The Soul of Ministry. Forming Leaders for God’s People.

John H. Neufeld

The Conrad Grebel Review 18, no. 2 (Spring 2000)

Ray S. Anderson. The Soul of Ministry. Forming Leaders for God’s People. Louisville, KY: Westminster / John Knox Press, 1997.

This book does not focus primarily on the practical skills and strategies of ministers, but rather on foundational questions which shape ministering persons. In the author’s view ministry is the calling of all Christians, something “in which every member of his (Christ’s) body has a share.” His understanding of ministry as the “office of ministry” is derived from this broad understanding of the “function of ministry” but does not seem to get adequate attention.

Anderson develops his understanding on a solid biblical foundation, offering helpful interpretations of the Bible as he does so. The ministry of the church must be seen first and foremost as God’s ministry to the world through word and deed. “The ministry of God is to the world, for the sake of the world” (viii). On the basis of John 20:21 he concludes that “as Jesus was sent into the world, so too are Christians sent as a continuation of [his] ministry.” The coming of Jesus clarifies God’s ministry to the world and is thus the basis for all Christian ministry.

Three of the most valuable insights are found early in the book: ministry involves theological discernment, theological innovation, and theological praxis. By theological discernment Anderson means that we “must be open to the direction of the Holy Spirit in order to interpret any given situation in terms of the eschatological preference of God rather than merely conform to historical precedence and principle” (14). The idea of ongoing theological innovation is based on the examples of Jesus and Paul (sabbath and circumcision). “Conformity to the authority of God’s Word may require nonconformity to a theological tradition as well as nonconformity to contemporary culture and ideology” (24). This is a challenge to some of our usual ways of dealing with contemporary issues.

Anticipating the question “where does this leave absolutes?” Anderson says that “what is absolute regarding the command of God is connected with the ministry of God” and, “there must be a theological antecedent for what becomes theological innovation” (19). The challenge he issues is for “those who minister not [to] be satisfied with conformity to what God has said, but [to] press onto participate in what God is doing” (16).

Discernment and innovation operate through theological praxis. “God’s ministry comes alive in the praxis of Spirit. First, through Christ’s ministry and then through those who are empowered by the Spirit of Christ” (26). Praxis means that the truths of God are discovered through the encounter with Christ in the world by means of ministry (28). Anderson uses the story of Peter and Cornelius as an example of praxis in the Spirit (Acts 10-11). Showing that “the law of Moses (scripture) clearly forbade what the Spirit was bidding Peter to do.” Theological discernment (‘I perceive that God is no respecter of persons’) led to theological innovation (going to Cornelius’ house, telling good news and baptizing Gentiles). Thus, “[p]raxis of the Spirit takes precedence over the practice of law” (30).

Anderson has much to offer as we think about the church as a caring and supportive community and about its role in the world. In fact, at some points the book seems to be more about an understanding of the church than about pastoral leaders and their functions. What is disappointing is the limited attention the author gives to the more narrowly understood “office of ministry.” The subtitle “Forming Leaders for God’s People” suggests that the work of those called to leadership roles in the church might receive considerable attention, but this does not happen.

While Anderson does consider the general concept of “servant leadership,” he does not deal with some of the derived and subservient functions of ministers. There is no treatment of the rather important functions of preaching or of administration. Pastoral care is treated broadly, by implication, but not in terms of such specific needs as bereavement. It would have been helpful to see how The Soul of Ministry impacts pastoral practice in preaching, administration, and care giving. How do these leadership functions contribute to the ministry of all believers in the world?

In spite of a few shortcomings, this book is well worth studying by pastors, lay leaders, and students who are exploring the meaning of ministry. It is a biblically-based reminder of the foundation of all ministry in the church – God’s concern for the well-being of all people in the world. The church is to continue ministering the way Jesus ministered.

JOHN H. NEUFELD, Canadian Mennonite Bible College (Emeritus), Winnipeg, MB