The Source of Pastoral Authority in the Twenty-First Century, Part 3

In parts one and two of this three-part post, we saw Howard Rice trace the source of pastoral authority from the early church to the beginning of the twenty-first century. From pastor as “one gifted with spiritual power” to “pastor as evangelist” to “pastor as mediator of sacramental grace” to “pastor as preacher.”

That brought us up to the turn of the twentieth century, when the image of “pastor as preacher” began to lose it’s authority. “In an effort to become relevant to the contemporary view of human life,” pastors turned to new models of authority, like education, psychology, social change, and business management.

The problem with these models was their “dependence on a secular discipline for support.” While “they included many important perspectives,” they “did not build on a theological base.”

Tweet: When people turn to a pastor, what are they seeking?

In his search for a new defining image for pastoral authority in the twenty-first century, Rice started with this question: “When people turn to a pastor, what are they seeking?” His answer?

The are looking for a model of being in the world that is anchored in God. They seek, sometimes with near desperation, someone who can point them toward depth and meaning.

“Anchored in God.” Or the Divine. The Holy. The Ground of Being. Whatever you might call it, it is what people hope pastors are in touch with when they seek then out.

26What does this mean in terms of pastoral authority? Rice says that its source is “not a particular skill or technique; it is our very being. The principal tool for the work of pastoral ministry is one’s own faith.”

And how that faith is expressed takes us back to Rice’s original image for ministry in the early church: “that of one gifted with spiritual power.” In the early church, that power “issued forth in preaching, teaching, speaking in tongues, healing, and, above all, evangelizing.” And the spiritual leader of that time “expressed” that power in ways “that benefited the whole community.” But that was 2000 years ago.

In a speech to the 2010 General Assembly of the UUA in Minneapolis, Daniel O. Aleshire, executive director of the Associated Theological Schools said

Ministers need to have an authentic religious vision. They may be religiously different from the congregation they serve, they need not be more religious than others in the congregation, and they can never be religious on behalf of the congregation. But in the end ministers are qualified for ministry because they have an authentic religious center in their own lives.

This “authentic religious center” is, I believe, the twenty-first century equivalent of Rice’s “spiritual power.” And while it can never be expressed “on behalf of the congregation” (as Aleshire says), it can be expressed in ways that benefit “the whole community” (as Rice says).

So, what is the source of pastoral authority in the twenty-first century? I believe it is simply this: a willingness to share one’s own spiritual journey with others. Or as Henri Nouwen put is:

Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join the search but do not know how.


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