I just spent the last couple of days in Washington, D.C. exploring what it means to be a public theologian.
Over the last year, I have been part of the Lewis Center’s Community Leadership Fellows Program. We have gathered for three day sessions together at Wesley’s downtown campus in order to reflect upon the role of the church, and in particular the role of the pastor, in the life of the community.
As Rick Elgendy help us define the phrase, we engage in public theology whenever we are reflecting upon the actions of the church in the public (our common life together). Public theology helps us to refine and renew our commitments. It pushes us onward towards perfection. It challenges us to do and say and be more. Above all, it reminds us that the Kingdom of God is intimately tied up with the life of the world around us.
In the scope of our readings and preparation this week, one article really pushed me to think about what it means to be a pastor and a public theologian and how I am called to embody that role.
As Robinson writes in “The Church in the Public Square”:
In the mainline church the pastoral care tradition has so taken over that the one strong traditions of the teaching pastor and the teaching minister have been eclipsed. We no longer seem to have “preachers,” only “pastors.” We have often neglected a serious teaching ministry in favor of construing the ordained mainly as members of the so-called helping professions…
The message has too often seemed more like “let us take care of you” than asking that people “grow and grow up in Christ.” It is largely up to the clergy to communicate a different understanding of their calling, and thus of the purpose of the church itself: our purpose is not to be caring or to be “like my family” ; rather, it is to grow Christians, followers of Jesus Christ, and to engage the culture as people who are accountable to the gospel…
if people in congregations are to be equipped for a vital role in the public world, such a shift in emphasis and priority is essential.
When I first felt the call to ministry, it was a yearning to help the people of the church better live out their faith in the world. It was a call to take seriously what was happening all around us: from war and violence, to care for the earth and our hungry neighbors. I probably didn’t fully understand at the time that the church does not always function according to the purpose articulated by Robinson above.
And I have to be completely honest. I have been honored and blessed to sit at the bedsides of folks and pray with them as they took their final breath. I never imagined the holy weight and privilege of placing a hand on the casket as it is lowered into the earth. Holding on to the hand of someone who is sick or struggling and praying with them is part of my calling I am so proud to live out.
There are so many different functions of a minister that it is not surprising that one or another sneaks up and takes over the rest at various times. Whether administrative functions, pastoral care, connectional responsibilities…
But the paragraphs from Robinson reminded me that my first calling was not to be a helper or care-giver, but to be a pastor that discipled people. My call was to help get the church out of the building so they can live their faith. And a large part of that discipling happens when through teaching and theological reflection about what we are or are not doing out in the world.
One of our guides this week was Rev. Dr. Joe Daniels. He lifted up how important it is to form people in the word in the process of sending them out. We have to teach people what the Kingdom of God looks like. We have to constantly reflect together about what is going on in our common life and invite the Spirit to guide us into action. I try to do that in my preaching, but I have been neglecting this very blog as a place where that kind of wrestling and reflection can occur.
I’ve been neglecting this blog a lot in general.
And perhaps it is because I had lost a focus for what I was trying to accomplish here.
Perhaps it is because I’ve become so busy with the other functions of ministry that it felt selfish to spend time writing and reflecting.
What I realized this week is that the sentence above is perfectly rediculous.
My calling is to be a public theologian.
My calling is to help the church think and reflect about how we are engaging with the world and what our faith has to say about our life in the world.
My calling is to model what it means to act in the world and be held accountable to the gospel through precisely this sort of writing.
If this blog can help do me live out that calling… well, you’ll be seeing me here a bit more often.