While frequently we in the church stress the importance of the proper care of lay and ordained church leaders, we often struggle to care for our leaders in concrete and significant ways. Several new books can help all of us in the church to be better stewards of our leaders.
Central to us being good stewards of our leaders is helping them with their initial and continuing education. One book that can be especially useful with lay leaders is The Comeback God: A Theological Primer for a Life of Faith
(Augsburg, $12.99, 2009)
by Gettysburg Seminary president Michael Cooper-White. Part of the Exploring Christian Faith series, Cooper-White's book is, as he acknowledges in the introduction, "primarily for lay theologians (including beginning theology students)" (p. xii) and is an informal but still scholarly work along the lines of systematic theology.
He addresses all the main concepts one would encounter in a work of systematic theology, such as revelation, Scripture, the Trinity, eschatology, pneumatology, Christology, the sacraments, and, of course, justification. He also provides an addendum in which he explains theological method. He begins with eschatology, contending that knowing the end is a logical way to start when it comes to theological thinking. Cooper-White also addresses such timely issues as postmodernism, pluralism, gender issues, and the stewardship of creation. Throughout the book, he makes the point that God is the Comeback God in that, no matter what assails the church, no matter how vociferously atheists declare God dead, and no matter what horrors humanity begets, God always manages to keep the church vibrant and relevant. Indeed, God continues to be active and loving in the world, despite Satan's persistence. Lay leaders, then, will not only find the book informative but they will also find it encouraging.
An excellent companion to Cooper-White's theological primer is Toxic Spirituality: Four Enduring Temptations of Christian Faith
(Fortress, $22, 2009) by Eric W. Gritsch, a professor emeritus at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.
With his famous wit and frankness, Gritsch devotes a chapter to each of the four enduring temptations: anti-Semitism, fundamentalism, triumphalism, and moralism.
He draws from his knowledge as a church historian to provide useful and fascinating overviews of how each of these temptations developed and how the church uses them to oppress and abuse others. He argues against using Scripture and other teachings to justify cruelty toward others and its own self-righteousness. Gritsch especially focuses on fundamentalists and Roman Catholics. In fact, his strident message against these groups could be a hindrance to ecumenism. Nevertheless, many of his critiques are insightful and useful.
He proposes as an antidote to this toxicity rigorous Christian scholarship and accompanying Christian education for church leaders and catechesis. Christ's death on the cross and resurrection are to serve as the key, cruciform rubric that guides Christians away from these temptations and toward proper, Bible-based theology. Along these lines, Gritsch also offers a summary of a catechism (not meant to replace Luther's catechisms) that provides a biblically sound adumbration of the Christian faith and resists the rigidity and violence located in the four temptations.
Overall, Toxic Spirituality
is an engaging and elucidating look at church history that can help its leaders avoid toxicity and instead taste and share God's theopeutic goodness.
Another book that can help church leaders to understand better their roles in the church is Peter Rudowski's Connecting the Dots: Ministering to Your Congregation through its Organizational System
(Xlibris, $19.99, 2009). Rudowski contends that congregations
have eight components to their system of organization: (1) the environment; (2) input; (3) purpose, vision, and strategic plan; (4) governance; (5) nurturing; (6) communication; (7) output; and (8) feedback loop. He devotes a chapter to each of these and demonstrates how a congregation can address these components effectively. The proper interaction of these eight components will produce a healthy congregation. Rudowski draws from Scripture, management theory, and his many years as a pastor to produce a book that offers assistance for church leaders.
A third book that can help with the stewardship of church leaders is Mark Ellingsen's Sin Bravely: A Joyful Alternative to the Purpose-Driven Life
(Continuum, $14.95, 2009). The book begins by respectfully critiquing Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life
. Ellingsen praises Warren for trying to counter the prosperity gospel message so prevalent on television and in bookstores but contends that Warren has actually contributed to the very mentality he wishes to replace.
Warren avers, and Ellingsen agrees, that American society is narcissistic, and the famous pastor begins The Purpose Driven Life
by directing readers away from focusing on the self and toward focusing on God. However, Ellingsen explains that Warren highlights and underlines mandates, that is, commandments, which we Christians must follow. With this emphasis, Warren actually deemphasizes God's grace and human sin. In other words, The Purpose Driven Life
begins by directing readers away from the self and toward God but, in the fixation on the work people do and the downplaying of human sin and God's grace, Warren ends up helping to perpetuate narcissism by urging people to focus on their own accomplishments and hard work. This hard-work orientation has been pervasive in the United States, thanks in part to Puritanism and Revivalism, and is in the same family as the prosperity gospel teachings of Joel Osteen and others.
Ellingsen also draws insight from Augustine, Paul, and Luther. In what Luther calls brave sinning, we Christians admit that we will always be sinners and that we are completely dependent upon, not our good works, but God's grace. Once people accept this truth they can break free from narcissism and devote their attention to God. People also will experience elation over the assurance that their salvation is not up to them but has been won for them by God. Ellingsen concludes with neurobiological research showing that focusing beyond the self to greater tasks and concepts actually stimulates the prefrontal cortex of the brain, thereby producing pleasure. In other words, when we stop dwelling on ourselves we will reap great benefits for ourselves.
Our church leaders, lay and ordained, are priceless gifts from the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God for books such as these, which can aid us in caring better for those leaders.
A final book that can assist church leaders is Priesthood, Pastors, Bishops: Public Ministry for the Reformation and Today
(Fortress, $16, 2008) by the equally renowned Timothy Wengert, a professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. In this scholarly and meticulous book, with his usual brilliance, Wengert shows that the phrase "common
priesthood of all believers" did not originate with Luther but actually was coined centuries later and developed in part from prooftexting Luther. Moreover, the most widespread meaning of the phrase, that lay people are priests, too, does not reflect correctly Luther's theology.
On the contrary, Luther's actual position regarding this concept is far more radical. He contends that there is no distinction between laity and clergy. There may be different offices, but there is only one body. With this position, Luther was not trying to champion the laity but was undermining any efforts among individuals or institutions within the church that try to claim superiority for themselves. In other words, Luther thought it imperative to preserve Christian unity. Thus, no essential difference exists between lay and ordained. All are one.
Wengert goes on to provide a detailed analysis of relevant writings by Luther and Melanchthon, devoting incisive depth to Articles 5, 14, and 28 of the Augsburg Confession. He also studies what The Book of Concord teaches about bishops. He concludes that these writings stress simultaneously that no essential difference exists between laity and ordained while also lifting up the need for the offices of pastor and bishop, which are, of course, offices of service.Priesthood, Pastors, Bishops
is a challenging and stimulating read that will help church leaders to have a clearer, more focused understanding of their roles.David von Schlichten is pastor of St. James Lutheran Church, Youngstown, Pennsylvania, and the book review editor of
Lutheran Partners magazine.
This article appeared in the January / February 2010 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 26, no. 1).