Andrew PurvesAndrew Purves, Professor of Reformed Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, received his PhD in 1978 from the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland.

A pastor should connect the story of God with the context of individual people, so the pastor needs to be tightly connected to God and the people.

Edited transcript

J. Michael Feazell: In your book, The Crucifixion of Ministry, on page 128, you wrote, “At its core, pastoral work involves bearing witness to the joining of two stories, the parishioners and God’s. Who is Jesus Christ specifically for this person amid the particularities and the exigencies of his or her current life experience?”

How does a pastor bring those two stories together?

Andrew Purves: It is a fundamental question in two regards. First, as a pastor, you have to live in Christ. You have to know the Lord. That doesn’t just mean passing the theology test (that’s important—know the Lord, knowing how to speak appropriately of the Lord), but you must know the Lord as the Lord of your life. That means a life of piety, of prayer, ethical attentiveness and so on. It means a life of worship, of living in Christ.

Saint Paul used the phrase “in Christ,” “in the Lord,” “in him” in his letters around 164 times. It’s his fundamental statement about what it means to be a Christian. A Christian is someone in Christ. I take that to mean an organic connectedness, a relationship…even in rather hackneyed terms, a “personal relationship” with a living, reigning Lord.

That’s something we have to attend to. It’s like cleaning your teeth. You get up in the morning and you clean your teeth. It’s a fundamental good habit. Just because it’s a habit doesn’t mean it’s bad. Our habit, the habitus, the rhythm of our life, is to attend to our life in the Lord. You can’t do ministry unless you have a life in Christ, in him, embedded in him, rooted, growing up in him, so that the flower of your ministry and faith is a result of your roots of faith—life being deeply embedded in the soil of the word of God.

The other thing—to be a pastor you have to be embedded with your people. You’ve got to know your people. One of the sad aspects of contem­porary ministry is that ministers tend to sit in big offices with a sanctuary outside, and people come and visit the minister. In the olden days, ministers used to go and visit the people. The word parish comes from two Greek words para, oikos, beyond the house—the parish was the walking distance that the minister or priest could cover to get to the houses of the people. We read in Acts that Paul visited from house to house.

This is to say the pastor must know his or her people. You’ve got to be involved in their lives. You’re with them in their births and deaths and getting jobs and losing jobs and in their hospitals and all their ups and downs. You’re with them. That’s the genius of a pastoral charism, of a pastoral giftedness—that your joy is to walk with these people.

So you know the Lord, you’re embedded in the life of the Lord…when one thinks perhaps of John 15—you’re a branch connected to the vine, you’re organically connected and you are in Christ, abiding in him. But you’re also in the people, you’re abiding in them.

As the pastor, then, you are the one who enables that conversation. They know the Lord, too, but you’re the one whose special job and appointment is to bear witness. So I tell my students, don’t use phrases like “pastoral counseling.” If somebody needs a therapist, find a good therapist. Your job is rather to help them interpret the context of their life—the vicissitudes, pains, tragedies, joys. Go to the graduation parties as well as the funeral homes. Make the connections, and in the small things you often don’t even have to say words. You are making connections between Jesus and them. It feeds into the sermons.

For example, I preach all over the country and I come in on a parachute. I preach, I don’t know the people, I don’t know the context. I preach, people say how wonderful it is and all the rest. But at the end of the day, that’s not effective preaching.

Effective preaching arises out of a preacher or pastor, a man or woman who is embedded with the people and preaches into the context of their pain, preaches into the context of the silence of their cry to God— “where are you, God?”, and they hear nothing back. They preach into these terrible cosmic silences, these ambiguities and these confusions that are the normal part of ongoing life. There’s that dual embedded-ness.

One other thought that I’ve played with through the years is that I think all ministry has a “from-to” character. That is, you move from your place as the pastor, from your life in Christ, from your safe place, to where the people are. That may be not be a comfortable place.

Although I’m well acquainted (sadly) with hospitals because of my cancer, I don’t like hospitals. I have a daughter-in-law who is a physician. She’s comfortable in hospitals. I will never be comfortable in hospitals. Hospitals are not my “to” place. Yet as pastors we have to go into these uncomfortable places. But we can only do what we do in these places because we have a deep groundedness in our “from” place, and that’s our anchor.

I would encourage pastors really seriously in this regard. If you have no life in Christ, you have no ministry, because we read in John 15:5, “Apart from me, you can do nothing. Unless you are connected into me, the vine, you can do nothing.” So the most practical, pertinent question I can put to a working pastor is, “What’s going on in your life in Jesus?” Because if you don’t have a life in Christ, you don’t have a ministry. No matter how technically proficient you are in the skills of ministry, no matter how many committee meetings you go to, your life in Christ means that you can go into these situations and you know who Jesus is, what he is up to in all of these contexts, and you can point to that, bear witness to that.

