January 20, 2021

Pastoral Joy


So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

…For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!

– 1 Thessalonians 2:8, 19-20

The-Relational-Pastor1The Relational Pastor: Sharing in Christ by Sharing Ourselves
by Andrew Root

IVP Books (March 4, 2013)

* * *

The pastor’s joy is found in sharing a common life with real flesh and blood people.

In fact, this is the joy of human life itself. For, although each of us is a unique self, we only find our humanity in relationship to others.

This is what Andrew Root argues in his fine book, The Relational Pastor. As he puts it, “This book makes the claim that at our core we human beings are our relationships, that God encounters us in relationships and that pastoral ministry at its base is about facilitating relational encounters.”

Unfortunately, in recent history, following the trends of cultural development, pastoral ministry has been framed as being about influence, which is more about pastors using relationships to further other purposes. Root rejects this. Relationships are not tools we use to accomplish the mission, building relationships is the goal of the mission. We share the very life of God in Jesus Christ when we share in each other’s lives. As Eugene Peterson paraphrased Acts 2:42, the first believers “committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.”

Being a pastor is about living in Christ and sharing a common life with the people of my congregation, extending that life into the neighborhoods around us and inviting others to share that life with us.

children detail“Relational ministry” is not a strategy to help our church grow or be more vibrant. “Relational” as a method may put people in more interactive settings, but the true goal of such an approach is pragmatic: to get them to become more loyal to the idea of Jesus and the faith, more active in Christian service, more generous with their time and talents for the church and kingdom. And while these may sound like good things, many people can ultimately tell the difference between a church or pastor that only wants to influence them and a community that loves them.

In order to clarify his point, Andrew Root makes a distinction between viewing people as “individuals” and viewing them as “persons.”

An individual in a rationalistic, materialistic, and consumer-oriented society is one who is the sum total of his or her opinions, lifestyle choices, roles, and wants. In ministry we have learned to market the Christian faith so that we can influence such individuals to embrace ideas, change their behavior, fulfill various functions, and buy into our Christian subculture rather than other alternatives. With this view of people, we can do all this, even with such “relational” tools as small groups and “one-on-one ministry,” and never become truly personal — sharing in each other’s lives and in the life of Christ together.

On the other hand, to be a person and to view others as persons is to recognize that the very nature of our humanity is relational — we bear the image of the relational God who is Three in One. We are our relationships. We are “human beings bound to others in love and fear. Personhood demands that I see the other as a mystery to encounter, and not as a will to mold through influence.”

As an example, Root points to the Good Samaritan. He saw the hurting man by the side of the road as a person and responded to him as a person, sharing in his suffering, acting with him and for him as a fellow human being, sharing in his very life. He was not an object to be fixed but a neighbor to be loved. The Samaritan entered his life and shared a space called “neighbor” that those who passed by little understood. It may be that they were more committed to ideals than they were to actual persons. The priest and Levite after all would have become ritually unclean by touching and assisting the suffering traveler. However, as Root comments, “The problem with idealism is that even when it sees need, it converts it into an idea, allowing us to avoid the concrete life of our neighbor.”

So to see need is not to convert it into an idea or program but to open your person to it, to seek to walk into the place of need to encounter the embodied spirit of the other. Idealism seeks the integrity of the ideal; the realism of personal encounter seeks the God who became person found in the need of the suffering of the cross. Idealism uses the idea as the measure of sharing. You are called to share the idea with another, but only called to the other person as long as the ideal remains pure. If the person challenges or threatens the ideal you have given your interest to, then the other person must go, so the integrity of idea remains and you as an individual remain pure.

In contrast, the realistic work of relating involves what Andrew Root calls “indwelling.”

To indwell something is to participate in something that is not us. It is to share in something so deeply that what is not us becomes part of us.

…Your life becomes a part of mine and mine becomes a part of yours. …Our lives are distinct but overlapped; we are each our own person, but our own unique being has penetrated the being of the other through the relationship itself.

