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Books we love: The Pastor in a Secular Age

Author Andrew Root reminds Pastor Aaron Neff that his job matters in the secular age. Pastoral ministry is grounded in a radical affirmation of personhood, and this meets an important need.

I recently read a book that has inspired and encouraged me. In The Pastor in a Secular Age: Ministry to People Who No Longer Need a God, Andrew Root names the feeling that so many pastors have when doing ministry in today’s postmodern context as “malaise.” Malaise is defined as a hard-to-identify feeling of discomfort or uneasiness, and Root specifically describes this feeling for pastors as “the unexpressed realization that the very God [they preach has] become unnecessary,” which leads them “to feel deep beyond words that in this shrouded void [pastors are] not needed at all.” Ever since reading this book, I can’t seem to get the word “malaise” out of my head, because it resonates with me and so many pastors I know. (I said this book has encouraged me, and it has … so hang in there for the encouraging part!)

Root locates this feeling of malaise within the historical understanding of a pastor over time and explains that at one time pastors were believed to be the people who (literally) bent space and time to connect a community with eternal and spiritual mysteries necessary for salvation. For most Protestants (who have actively worked in history to divest pastors of this power as mediators of spiritual mysteries), this is no longer the case. If Protestant pastors aren’t bending space and time anymore, what are we doing?

When I am presiding over the Lord’s Supper, I sometimes think about my friend who is a Catholic priest. During Mass, when he utters the Eucharistic Prayer, his parishioners believe that the elements are becoming the very body and blood of Christ. Through a sacramental mystery – almost like magic – he is literally giving Jesus to people. By comparison, what am I doing during communion? As a Reformed pastor, I believe that the Lord’s Supper is something more than just a “memorial” or a “symbol,” but, at the end of the day, those elements remain just bread and juice. For the former Catholics in my congregation, it probably still feels “magical.” For the rest of the congregation, I assume it feels meaningful — but hardly magical. And so … the malaise sets in.

When I talk to people outside my congregation and the topic of spirituality comes up, they sometimes tell me that their place of worship is the hiking trail, the art center, the yoga studio or in their living room with their mindfulness app. Their spiritual needs are being met elsewhere. And … the malaise intensifies.

What unique value am I contributing to my community? Besides my role in worship leadership and spiritual formation, I fill my days up with administration, board and committee meetings, pastoral calls, unplanned conversations, long-term visioning, and more. Outside the trappings and rituals of a religious group, what do I actually do that anyone else in a “helping profession” couldn’t also very effectively do?

At the conclusion of Root’s book, I came to realize more clearly that, though there might not be a unique value in a pastor’s role vis-à-vis the roles of other professions, the ministry of a pastor is born out of a unique belief. Root emphasizes the importance of personhood in Christian theology. God, who is a knowing and knowable person, incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ in order to demonstrate that every person is a beloved child of God. Pastoral ministry is grounded in a radical affirmation of personhood.

Honestly, I think one of the hardest things about being a pastor is the struggle to remember that, though we operate within the institution of the church, the ministry of the church is not about the institution of the church. When there are budget constraints and pressure from the congregation to grow the church, it’s hard not to feel the temptation to see dollars and cents everywhere or to believe that what matters most is meeting statistical benchmarks. But the church has never and will never be about an institution. It is about people. It is about affirming that every person is loved and has value.

This is exactly what Jesus did through things like including women in the leadership and inner circle of his ministry, befriending sinners and people on the margins of society, and teaching us to love enemies and to forgive one another perfectly (“seventy times seven.”) These things are at the heart of pastoral ministry, and, as long as the personhood of anyone – even just one! – is denied, there will be important work for us to do. Those within our churches who love what we do are people. Those who are apathetic toward us are people. Those who actively dislike the church are people. So let us love them – every last one of them! – like Jesus, which is to say, like a pastor.