JMF: It might seem like a trite question, but how does a pastor do that? How does a pastor remain?

AP: It’s not a trite question. It’s a critical question. Most seminaries in the United States (this is a non-scientific poll, but I have the sense) do not have enough attention paid to the spiritual formation of the pastor, or in different terms, to the pastor’s own formation in Jesus Christ, the pastor’s own relationship with Jesus Christ.

I’ve often been struck, when the disciples saw Jesus praying, they asked, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Some form of God’s history with Israel had been around 1100, 1200 years. They knew how to pray. Yet something was going on here, because what was the Lord praying? Surely he was praying out of his own Sonship in the Spirit with the Father. I think he was praying, “My Father” because he alone is the only begotten Son. “My Father who art in heaven.” The disciples discern that something profound in its spiritual connectedness and power is going on between Jesus and the Father. So they’re not saying “teach us the techniques of prayer,” they’re not asking, “teach us how to do deep breathing when we pray” (I don’t know if that’s bad), but they’re saying, “How do we get in on your Sonly communion with the Father in the power of the Spirit?”

That’s the point of prayer, is that we are in on the Son’s…the technical word might be perichoretic…communion of love with the Father. So Jesus teaches them the Lord’s prayer. But back of that, theologically, is that Jesus is teaching them, “pray in me, pray through me,” so that our prayers are through Jesus Christ our Lord. Our prayers are accepted not because Andrew Purves is pious (God knows he’s not) but because they are given to the Lord, who takes what is ours—broken, muddled, irregular, incoherent, distracted—our broken prayers…takes them in himself, heals them, and gives them to the Father in his name. He takes what is his own communion with the Father, his life of love, discipleship, obedience, worship, and says, “Here, this is yours.” Not just “here, take it”— “It’s yours! It’s yours!” Not just a possibility. Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian says it’s an actuality. It’s the actuality that we are in Christ, participating in his life, that makes it possible for me to pray, makes it possible for me to write books, teach my classes, engage in ministry.

The question is for me, for pastors: “Will I pay attention to that life in Christ? Will I seek to grow more deeply in Christ?” Psalm 1 is Psalm 1 because Psalm 1 is doing something that no other psalm can do. Psalm 2 can’t do what Psalm 1 is doing. What is Psalm 1 doing? Psalm 1 is the gateway, the threshold, the entrance into the book of Israel’s response to the Lord, or rather the five books of Israel’s response to the Lord. You have the Pentateuch, five books…the five books of the response, five books of the Psalms. Psalm 1 is setting up this response. It’s a two-way psalm. Will you abide in the way of the wicked, or will you abide in the way of the Lord? I think that’s the challenge for any Christian disciple. What does it mean more deeply, more convertedly, more faithfully to live into that reality that has already claimed them—to find me. To abide in the Lord and to make my home there.

The psalm uses an image about a tree being planted by a stream of running water. It’s a psalm of the exile. It’s all desert — emotionally, spiritually desert, but also physically it’s desert. Yet the Psalmist used, “In the Lord you will be like a tree planted by a stream of running water.” Out of that planted-ness, a plant of faith grows, and the plant of ministry grows. So in the education of ministers, clergy for ministry, we need to help people know what it means to have a deeper, more abiding life in the Lord. I’ve gone on too long with that question in answer to it, but it’s important.

JMF: It also raises the question of the meaning of grace in terms of one’s devotion to the God of grace without there becoming a legalistic framework or an attempt to be something that we aren’t. How do those work together? How do we bring a complete faithfulness to God in his grace toward us without bringing our own so-called righteousness and yet living in Christ, in union with Christ?

AP: Let me refer to a Bible verse in order to be precise, because your question is important. Colossians 2:6…and this picks up the Psalm 1:3 image too, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him…” That’s the piety, that’s the formation. “…Strengthened in the faith you were taught.” This is the faith of the apostles; this is the faith of the church. Get the theology wrong, and you will get life and ministry wrong. Then at the end, and this comes directly to your question, “…overflowing with thankfulness.” The response that comes out, the life that comes out of this rootedness in Christ, is not a life of guilt, obligation or duty. It’s not “I ought, I should, I must, I have to.” It’s a life overflowing with thankfulness.

The Greek word for overflowing here in other translations is sometimes translated “abounding.” Abounding is an old funny word. I don’t abound (especially as we get older) much anymore. The word means overflowing. Paul uses it in Romans 5 to talk about grace. Overflowing. Three times he says, “Grace overflows.” Again he says grace overflows, and the third time he puts it in the superlative—grace super-overflows—it’s Niagara Falls of grace, not just a little trickle-down effect. It’s this huge grace, so that sin has no chance.

