Letters To New Pastors by Michael Jinkins

Michael Jinkins is both a professor of pastoral theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and an ordained Presbyterian minister with an extensive history of pastoral ministry in the congregational setting.  Over the course of his ministerial and academic life, Jinkins has maintained an extensive correspondence with students, colleagues, family, and friends, dealing with the multiplicity of issues by which he and others have been confronted with respect to ministry and its many challenges.  It is this experience of epistolary conversation that forms the basis of Letters to New Pastors (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006).

Although the “letters” in this book are fictional, and the persons to whom they are addressed represent not actual individuals but composites of the many people to whom Jinkins has written over the years, the subject matter and situations portrayed are drawn directly from his own experience as a teacher, minister, and fellow-traveller along the journey of faith.  As such, Jinkins is keen to ensure that readers understand that the “letters” are not the “expert” advice of an accomplished practitioner, but the ever-developing thoughts of an experienced minister whose wisdom has been acquired in the manner of all people engaged in a vocation of encounter with others: unsystematically, through experience and reflection, and as a consequence of both being graced by the wisdom of others and through the trauma of making mistakes and learning lessons.  Consequently, Jinkins’ book is not arranged in chapters dealing with discreet issues, but letter by letter to his various correspondents; to the extent that there is any narrative arc, it unfolds across the overlapping course of the letters, as the situations which they explore change and develop.

Jinkins spends the first forty or so pages introducing his correspondents and establishing the contexts in and through which he is writing to them.  Which isn’t to say that noteworthy issues are not explored during the course of these pages (not unless you think issues such as diversity within the church and threats of violence toward clergy don’t qualify as noteworthy!), rather, Jinkins makes his first real impact when he begins to explore the issue of discernment.  This is a much vexed and all too frequently misunderstood issue within the Church, especially with respect to discerning a call to ordained ministry.   In respect of one minister dealing with a parish member who believes they have a call to ordained ministry, Jinkins writes:

(She) told you that in her view the Holy Spirit is synonymous with “the quiet voice she hears within her heart telling her what to do”.  And when you asked her the question that frankly I would have asked her, “How do you discern the difference between your own will and the will of God when you hear this voice?”, she said, “If I feel really compelled to do something, then I know that it must be God speaking”.  I thought your response was both pastoral and perceptive.  You told her that, in your experience, the more compelled or driven you feel in a situation,  the more you suspect that it is you and not God that wants you to do the thing. (p.45, parenthesis added)

In this one brief paragraph, Jinkins has touched on the nub of the issue.  Discernment is not simply a matter of “experiencing” a “call” from God to ordained ministry; it is a testing of that experience to understand the origins of that call.  In other words, it is appreciating that there is no such thing as “my” call to ministry; individuals do not own or possess such a call.  Rather, individuals are called to God’s ministry; they are called out of whatever order or shape they think their lives will take and into the ministry to which God summons them.  Moreover, as the witness of the Old Testament verifies, many of the prophets called by God to speak God’s word to the people of Israel and Judah were acutely reluctant to do so; they were, in the words of the Scottish minister Peter Cameron (when describing his own journey toward ordination) not so much called as conscripted.

All of which highlights a critical issue for church councils at every level when engaging in discernment about an individual’s “call” to ordained ministry.  The discernment process must not merely be about checking an individual’s bona fides, their capacity to “do the job”, or the sincerity with which they believed they have experienced a call to ministry.  Because individuals do not own their own call, all these criteria are irrelevant.  Rather, what must be discerned is whether the individual is actually called by God or merely projecting their own (however well-intentioned) wish-fulfilment.  A tricky business, granted; and in an age of anxiety about the shortfall of ministers vis-a-vis ministerial vacancies, the temptation to mistake enthusiasm or sincerity or insistence for an actual call is enormous.  But as Jinkins rightly points out, succumbing to this temptation can have terrible consequences:

I suppose what worries me most…is that the same rationale she uses to justify her belief that God is calling her to be a pastor (because she feels compelled by her inner voice to do so) could be used to justify all sorts of other things, even very, very bad things if that’s all she has…In fact, I’ve come to believe that every time I have the compulsion to put on my Superman outfit and rush to the rescue, it’s probably not God talking but my ego. (p.46)

Jinkins’ rightly points out that the only solution to this dilemma is that any claim to call must be tested by the community of faith in terms other than the individual’s own experience, however sincere and heartfelt that may be.  And this process of testing is the process of discernment.  For as Jinkins notes:

…the confirmation of (any) calling must come through the voice of God’s people.  We believe that (this is) necessary because we have found that God’s Spirit says nothing privately to us that God’s Spirit does not ultimately confirm through the community of faith in which the Spirit works. (p.48, parentheses added)

