Toward a Public Sense of Pastoral Care

by Donald W. Shriver, Jr.

Dr. Shriver was president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 1987.

This article appeared in the Christian Century February 2-9, 1977, p. 87. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


At both seminaries, Candler and Union (N.Y.), students and faculty participate in the perplexed American religious consciousness of the ‘70s: In a global community whose faiths are many, by what faith shall we live? In a time of disjunction between old and new languages of faith, by what language shall we witness to faith? And in a society whose institutions, seem mostly to threaten personal integrity, can we minister to persons without overhauling institutions?

My perceptions of the fit between piety and learning in the current world of theological education are conditioned by a recent move from one province of that world -- Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta -- to another, Union Theological Seminary in New York. The opportunities and the problems of achieving the fit are similar in both places; the contexts, histories and accents differ.

There, at Candler, a certain piety -- Methodist -- shapes the educational ethos. Here, at Union, we regularly experience an ecumenical collision of pieties. There, the move toward a parsonage dominates the expectations of most students from their junior year on. Here, students tend to ask a double “I-dare-you” question: “Can you intrigue me out of professional church leadership with your learning? Or into it?” There, ordinary popular doubt centers on the threat of learning to piety, and professors engage in running debates with students on the final usefulness of the scholar to the preacher. Here, doubt moves the other way.

Yet in both places students and faculty participate in the perplexed American religious consciousness of the ‘70s: In a global community whose faiths are many, by what faith shall we live? In a time of disjunction between old and new languages of faith, by what language shall we witness to faith? And in a society whose institutions, seem mostly to threaten personal integrity, can we minister to persons without overhauling institutions?

The image under which many of us carry on our educational work at Union is that of the crossroads. For over a century students have been coming here because they have the fortitude to risk all sorts of collisions: of world cultures in a great city, of religions and churches in an ecumenical cloverleaf, of church and academy in a theological school related to a great university but independent of it. There is almost a touch of masochism in the intentional vulnerability which brings many to Morning-side Heights. Their unverbalized commitment seems to be: “I’ll test my preferred options for truth and goodness over against other options. Better to test out my stance before getting locked into it!”


As any longtime faculty member at Union will tell you, such a vulnerability carries its peculiar burden of challenge and danger for the nourishing of a fruitful conjunction between piety and learning. Male students feel the burden as they learn firsthand how women students are revising the theological language, ministerial practice, and self-understanding associated with a profession too long captive to the interests of men. Liberal whites confront blacks who affirm a version of “old-time religion” that still has more salvation in it for black people than liberals usually expect in their religion. On all sides here, students and faculty undergo the hard disciplines of American church pluralism. At times the otherness of a neighbor stands in for the otherness of God.

At our best, we suffer all this contradiction gladly, in the faith that out of a multitude of human attempts to glimpse, to trust and to obey the Lord of history, that Lord is weaving together a story he means to tell. Like Bonhoeffer, we yearn for unities and integrities that elude the grasp of so many faithful people in the world that one can easily conclude such yearning is pretentious. There is an enormous scope in the expressed ambitions of students who enroll here. Three examples from what they tell us:

I came because I felt the need to tap into the roots of the ecumenical movement and to a more diverse world -- that is, all those things which are centered for better or worse in New York city.

I came because I didn’t want any kind of schmaltzy piety or any sterile intellectualism.

It was important for me to have both a ministerial emphasis and a scholarly reputation.

Students are asking for a complex combination of educational ingredients. A new president senses that “crisis” at Union has always (since 1836) consisted in the threat that some star in its constellation of educational commitments will withdraw from the whole. For example, the field education program, the study of current liberation theologies, and the struggle to keep the school’s budget in balance all pose questions of Christian faith and ethics in their relation to urban-institutional structures. And at stake in the dialogue in ‘our classes, our refectory, the suburban congregations in Westchester, the inner-city congregations of Brooklyn, and the bureaucratic part-time jobs at the Interchurch Center is a central issue: How does one achieve and combine authentic personal spirituality with equally authentic public spirituality?

Nothing in Union’s history or current situation permits any of us to avoid this issue. As Malcolm Warford, our newly appointed director of educational research, said to me recently after interviewing a cross section of our current student body: “Reinhold Niebuhr’s critique of shallow piety and privatized learning continues to be our typical understanding of the relationship between pastoral care and theology. Indeed, most students feel that Union’s location in New York city is in itself a visible symbol of a public sense of pastoral care.”


The phrase is haunting: “a public sense of pastoral care.” It resembles the concern Robert Bonthius surfaced ten years ago: “The Pastoral Care of Institutions.” Piety in the ‘70s has become well known now for its reversion to the personal, but I have to report that few rest easy with that reversion at Broadway and 120th Street. If piety did not protect us from it, vivid fact would do so: New York’s unemployed wander our neighborhood streets too often for us to stop hoping that persons and systems are both to be saved by “Amazing Grace.” (The song is one that we hear gratefully in chapel these days. One reason: a black artist who makes that song alive with herself and with her people.)

The crossroads image, I may add, fits our doctoral work in theology as closely as it fits our work in the M.Div. program. Union has often prided itself on its goal of training the “scholarly pastor.” For reasons at once theological, institutional and professional, we are a place for training “pastoral scholars” as well. That very concept, however, violates the sense of intellectual probity that many of us on the faculty learned in our own university-oriented doctoral training. After all, modern university culture inclines to the proposition that objective truth is one thing; the love that commends it -- in the person of a great teacher, for example -- is quite another thing.

Modern intellectual culture assumes the “fact-value dichotomy” so easily, in fact, that the future relations of piety and intellect at Union will undoubtedly involve some mighty wrestling to keep the two intimate with each other, no matter how insulated some of our university colleagues prefer them to be. Our Christian roots incline us to study a truth worth doing, to learn the Word that meets us in human flesh, to speak the truth in love. A specialized, urban-scientific culture makes such combinations hard to believe in. Our task, in university related theology schools, is to teach, administer, learn, relate and act in ways that make such combinations credible.


I may be reading it inaccurately, but the theological axiom behind the quest for a holistic conjunction of truth and faith at Union Seminary is this: A good place to meet the God of Jesus Christ is at the crossroads of theological, sociological and political diversity, because there you are most likely to meet a whole human community. That surmise lies behind the vulnerability of so many persons here to each other’s uniqueness. At our spiritual worst at Union, we revere our diversities to a point of despair over the very possibility of a whole. But at our best, we resonate with the famous last paragraph of Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus:

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.

Which is to say that at our very best at Union, we find ourselves listening to words credited to Jesus in his last conversation with Peter:

When you were young, you were able to do as you liked, and go wherever you wanted to; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and others will direct you and take you where you don’t want to go [John 21:18].