These past few pandemic years have been full of disappointment and despair for all of us, which is all the more reason we feel blessed that James Ellis’s next book has been released: An Inward-Outward Witness: Suffering's Role in Forming Faithful Preachers.
In it, he argues that preachers must be able to come face to face with their own suffering and, with God's help, see their way to the other side.
Check out these videos with James Ellis III about the topic and his ministry:
We’re pleased to present this interview with James about the book.
You dedicate An Inward-Outward Witness partly to “the great cloud of witnesses whose very beneficiaries sometimes deny or devalue the faith in the face of suffering they exhibited, sacrificing so much for so many for so long.” Can you share more?
Today, we do not value putting respect on the names of those whose shoulders we stand on, whose sacrifices God used to advance the already but not yet Kingdom before our time to pave the way. Though we are their beneficiaries, you would think we have made a life and living ex nihilo or that, largely, our hardships are remarkably tougher than what they faced. And both are categorically false. Therefore, I frame my work with appreciation for those whose wise, hard-won efforts we have benefited from. The point is not to idolize them or dismiss my own wrestling, but to honor their witness as elders. For every preacher with thousands of followers, basking in the benefits of abundance and influence, there are since long forgotten elders whose erudition, innovation, sacrifice, and talents invited far less fanfare and far more pain. They, however, remained faithful to God and God’s people, the Church. I want to acknowledge that.
The book is a kind of autoethnographic unmasking of how suffering is par for the course in the Christian life, and how it is also a tool God uses to form faithful preachers. Are there hardships that you think preachers face disproportionate to the typical church member?
Yes, I do. First, it needs to be said that none of this is about superiority or inferiority. We all have our experiences, and hard is hard no matter what. Maybe like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, suffering can be exceptionally relative and highly personal. But for the record, preachers pay for groceries, rent, taxes, and college tuition. They are not exempt from needing to swipe their trusty debit card at Chick-fil-A much less the doctor’s office, gas station, or with the plumber. We are like everyone else in that sense. The vocation we are called to, though, is strange and demands an unnerving degree of vulnerability. I discuss this in my book, also on Smyth & Helwys, Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil: Stories about the Challenges of Young Pastors, in an essay, “There Is No Union for Ministers.” Ours is not a world of signing bonuses, stock options, or established step increases. With one vote, one disgruntled e-mail, one withheld tithe, or one critique of your preaching, you can be spewed out into an unemployment line with few options. Those in the pastoral vocation, along with the families they support, are uniquely disposable. Upon emptying your gifts among a congregation, you may enjoy the preferred fruit of collegiality, spiritual growth, neighborhood connections, saved souls, and deep Christian friendship. But the opposite is also possible. You could face a hell you would not wish on an arch enemy, and sadly it seems no one talks about that. Part of the disparity with a typical parishioner is that within worshipping communities, if things get untenable or ungodly those in the pews can exit stage left. It does not affect their bottom line. For those stewarding the pulpit, however, it isn’t that simple and your recourse for equal or just treatment is limited.
Who is An Inward-Outward Witness for and what do you hope it accomplishes?
The main audience I had in mind is preachers. Whether the issue is the pandemic, marital discord, mental illness, job insecurity, addiction, parenting trouble, traumatic childhood events, or sickness, preachers are put through the wringer just like those they preach to. It harms everyone when preachers avoid or dismiss suffering. Secondly, I hope the book is accessible to laypeople, that they will better appreciate the sobering life of a preacher. I also pray An Inward-Outward Witness finds its way into the hands of those who do not know Christ, and that it can be used to plant the cruciform seeds of salvation. I wrote it as a proclamation and correction around how critical an accurate understanding of suffering’s place in Christianity is, and why that dynamic must also transform its preachers.
Why do you write?
Aesop wrote in one of his fables: “After all is said and done, more is said than done.” I write partly for accountability. Whatever I commit to paper, especially in a book, then becomes a record that obliges I live in congruence with it. I never want to be someone who conveniently waxes poetic or upholds a theology that is everything but practical. Writing is a means for me to process the ought with the is of this crazy, lovely world while playing my small part in the Spirit’s work of making beauty from ashes. I also write to keep from crying, I suppose, or to at least let my tears survive beyond evaporating on my face. As Langston Hughes put it, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” Writing pays huge dividends whether it takes the form of journaling, books, blogs, or letters. Mentors are also why writing has become such a big part of my life; people like James Earl Massey, Judith Paterson, Calvin Miller, Emmanuel McCall, Eugene H. Peterson, and Robert Smith, Jr. who are accomplished authors. Their support of me as an ordinary introvert impassioned to sharing his experiences and convictions is worth more than its weight in gold.
The Rev. Dr. James Ellis III is an ordained pastor in the Baptist tradition who has served in the US and Canada. He earned his D.Min. at Western Theological Seminary, master’s degrees at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Truett Seminary of Baylor University, and a bachelor’s degree in African American Studies at the University of Maryland. He has authored An Inward-Outward Witness: Suffering’s Role in Forming Faithful Preachers and Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil: Stories about the Challenges of Young Pastors, both on Smyth & Helwys Press. Learn more about him at jamesellis3.com