The Source of Pastoral Authority in the Twenty-First Century, Part 2

In part one of this three part post, I shared Howard Rice’s thoughts on how the “organizing principle” or “central image” of ordained ministry has changed over the centuries. Rice saw a progression of images:

  • from pastor as “one gifted with spiritual power”
  • to “pastor as evangelist”
  • to “pastor as mediator of sacramental grace”
  • to “pastor as preacher.”

The central image of “pastor as preacher” was the primary source of authority for most clergy in this country for well over 150 years. That image, however, began to lose its attraction around the turn of the twentieth century when increased literacy diminished the average pastor’s status as “the best-educated person in town.”

People did not wait patiently to hear God’s word on a particular subject or even to be informed about the state of the world. Instead, they read editorials in the daily paper or listened to the radio, and they paid far less attention to what the pastor said.

Rice notes that “People still went to hear sermons, but the preacher did not exercise the kind of power over their lives that was normative in the previous century.”

This loss of authority brought with it a loss of confidence for clergy, who began to search for a new central metaphor for ministry. Rice lists four distinct metaphors that briefly “took center stage” at one time or another in the twentieth century.

  1. Education
  2. Psychology
  3. Social Change
  4. Business Management

Each metaphor brought with it some assumptions about the source of pastoral authority.

1024px-Washington_Oaks_State_Gardens_artesian_springThe education metaphor, for example, assumed “teaching the basics of the faith to be the key ingredient for pastoral ministry.” Ministers believed that if people became “more knowledgeable about their beliefs, they would become more skilled in the practice of their faith.”

The psychology metaphor brought with it a renewed “sense of purpose or importance” to pastors as more and more people sought them out. Rice recalls how important counseling made him feel in his first pastorate. “The more people I saw,” he says, “the more I attracted hurting people into the life of the church.”

In the social change definition, “Pastors helped equip the church for its ministry by encouraging the church to become an instrument of social change rather than a static defender of the status quo.”

And when these metaphors waned, as “the classroom declined in importance, as people went elsewhere for therapy, and as grand dreams to change the world seemed rather fruitless,” the business management metaphor gained credibility. “Pastors began to search for self-authentication and satisfaction through business administration and organizational development.”

As successful as the metaphors may have been, each of them “displays a basic lack of confidence in the ordained ministry as a unique and definable calling with its own methods, its own tools, and its own intrinsic worth.”

What, then, is the central image, the organizing principle, the source of pastoral authority in the twenty-first century? Rice suggests we return to the basic image, that of the pastor as “one gifted with spiritual power.”

In part one, I described this as “a model of ministry built on expressing spirituality in a way that benefits the entire community.” In part three, we’ll see what this model might look like today.



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