The Cat in the Hats
The many roles it takes to be an effective pastor
In this issue
Sundoulos recently sat down with the Christian Ministry Leadership Department: Rex Johnson, Mick Boersma, Judy TenElshof, Kent Edwards, Don Sunukjian, Gary McIntosh.
Sundoulos: Can you tell us about some of the current trends in your field that might be a real benefit to the church? What is “out there” that might really be of help to a pastor or a youth pastor?
Don Sunukjian: In the area of preaching, we’ve always been really strong in the preaching of epistles, didactic literature. But we’ve often floundered when it comes to preaching narrative, poetry, wisdom, or apocalyptic literature. And the field is starting to give attention to that. We’re starting to get more books on how to handle these genres so we are true to what the biblical author is saying and yet still relevant and clear to our contemporary culture. Kent’s recent book [See “Recent Publications” below] is a great example. Pastors want to preach biblical narratives, but they don’t want to treat narratives as simply moral stories. God is writing theology in these events, and we’re getting more help now in how to preach narratives.
Kent Edwards: I’d like to jump on that too because I think that, in spite of concerns people have about the emerging church, one thing we are seeing there is a move towards storytelling. There’s much more emphasis on understanding the story of God and then relating our story to the story of God. I think we’re going to see a lot more preaching from the Old Testament because the Old Testament is ripe with a multitude of stories of how God worked in real people’s lives. I think pastors are going to find they aren’t communicating to the younger generation unless they learn how to tell stories.
Gary McIntosh: Another emphasis related to that is the whole aspect of metaphor. The whole emerging church movement is built around metaphors. One of their reactions is, of course, against scientific modern perspectives. And instead of talking about formulas, they want us to talk in terms of metaphors that have a little more mystery to them and allow people to kind of determine the meaning themselves. Instead of always telling them what it means, they want us to describe the metaphor and then leave some mystery—a bit like what Jesus did with the parables.
Sunukjian: Of course, in terms of mystery, ambiguity is not what we’re after. The parables were not ambiguous; they were flat hidden from those whom God had closed their ears. They had very clear meanings. In fact, Jesus said to His disciples, “If you have ears to hear, you will hear.” And that was an invitation to faith which would then lead to the meaning. It’s not that Jesus gave an open-ended story into which the listener could pour whatever content he or she wanted. To preach the biblical stories is good, but those biblical stories were designed to convey theological, propositional truth.
Mick Boersma: I’m seeing more books and articles on pastoral ministry in terms of the role of the shepherd. I think this emphasis has gotten lost over the years, especially in the kind of the cult of leadership where everything is about leadership. You walk into a Christian book store and it’s like walking into a bookstore at an airport—it’s all about leading to succeed, leading to get this or go there, and there hasn’t seemed to have been a focus on loving people, on genuine relationships, and that’s obviously a big deal with the younger generations. When I talk to our alumni, many of them tell me, “You know, I appreciate the programmatic stuff, I appreciate the leadership training. We need that—but it’s too narrow. I need a bigger picture of what pastoral ministry is.”
Sundoulos: It’s not either-or, it’s both-and?
Boersma: It’s both-and. Leadership is a part of being a faithful shepherd, but it’s not the whole deal. Feeding is a part of it, but it’s not the whole deal. It’s encouraging to me to hear from our alumni that they’re beginning to shy away from big seminars and are going back to basic stuff—teaching the Scriptures, loving God’s people—the meat and potatoes of ministry, which are really captured nicely in the shepherd metaphor.
Judy TenElshof: I’m amazed at what God is doing in all pockets of the country in spiritual formation. I think part of our responsibility is to present a good biblical foundation for spiritual formation. Times of solitude and silence are one of the ways that God builds his love inside of us, and our reaching out to people flows from that love. It flows out into a much different kind of ministry than the programs we’ve been used to. What we haven’t done very well in the church is articulate a good theology of “how does the Spirit really grow us?” And it seems to me that is where the emphasis needs to be. How does it work that we actually have the fruit of the Spirit and not fruit from a program or from our doing? So I see a growing awareness of the need for more emphasis on what the Bible says about sanctification.
Rex Johnson: Continuing with the thought of sanctification, the church has not, in general, addressed such basic issues as how to live together as husband and wife or how to parent, from the standpoint of sanctification. Although you have lots of books on those issues, they tend not to start from the theology of personal change, and in the context of a generation where the institution of marriage has crumbled, we have a generation of young people who have been hurt by the crumbling. I’m just beginning to see some materials on marriage that come from a solid theological base. Gary Thomas has written some good stuff, and David Gushee has a good book, Getting Marriage Right, that addresses some of these issues a little more foundationally.