He uses the same word here, “Now out of this life in Christ, growing up in the faith and every way into him who is the head, we abound [or we overflow] in thankfulness.” Eucharistia in Greek. What a wonderful energy system—gratitude, thankfulness, not obligation and duty. Not musts and should and don’t and have to’s, but a heart filled with gratitude.

I think this is …I don’t know the right word to use…the genius of the Christian gospel. The point where we are called into practice, into ministry, into service, it is not at the point of “I’ve got to go to another meeting, I am exhausted, I’ve got to go and work harder.” I tell my students this, I get to get up in the morning to come and talk to you about Jesus Christ.

Or you say, “Folks, I get up in the morning to preach…11:00 on Sunday morning that Jesus is Lord.” When that has taken hold of your life, and gratitude and thankfulness abounds within you, your preaching will not be dull, because a thankful person is not a dull person. A thankful person is a person full of the joy and the energy of the gospel.

JMF: We’re told we love him because he first loved us. It reminds me, as you’re describing that, in Titus, “It is grace that teaches us to say no to ungodliness,” and so on. It begins with the grace of God. He moves for us first, and we can move ahead in that.

AP: Often our sense of guilt or need or obligation begins to take over. There’s another verse from Paul in Philippians 3. Through the chapter he is saying that nothing can compare with the fact that— “I’ve lost everything for the fact of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is my Lord.” At verse 12 he writes, “Not that I have already obtained this, the fullness of Christian life, the perfection of life, or have already arrived at the goal. But I press on to take hold of it.”

Sometimes you hear preachers say we’ve got to press on, we’ve got to work harder, go to more committee meetings, give more money, press on, press on. You know, “I guilt you, I guilt you, I guilt you,” and I’m tired of guilt. But if they’ve read the whole verse, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” What is the first thing? It’s not that I press on to attain the prize of Jesus Christ. I press on because Jesus Christ has already taken hold of me and I am his prize. The Greek word here means “seized hold of.” It’s not just that Jesus Christ has taken hold of me, it’s Jesus Christ has seized hold of me. It’s an intensive. “I seize hold of the Christian life because Jesus Christ has already seized hold of me.” I think of it as we’re grabbed by the scruff of our spiritual necks. We’re seized hold of intensively. When Jesus Christ has us by the scruff of our spiritual necks, we can buck and we even try to get out of it, but he has got us by the scruff of the neck. Because we are seized hold of, with thank­fulness I am going to live this life the way he wants me to live it, and give it my best shot, knowing that no matter what, he has seized hold of me, and on that I will depend.

JMF: And your success or failure is not what determines his grip. His grip is the reality.

AP: Remember Peter walking on the water. I’m thankful for silly Peter, Peter the doofus, because he’s walking toward the Lord on the water, his faith deserts him, he begins to sink. What stops Peter from drowning is not that he’s reached up and grabbed Jesus’ hand, but that Jesus has reached down and grabbed his hand.

There is a place for us to seize hold, but it’s lower down the theological food chain. What saves me is not my decision for Jesus, but Jesus’ decision for me. He has seized hold of me, and my response is: In gratitude I say, “Yes Lord. Show me what you want me to do.”

JMF: In that story, the word immediately is used. There’s not a lot of time when you’re sinking.

AP: That’s comforting because as pastors, we can’t throw people back upon their own strength and resources. My teacher Tom Torrance used to say this all the time, “Don’t cast people back upon themselves, upon their own faith, their own ethics, their own piety, because we break, we will give out. Cast them back upon Jesus Christ. And held by Jesus Christ, they will discover the resources of their piety and their ethics and their service, but again, out of gratitude and thankfulness, not out of guilt or fear.”

JMF: Ephesians 2 is a long number of verses about the grace, the riches of kindness and so on that has come to us. It concludes in verse 10 with, “We are created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” Not that you do good works to be…

AP: That’s right. To put it in the terms of what high school English teachers used to teach us, using indicative and imperative language: The indicative is prior to and conditions the imperative. The indicative is the statement of fact, of reality. You are in Christ. You are loved cosmically from the foundation of the world. You have been seized hold of by Jesus Christ. Now therefore, this is how… The imperative, how you are to live, is the consequence, and is conditioned by the prior reality that we are in Christ by God’s choice and act. That is the gospel.

JMF: In so much preaching, though, it makes people feel it’s the other direction… that they need to do something in order for God to feel this way toward them. So they’re looking over their shoulder for what they’ve done wrong, for where the weak link in the chain lies.

AP: Most of us scratch a little theologically and spiritually, and we say, I deserved this from God. I deserved this punishment, this cancer, this divorce or what have you. That is tragic.

