The Source of Pastoral Authority in the Twenty-First Century, Part 1

Spiritual direction, spiritual guidance, spiritual nurture, spiritual growth. Seems these words are getting tossed around a lot these days. For example, when the UUA leadership presented their budget for the current fiscal year, they mentioned this “Specific Change Objective” for the association:

Congregations, communities, and individuals have the resources to further their spiritual pursuits in a way that fits their unique needs and situations.*

And in the recently published draft of the New Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) Competencies for Unitarian Universalist ministers, we find that a competent minister:

Encourages Spiritual Development for Self and Others

  • Models spiritual depth or offers spiritual direction
  • Leads curricula, workshops, or retreats for congregants, clients, or organization members
  • Promotes increased depth of spirit in others and the organization
  • Promotes spiritual development for children, youth, and adults through religious education**

While all this attention to things spiritual in the UUA may seem to be a relatively recent phenomenon, it’s been gaining momentum for the last 15 years or more. Remember, Skinner House’s Everyday Spiritual Practice: Simple Pathways for Enriching Your Life was published on January 1, 1999. And it’s still in print!

SourceThat happens to be the  year after another important book on spirituality was published: Howard Rice’s The Pastor as Spiritual Guide.

While Everyday Spiritual Practice offers tips for lay persons and ministers alike, Rice’s book is written specifically for clergy, especially parish ministers.

In it he suggests that, “Our learnings from the emerging discipline of spiritual direction can inform and even rescue the work of ministry.”

How? By returning to a model of ministry built on expressing spirituality in a way that benefits the entire community. This was the original source of spiritual authority for the early church.

But over the years, that source has changed depending on the needs of the church. Rice notes that

While the Christian church was struggling to convert Gentiles and become an organized entity, the pastor as evangelist served as an important model for ministry.

Later, during the Middle Ages, the metaphor for pastoral ministry became the “pastor as mediator of sacramental grace.”

By the time the Protestant Reformation rolled around, “the guiding principle for ministry became that of preacher.” That role eventually included the pastor as resident theologian, someone “who opened the door to grace, enabling the people to encounter grace for themselves.”

The pastor as preacher model for ministry held sway for a 150 years or more. (Check out the Library of America’s American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King Jr. for some great examples.) According to Rice, this was because “The Protestant pastor often was the best-educated person in town, commanding high respect.”

But as the twentieth century approached, “the growing literacy of parishioners…meant change for the pastor’s role.”

As the population became more educated, more secular, and more worldly wise, the pulpit no longer remained the primary source of information.

Eventually, according to Rice, “Many pastors became convinced that preaching was no longer important; they lost confidence in themselves.” That loss of confidence got pastors asking themselves, What contribution can I actually make?

Throughout the twentieth century, minsters tired out a number of “new central metaphors” for pastoral authority. We’ll take a look at those in part two.

*I’m thinking “Spiritual Pursuits” would be a fun multigenerational religious education game.
**See! An excellent opportunity to play “Spiritual Pursuits”!


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