Describing Christian ministry as "relational" is not new. Since at least the 1970s, church leaders and authors have been inviting us to more relational ministry. But what kind of relationship did this paradigm assume? That's the very important question that Andrew Root asks at the outset of his new book, The Relational Pastor: Sharing in Christ by Sharing Ourselves .
[A quick but important disclosure: Andy is a colleague and good friend, and we've discussed many of the elements of the book while running together through our neighborhood. So I'm more than a little predisposed to recommend his book. Nevertheless, I really do think it's an important book and will try to strive for a modicum of objectivity (or at least I'll refer to him as "Root" instead of Andy to give that impression). ]
His answer to this question is striking. Most relational strategies for ministry were just that: strategies, intentional ways of being in relationship to another not in order to know and love them as persons, but with the hope of drawing them into the community of faith.
But wait a second - is that all bad? Shouldn't we want to invite people into our congregations and share with them the fellowship and abundant life we enjoy? Perhaps, but tarry for a moment to ponder the consequences of making church membership, or even discipleship if you prefer a more pious word, the goal of your activities. For if inviting someone to church is the goal or end, then the relationship you are building can only be a means to that end.
And once that happens the fruit we have been taught to desire begins to smell a little rotten. Because a relationship - if it is a genuine relationship - is not a means to an end but an end in itself. As Root writes, "to be in relationship is not to seek to influence someone's interest, but to share the other's place" (73). When we do that, Root continues, we are indwelling another, standing with and for another person who, while different from us, yet has become part of us.
This type of regard for another is modeled on God's regard for us, expressed particularly in the Trinitarian union where the three persons of God remain separate and distinct persons and yet indwell each other in a unity formed by love and from which all love and genuine relationships flow.
If we can follow Root's suggestion that Christian ministry - and, indeed, the Christian life - should be modeled on the indwelling of the Trinity and the self-emptying gift of Christ, then various elements of ministry take on a renewed focus. Prayer is not the act of an individual launching requests to God but rather becomes seeing the needs of the persons around you and joining them in a relationship of openness, need, and trust. Preaching is not one individual announcing vital information to another, but rather the act by which we embrace and share the stories of the community as they are caught up in the story of God's indwelling love. And congregational administration and leadership is not making sure everything necessary to run this organization we call "church" gets done but rather is about facilitating the open space that is required for our people to meet each other in prayer, empathy, and compassion.
One of the key distinctions running throughout Root's work is between being an "individual" and being a "person." The distinction matters because when we think of ourselves primarily as an individual we presume that each of us is an entity unto ourselves, complete in our own existence. When we recognize that we are instead a person, on the other hand, we simultaneously realize that to be a person is to be made up of countless relationships. There is no definite "I" in personhood, but rather an "I" that emerges in tandem with and from the "we" of our collected and countless relationships. In making this distinction, Root not only offers a needed critique of the individualism of our time and culture but also aligns himself with the biblical view of personhood in and through community, which in turn invites us read the Scriptures with deeper insight and accuracy.
Root is a fine writer, and one of the things that makes his books enjoyable is that he moves with such deftness between stories from his experience that are alternatively homey or heartbreaking to deep theological reflection. And so the move from a story about a jerk who became not-a-jerk at a church council meeting to investigating and making accessible something as theologically dense as the hypostatic union is made effortlessly.
Root is also a practical theologian. Which means that this meandering from classic texts of the church to modern neuroscience to stories from everyday life is not done for the sake of intellectual inquiry alone but rather because he wants to impact and influence how we practice ministry in today's church.
As you can guess, I heartily endorse this book to any and all interested in more authentic ministry. But in doing so I'll offer two quick cautions or, perhaps more accurately, anticipate two criticisms. First, Root employs to good effect the social theory and historical typology of Jeremy Rifkin, particularly as it relates to how different modes of conserving and using energy have dramatically influenced how we understand ourselves and communicate with each other. While Rifkin's theory is creative and thought-provoking - two of the more important elements of any theory, in my opinion - I'm not sure I always buy it. And you may not either. But, quite frankly, you don't have to - the main point is to offer a way to look at how ministry has evolved along side of culture and to invite us to see current models of ministry as possibilities rather than foregone conclusions and thereby help us conceive of models of ministry that are more relevant to the culture and more faithful to our tradition.
Second, many of the illustrations Root draws are from his experience as a member of his wife's congregation, a small faith community in a neighborhood in Minneapolis that has changed significantly since it was first founded. In that space, Kara Root has pushed her people with equal measures of relentless energy and compassion to think creatively about how to be the church they are called to be now rather than to pine nostalgically for former days. Some may argue that such examples have limited value because they are so context-specific. But I'd counter that not only might the examples serve congregations in similar circumstances (and currently their number is legion), but that it is the dynamic of reconsidering ministry in light of relational personhood that Root is urging rather than the specific practice employed in his congregation. (In addition, Root helpfully offers a few more examples drawn from the pastoral experiences of a variety of colleagues in a brief appendix to stretch our imagination.)
All that being said, I'd encourage you to pick up a copy of this provocative and important book not just to read but also to discuss with others - pastoral colleagues, congregational leaders, and more - in order to discern a way forward in ministry that is defined by the relationships we share in Christ, rather than just using relationships to increase membership.