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The Ecology of Faith by Joseph Sittler


Theological education was prominent among the many interests of Lutheran scholar and theologian Joseph Sittler, who died on December 28, 1988. Following are some of his more provocative reflections on that subject, excerpted from his recent book, Gravity and Grace (Augsburg Publishing House), copyright 1986; reprinted by permission. This book was published by Muhlenberg Press, Philadelphia, 1961. It was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 5: Maceration of the Minister


This lecture is not continuous with the preceding ones. It is related to them, however, because I have been aware in the preparation -- with a clarity amounting to a sense of guilt -- that urgings toward the kind of study and reflection presupposed for preaching to our situation have a bright and bitter sound to many who have done me the courtesy to listen. Bright because what I have called attention to is acknowledged as necessary for obedient preaching; bitter because the church, which might be expected to encourage and protect the minister in his cultivation of these conditions, does nothing of the sort.

What I have to say in this lecture might well come under an epigram applied to the Korean War: the wrong war against the wrong enemy at the wrong place! The situation I propose to describe is already and painfully well known to the clergy, and if a lecture to them has only an intermural value they are perhaps comforted in their pain by the knowledge that others know of it. It is nevertheless said here on the purely tactical ground that someone ought to speak up against what I call the maceration of the minister. He ought to do so with plain, reportorial force, and he ought to do it not as a psychologist, internist, or time-study expert -- but as a churchman within the context of a convocation traditionally concerned with the practical wellbeing of the churches.

I have sought for a less violent term to designate what I behold, and maceration was the only one sufficiently accurate. Among the meanings of the term listed in the dictionary is this grim one: to chop up into small pieces. That this is happening to thousands of ministers does not have to be argued or established; it needs only to be violently stated. His time, his focused sense of vocation, his vision of his central task, his mental life, and his contemplative acreage -- they are all under the chopper. Observation leads me to conclude, too, that this fact is general. The man who looks back thirty years to his ordination is in no better circumstance than the man who looks back three years. The man who is minister in an established parish and surrounded with a staff has substantially the same complaint as the mission minister with his self-propelled mimeograph. Nor does the church body in which the man is a minister, or the distinction or obscurity of the school which awarded him his Bachelor’s degree in Divinity make any perceivable difference.

The Niebuhr-Williams-Gustafson study (H. Richard Niebuhr, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry[New York: Harper and Brothers, 1956]) of several years ago makes it unnecessary to dilate upon this first point. Because these men are members of theological faculties their observations were related with particular force to the responsibilities of theological educators. They therefore made quietly and with becoming academic restraint a point that I want to make noisily.

What the schools elevate the actual practice of the ministry flattens. The schools urge to competence in the various fields of theological study. The canons of competence that determine the churches’ practice are not only strange to what the schools supply and encourage, they are radically destructive of their precedence and nurture. There is something positively sardonic in a quick jump from a remembered student in a remembered classroom to the same man in his parish. I have done many such jumps and the effect is disheartening. In the classroom he was told that the basilia tou Theu, for instance, is a phrase of enormous scope and depth, and that his declaration of it should be informed by such studies as we could expose him to in class. It was further urged that such study ought persist throughout life. His teachers were concerned that he not become so insensible as to make such easy identifications with the kingdom of God as characterize the promotional theological literature of our burgeoning churches.

Visit the man some years later in what the man still calls inexactly his study and one is more than likely to find him accompanied by the same volumes he took with him from his student room. And filed on top of even these are mementos of what he is presently concerned with: a roll of blueprints, a file of negotiations between the parish, the bank, and the Board of Missions, samples of asphalt tile, and a plumber’s estimate.

When one wonders what holds the man together, enables him to bring equal enthusiasm to his practical decisions and his pastoral and proclamatory function, one learns that he is held together (if he is) by his public role of responsibility for the external advancement of the congregation. The terms in which this advancement are commonly assessed seep backward and downward to transform his interior relation to his studies. Those studies become less and less an occupation engaged in or intrinsic to his role as witness to the gospel and pastor to people, and become more and more frantic efforts to find biblical, or theological, generalities which will religiously dignify his promotional purposes. The will of God has got to be simplified into a push for the parish house. The Holy Spirit is reduced to a holy resource which can be used as a punch line for the enforcement of parish purposes. The theme of Christian obedience must be stripped of its judging ambiguities and forthwith used as a lever to secure commitment which is somehow necessarily correlated with observable services to the current and clamant program. The message, in short, is managed in terms of its instrumental usefulness for immediate goals. "Arise, and let us go hence" becomes a text so epigramatically apt that it were a shame to lose it by the complication of context or exegesis.