TenElshof: That goes to parenting too: teaching young people, who themselves have never been parented and their hearts have never been nurtured, how to nurture a child’s heart, and how God uses marriage and parenting to refine our holiness.
Sundoulos: As scholars, as seminary professors, you are involved in academia, but you all are also actively involved in ministry. How do you manage both? How do you see this dual role? How do you keep one from overwhelming the other?
Sunukjian: I think in our particular department we’re drawn in both directions. We just are. Our department is Christian Leadership and Ministry. We need to be trainers more than practitioners, but we can’t give up being practitioners. Obviously, there’s a benefit to us to stay current in “practitioning” while we’re trying to be teachers.
Sundoulos: Could you give us some examples of the kinds of “practitioning” you do that are out there in the real world, not here in the “ivory tower”?
Johnson: My wife and I lead marriage conferences, and periodically I speak to other family issues as well. But I think it’s important to not just minister in our area of expertise. I think it’s easy for us, as well as other pastors, to get so focused on the area that we have our expertise in, that we are not well-rounded. So on Wednesday nights, I go out witnessing. My focus is to try and find people who have not responded to the claims of Christ yet and have the opportunity to share Christ with them.
Sunukjian: That’s amazing! Do you do that within the context of a church that is committed to that activity, or is that just something you have chosen to do solo?
Johnson: No, I proposed it to our church and said, “Look, there are people coming because it’s a new church, and it’s reaching out to community people. We can’t make assumptions about their relationship with Christ. I’d like to go and visit them and take some people with me and train them in the process.” The pastor said, “Hey, that’s a great idea.” Kind of retro, but it’s a great idea. [laughter]
Sunukjian: So you’re following up with these people who had visited the church, and you have a natural bridge entering into the conversation instead of just standing on the street corner encountering strangers. I think that is the best way to do that.
Boersma: My wife and I, as you know, work with alumni as well as students, so we spend a lot of time off campus visiting, and I guess I would say I research people. The kind of research I do is not related to book writing and article writing as much as it is getting to know people while they are students and after they leave here, finding out what is going on in their lives and their ministries. I think that hugely informs what I do in the classroom. I think in some respects, I’m in a better seat here to have my finger on the pulse of ministry than I was as a solo pastor. It’s exciting to glean from our alumni and students what’s really going on in their world of ministry and their life, and then let that inform my curriculum and how I approach the subjects that I teach and the field education program I direct.
TenElshof: I probably do more outside of Talbot than I do inside of Talbot. Spiritual direction attracts pastors as well as people from the community. My husband and I are developing Hilltop Renewal Center, which we had going for three years before forest fires destroyed it, and now we’re fundraising for rebuilding. [Editor’s note: find out more at www.hilltoprenewal.org.] I’m in a group with teachers in secular schools, and we get together and talk about books and how they relate to the spiritual life. And I’m involved in outreach programs to pastors outside of Talbot.
Edwards: Through the years as I’ve been teaching, I’ve spoken at conferences and retreats, preached often on Sunday mornings, and served as an interim pastor. I have found that it’s critical to have my foot in the pastorate on an ongoing basis. For one thing, it helps in the classroom because when someone says, “You can’t do that in today’s church,” I can say, “Well, you may be right, but two days ago it worked, and I’m going to do it again next Sunday, and you are welcome to come and watch.” That gives real credibility in the classroom.
Sunukjian: Most of what I do outside Talbot is connected to the same kind of thing I do inside. I teach preaching at Talbot. Outside, I teach preaching to pastors. I do a lot of denominational conferences, a lot of Doctor of Ministry courses, and these are all pastors who are actively involved in ministry, so somehow there’s a ministry to them. And then of course I preach on Sundays, and so my life is pretty narrow… [laughter]
McIntosh: I can identify with Don, because most of what I do outside of Talbot is related to what I do inside of Talbot. I work with churches in terms of leadership and management issues and small group development in the church. So I tend to end up consulting with two or three churches a year on an in-depth level, 4–6 months with each church. I also teach courses at about ten pastoral conferences around the United States on various topics.
Johnson: I’ve had a wonderful ministry overseas over the past years, where I’ve had the opportunity to write curriculum for the former Soviet Union, and then for Africa, and now for the Pacific rim, related to character development.
Sundoulos: What are you working on now? What research are you doing? Do you have any articles or book coming out soon?
