Incarnational Ministry: A Review

In the seasonally-awkward month of September, it is difficult to know what to wear on any given morning. Fellow midwesterners know the trouble. Will what you’ve put on keep you sufficiently warm for the morning commute? Will it become excessive insulation by midafternoon? The question lingers: has the time come to swap out summer for fall? Seasonal transitions can be full of uncertainty.

It so happens that Samuel Wells’ new book Incarnational Ministry (kindly sent for review by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) arrived in my hands during a season-of-life transition. With a month of pastoral care to challenge everything I thought I knew, this lyrically-written book provided a theological reflection on ministry that, like choosing just the right sweater on a fall day, helped me to feel a little more comfortable in the life of ministry. 

This book is a pastor-theologian grappling with discipleship and ministry as the lived-experience that is born out of the Trinity’s own experience. Such a lofty summary might sound off-putting for a pastor, who might well fear the book may drift too far heavenward to be of much good in the toil and tumble of earth. Yet, Wells keeps both feet squarely on the ground.

Wells proposes that “with” is the most important word in the Christian life. Being with, Wells says, “seeks to model the goal of all relationships…enjoying people for their own sake” (p. 10). Each chapter runs the idea of being with different subjects through “eight dimensions of what being with actually involves.”

Incarnational Ministry breaks down into two primary sections. The first four chapters (which cover being with God, self, creation, and one another) contemplate discipleship and ministry according to relationships that are fundamental to the Christian life. Worked from a slightly different angle, the fifth chapter of this section (“Being With Child”) describes the out-of-controlness of ministry and discipleship through the metaphor of a childbearing mother. In my reading, “Being With Child” belongs in the first grouping, because it truly is fundamental that so much of ministry is out of our control. The final six chapters reflect on being with particular kinds of people one may encounter in ministry. Finally, the epilogue that so beautifully concludes the book is a homily, which I read as a benediction from Wells to those whom he perceives as distant congregants.

I am generally a positive reviewer. Such a characteristic never seemed a flaw until I read this book and realized readers may not grasp how exceptionally delighted I am with it. Wells has artfully, thoughtfully, poetically, theologically, pastorally, humbly crafted a wellspring of parish-experience-informed ministerial theology that should be required reading for every person preparing for ministry of any kind. The introduction and first five chapters are some of the best pastoral theology I have ever read.

Take, for example, Wells articulation of what happens in prayer.

The result of such prayer should be twofold. It should leave the disciple with the great sense of relief at having put the greatest struggles of life where they belong, with the only power that can truly address them. And it should stir the disciple to wonder if she might be part of the way God will answer these searching prayers—if God’s being with the person in need might be done in part through her agency, if the miracle is one for her to behold, if the transfiguration is one for her to perceive. Thus does partnership, which begins in the different roles of us and God, blend into participation and enjoyment (p. 40).

You’ll see here three of the eight dimensions of being with that Wells uses to frame each chapter: partnership, participation, and enjoyment. He plays within these dimensions, letting them guide rather than dominate, provide a point of reference rather than a dogma. And everything finds its way back into the lived life of ministers. Hardly a page goes by where Wells does not address how being with shapes the life of discipleship and ministry. For example, discussing church members putting their skills to work in ministry, Wells writes, “Starting and ending meetings with prayer is therefore not a routine nod to a larger context for the discussion; it is a humble recognition of where self and skill end, and Spirit must take over.” Such joyful encouragements to trust God’s own withness in our ministry, in our being with the people God has called us to be with, are scattered throughout the book.

If you do ministry, purchase this book and give it intentional, quiet, reflective attention. If you’ve got students training for ministry, get this book into your library and into your classroom. I do not at all doubt that I will read this book time and again. For its insights. For its beautiful prose. For the pastoral care it provides to those of us who are tempted to make ministry about something other than being with. And for when that awkward season of ministry arrives, when my pastoral garments are causing me to perspire unduly and I need to revisit my wardrobe.

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