of these thriving mainline churches exist. Rather, churches are struggling to survive. This is no less true during the pandemic. We have yet to see how many nonprofits in general, let alone churches in particular, survive this crisis. I was left wondering, “What, of the insights this pastor makes, will endure post-Christendom?” What about this pastor’s diary will last, what wisdom could be shared with younger pastors as they make their way through ministry?
For I got the sense that this book was written with younger pastors in mind. In a tradition that reminds me of the work of Eugene Peterson, Barnes reminds readers that the pastor’s job is to watch for the holy, to cultivate their own soul so that they can nurture the souls of others. The activities of pastors are not as important as the relationships that pastors hold with their congregations. And I suppose this is enduring and must be reckoned with, especially as pastors focus on how to survive a changing cultural landscape.
Nevertheless, given the relative comfort of this pastor’s parish life, his focus on preaching, worship, strategic plans and programs seemed inwardly based. There was not much in this book directing readers to think about the outward mission of the church to proclaim the gospel in word and deed — whether through evangelism or acts of justice and advocacy. Perhaps my struggles with this book would have been abated slightly if the pastor had been as reflective on the church in the near future as he was with the church of the past. We need our retired pastors to remind us of what is enduring in the pastoral call, especially as we face daily stressors and angst about the future. We also need them to help us think about the future — a future that seems grim, but which we must face with faith, hope and love.
RACHEL YOUNG is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.