…It is indwelling another that gives us our personhood. A brother, mother or friend is called such because each indwells another; their lives dynamically overlap. …They share so deeply in the life of another that they are what they are only by sharing in the life of another.

The pastor’s joy, therefore, is to own his or her name — a name that describes a truly relational approach to life and ministry. A “pastor” is one who participates in life-sharing relationships with people in Christ as one of them, and also as one called and ordained to encourage and nourish those relationships.

Perhaps “pastor” is not ultimately the best term because the metaphor does not fully capture the rich humanity of the people among whom we dwell. Familial terms (brother, sister, father, mother) as well as “minister” (a household term in NT times = servant) may in the final analysis be preferable. These designations remind us that there are no “leaders” and “followers” in the church. Indwelling must go both ways or it is not a mutual relationship. It becomes one person trying to influence another rather than engaging in the true, mutual, sharing of life in Christ.

The pastor’s duty is therefore not to “lead” (there go half the books in most ministers’ libraries!). Rather, as Andrew Root affirms, “The ministry of the pastor in our time is to make the church the location of the personal, for it to be a community rich in the spirit of personal encounter.”

The Relational Pastor ends with an appendix written by various ministers from different congregations. In it they talk about some of the ways they have tried to help their churches share in “the common life” of mutual indwelling with one another and among their neighbors. One of the contributors concludes with these words:

You could feel the connections being made; you could feel the Spirit at work. This unexpected space to share had become the place in which Christ was powerfully present, bringing people together in profound ways.

In life and in ministry, there is no greater joy.


  1. “Unfortunately, in recent history, following the trends of cultural development, pastoral ministry has been framed as being about influence, which is more about pastors using relationships to further other purposes.”

    Mike, this line sheds light on my exchange with a fellow missionary. He told me, “I’ve been friends with that guy for six months, and he isn’t showing any interest in the Gospel. I’m going to have to move on and invest in someone else.” I understood why I was repelled by his calculating attitude, but what I didn’t understand was why he wasn’t ashamed to say such a thing. In fact, he went on to explain how he wanted to make good use of his supporters’ money in spreading the Gospel, and he thought that using “friendship” as a means of influence was a morally exemplary way of doing that. Indulging himself by remaining in a relationship with someone just because he liked that person was what seemed immoral to him. Oddly, that missionary wasn’t one I wanted to make “friends” with myself . . .

    • Now THAT’S creepy. On the one hand, you can’t live like the light of the world around others if you’re never around anyone who isn’t Christian. On the other hand, NOBODY wants to be used. And Jesus loved and loves others whether they ever love back or not. Sad that we don’t get that.

    • It struck me a few years ago that some pastors seem to be a little sociopath-like in the way they interact with their congregation. I have wondered if this behavior might be taught in some seminaries. Any way you comment reminded me of that feeling.

    • Marcus Johnson says

      I’ll have you know that when I was working in the men’s department at Macy’s, I had the same attitude toward customers that Damaris’ friend had towards his missionary “target” (couldn’t think of a nicer term). I was trying to sell clothes, so if the person was just browsing, screw ’em; I got clothes to fold and other people who I can stalk.

      I found that that was the perfect attitude to take toward working retail. Unfortunately, if my responsibility was to build lasting relationships through which the Spirit could speak to my customers and change their lives, I would be totally off base.

      We really need to stop trying to sell the gospel; we look really pathetic when we try to do that.

  2. From Pope Francis’ homily for the Chrism Mass of Holy Thursday this Easter:

    “The priest who seldom goes out of himself, who anoints little – I won’t say “not at all” because, thank God, the people take the oil from us anyway – misses out on the best of our people, on what can stir the depths of his priestly heart. Those who do not go out of themselves, instead of being mediators, gradually become intermediaries, managers. We know the difference: the intermediary, the manager, “has already received his reward”, and since he doesn’t put his own skin and his own heart on the line, he never hears a warm, heartfelt word of thanks. This is precisely the reason for the dissatisfaction of some, who end up sad – sad priests – in some sense becoming collectors of antiques or novelties, instead of being shepherds living with “the odour of the sheep”. This I ask you: be shepherds, with the “odour of the sheep”, make it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men. True enough, the so-called crisis of priestly identity threatens us all and adds to the broader cultural crisis; but if we can resist its onslaught, we will be able to put out in the name of the Lord and cast our nets. It is not a bad thing that reality itself forces us to “put out into the deep”, where what we are by grace is clearly seen as pure grace, out into the deep of the contemporary world, where the only thing that counts is “unction” – not function – and the nets which overflow with fish are those cast solely in the name of the One in whom we have put our trust: Jesus.”

