The Relational Pastor

By Bishop Mike Rinehart

When Andrew Root spoke to the ELCA Conference of Bishops in January, I was told that he might be a bit academic and perhaps talk over people’s heads. This was far from the case. He definitely wove together personal stories to breathe life into the incarnational theology he proposed. If you want both the stories and the academic/theological foundations, consider reading his book, The Relational Pastor, published by InterVarsity Press in 2012.

This is a book for pastors. Root puts it out there at the beginning: “My goal with this book is to make a case that “relationship” is the very goal (not a tool) of ministry.” (p. 10 of 255)

Dr. Andrew Root is Associate Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary in St Paul, Minnesota. Find his book on Amazon.

Dr. Andrew Root is Associate Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary in St Paul, Minnesota
Dr. Andrew Root is Associate Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary in St Paul, Minnesota

The first chapters

In the first chapter, a sort of introduction, Root shares a story of an encounter on a church council where things shift from arguing issues to encountering people. This illustration is woven throughout the book and grounds his ideas in the very real practice of ministry.

In subsequent chapters Root effectively divides history into eras according to Jeremy Rifkin’s historical typology “The Empathic Civilization.” Transitions come when a new energy regime is created (like the Industrial Revolution). Along with each new energy regime come new forms of communication, a new understanding of us and even God.

In the hunter-gatherer era, people are connected through blood ties. Pastoral/spiritual leadership is cosmic storytelling via oral tradition.

With the agricultural era, with planting in rows, borders become important. Culture is defined by religion. Cain kills Abel. Oral tradition moves to written tradition. With writing come sacred texts that need editing and interpreting; therefore, there grows a reliance on a rising priestly class or reader-writer-interpreters. This pushed the personal connection from blood ties to religious ties.

Now the transitions speed up.

The Industrial Revolution shifts the connection from cultural ties to ideological ties like capitalism, communism, and democracy and so on. Pastoral/spiritual leadership is calling people to be dutiful to the ideology. Good citizens. Ideological citizenship led to individualism. Another role of pastor was justice. Reinhold Niehbuhr and Dorothy Day decried the dehumanization of the Industrial Age.

With the evolution to electricity and oil came a second industrial revolution. Large puffing machines gave way to cars and highways. This further drove individualism. Radio and TV in the home meant interaction could happen without leaving the home to be in public space. Cars mean you can go to church anywhere, rather than just your neighborhood church. Churches with programs attracted people. The pastor became an entrepreneurial manager. No longer the elite or moral man, the pastor became entertainer with a self-help bent, aiding people on finding fulfillment.

Root whisks us through four stages: hunter-gatherer, agricultural and two industrial revolutions. He then posits our entry into what Rifkin calls “The Third Industrial Revolution.” While the energy scheme is unclear, the new communication scheme is eminently clear: the internet is our Gutenberg printing press.

The rest of the book, starting with chapter four (of 15 chapters), is focused on a conception of ministry and pastor that fits this new emerging new world.

His focus is moving from influence to relationship, redefining pastoral ministry beyond that of the moral exemplar or the self-help entertainer, to pastor as the one who sets the table for empathic personal encounter with God and neighbor.

After a critique of individualism, Root shows how we are defined by our relationships. At the very foundation, we are our relationships. It is a mystery how through love we can indwell in one another. This is the mystery of the incarnation. To use language from the Gospel of John, we abide in one another. “Abide in me as I abide in you.” John 15:4

We are built for relationships. Paul tells the Corinthians that they participate in the new creation through the cross, sharing one another’s suffering.

The incarnation is not a model for ministry. Jesus did not die to give us a model. What we have missed in this age is that incarnation is fundamentally about sharing in the life of another. The incarnation is the ultimate act of sharing. The church is a community of person that share in each other’s lives as a way of sharing in God life. Empathy is the substance of the new humanity.

Chapters 10-12 are about rethinking relational ministry. The pastor then becomes the one who invites each person to be vulnerable with others, to be loved and known for their vulnerability. The pastor shifts from being the one who builds or protects the church to being the one who creates space that allows for sharing in each other’s lives. The pastor’s job is to open the space for people to be vulnerable to one another.

Ministry is the art of curating a place where people actually see each other, not as interests, but as people. The final three chapters (13-15) explore how to do this through three things: prayer, preaching/teaching and leadership.

Evangelism is not manipulating people into my way of thinking or even my community. It is the invitation to come and encounter God through encountering others.

Prayer is the essential practice for relational ministry. Prayer is a concrete practice that moves people into sharing each other’s lives. Only people who are the relationships can pray. Prayer is about relationship because prayer cannot be done alone. Bonhoeffer said, “No one prays alone.” In our closet, we’re in a relationship with God. In the church, prayer connects us mystically to one another through the Spirit. As pastors, our job is to teach people to pray, to form the community around praying with and for each other.

Proclamation is one of the center roles of the pastor. We often forget this, but prayer is something that needs to be taught. Luke 11:1 Eugene Petersen said that his “primary task as a pastor was to teach people to pray.” This is a shift in the way we think about proclamation. In the Grünewald crucifixion, Barth said the preacher is like John the Baptist, on the right, pointing to Jesus. But notice the other side of the crucifixion, on the left. John is looking away from the crucifixion, not denying it, but because his love has caused him to focus on Mary, Jesus’ mother, who is bereft. Mary Magdalene is not pointing, but praying. In this age of sharing, proclamation may need to look more like Mary Magdalene than John the Baptist.

Leadership is the theme of Chapter 15: I’ve Got to Run the Church Don’t I? Leadership is letting relationships flow. Root says the pastor is more than a manager. The heart of leadership for the pastor is not focusing on tasks but personhood. This means the pastor must have emotional intelligence. The leader must embody personhood. Systems only change when persons change.

Finally, an Appendix gives examples of pastors trying to live into the themes of the book.

This book took me a while to get through. It doesn’t read like a systematic theology, at least not the systematic theologies I have read over the years. It covers all the traditional bases, but reads as a more practical theology.

What I appreciated most was the extent to which Root worked to explore the implications of his theology for every day ministry on the ground in congregational life. If you listen deeply, you can almost hear an IVP editor constantly whispering, “Tell us what this means for pastors and church leaders in the trenches.”

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