The Poetry of Pastoring
Is "poet" a biblical model for ministry?

"What the congregation needs is not a strategist to help them form another plan for achieving a desired image of life, but a poet who looks beneath even the desperation to recover the mystery of what it means to be made in God's image." So says pastor-professor, and poet, M. Craig Barnes, in his new book: The Pastor As Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life (Eerdmans, 2009).

Wisdom needs to be the name of the pastoral game. Wisdom finds its way into the poetic (not as in rhyming and verse), and not enough of us are committed to a life intent on wisdom. I wish more pastors (and Christians) were committed more to wisdom than to success.

How can the pastor get beyond the ordinary, the routine, the boring, the mundane, and the concrete realities that (sometimes, often) numb the joy out of life? What perspective can the pastor find that leads behind and beneath and beyond?

If this is what you are wondering, this is the book for you. The prose is graceful, the thoughts emerge from experience, and the perspective as fresh as it is old: the wisdom of the poet.

"When an exhausted pastor is entertaining serious thoughts about applying to law school, it's usually not because the theology failed. Often it's because somewhere along the way it became impossible to make sense of that theology in the midst of the ordinary and relentless messiness of congregational life" (18).

Barnes distinguishes truth (the deeper issues) and reality, and sees reality as a portal into the truth. President Lyndon Johnson was a realist; Martin Luther King Jr. was the poet.

When the pastor is poet, she (or he) looks for the portal of reality to peer deeper into life - into the soul of it all. Most pastors are "minor" poets and not "major" poets. They unveil particular truths to particular people in particular places. The major poets are the Biblical authors, and in a lesser degree, the greats of the Christian tradition.

In a not very elegant, and clearly not condescending, manner, Barnes describes the pastoral task as being the poet to the un-poetic. The task is to bid the parishioner to search for the mysteries beneath the surface of the ordinary.

But the poet must delve deeply into his own soul, and here he refers to pathos and gravitas. Gravitas "refers to a soul that has developed enough spiritual mass to be attractive, like gravity. It makes the soul appear old, but gravitas has nothing to do with age" (49). Scars make the pastor's soul attractive. He reveals that the "fishbowl" factor is small potatoes; the real issue is having "spiritual visibility" (53).

The first half of this book is the theoretical "what is a poet-pastor?" part; the second half is about the craft of being poetic, and here he focuses on preaching.

Poets don't make arguments, they reveal mysteries. I like that. I hope you do.

March 24, 2009

Displaying 1–10 of 11 comments

Charles Oberkehr

April 02, 2009  10:14am

OK, I give up, how can I get a copy of the book?

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Don Doell

March 27, 2009  7:02pm

I got pulled into this thread by Tim's visceral, negative reaction to it. But found that reading the poetry found at the Billy Collin's link (actually to the Library of Congress) touching me again, and again. Eugene Petersen's article a couple of weeks ago (was it here? Or on another blog?) dealt with reading in a deeper way...and this little commentary on the pastor as poet has that same kind of feel to it...to me, at least. A friend of mine left the Pentecostal movement a few years ago for the Orthodox church! I attended only one midweek Bible Study/prayer meeting and was impressed a) by the Holy Spirit presence there and b) by the depth, perhaps it was the "gravitas" of the Pastor? congregation? ministry? all of the foregoing? I still don't know. I am hopeful that we, the Church, will grow deep...in Christ, in Wisdom, in Word, in Life, in all that is reality.

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elizabeth

March 27, 2009  9:12am

as a poet and a grandmother (a kind of shepherdess), I would rather the pastor (shepherd) be a pastor first, then a poet. A poet's life is by nature very isolationist, inclusive and reflective. A pastor's life is about tending the flock. How to combine both is the dilemma most good parents and pastors have dealt with for years. The notion of pastor as CEO business model cannot allow it. When the church leadership remembers that leaders are servants, however,the poet can surface, because the servant lives for others; to meet their needs and in the process of 'dying' to self, the poet comes and offers light and direction through that 'valley of death'. How many of Sturgeons sermons were poetry? What attribute of great leadership was prioritized through example by Christ Himself? Washing of feet, wasn't it? This is poetry. This is leadership.

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clyde denny

March 26, 2009  8:26am

I think this is a great post. Having just gone through the ringer over questions and pressure about the pastor as "CEO", I believe much more poetry and mystery are in order for healing of the American church. The post did remind me of Walter Bruggermann's book, "Finally Comes The Poet"- highly recommended. The pastor must be gifted for administration of the church, but perhaps, the 21st century church has needs beyond excellent marketing skills in its leaders.

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Tim

March 25, 2009  4:30pm

I don't think I can drop $12 just for this. I used to pay for this kind of thinking when I got Leadership Journal. When I saw his picture on-line I immediately remembered reading many of his articles in LJ. The 2nd copy I pulled off my shelf had an article by him in Fall 2002. The article starts out "Only those who have done time behind a pulpit understand this: the worst part of Sunday morning is standing at the door after the service." I have a sermon ready to pop off my heart to anyone who is not able to see the patronizing assumptions behind this article, but this is not the venue and I don't have a pulpit handy :).

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Scot McKnight

March 24, 2009  9:07pm

Tim, I'm glad you brought this up because the language struck me as a bit too strong. As I read this book and this section in particular, though, it is clear that Barnes does not think only the pastor is poet nor does he come off as condescending. I'd like you to read that part of the book and tell me what you think.

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Tim

March 24, 2009  6:46pm

"In a not very elegant, and clearly not condescending, manner, Barnes describes the pastoral task as being the poet to the un-poetic. The task is to bid the parishioner to search for the mysteries beneath the surface of the ordinary." No matter how you say this, by God's design of His church, this is very condescending. Has God designed any fellowship where there is only one person supernaturally gifted with poetic gifting? Are people who sit in the pew incapable of understanding God's mysteries direct from God Himself? I know they are more than willing to dumb themselves down to that kind of church life. If all they have ever seen is this kind of spiritual outsourcing to one hired expert poet, it may be unlikely to ever see God's poetry and mysteries flow out of the pew-ed believer. This patronizing approach to church life has been around so long and is so comfortable for most, it's hard to clean it out and move on with God's design.

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Marcus Goodyear

March 24, 2009  4:37pm

This post reminds me of a Billy Collins poem "Introduction to Poetry." He says all his students want to do is "tie the poem to a chair with rope/ and torture a confession out of it." It's funny. We do that with the Bible all the time. It's poetry (literally and figuratively), and we've forgotten how to read it. We "begin beating it with a hose/ to find out what it really means." (You can read the whole Billy Collins poem here is you're interested: http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/001.html)

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Marcus Goodyear

March 24, 2009  4:35pm

This post reminds me of a Billy Collins poem "Introduction to Poetry." He says all his students want to do is "tie the poem to a chair with rope/ and torture a confession out of it." It's funny. We do that with the Bible all the time. It's poetry (literally and figuratively), and we've forgotten how to read it. We "begin beating it with a hose/ to find out what it really means." (You can read the whole Billy Collins poem here is you're interested: http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/001.html)

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Dan

March 24, 2009  4:05pm

That a book like this exists is very encouraging. Pastorship in our modern era has become business management or program coordinator, rather than poet. I lamented that our pastors are not intellectually curious or silenced by the beauty and mystery of God.

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