Jenkins deals with a not unrelated matter when he touches on the issue of ministry and mission – or, more accurately, the propensity of many Christians to mistake mission and ministry with “recruitment”, or “building the church” as it is more euphemistically called.  In just the same way that we can be inclined to mistake enthusiasm for call, so we can confuse numbers with viability.  Pressure is often placed on ministers, new and experienced, to use their pulpits as a mechanism (among others) to persuade people to come to church on Sundays.  The temptation is always thus to “dumb down” preaching, to make it “relevant” through the flashy use of technology, or to simply succumb to the popular demand for an “entertaining” performance.  And while Jinkins agrees that boring sermons have no place in church life, the point of preaching is not to “entertain” or recruit or create a “good impression” – rather, it is to preach the Gospel of Christ Crucified and Risen.  Writes Jinkins:

And of course…it can simply be our desire to make our churches as attractive as possible, to draw persons into the circle of their fellowship, that undercuts the integrity of the pulpit.  It seems to me that numerical growth of a congregation must be the great and wonderful secondary consequence of good preaching and worship, Christian education and mission, and not their primary goal.  Church growth is not an unintended consequence.  It is to be fervently hoped for.  But if it becomes the primary goal, we all too easily sacrifice too much to it. (p.108, original emphasis)

In other words, critical discernment and reflection about the primary concern of Christian faith and mission is necessary if the Church is to avoid the pitfall of descent into mindless populism or soulless corporatism.  A full church is not necessarily “healthy” – nor is it necessarily Christian.  Certainly, Christians are called to proclaim God’s word to the world, and instruct and induct those who wish to respond to that word; but mission is not a numbers game, and the propensity to mistake the “bums on seats” on a Sunday with the “success” of that mission (and the mission itself) is a danger Christians must work hard to avoid.  Writing of the American evangelist Wallace Hamilton, Jinkins says:

Wallace Hamilton’s bold experiments to reach the unchurched in Florida…never undercut the fitness of his often risky sermons.  They were biblically informed, rhetorically bold, prophetically compelling, intellectually inquisitive, and profoundly pertinent to the lives of his people.  Not many church growth gurus would counsel a Hamilton to preach the kinds of sermons he did in the midst of a South locked into the devil’s bargain of Jim Crow laws.  Not if he expected to fill the church parking lot on Sunday mornings! But when you read one of his most prophetic sermons, you sense why people came…He reasoned with his people, invited them, charmed them, urged them, and summoned them to the Word of God.  He paid them the incalculable compliment of taking them and their lives seriously, and spoke a serious word to them.  (p.109)

Over the rest of the course of this book, Jinkins deals with a range of other matters, such as ensuring that the process of fund-raising for the church does not lead to the dehumanization of individuals and their reduction to the status of economic potentials (p.120-121); the necessity of ministers allowing their children to experience the church as children by not bringing home the frustrations, conflicts, and fears encountered in pastoral ministry (p.156); the need for ministers to ensure they access appropriate self-care through peer associations and other support mechanism (p.158); the need for ministers to ensure they have appropriate time and space to express their emotions in order to properly carry out their pastoral vocation (p.160); and the importance of ministers tapping into their congregation’s self-identity and the assumptions by which it is underpinned as a pre-requisite to an authentically shared life (p.166).  As Jinkins observes:

Grief is the price of loving our people.  It is a price worth paying.  But the bill does come due eventually. (p.160)

All of which may leave the reader with the impression that pastoral ministry is nothing but relentless struggle, hardship, disappointment, stress, and conflict.  Which in turn may leave new or potential ministers with a sense of despair.  But the underlying tone of Jinkins’ book is profoundly hopeful: that if we are truly called to pastoral ministry, then we are called by God not to suffer needlessly, but because we are ultimately equipped to bear the burden and the privilege of ministering to God’s people.  And it is in this reality that both a profound truth and an inexhaustible treasure resides:

God knew what God was doing when God called you with your gifts, your potentials, and your limitations…Entrust your whole life, and your age, to the Lord who called you into ministry (because) God called you where you are toward God’s own future, and I believe there is a ministry you are called to perform that no-one else can.  (p.154, original emphasis, parenthesis added)

Written in an epistolary tradition that stretches from Paul in the 1st century AD to Reinhold Niebuhr in the 20th (with more than a nod toward the Stoic tradition of letters as represented by Seneca and Epictetus), Letters to New Pastors is not only wise, humble, insightful, warm, and profoundly moving, it should also be compulsory reading for new ministers, ministry candidates, and those discerning a call to ordained ministry.  Indeed, the benefits of reading this book would not be lost on lay people, either, for the insights it provides and the re-assessment of ministers and ministry it offers.  Beautiful, inspiring, and cautionary, this book is a true gem of Christian thought and teaching.

(c) Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.