One of the books which I planned to read this Christmas was Andrew Purves’ Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition. I only managed to read one chapter. Not the first, of course. You know me well enough to know that these days I tend to scan a book before I actually start reading it! And Purves’ book works quite well for the random approach anyway. Each chapter is a stand-alone consideration of a different classical pastoral theologian.
I think I’m going to find it really helpful. So often as pastors and leaders in the twenty-first century we can think that we are called to reinvent the wheel. We believe the story which this culture sells to us, the story which tells us that to minister at this time in history is like ministry in no other context.
And whilst, to an extent, this is true – every generation has to make their own way in discerning the shape of faithfulness to God in their own time – it is also naive. Of course we can learn from those who have gone before, and perhaps especially from those who lived and pastored in a time when life was lived more slowly, more reflectively. Perhaps in our world of instantaneous reports by the twitterati about what celebrity pastors of the American megachurches (or perhaps the cool ‘alternative’ Christian communities!) are doing, it is time to sit and study with those who pastored within the classical tradition.
The pastor whom I read about in that chapter over Christmas was Richard Baxter who, of course, wrote The Reformed Pastor. I have a long history with that book. It started when I attended a preaching conference in 2003 and heard speaker after speaker referencing it. So, being a keen reader, I ordered it. I remember being quite pleased at how cheap it was, which was, in fact, just as well because it didn’t get read! At 22, I wasn’t ready to wade through such a dense text. And actually I didn’t even have the motivation: I wasn’t in church leadership at that point; I was only carrying a burning call in my heart, one which had not yet found its God-ordained outlet.
So it languished on my shelf for many years. Occasionally I would try to read it and I did get a hundred pages in – starting from the beginning, because I was much better-disciplined in those days than now! But then the turgidity of his style (sorry, but I really think it’s true!) inevitably overcame me and I succumbed. The book was closed and reshelved.
Fast forward to 2008 and a pastoring class at college. Required reading was…wait for it…my dearly beloved Baxter. And Gregory the Great. So out came my still-pristine copy of Baxter and, with a great deal of resignation on my part, I set myself to reading. From page 100. After all, having to write an essay on Baxter was not good enough reason to inflict the same pain of the first one hundred pages on myself all over again!
One thing particularly stood out to me in my reading of Baxter, although he does have many good insights which we might do well to consider in pastoral leadership today. And it was this same point which jumped off the page for me at Christmas in Purves’ assessment of Baxter’s work. By the way, if you will forgive me this momentary digression, I would just like to say: Purves’ assessment of Baxter’s writing is also that it is ‘long-winded and poorly edited’, ‘prolix and repetitive’. You think I’m harsh saying it’s turgid?!
So the one key thing which I have taken away from my reading here is that Baxter visited every family in his parish in each year, some four thousand people. That, by itself, is a bit brain-numbing. And it risks leaving me feeling a bit of a failure really. But as I have got to thinking about it, I have unexpectedly found it remarkably freeing.
You see, I also do pastoral care in a similar way – perhaps more focused on one to one work than was Baxter’s family work, perhaps less structured in that I am not engaging in a formal catechesis with those I pastor but taking them out for coffee and listening to and hopefully guiding them – but still that individualised care of souls. And I have to confess that I tend to beat myself up if I can’t get round all of the women in my congregation for one to one coffee meetings at least three times a year. (A goal which is, as I admit in my saner moments when I am not suffering from a superwoman complex, unachievable on only sixteen hours per week in which to do everything church-related – preaching prep, prayer, managing a staff member, managing ministry rotas and venue bookings and generally making sure that everything in the church which needs to be done gets done. Which it doesn’t.)
Suddenly, to hear that Superman Baxter (as I tend to think of him, perhaps rather irreverently!) only aimed to do pastoral care once per year on this more individualised level makes me feel a little better. I know he had a lot more people to see than I do, so it’s not really comparable. But what it’s shown me is that, whilst he may have prized this kind of pastoral care above any other, he was still quite happy to rely on a range of tools in his role as a pastor.
It’s made me look at what else we are doing as a church to promote the discipleship growth and pastoral care of our people. I’ve reflected on the significance of good, consistently Biblical preaching and teaching on a weekly basis in the gathered community; and I’ve begun to realise that this is forming our people, whether I can see that or not. I’ve reflected on the teaching and mentoring groups that we offer, the materials we provide for lifegroups, the consistency of character being demonstrated by our more mature believers as an example for the younger ones…and I’ve started to feel better.
I can’t get round everyone in the church every term for coffee meetings, deep conversations and individualised prayer. But Baxter, though he valued it highly, didn’t seek to do this kind of pastoral work more than annually with each person or family group. So maybe once a year really is enough for me too; maybe I need to learn to relax, not to try so hard, not to carry this burden so heavily.
And I’m thinking that maybe – just maybe! – I should even trust the people I pastor to God’s care rather than working so hard at being their pastor.