McIntosh: I have a book coming out next year with Baker, and it’s going to be called Get Ready for Company. It’s going to analyze how to welcome new people when they come to church, and it’s going to look at some of the new things that some of the newer, younger churches are doing that might be quite different from what we’ve traditionally done to welcome people. I’m also doing some research on evaluating the actual impact of the church growth movement on denominations in the United States. The church growth movement has been influential for the past thirty years, but no one’s really done any in-depth research to see what the precise impact has been.
Sunukjian: I’m writing what the publisher, Kregel, hopes will be a major textbook in the area of homiletics. I think the title will be “Invitation to Biblical Preaching.” It’ll be part of a curriculum of seminary texts, drawing on several different denominations and professors from different traditions, so it should have a pretty wide exposure in the American culture.
TenElshof: Bob Saucy and I have talked very seriously about coming up with a sequel to our first book, Men and Women In Ministry, taking a look at how we can bring that into a more practical book of how does the complement between men and women really work out, in ministry, in the home, and in life.
Boersma: I continue to write newsletters for our alumni; each one contains an article of some encouragement to them. Currently, I’m working on a book about pastoral transitions (transitioning from one ministry to another) along with Michael Anthony from the CE Department, to be published by Zondervan in late 2006. And then next summer, several of us are involved in the International Pastors Conference. I was asked by Mike Wilkins to speak on spiritual formation and church leadership.
Johnson: I have an article on ministry with newlyweds coming out in the Journal of Christian Education next spring. I’m wrestling now with an article on ministering in the context of grief that comes out of our own experience of losing my son-in-law’s brother a year ago.
Sundoulos: As you think back to your own days in seminary and graduate school, what are some of the most important factors——people, books, experiences, spouses, children——that have gone into shaping who you are today?
McIntosh: Well, what comes to my mind immediately are two pastors who mentored me and gave me opportunities in ministry. I stayed in contact with them for many years; one of them has gone on to heaven, the other one is about 81, and we still see each other and I still look to him for lots of advice and mentoring. I think the other most important factor is my family. Going through the process of seeing your kids grow up and become teenagers and then get married and establish their own families—that has a certain maturing influence on your life that you can’t get anywhere else.
Sunukjian: I went into seminary believing in the Bible. I came out of seminary willing to die for the Bible. In terms of the authority, it is God’s word, and since then my life has just been wrapped around understanding it, trying to obey it, and giving it to others. So I look back on my seminary time as a very intensifying focus of that commitment of my life. And then, Ray Stedman. I interned for a summer at Peninsula Bible Church when I was a student, and there was freedom toward ministry there, a willingness to fail and not take it too seriously; there was an ability to hit the contemporary culture. It was just a refreshing time, and it just sort of gave a cast to my ministry of, “Hey, this is God’s good work and let’s do it, and if we miss something and we fail, then the Lord taught us one way we don’t want to do it.” So that was a good spirit to pick up.
Edwards: What has been helpful to me in my development since leaving seminary has been ministry itself. I have found that when I’m consumed with accomplishing something for God, and I struggle and fail and find myself at the end of my resources, that has proven to be an excellent catalyst for skill development, spiritual development, for everything. That has really been an ongoing catalyst. An individual who has helped me significantly through that has been Haddon Robinson. He was gracious enough to work with me and be my mentor, not only in learning the skill of preaching, but as time went on, in the skill of living and ministering as well.
TenElshof: First of all, my husband has been my greatest empowerer. He has wanted me to become everything God has built into me, so he has really empowered me. My seminary experience, both at Fuller and at Talbot, brought into my life key people who mentor different parts of my life. I think Rex has really mentored the ministry part of my life. The ministry led me to pastors who really mentored my spiritual life and my growth with the Lord. The vision that God gave me for Hilltop has just strengthened my faith in how God works and has helped me to trust Him so much more for all of what I feel I can’t do myself. So one mentor has built on another. I would say that ministry itself and people and connections with people have just been incredible in where I am today.
Boersma: When I came to Talbot in 1970, I had been drifting spiritually, the last couple of years of college. Coming to Talbot really confronted me with that, and I would have to say that being here for the four years it took me to get my degree really turned my life around, and God used it in a way that helped me get back and stay on the path. I also think of people. Dr. Glenn O’Neil, who was the chair of practical theology back then, showed me what grace was all about and was a wonderful example of a man with a big heart. I called him many times when I started pastoring, “Hey doc, I’m in trouble”…this was about a monthly call. [laughter] And he was always there to listen, and I could picture him leaning back, hearing the creaking sounds of that old chair and this big hearty laugh coming out of him, and then he’d tell me a story… And one last thing about my seminary time: Greek. Greek taught me discipline; Greek taught me to sit down every day and study. I had been a crammer in high school and college, and I would’ve done it in seminary if I could have gotten away with it but I couldn’t. And that really prepared me for the weekly discipline and grind of preparing three sermons a week: Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. There was no other way. I applaud Greek if for no other reason than the discipline I learned.
