A recent conversation with a young pastor friend turned, rather naturally, to the delicate and difficult balance of the pastoral and the prophetic dimensions of congregational ministry.
Everyday needs and personal challenges in a faith family call for the deepest levels of sensitivity and compassion, and few know that more readily than those with formal pastoral responsibility.
In the midst of that, the need is also there for communities of faith, especially the visible leaders, to live and speak a prophetic word – calling a culture to account for the consequences of its value choices. Faith leaders at all levels know that challenge well.
Choosing to be one or the other – pastor or prophet – would be easy, my friend said. Living and serving in the tension between the two is not, as it leaves one always risking the one in an effort to be the other.
We know, of course, that this is not a new feature of ministry. The relationship of priest and prophet is a prominent part of the biblical narrative.
As the momentum of institutionalization and cultural accommodation sidetracks the covenant perspective, the prophet calls it to task for its distortions.
The conflict portrayed in the gospels between Jesus’ teachings and works of compassion and some aspects of established religious life reflect it as well – “a prophet is not without honor except in his own country” (Mark 6:4).
This is not a dilemma just for pastors and other “official” ministers. If we embrace the idea that ministry is a function of every disciple’s life, a spirit of pastoral sensitivity and compassion as well as a prophetic perspective toward the issues of one’s time and place are a part of everyone’s calling.
So, how does one cultivate community, while, at the same time, offering a critique of the very context of that community?
Our conversation moved shortly to the experience of getting to know people well enough to recognize the potential for growth in their willingness to hear the challenge of a prophetic word.
Often, beneath the surface of first and casual impressions, this potential shows in the questions, usually implied more than explicit, that the growing edges of faith raise to the pre-packaged answers of both culture and religion.
We observed how this potential is usually more evident than is the readiness for it to come forth. For a variety of reasons, there is often a hesitancy to raise questions about patterns of thought and belief that have been ingrained for a lifetime.
Knowing how and when to ask the questions that encourage a person’s thinking to take that risky step is at the heart of the pastoral and prophetic task.
What emerged from our conversation was a third “P” for the function of ministry – the pedagogical or teaching role. We tend to do it more than we talk about it, maybe even more than we think about it.
It is not an alternative function instead of the other two. Rather, its practice requires the other two as prerequisites.
The kind of relationship the pastoral part of ministry nurtures, along with the deep understanding of the journey of covenant faith that is the prophetic perspective, are both ingredients of the work of guiding fellow pilgrims along the way.
The gift of this conversation was a renewed awareness that a pedagogical dimension of ministry brings the pastoral and the prophetic into a partnership that puts both to work in “building up the body” of the family of faith.
The key feature of this dimension is the discernment of what questions to ask, how and when to ask them, and how to build on signs of growth as the conversation continues.
A pedagogue is more a refiner of questions than a provider and defender of answers. The objective is an energized quest for deeper understanding, rather than the certainty of being “right.”
The former is theology, which is every pilgrim’s calling. The latter is ideology, which is every pilgrim’s temptation.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).