Visiting lecturer Craig Barnes on the pastor as poet

April 4, 2013 | Leave a Comment

Visiting lecturer Craig Barnes on the pastor as poet

“[People in despair] are the people who fill our pews on Sunday mornings. They are the people rushing to the board meetings on Monday night, who volunteer at vacation Bible school, who will help with the youth group car wash, who gather for choir service on Thursday nights. Someone needs to be paying attention to their lives. Someone needs to be there for these moments when holiness pierces through these thin veneers of respectability and normality and now they are ready to come back to life, spiritually again. If the busy church is just another nonprofit business keeping these people busy, you are just contributing to the problem of despair. You are making it worst. What these people need is a pastor. Even a minor poet will do.” -- the Rev. Craig Barnes during one of his two lectures at Campbell University this week as part of the James C. Cammack Institute of Preaching Lectures

BUIES CREEK -- It’s a hard time to be a pastor, said the Rev. Craig Barnes, the president of the Princeton Theological Seminary, during the Campbell Divinity School’s James C. Cammack Institute of Preaching Lectures held on Monday and Tuesday in Butler Chapel at Campbell University.

Yes, pastoring has always been hard when done well, Barnes said, but the job is even more difficult today for new reasons, one of the greatest being what he called identity issues. “There’s tremendous confusion today about exactly what it means to be a pastor,” Barnes said.

Consider the wide-ranging expectations and perceptions that people -- from church members to scholars -- have about pastors. Some want pastors who are extroverts with a gift for chat; others want introverts who’ll spend hours in the study writing profound sermons. Some want pastors who’ll deliver entertaining children’s sermons; others want sermons about social justice. Some see pastors as therapists, or as religious entrepreneurs, or as community organizers, or as the CEO of a nonprofit.

The problem with these various identities? “The pastor is often reduced to what [theologian] Stanley Hauerwas has called ‘a quivering pass of availability,’” Barnes said. “Clearly this is not what the Holy Spirit had in mind.”

What did the Holy Spirit have in mind? During his first lecture on Monday night before several hundred ministers and Campbell students and faculty, Barnes presented an alternative image of the pastor: a poet.

Think of the work of poets. “They see the despair and the heartache, they see the beauty and the miracle that lies just beneath that thin veneer that we call ordinary,” said Barnes, the author of eight books, including “The Pastor as Minor Poet.” “And poets describe what they see in ways not just recognized in the mind but in the soul.”

Pastors, too, have been “blessed with a vision that allows them to see the reality beneath the reality,” he said. The challenge for pastors is to find the kerygma, or what the word of God is proclaiming to particular people at a particular time in a particular context, he said. “You [as a preacher] have to build a bridge from a canon completed a long, long time ago to your particular cultural context,” he said. “Your job as the preacher is to stand in the biblical world and then make belief statements about the world around us.”

The pastor, he added, “has the humble and unique calling to try to make sense of the words of major theological and biblical poets in light of the grind and the grit of daily parish life.”

Why is the pastor as a poet so critical? Because every pastor has a congregation full of people distressed by despair, Barnes said. “I’m amazed at how much despair there is. . . . It will be the demon most difficult to exorcise from the church.”

And nothing will get rid of the despair but the word of life, he said. This requires pastor to think about to the subtext of scripture and “help your congregation see the sacred subtext in their lives,” he said. To do that, he added, “You are constantly discerning, constantly pulling together ordinary words and holy words to find the poetry.”

And what are some specific strategies to finding that poetry? In his second lecture on Tuesday afternoon -- titled “Preaching as Sacred Conversation” -- Barnes offered the following pieces of advice:

  • Always start in the world of scripture. “Don’t start with contemporary society. . . . If you did that you would come up with the agenda for society, like how do I get wealthy?” he said. Start with scripture because “the spirit is attached to the word.”
  • Ask interpretative questions when reading scripture. Examples of questions that Barnes asks himself when reading scripture include: What are the hard parts of the text? What sticks out in the text? What are the conflicts in this passage?
  • Look for your congregation in the text. “In order to reach kerygma, you must find the intersection between the bible and the world today,” he said. “What is the word saying to us today?”
  • Eavesdrop. Listen and pay attention to what people around you are saying. “When you don’t live in a world, it’s easy to about it,” he said, adding to be intentional to stay in touch with what is not in your day-to-day world.
  • Brew over what the word of God is saying. “Brew over everything that happens that day in light of the holy word of God,” he said.
  • Look for portals in scripture. “Portals in scripture are passageways that allow the preacher to move from just what the text says to what it means,” he said. Examples of portals include twists, or when the text doesn’t go where you thought it would go; identification, or points where you can identity your congregation with key narrators; and irony, when something has the exact opposite consequence as intended.

About the Rev. Craig Barnes: Barnes began duties as president and as professor of pastoral ministry of Princeton Theological Seminary on Jan. 1, 2013. Previously, he was pastor of the Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Penn. In addition to leading the 1,100-member Pittsburgh church, he served as the Robert Meneilly Professor of Pastoral Ministry and Leadership at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Barnes is a 1981 Master of Divinity graduate of Princeton and has served as a trustee. He earned his Ph.D. in American church history from the University of Chicago, where Martin Marty served as his advisor. He served other pastorates in Colorado Springs, Colo., Madison, Wis., and Washington, D.C. A columnist for The Christian Century magazine, Barnes is the author of eight books.

About the James. C. Cammack Institute of Preaching Lectures: In 2011, Chris Cammack established the James C. Cammack Institute of Preaching Fund, which supports the Cammack Preaching Lectures, to honor his father’s love and legacy of preaching and his parents’ service to the church. James Cammack, who died in September 2012, was pastor of Snyder Memorial Baptist Church, Fayetteville, for 30 years, in addition to serving churches in Smithfield, N.C., and Rock Hill, S.C.

Article by Cherry Crayton, digital content coordinator