Johnson: I also think of mentors. I think of Norm Wright, and of Larry Crabb more recently, and others who have had an impact on my life. I think probably the most profound impact, though, has been my wife and then my kids, and that has really pushed my passion for marriage and family ministry. The experiences of going overseas, particularly the first time when I went to Communist Russia and saw God use me in ways that I could never have imagined before, and use what I have written and done in ways that were just beyond imagination—those were profound in shaping me.
Sundoulos: The life of the church staff person is so busy with so many competing demands on time and on resources. What advice would you give our readers with respect to staying current with developments in your field? Secondly, what advice would you give them about remaining faithful for the long-haul?
Edwards: I would say, don’t live in guilt about trying to keep up with everything, because you can’t. When you’re in ministry, discover how God has made you, what is your primary area of giftedness, and develop that. If it’s preaching, concentrate on preaching; if it’s evangelism, then give yourself to that. But do what God has specifically called you to do and keep up in that field. If God blesses the ministry, he will bring others around you who will have specialties that will make up for those other areas. But if you try to do it all, I think you’ll have a weight on your back that you’ll never be able to get out from under.
Sunukjian: I think one essential thing for being in it for a long haul is to have a weekly sabbath, a day of rest. And that means have nothing to do with your income-earning activities on that day, and for us in ministry have nothing to do with the church. I don’t even read Christian magazines on my day off. I just totally disengage from the work of ministry, and that day of rest does what it was designed to do: it refreshes, it recreates. God himself lays that principle out from creation, and it’s one of the “Big Ten,” it’s right up there with adultery, and so keeping it is what sustains us over the decades in ministry.
McIntosh: From a practical perspective, I would agree with Kent: there is no way in the world to keep up with everything today in any field, there’s too much publication going on, whether it’s magazines, journals, internet, books. Some of my students call me from time to time and ask, from my perspective, what are the top five books they should be reading? I think that’s something our alumni can do. Find an expert in your field and ask them maybe every year or two, what are the five or ten books you should be reading, and let them direct you so that you’re only reading what is good and what’s going to be helpful. As far as remaining faithful for the long haul, as well as the Sabbath, I think it is important to read your Bible every day devotionally—not just for just sermon preparation—and pray every day. When I talk to the pastors I see in ministry that fall from overwork or moral issues or burnout, I discover that they have not maintained a regular reading of the Bible and a regular prayer time; they have dropped that because of the busyness of life and ministry and demands on their time. I think that’s a crucial issue because if you can read for input and pray, it gives you a mini-sabbath everyday. And it helps you be refreshed for that day.
Johnson: If I can hitchhike on what Gary was just saying, I think a lot of what burns people out has to do with a focus on performance, and if a person is focused as much on being as on doing, then he or she will find the resources, the books, the other resources, and people, and the parts of Scripture that deal with being.
Boersma: Keep current with your people. A shepherd needs to know his or her flock. Who are these folks? Where are they? What is their life? A lot of people pastor from a distance, and I believe with all my heart that one of the best ways to improve your preaching is to know your audience. It’s not the only thing, and certainly we can’t know everyone, but when we know their lives, and we prepare with their lives and hearts in mind, we’re current. And in the long haul, I think it’s really important that we remind ourselves of the goodness of the Lord. If we work out of a heart of gratitude, out of a foundation of grace and responding to the grace of God, I think that really helps sustain us, even in the hard times.
TenElshof: To get through life, we really need to guard our hearts, and by guarding our hearts, I’m really talking about developing intimacy with the Father, receiving his love, receiving his correction through the Spirit, and then developing relationships in our life. I think we need to guard our hearts by being very aware of how the culture tempts us and being very aware of how culture is creeping into our church. As we are aware of what the Spirit of God is doing inside of us, we can speak against those things in love and compassion.
Sundoulos: Let me ask you one last question: If the alumni who read this are in a position to advise someone about seminary, why would the prospective student pick Talbot over any other school?