  3. Robert F says

    Although I’m in complete agreement with the idea that relationship is not simply to be deployed as a pragmatic stratagem intended to achieve some other goal or goals, and that in fact to be incorporated into the life of the Trinity, which is relational, with the Communion of Saints, which is relational, is the the God’s ultimate purpose for human beings, I’m a little uncomfortable with the dichotomy between “individual” and “person.” I think that to recognize a person as an individual is to recognize that persons have value apart from the values attributed by social belonging in human networks, even in the network of the church; and to recognize that in addition to standing within the web of relationships that every human is born into, there are times when a person might have to stand outside those webs before God as an individual with his or her own value apart from any value ascribed by human belonging. This is not to deny that every human person must exist within the matrix of relationship, but there are times when direct relationship to God apart from human community is necessary. In the Bible, it is the prophets who illustrate this so pointedly; they are called by God, at times, to stand apart from the community and address words of judgement, given to them by God and meant for the human community. There is a certain alienation involved in the lives of the prophets, a distance that the words that God gives to them create between them and other human beings, and they suffer what sociologists have recently called individuation as a result of bearing those words in their souls apart from the web of human relationships that they were born into. The prophets are often lonely and struggle with a depression which is the result of being called into this individuation by God; but the word that God speaks to Moses, for instance, though it is meant for the people of Israel, is nevertheless spoken to an individual, and carried by him and changes him, sometimes against his wishes, precisely because it calls him to be a man apart. If there can be no persons without a relational community of persons, neither can there be be any community without individual persons able to relate to one another, sometimes in painful and against the grain.

    And sometimes we are called out of one community into another; the sexually abused person called out of a dysfunctional family into a healthier web of relationships, the unbeliever called out of her communities of unbelief into the Communion of saints and into faith, etc. When this happens, when we are called out of one community and into another, there will be a longer or shorter interval when we will be between social locations, when we will be standing apart at great risk and in great loneliness. At such moments, when we have been disorientated and not yet reorientated, we stand naked and alone for a time as individuals before God in a kind of wilderness, but God uses this wilderness to form us into ourselves so that we may enjoy him forever.

    It might even be the wilderness we find ourselves in is the post-evangelical wilderness.

    • Robert F says

      For examples of persons called to stand apart from and even against communities as individuals for longer or shorter intervals in their lives I think of Moses, Isaiah, John the Baptist, St. John of the Cross, Kierkegaard, Simone Weil, Dorothy Day. This is not to say that these people were not embedded in certain ways in communities alternative to and wider than the ones they were standing apart from; rather, it’s to recognize that with them the alternative communities that they identified themselves with were communities that could only be perceived through faith, not on the basis of lived experience, and often counter-intuitively and against the soberly observed evidence. I think of Dorothy Day and Simone Weil as very illustrative, dove-tailing examples of how one may completely identify with and at the same time be utterly alienated from a human community, in this case for both of them the Roman Catholic Church. The very perception that there was a community there to belong to, and the church of God at that, was a perception rooted in a faith received directly from God rather than any slow growing extension of human relationships in a particular local church. No wonder Dorothy Day entitled her autobiography “The Long Loneliness,” and Simone Weil, though believing passionately in the Church, felt compelled to remain unbaptized and outside the institutional church as an expression of identification with all those in exile, whether self-imposed or not, from the church.

  4. Robert F,

    I agree with everything you’ve written. Great observations.