Where are the originating places of this process, and what forms does it take? There are, I think, three that are so obvious and constant that they can be named and described. But even these are to be recognized as functions of a force that is pervasive, and underlies them all. This basic force is a loss of the sense of the particularity of the church, the consequent transformation of the role of the minister into that of a "religious leader," and the still consequent shift whereby the ministry is regarded as a "profession" and theological education has come to understand its task as "professional education". Had this shift in meanings not occurred the three specific forces I am about to name could hardly have been effective. But the shift has occurred -- and the minister is macerated by pressures emanating from the parish, the general church bodies, and the "self-image of the minister."

The Parish: The very vocabulary that has become common is eloquent. The parish has a "plant," its nature or purpose is specified in terms of a "program" for which a "staff" is responsible to a "board." The "program" is evaluated in terms of palpable production which can be totaled with the same hard-boiled facticity as characterizes a merchandising operation -- and commonly is. The minister, like it or not, is the executive officer. I know of a synod of a church body which, wishing to put the matter of financial support of the "program" of the church on a less obviously allocated basis than characterizes the property tax office of the municipality, came up with a "fresh" idea: each should give as the Lord had prospered him -- the synod called it the "Grace system"!

This systematization of the holy betrays, if nothing worse, a peculiar atrophy of a Protestant sense of humor. Our theology of stewardship is pragmatically translated into terms and operational devices which deny the theology we affirm. The path to such practices is easily discernible. After a generation or two in which paid quartets, in the better-heeled parishes, praised God weekly as surrogates for the congregation, and professional organizations raised the money for "plant expansion" (all, of course, with a well-oiled unction that would have glazed the eyeballs of St. Paul) it is not surprising that the counsel to stewardship should be preceded, according to some church programs, by an inquisatorial scrutiny of the share of each of the sheep in the gross national product. The reply, of course, is that it works. There can be no doubt that it does. The same reply, however, if made normative for the truth of the entire nature and scope of the meaning of the church would indicate that the theology of prayer ought to take account of the reported correlation between petition and the growth-rate of potted plants.

The Christian community always walks close to the edge of superstition, magic, and the strange human desire to translate grace into nature by a direct and forthright program. There is a relation between an immeasurable gift of grace and the responding gifts of man to advance the institutional celebration of the gospel of Grace. But it is the task of theology, as it ought to be a concern of planned parish preaching and instruction, to witness to this grace in such a way as to raise Christian eyebrows over every perverting proposal to mechanize it.

There is no evidence that policy preserves against perversion. A church in a surplice is as easily seduced as a church in a black robe, or one with neither of these. That the "business of America is business" has bequeathed to us all a vocabulary, a point of view, canons of evaluation that are so deeply rooted in our parishes that perhaps nothing short of a Kierkegaardian attack upon Christendom will suffice for renovation.

The General Church Bodies: What characteristizes the mind of the parish is but amplified, solidified, and given enhanced authority in the larger world of the general bodies. Some years ago it became apparent to some large corporations that they had succeeded so well in fashioning the company man into symmetrical functionaries of an order that a danger was recognized. A few eccentrics were deliberately sought out, cherished, protected, and asked to give themselves to reflection uninhibited by charts.

Such sardonic maturity has not yet arisen within the churches. The fantastic rigidity, the almost awesome addiction to "channels," the specialization of concern and operation that characterize our structure have made us, in large part, prisoners of accredited mediocrity. "The wind bloweth where it listeth," but when it does a shudder of embarrassment racks the structure from top to bottom. If another J. S. Bach should occur in my church and succeed, as the first one did, in giving a new deep piety a new and adequate voice, he would have to plead his case before elected or appointed arbiters whose authority ex- ceeds that of the consistory of Cöthen or Leipzig -- and whose general cultivation is less.

The informing and edifying of the church through charismatic endowments by the Holy Spirit is not incompatable with the doctrine of One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic church. But it is incompatable with the church order that takes its model from the more banal children of this world. We affirm the charismatic in piety and imprison it in established structures in practice. It has actually come to pass that our churches maintain a disciplined cadre of inspirational operators. These persons are on call for whatever program the church from time to time decides to accent. They can blow any horn one hands them. If the program involves support for educational institutions they stand ready to declare across the broad reaches of the land in districts, conferences, and parishes that "the future of the church hangs upon the success of this venture in education." And when at the next general convention the scene shifts to rural missions, the same enthusiasm, now supplied with a changed terminology and directed toward a changed goal, is sent out on the road from general headquarters. One has heard this interchangeable vivacity vocalize so many and such various projects that he is reminded that the salesman is a category that can be defined quite independent of the product he sells. Whether his sample case contains hammer handles or lingerie is nothing to the point.

