Pastoral Ministry Today

I have just published a chapter on "Pastoral Ministry Today" for the new edition of A Pastoral Handbook for Anglicans, edited by Brad Billings, a bishop in the diocese of Melbourne.

As well as discussing the "pastoral services"--baptisms, weddings, funerals, and other rites which still sometimes attract so-called "cultural Christians" with little other involvement in the worship of the church, I talk about the pastoral tasks of navigating a new shared culture as migrants bring new life and the essential task of developing "fresh expressions of church" to engage "unchurched" persons with no experience of (or interest in) "traditional" congregations.

Photograph by Stephen Burns. Close up of stole. Textile artist: Sarah Forrester, St. James Episcopal Church, Porter Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Photograph by Stephen Burns. Close up of stole. Textile artist: Sarah Forrester, St. James Episcopal Church, Porter Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Here's my introduction, and then final paragraph, from the essay (notes have been removed):

This chapter engages with trends and trajectories in Australian society, and these as they impact the church. Reflection centres on:

     (1) ministry around pastoral servicess
     (2) cross-cultural community-building, and
     (3) fresh expressions of church.

But by no means all persons who seek the church for rites of passage think alike or have the same expectations; not all migrant experience is akin; and fresh expressions of church can be diverse. More than that: nor do the gifts, convictions and preferences of all congregations, public ministers or other Christians fit with only one of the modes of ministry explored in what follows. For these reasons, the words ‘some’ and ‘may’ are important in my reflections, and their configuration in phrases like ‘some people may…’ Regular use of provisional words reminds us that what we are exploring is not solid moulds into which all people fit, nor blueprints to which all people conform, but something more complex. We need to make  connections across trajectories as part of deft thinking about pastoral ministry today.

     Furthermore, although these reflections do not shy away from facing the cultural flux in which the church offers ministry, here and now, in Victoria, it also needs to be grasped that some things stay the same: God loves the world, and God is ‘infinite in mercy, welcoming sinners’ in Christ Jesus. Jesus is good news; he is risen, redeeming, and reliable. In Christ we might yet, as one poet puts it, ‘taste bread, freshness, the honey of being.’ The Spirit bestowed by God is still moving over the face of the earth, making home in open hearts, breathing life through the scriptures, and giving signs of the divine reign. In the strong name of the Spirit-filled Jesus, liberty from hurt and harm, justice for the last and least, new life and unusual kindness all occur. God is faithful.

      These starting convictions matter because confidence and joy in the gospel contains, copes with and enables the squaring up to difficulties which is necessary to flourishing in pastoral ministry amidst the ‘changes and chances' of contemporary cultures. And those changes are rapid. Since the last edition of this Handbook—in 2001—much has shifted in Australia, and the Anglican Church is caught up in it. A lot of the church growth that has occurred in the last decade and a half is related to the incoming of ethnic minorities and other immigrants. Other growth has happened in communities with reconfigured relationships to historic Anglican forms of liturgy and polity, but that nevertheless embody deep-down Anglican verve about proclaiming the ancient and durable gospel afresh in each generation. Yet these key growth points notwithstanding, national census material for 2016 reveals that numbers of those identifying as Anglican, and those attending Anglican worship, are on the slide. Anglicanism is among other old-line traditions that are marked in many places by what Gary Bouma calls ‘increasingly geriatric assemblies,’ in which two or even three generations of younger persons are absent.

     In the same period (2001-) global Anglicanism has shown new fractures. In some ways, the Anglican Communion at large has been marked by features which have a long history in its Australian form: diocesanism, unilateralism, and clenched withdrawal from wider forums. These have each played their part in the drama of the Communion in recent years. And the global strains in our tradition around some churches’ welcome, and others’ rejection, of the blessing of same sex unions, are connected to quite local issues, at least if Australian commentators are correct to point to the church’s official (which is not necessarily to say, popular) views of sexuality as a stumbling-block for onlookers. For example, recent research on youth ministry in Australia contends that ‘the majority of young people look at the churches with some suspicion and even disdain. Many see them as irrelevant and out of date. They see them as exclusive and intolerant, even repressive, particularly in relation to different expressions of sexuality.’ A particularly stark and distressing—and utterly unavoidable—truth is that, as Royal Commissions have shown us, the church’s cultures have sheltered those who would abuse the vulnerable young, and so young and other people’s suspicions have sometimes been sadly well-founded.

       Though aspects of this situation are clearly bleak, there is nothing to be gained from evading the facts. We need to remember that if we are to engage here in pastoral theology, it involves ‘resolutely refusing to engage in theological discourse that fails to engage unpleasant or inconvenient aspects of human life.' Yet it also remains that despite shame and trouble, care in various modes of pastoral ministry continues to offer very precious opportunities to invite persons to Christ and the gospel, and to serve as a portal to the best that Christian communities can offer. The realities of decline and abuse do, however, invite a sturdy reframing of pastoral ministry in intentionally missional mode, and with very careful lines of accountability. In the current context of mission, neither knowledge of nor goodwill towards the Church / churches can be presumed amongst the so-called general population. In terms of accountability, abuse and settings that enable it must be stopped. Taken together, these factors mean that what pastoral ministries involve in the current climate is not simply continuous with what they may have involved in times past when it was possible to hold quite different assumptions about the general population’s religious sensibilities, their knowledge of at least key pieces of Christian tradition, and their openness to and respect for the church’s representatives. This is no longer the case. So ministries of pastoral care are not for the faint-hearted, though they must be filled with gentleness; and they are not for the change-averse, as they require robustness and grit to engage sensitively and creatively with cultural conditions that are not as before.

...In some contexts, it will be apparent that one of the ways of reaching out discussed in these reflections is most apt to the setting. In many, it will be evident that what may have been default modes of pastoral ministry are becoming less prevalent. The scope of pastoral ministry now is more demanding and varied than it was even fifteen years ago when the previous edition of this Handbook appeared. The skills-base needed to embrace a vocation in pastoral ministry is wide and the resilience it needs, deep. The training and formation of pastoral ministers requires new foci of attention, particularly ongoing professional development for clergy, while the task for theological colleges is large, as each of the three modes of pastoral ministry discussed in the preceding pages needs to be on colleges’ agenda. Locally in parishes or in collaborations across deaneries and diocese, some sort of mix of approaches to pastoral ministry, some sort of mixed economy of church, will be essential. Into the future, the movement of clergy between different modes of pastoral ministry will be needed. Connections between clergy and the communities they lead will need to be galvanised as congregations age, migrants arrive, links with longstanding local communities need to be made or remade, and the world God loves continues to change.