It was the great Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian, who, in the 1950s, published the message that said that God had decided from all eternity that God would no longer be God without a people to love—that God is the God of love. That doesn’t mean to say that he’s not the God of justice, of judgment, but I can say to you, “I forgive you,” and implied within that “I forgive you” is…you’ve done wrong. I wouldn’t “forgive” you if you hadn’t done wrong. But it’s the “I forgive you” that is the larger reality under which the judgment is subsumed.

There is judgment, and we need to preach that. But we preach it within the context that there is something bigger than the judgment, more that overwhelms the judgment — the “I forgive you, I love you, you are mine, you belong to me, I will not let you go.” That is grace. That is why the Word became flesh—that we may know God is a God of love.

To put it differently, the relations within the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are not relations of law or obligation. The Trinity is a communion of love—three persons, one being. The heart of God, if we can speak, the being of God, who God is, is God is love. God gives us law in order to help us live in an appropriate way. But the heart of things, the center of things is not law, but love. Not condemnation, but forgiveness. That’s freedom. For freedom Christ has set us free [Galatians 5:1], not for guilt. For freedom Christ has set us free. Thanks be to God.

JMF: The gospel really is good news.

AP: Right. It’s called gospel.

JMF: What does a pastor need? What skills should a pastor have? What knowledge and experience should he or she have, expect to have, or strive to have, to be an effective pastor?

AP: That’s a complex question. Let me work my way into it, because I have no slick packaged answer to your question. The first thing I would say: To be a pastor, you need to be well-apprenticed to a theological heritage. There are good theological heritages out there, and to be apprenticed to them means that you put yourself, as it were, under the authority of a tradition that the church has said “This is faithful.”

If you’re in a Pietistic tradition, under the Wesleys perhaps, my Reformed tradition under Calvin… Who was Wesley apprenticed to? The Greek fathers. Who was Calvin apprenticed to? The Greek fathers. You apprentice yourself as a pastor to the men and women who have framed and converted the mind of the church, so that the pastor, as the teaching elder, is a man or a woman who has the mind of Christ and who can teach the people that they may grow and have the mind of Christ.

Being a theologian is not just something that strange people do…get a technical education and so forth. Being a theologian is a requirement for everyone who would be a pastor—anyone who would teach Sunday School, even if it’s the tiny tots. My wife this week in her church is doing Vacation Bible School, and there are tiny tots running around. Those who teach these little children need to be theologians. They need to know who is the Lord, who is God, the God whom we name, the God who we trust has claimed us, and be able to express that in cogent, accurate and careful terms.

To be a pastor you need to be apprenticed to a tradition of ministry. Too much modern ministry is gimmickry. I don’t mean to be offensive in saying this, but too much modern ministry is enthralled into passing psychological fads or sociological fads.

In the fall at Pittsburg Theological Seminary, I will be teaching a course on classical texts for pastoral theology. I think there’s a copy in your pile of books. We’ll be reading old dead guys:

  • Gregory of Nazianzus, 380s, the first systematic text in pastoral ministry in the history of the church.
  • John Chrysostom, the Greek father from Antioch.
  • Gregory the Great, 590, became pope. His book of pastoral rule was the book of pastoral care for the next 1000 years in the Western church.
  • Martin Bucer, the most important pastoral writer of the Reformation age, his pastoral theology just being published in English for the first time.
  • Richard Baxter, [who wrote] The Reformed Pastor…it doesn’t mean the Calvinist pastor; it means the renewed pastor, the pastor in Christ.
  • And the reminisces of my favorite, John McLeod Campbell of Scotland.

All these texts are available. They are old texts, but I’m including them… I’m sorry there are no women in them, I wish that were the case, but this is what we have. This is the great wisdom, the depository of pastoral knowledge in the history of the church. I teach this stuff, and the students catch fire. They are staggered at this stuff, this wisdom.

We’ve got to apprentice our students to the wisdom of the pastoral heritage that has been passed down. People knew how to do pastoral ministry before Sigmund Freud came along. They knew how to do pastoral ministry before we got into all this modern psychology and sociology. None of that’s wrong, but it’s not what defines our work. Read the great texts, study the great theologians.

The third thing I would say is: Read the great spiritual saints. Read the Augustines and the Gregory of Nazianzuses, read Calvin’s chapter on prayer in his Institutes, and read Luther on Galatians. Read some of the great Roman women—Teresa of Avila. You may not agree—that doesn’t matter! These are books that have been around for a long, long time for a reason.

C.S. Lewis, in an introduction a few years ago to a translation of Athanasius’s book on the incarnation, a famous little introduction…Lewis said, “For every new book we should read two old books, because the old books have been around and are tested.” Read the old theologians, read the old ministers, read the old teachers on prayer and be guided in your formation. Read contemporary books, too, but they probably won’t be around as long as these old books.

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Last modified: Wednesday, March 31, 2021, 10:51 AM