Self-image of the Minister: The transformation of the minister’s self-image is the third force contributing to the maceration of the minister. The effects of this at the deepest levels of the man’s personal life can hardly be spoken of in terms that are too grave. For this image is, strictly, not a professional or merely personal or even church-official image. It is rather an image given with the office of the ministry in and by a church in obedience to the command of the Lord of the gospel. The "Ministry of the Word and Sacraments" belongs to no man; all believers belong to it. And among these some are acknowledged as having been given a charism undergone preparation, and announced their intention to serve the gospel in this particular ministry. In the full gravity of this gift, task, and intention a man is ordained to this ministry, charged in specific terms drawn from the dominical imperative faithfully to fulfill it. The self-image of the minister is then more than a self-image; it is an image of the vocation and task of the self gathered up into a gift and a task that was before the self came to be, having a reality that transcends while it involves the whole self, and which will be bestowed upon the church by her Lord when this particular self is no longer of the church in history.

Fragmentation has become a common term in psychology and sociology. But what has happened to the ministry is all that term suggests and reports, but more painful and accusatory because of the gravity of that public bestowing and receiving of the Lord’s Ministry of Word and Sacrament. A vase can be fragmented; maceration is what a human being feels when fragmented.

It is hard for the minister to maintain a clear vision of who he is when he is so seldom doing what he ought. His self-image of a servant of the gospel has been slowly clarified, carefully matured, informed, and sensitized during years of preparation. At the time of ordination the church publicly and thankfully acknowledged a gift, a discipline, and a man’s intention to assume a task.

All of this is under constant attrition in the present form of the churches. And thus it comes about that honesty in the fulfillment of the minister’s central task is gradually laid aside in favor of sincerity. Sincerity is a term a man uses to enable himself to live with himself when he has uneasy questions about his honesty. There remain, however, deep down but insistent, voices and remembrances that tell the man what is going on, tell him that the exchange is not a good one. And the enthusiastic readiness of parish and church to accept, even to applaud, the shift makes the suffering of the minister the more acute.

There have been a number of studies, some widely publicized, in which attention has been called to the large number of crackups of various degrees of severity among the clergy. The supporting testimony is impressive. The reasons most often suggested are too much work, too long a day, too various a complex of problems and duties, too unremitting a drain on emotional and mental stores, insufficient opportunity to lift the clerical nose from the parish grindstone.

While these facts are present and powerful, the sum of them does not, I think, get to the heart of the matter. They are too obvious, too shallow; they do not designate what comes out -- stumbling, embarrassed, and often gestured rather than stated -- when one observes and listens with attention. From many hours spent with many former students I have learned that there is a constant fact in the variety of their confessions, overt or oblique.

These men are deeply disturbed because they have a sense of vocational guilt. This guilt is so strong, so clear, and so deeply sunk in their central self-consciousness that one knows with an immediate impatience that no diminution of hours or other rearrangements of outer life can have decisive effect.

This sense of guilt has an observable content. A minister has been ordained to an Office; he too often ends up running an office. He was solemnly ordained to the ministry in Christ’s church. Most of the men I know really want to be what they intended and prepared for. Instead they have ended up in a kind of dizzy occupational oscillation. They are aware of the truth of what Karl Barth said in one of his earliest addresses, "Our people expect us to take them more seriously than they take themselves, and they will not thank us if we do not do so." Most ministers are aware that it is a tough and delicate labor to insert the lively power of the Word of God into the rushing occupations and silent monologues of men. They recall with a sense of joy the occasions when honest work and unhurried reflection gave a strange victory to their efforts. But these occasions are infrequent, set amid great stretches of guilt-begetting busyness.

What, then, is to be done? From each of the designated constituents of the problem a different response is required. These are the professors in schools of theology, the parishes, the officials in the general bodies, the ministers themselves. Upon professors in the schools of theology there rests an immediate and pressing responsibility. Our clear perception of the demolition wrought upon our labors with students, combined with the respect accorded us by our churches, urges us out of silence and toward articulate protest. We ought to be more courageous, critical, and noisy advocates for our students, more concerned protectors of their reflective future. Our intermural grousing has now the obligation to leap over the wall and seek to make itself heard among parishes and in the offices of church officialdom. For it is there that the machinery of maceration and the pounding of program is set in motion.