Boersma: I will jump right in: Last night I spoke to a group of aspiring “Talbotians,” and I think, aside from the commitment to Jesus Christ that I know is here, humanly speaking, the faculty is it. Most alumni say they came because of the faculty. Research says graduate students go where they go because of the faculty. I told these prospective students that I could stand there all night and sing the praises of my colleagues as far as who they are, their character, their love for Jesus, their love for each other, their command of their discipline, their desire to grow, their humility, their ability to work together despite their vast differences in personality and in giftedness. This is just an outstanding team, and I consider it a privilege every day just to be able to show up and be a part of it.
McIntosh: What I tell people is that you know Talbot is certainly committed to truth and Scripture, and we not only believe truth is there, but we believe it can be known. But beyond that, I think from my discipline, I’d say Talbot is the best place to come because we are about as up to date as a seminary can be. When I visit other seminaries and teach in other DMin programs, I find them to be ten to twenty years behind where the younger people are in the churches. Many of the seminaries around the United States are located in areas that are very provincial. I think one of the blessings we have is being in Southern California. What happens with us being in California, it forces us to wrestle with the issues that are here today. I think our location makes us be on the cutting edge of seminaries in the nation. I think if somebody really wants to be up to date, they come to Talbot.
Johnson: I think another advantage that we have here that might be overlooked is that we’re a part of a larger university, and we have the input of faculty members from across disciplines, and we have an administration that is very facilitative for us: it champions our causes and it makes it easier for us to shine in whatever area we are shining in, and I think those are just incredible pieces.
TenElshof: I would say come to Talbot because we will not only give you a lot of knowledge and help you to learn how to exegete the text, but we will care about you. We will care about the character you are developing, we will care about the home life that you have. We will care and try to put things in place that will help you grow spiritually. We want this to be a time where you don’t only grow in knowledge, but you also grow in spirit and in truth about yourself and what God created you to be so that you can be the fullest you can possibly be in His kingdom.
Edwards: I’d respond on a couple of levels. One, I think that the head and the heart of the faculty are properly matched. Not only do you have professors that know their disciplines cold, but they are deeply in love with the Lord, and to have those two together is unique, and it provides an excellent learning experience. Then, second, I would say if someone is interested in preaching, they need to come to Talbot to get Don Sunukjian. [cheers] Get him before he retires! [laughter] And I mean this with all sincerity: if you are interested in communicating what the Word says with practical contemporary relevance, you can’t learn that any place better than here.
Sunukjian: I agree with some of the things that Mick and Judy mentioned. Somewhere further down the list, but certainly a very tangible factor, there is an unbelievable opportunity for ministry while you are going through your seminary education. Mick can speak for this better than I can. We have, I want to say, 600 unanswered, local ministry requests that we are unable to fill. We are in such favor in the community of churches—they want our students to work in their churches, we can’t begin to handle all requests. So if you want to learn ministry at the same time you are getting your education, Talbot is it.
Johnson: Plus you get great beaches! [laughter]
TenElshof: Talbot is also a great place to come because we are culturally diverse, probably more so than any other seminary. It gives the students the opportunity to be enriched by different cultures and to minister to those cultures in a firsthand way.
Sundoulos: Thank you all very much. I am very grateful to you all for your ministry, both inside and outside of Talbot. It’s a joy to work alongside you all.
from Talbot's Christian Ministry and Leadership Faculty
“Taking Marriage Seriously,” featured article, Association of Marriage and Family Ministries Web Site, 2005. “Ministry to Newlyweds: A Small Window of Great Opportunity,” Christian Education Journal 2(Spring 2005).
Effective First-Person Biblical Preaching, Zondervan, 2005. Contributed two chapters to The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching: A Comprehensive Resource for Today’s Communicators, Haddon Robinson and Craig Brian Larson, gen. eds., Zondervan, 2005. “Introductions” and “Conclusions,” in Practical Encyclopedia of Biblical Preaching, Zondervan, 2004. “Blockbuster Preaching,” Contact, Winter 2004. “Why Preach,” Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society, June 2005.
“The Shape of a Sermon,” in Preaching to a Shifting Culture, edited by Scott M. Gibson, Baker, 2004. Contributed five chapters to The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching; A Comprehensive Resource for Today’s Communicators, Haddon Robinson and Craig Brian Larson, gen. eds., Zondervan, 2005. “The Cripple’s Story (2 Samuel 1–9),” in Effective First-Person Biblical Preaching, by J. Kent Edwards, Zondervan, 2005.
Church That Works: Your One-Stop Resource for Effective Ministry, Baker, 2004. “Growth Obstacles for the Small Church,” Healthy Church, 3(April 2004). Biblical Church Growth: How You Can Work With God To Build A Faithful Church, Baker, 2003. “A Critique of the Critics,” in Journal of Evangelism and Missions, 2(2003).