Q&A: Constant is the call for leadership

Leadership in the church has always been a daunting task. Fortunately, now as always, the early church offers some of our best resources for effective ministry, says Christopher A. Beeley, author of the new book Leading God’s People: Wisdom from the Early Church for Today (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012).

Dr. Beeley is the Walter H. Gray Associate Professor of Anglican Studies and Patristics at Yale Divinity School and Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. He spoke with Faith & Leadership about his new book and leadership lessons for the church today. The following is an edited transcript.

Christopher Beeley

Give us an overview of Leading God’s People.

The book is about the most basic principles of church leadership, drawing from the early church—the classic and most beloved sources where these principles were best articulated and which many church leaders have turned to over the centuries.

It’s about the basic model of church leadership that leaders from countless different communities and Christian traditions have drawn on. They are also principles that most of us would recognize and share today.

They saw the leader primarily as a shepherd. “Shepherd” is our most basic idea that captures all the aspects of church leadership, of what it means to be a leader. The role of shepherd is one of authority and guidance. Church leaders are those who are chiefly responsible for the overall spiritual guidance of the flock.Our relationship with authority and power, however, is one of our oldest problems. Human beings are naturally uncomfortable with either extreme of power relationships. We’re uncomfortable having our own power, and we can also be uncomfortable being under the power or influence of others.

That’s why the image of “shepherd” is still rich and helpful. It speaks to us today about this basic need to have authoritative, humble and well-functioning leadership. That’s very easy to say, but it’s very hard to carry out.

What wisdom does the early church offer for how pastors are supposed to exercise that authority?

They tell us a lot about how to carry it out. Probably the single most important asset in the leader’s portfolio is the leader’s own spirituality, his or her own relationship with God. The bedrock always has to be the leader’s own active life in Christ. Everything else flows from that. Leaders can’t lead others in the Christian life without practicing it themselves.

The early church fathers constantly admonished leaders to be properly formed. The foundation for the leader’s ministry is his or her own faith development. The fathers advise church leaders to be rooted in a life of prayer and transformative study of Scripture.

You say that the essential task of the shepherd, the pastor, is the cure of souls. What do you mean?

“The cure of souls” is a medical metaphor that draws both on biblical ideas, including Jesus’ teaching about being a physician who came to help the sick, and also on broader cultural images of the doctor. The cure of souls literally refers to the healing of human souls.

The cure of souls points to the heart of life—our convictions, values, actions, behavior, virtues, vices and so on. It is a shorthand way of talking about that most basic guidance of God’s people, helping people to grow in Christ.

And like a physician, a pastor does not apply the same cure to every patient but has a range of treatments to use. You point to Paul as the model for the adaptive cure of souls.

In the early church, Paul is the premier example of the church leader. We have all these letters that document his treatment of his different congregations. He practices a manifold kind of treatment. We can look at all the different ways Paul addresses his readers and get a picture of the different things that church leaders are called to do for their flocks.

In 1 Corinthians 9:20-23, Paul writes about being “all things to all people” to share the gospel, using the appropriate approach for a particular context. What he’s doing is a kind of adaptive ministry.

What does that mean for the pastor today?

This is both the heart of the work and its greatest challenge. The first thing it means for church leaders of any age is that we have to be familiar with the different treatments or modes of ministry, whether it’s admonition, encouragement, chastisement, comfort, weeping with those who weep or rejoicing with those who rejoice. The minister has to be capable of a wide range of treatments.

The second thing it means is that as leaders we have to know our people. Otherwise, we’re not going to be able to provide what they need. We have to learn how to apply the right treatment to the right condition. Although that’s a skill that is inspired and enabled by the work of the Holy Spirit, it takes time to learn.

Timing is also part of it. It’s not enough to know that my neighbor needs encouragement. I also have to have a sense of when they need encouragement or admonition or sympathy or whatever.

At its core, the early church figures insisted, this task is deeply theological, rooted in Scripture. Indeed, you write that Scripture is central to the life of faithful church leaders.

Everything that we’ve been talking about comes together in theology—the knowledge and love of God and of everything in creation in relation to God.

Scripture is the most basic authority and medium for the knowledge of God that we have. For church leaders, theology is what the science of medicine is to a doctor or the law is to a lawyer. It’s the very definition of the art or the science that we’re practicing. To imagine a ministry that’s not theologically informed is like trying to imagine practicing as a doctor with no knowledge of medicine.

So pastors need to spend time studying Scripture.

Absolutely, and this seems to be one of the most constant challenges for church leaders. There are so many other things that demand our time. Americans especially feel like we’re not being practical if we take several hours a week for study and prayer.

But actually, studying Scripture is one of the most practical things that we can do as leaders. In the long run, the amount of time that we put into study and prayer is what’s going to sustain our ministries and make them vital.

I was repeatedly struck that much of this wisdom from the early church is very practical advice with practical benefits.

It is. It’s all practical. It’s not an instruction manual in the sense that every church leader’s life will look the same. In fact, it’s going to look different in every situation.

But everything that we do has a practical aim. There’s hardly anything that would help the leadership of the church today more than if we got rid of this division in our minds between theoretical and practical things.

It’s all theoretical, and it’s all practical. For example, you can tell a lot by looking at a pastor’s calendar. At the end of the day, it comes down to the amount of hours that we put into the things that we believe matter for our ministries.

And the place where all this gets carried out—the shepherding, the spirituality, the study—is the ministry of the word, which you call the bread and butter of church leadership.

Most everything we do as church leaders is an act of the ministry of the word. Without exception, all the great leaders of the early church—especially those who wrote about ministry—focus on the ministry of the word in all its different forms as the bread and butter of what we do.

Regarding preaching, Augustine contended that the function of good preaching was to teach, to delight and to sway. Explain those.

Augustine’s teaching about Christian preaching in “De doctrina Christiana” is probably the most timelessly helpful summary of what good preaching involves.

There are three elements. To teach means to communicate a message, which every sermon needs to do. Good Christian teaching must be true, and it must be clear; so we ought to remove any obstacles that get in the way of those two things. If we don’t have something to teach or to say, then we can’t even get started. Everything else depends on that.

The second element, delight, is the aesthetic aspect of the sermon—how it’s delivered. The point of delighting is to keep people’s attention and to help them hear what’s being taught. Augustine warns against letting the entertainment value of the sermon take over. If a parishioner walks away remembering the clever story that was told in the sermon more than they remember the scriptural text or the preacher’s main message, that’s a problem.

Finally, the capstone of good preaching is to sway people, to move them, to persuade them. This is the real goal of preaching. It requires a message, a true and clear teaching. It requires the aesthetic aspects to keep people’s attention. But the real point is to change lives.

It’s amazing that in this very different age, this very old wisdom still works.

It is. It’s encouraging. But if we step back and think about it, if that weren’t the case, we should be really worried.

The need to articulate and defend Christian truth, or orthodoxy, is a new challenge in every generation, and in the same way, the need to learn and practice effective and faithful ministry is a new challenge in every generation.

Yet the more one reads of church history, the more one finds just how constant is the call for effective and vital leaders. It’s been a great need in every age of the church.

This interview appeared on Duke Divinity School’s Faith & Leadership website (www.faithandleadership.com). Reprinted with permission.

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