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Thinking Out Loud

Great Pastors Are Omnivorous

by User Not Found | Oct 18, 2011

This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins.

Great pastors are omnivorous. They will feed intellectually on anything and everything that offers real nourishment. They read theology and biblical studies, as one would predict, but also physics, history, sociology, psychology, and economics. They read novels and poetry. They are attentive to the arts.

This thought came to mind recently as I was listening to Bob Brearley preach. Bob is the pastor of the Saint Simons Presbyterian Church on Saint Simons Island, Georgia, where Debbie and I have a cottage. Bob reads widely. And it shows in sermons that never fail to stimulate the mind as well as touch the heart. In one sermon he moved from the latest psychological research about how age affects creative thinking to a wonderful exposition of the lectionary text to a theological reflection from Barbara Brown Taylor to a blog by Conrad Sharps, the pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and trustee of our Seminary.

This thought also came to mind while I was reading a fine sermon by Lee Bowman, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Highlands, North Carolina. This was her Easter sermon, “Staring at the Dark, but their eyes were watching God,” which opens with a story from a 1937 novel by Zora Neale Hurston. And, it occurred to me again as I read Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong, a book given to me by George Sinclair, the pastor of Government Street Presbyterian Church in Mobile, Alabama.

Several years ago, Bill Enright, emeritus pastor of Second Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis, told me that the best advice he had gotten in seminary was from a professor who challenged him to read a new book each week. This advice gave birth to a life-long habit. He reads everything, from theology to science to finance. And it shows! He is one of the most fascinating conversationalists and preachers I have ever known.

Of course, the greatest omnivorous pastor of all time was Jonathan Edwards, the New England theologian whose curiosity apparently knew no bounds. He was devoted to natural philosophy, as science was then called. His observations on spiders are a revelation. He also wrote about revelation as a theological subject. He wrote about philosophical questions, like free will, and authored a perceptive study in what we would now call the psychology of religion. Just for fun, some time, dip into his “miscellanies.” You could not do better than to begin with the volume of these edited by our own Amy Plantinga Pauw (The Miscellanies, 833-1152, Yale University Press, 2002).

When I think through the annals of my favorite preachers, I remember sermons from Laura Mendenhall and Tom Long, Scott Black Johnston and Tasha Blackburn, Barbara Brown Taylor, James Forbes and Lewie Donelson, omnivores all! The list could go on and on of preachers I admire, whose sermons take you far afield as they also take you deeper into the Christian faith. The one thing they all have in common is the restless curiosity that keeps them reading broadly. They practice thinking about all of life through their faith, whether it is Tasha Blackburn poignantly “seeing” a Christmas pageant in her home congregation through the philosophical problem of theodicy (the attempt to make theological sense of evil and suffering), or Lewie Donelson “seeing” the cross of Jesus in a whole new light because of the literary theory of Jacques Derrida.

The fact that great pastors and preachers are omnivorous makes a difference in their preaching, their conversation, and their interaction with others. They can converse with virtually anyone about almost anything. They subscribe to the advice Thomas Jefferson once gave a young correspondent: Know everything you can about something, and something about everything.

When I am in the company of an omnivorous pastor, it is easy to recall why the minister was once referred to as the “parson,” a word that derives from the Latin for the “person.” Time was when the “parson” was the exemplary “person” in a community. Many still are. They are the kind of person we want to be around, not least because they are so interesting.

The fact that great pastors are omnivorous can make a difference in their understanding of life. They often seem to be more balanced, deeper, less reactive, and more reflective. They tend to take the longer view of things – because their memory and experience is more expansive. In the midst of the crisis de jour, they are less likely to think, “THIS IS THE WORST THING THAT COULD EVER, EVER, EVER HAPPEN TO US!” They are less likely to get swept up in the generalized anxiety of the moment because they know dozens of things that have happened that were far more difficult to deal with. Their experience is multiplied by the experiences of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others.

I think their lives and ministries also tend to be more sustainable over time.

I used to teach a course every year for senior seminarians called “Entry into Ministry.” One of my favorite features of that course was a panel we convened of experienced pastors who would reflect seriously on the topic: “I Wish I’d Known Then What I Know Now.” The most memorable of these panels occurred when I invited three pastors, two of whom were retired, and one a good deal younger. I will not mention any names because of what happened that day. But what unfolded led to one of the most astonishing “teachable moments” I’ve ever encountered in a classroom.

The panelists were talking about how important it is for your pastoral vocation (and for the sake of your church) to live deeply and fully and to be nourished by a wide range of resources and experiences. The two retired ministers (who were not only experienced, but were also legends in the Presbyterian Church on a national level) were going back and forth, talking about novels they had read, favorite authors, plays they had seen, movies, beloved pieces of music. They talked about how poetry fed their souls. They talked about how vital it was for them to stop in the midst of their days regularly to pray, to meditate, and to turn to classic sources of devotion for spiritual wisdom. They mentioned new biblical commentaries they were reading. Lectures they had attended. Superb sermons they had recently heard. They traded recommendations for great new plays and films as the students listened in, feverishly taking notes. Their point was that congregations need their pastors to live fully, to think new thoughts, to be fresh and imaginative.

After several minutes, it became obvious that the third pastor had not said a word. One of the retired ministers prompted him. “What do you do to feed your spiritual and imaginative life?”

The pastor responded by saying, “I don’t have time for novels and poetry. I don’t have time for books that aren’t work-related. If I pray, I do it on my own time, not on the church’s time. The same goes for reading the Bible. I look at my job just like I would if I worked for a major corporation. I go to my office. I do what is required of me. My workdays are 12 to 15 hours. I barely see my family. I sure don’t have time for movies or plays or music.”

There was a moment of silence. You could have heard a pin drop. Then one of the retired ministers turned to his younger colleague on the panel and said, “If you keep that up, you’re going to be dead inside.” He paused, looked at the haggard face before him, and continued. “Hell, you’re dead already.”

Now, I knew that the younger pastor on this panel was going through a rough patch, but I had no idea he would be in for an intervention that day. After class was over, the retired minister who had spoken to him spent some more time with him one-on-one. Based on conversations he and I had later, I think this interchange made a difference in his life. But I guarantee you that the students and I didn’t forget what we saw and heard that day. To witness the liveliness of these two retired ministers, both of whom poured their lives out on the national stage of our church for decades and were still going strong, in contrast to the tired, weary, spent younger colleague: this interchange demonstrated more than anything I could ever merely have said about the importance of a life sustained by real spiritual and imaginative nourishment.

Of course, it is not just great pastors who are omnivorous.

We have all known great teachers, attorneys, doctors, chaplains, counselors, business persons, all sorts of really interesting people in all walks of life who read broadly and drink deeply from the springs of human knowledge, whose curiosity is contagious, who make us want to understand more about the world around us. I recently spent two hours on a plane next to a fellow who works as a financial analyst. By the time we landed in Memphis, Tennessee, not only had he shared with me the titles of eight books (history, biography, business administration, and two novels) I now want to read, but he had also shared the infectious joy of discovery and learning that nourishes his life. And every time I sit down for a visit with Lucy Steilberg, our friend and member of our President’s Roundtable, not only do I come away with five new novels I absolutely have got to read as soon as possible, I come away with new insights into the most important issues of human life which Lucy gleans from her deep encounter with ideas.

St. Irenaeus once said, “The glory of God is humanity fully alive.” Omnivorous people awaken us to a fuller life for the glory of God.

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