It is, I think, simply not true that the parish demands of its minister that he become simply an executive officer of multiple activities. It is likely to accept, support, and be deepeningly molded by the understanding of Office and calling which is projected by its minister’s actual behavior. It will come to assess as central what he, in his actual performance of his ministry and use of his time, makes central. And when this tightening and clarification of the minister’s conception of his Office discloses, in the reflective depth and penetration and ordering skill of the sermon, where his heart and mind are centered, the parish will honor this pastoral obedience to "take them more seriously than they take themselves."

The officialdom of the church, and how it may be penetrated by a knowledge of the plight of the minister, presents a more difficult -- because more subtle -- problem. When one beholds the staff-generated devices dreamed up by boards and commissions to focus the attention of the church-in-convention assembled upon their particular programs, one wonders if the motivation is exclusively either educational or evangelical. Have these members of promotional staffs not fallen under the sovereignty of Parkinson’s Law, whereby whatever is tends to persist, whatever does is driven by dynamics strange to its purpose to do more and wider and bigger? Must not each "program" outshout the other in order to dramatize an urgency psychologically necessary for its own sense of importance, if not priority?

One does not have to operate at the top level of the ecumenical movement to suspect that the "nontheological factors" there exposed as powerful in church and theological history are operative along the whole front. It is no ingratitude toward my own family in Christendom that I take delight in the fact that there are about one hundred million of us! And the dynamics of this delight will not bear too much scrutiny in terms of the truth of the gospel, the obedience to Christ, and other such properly elevated rubrics.

We may and perhaps ought to be impatient about the world’s quip that when a man becomes a bishop he will never thereafter eat a bad meal, read a good book, or hear the truth. But from within the family we dare a smile. For in the very generality that determines executive office there is a power that disengages from the common table of parish existence, from the direct and pathetic book of the common life, and from the moments of sudden truth that stun and depress and exalt the minister on his ordinary round.

Finally there is the minister himself; and in what follows I appeal to him from the same center as has informed these lectures on preaching. He, in his private and imperiled existence, must fight for wholeness and depth and against erosion. By a sheer effort of violent will he must seek to become his calling, submit himself to be shaped in his life from the center outward. He need not be slapped into uncorrelated fragments of function; he need not become a weary and unstructured functionary of a vague, busy moralism; he need not see the visions and energies and focused loyalty of his calling run, shallowly like spilled water, down a multitude of slopes.

Certain practical, immediate, and quite possible steps can be taken. The temptation to improvised, catch-as-catch-can preaching, for instance, can be beaten back by calculated ordering of one’s study. The most profitable period in my own parish preaching came about because I did that. What I learned in seminary about Paul of Tarsus, Paul’s Christology and ethics, was not sufficient either for the great subject or for the discharge of my preaching responsibility. In one memorable year I determined to bring together concentrated study and actual preaching. Surrounding myself with the best available to me from modern Pauline scholarship I literally lived with this man for six months, directed and taught by Adolph Deissman, James Stewart, Charles Harold Dodd, Robert Henry Lightfoot, J. H. Michael, and others.

Because the Philippian letter is the most direct, personal, and uncomplicated of Paul’s letters I resolved to preach straight through it, informing and correcting exegesis from the Greek text by the findings and insights of historians, exegetes and theologians.

The result of this study and preaching -- extending from Epiphany through Trinity Sunday -- was the establishing of a love affair with this towering and impassioned "man in Christ." I came to know him with the quick and perceptive delight one has in a friend. Paul had been fused into an adoring, obedient, proclaiming and explicating totality by the fire of his new relation to God in "this Son of God who loved me . . ." And the informing of all the parts of his writing by that rooted and vivacious new being in Christ, when beheld in concentrated study, opens huge new perspectives in every single verse or section. It is not necessary to add that such an exciting discipline makes quite unnecessary the weekly scrounging for a "text."

It was a sort of added dividend that when Holy Week and Easter came around, progress through the letter had landed me precisely at Philippians 2:1-11: "And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him. . ." That section, explicated on Maundy Thursday, Good Fridays and Easter, had gained a momentum from the twelve preceding sermons on chapters 1 and 2 that was both powerful and full for the preacher and for the people.

The foregoing is an illustration, it is not a prescription. Each man must order his life from the inside, and each must order it according to the requirements of interest, nature, and parish situation. But order it he must.

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