    If I might add….I don’t recall that any of the prophets actually wanted the job. Jeremiah and Amos are prime examples. They were compelled by the Presence to stand athwart the flow of their countrymen and shout “NO !”

    The book review by CM is concerned primarily with the job/chrism of “pastoring” which of necessity involves relating with others. If there are no others to relate with then at best the term “pastor” is only a title absent of function.

    May we remember Bonhoeffer’s insight from Life Together;

    It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes… So between the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing.

    • Robert F says

      Tom (aka Volkmar),
      I acknowledge that I went off subject on a tangent. In my own defense, I can only repeat that I’m very uncomfortable with any strong dichotomy separating “personal” and “individual,” especially when it proceeds out of a purported difference between relational ways of being and the isolation of the individual self that supposedly is the result of Enlightenment thinking and its unfolding in modernism. The tension between persons as community and persons as individuals has always existed, and I think it’s erroneous to fault Enlightenment values for the development of that tension.

      • Robert F says

        In other words, I reject post-modernism’s critique of the autonomous self as a product of Enlightenment thinking, and I suspect that the distinction between “person” and “individual” made in this iM post is rooted in that post-modern critique.

        • Robert, I took it more (and presented it) as a critique of modern technological, consumeristic society, especially in the media age when our “selves” have become defined by marketing categories.

          Oh, and the “individual” vs. “person” is Root’s way of framing it, but I don’t necessarily think the language contrast is essential to his argument. In my view (or at least the way I took his point) the terms are contrasted only for the sake of making a clear distinction.

        • Robert, another thing I did not mention is that Root uses Jeremy Rifken’s book The Empathic Civilization as a guide to tracing transitions in the way humans have understood ourselves, others, and God. If I understand correctly, Rifken argues that new energy regimes lead to new forms of communication which lead to new personal and interpersonal perspectives. Root “plays in the sandbox” of this template to make his points. Therefore, the impersonal era he is critiquing is the one we are emerging out of — the “oil” era in which, he writes, “we became independent, and relationships with other human beings become not a necessity but an individual choice. …Machines and technology freed us from dependence on other people, making us full-blown individuals.”

          • Chaplain Mike,
            Not sure why he thinks we are emerging out of that era, and I’m not sure I agree with his critique. Machines and technology did not free us from dependence on other people, but they did modify the morphology of that dependence by making our dependence more plastic and less direct, more anonymous and less intimate, more institutional and less familial. Machines and technology made our lives more portable, and weakened the traditional extended kinship networks that people have depended on since the advent of humanity. But that very portability is what we reflexively mean when we talk about freedom. If I’m trapped in stultifying or even abusive dysfunctional family networks, then the development of the possibility of portability for my life looks pretty good; the fact that I don’t have to depend on an extended kinship network to survive makes it possible for me to get out and start over. Without such portability, and the technology that makes it possible, there could have been no feminist movement, because there would have been no place for women trapped in oppressive networks to go and no way to get there even if some places did exist. It was an advance when people were given the possibility by technology to escape from dependence of dysfunctional and destructive familial networks and situations; life on the farm wasn’t always idyllic, or even humane, that’s why many people headed to the cities, for the possibility of a new and human life.

            And to my thinking, this matter of the emergence of “full-blown individuals” as the result of technology is very much related to the post-modern critique of the historical ramifications Enlightenment rationalism; it’s just that I don’t agree with the post-modernists. Technology does indeed result in greater human freedom, not because it makes us more independent of human community, but because it makes us less dependent on traditional community networks that in the past confined us, sometimes to quite hellish situations. I’m not willing to give that freedom up; I’d wager that most people would be unwilling to give that freedom up.

            • I agree with you Robert. I think the challenge is not to let the depersonalizing forces of the mobile, technological life cause us to lose the good parts of those traditional communities and networks. I don’t think Root is calling us to “go back” somehow — that’s simply not possible. He’s calling pastors to focus on building communities of true human sharing rather than just more places that are trying to get us to commit to their brand.

  5. Thanks for sharing this. Relationships are incrediby powerful. That’s probably why so many of us do our best to avoid having real ones.

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