The Journey of Ministry: Insight from a Life of PracticeWritten by Eddie Gibbs Reviewed By Jay Thomas
A favorite genre of pastoral literature for me is the “journey of ministry and how to be a faithful pastor to the end” genre. My life has been indelibly marked by pastor-authors such as Eugene Peterson, Kent Hughes, and now many wise (if young) pastoral voices who address the topic of perseverance in ministry. I often am drawn to books and articles which teach me how to chart the challenging course of pastoral ministry with rugged gospel-determination, a theology of suffering, and with an utmost concern for personal character.
Thus, when I had an opportunity to review a book entitled The Journey of Ministry: Insights from a Life of Practice by Eddie Gibbs of Fuller Theological Seminary, I was encouraged. And yet Gibbs’s book swerved from my expectation. Let me begin with a weakness of the work. First, the book lacked a clear purpose. The title suggests that this book will describe the challenges and offer wisdom about professional ministry. One would expect treatments of topics such as what vocational ministry entails, what the challenges are in those areas, and what a biblical and wise way of persevering and growing in those areas looks like. Yet the book lacked treatment of such crucial matters.
Second, the book lacked a consistent metaphor. Again, the title suggests the running metaphor of a “journey.” Thematic books like this don’t require a running metaphor, but if the title suggests it, and early chapters utilize one, then the metaphor must be kept. The chapter titles start with “walking,” then “hurdling.” So far, so good. But then we move to “dying,” then “teambuilding,” then “networking,” and so on. We are now far afield from the metaphor of a journey. These other concepts are important, but the connection to the journey motif becomes distant. One therefore wonders what Gibbs is aiming at and how he intends to get there. Are we discussing professional ministry, ministry in general (professional and lay), or are we talking about the general Christian life? This was not clear. At some points, the topic seemed very focused on the professional ministry leader. At some points it addressed the church in general. And at many points it addressed the individual believer who is simply on life’s journey as a child of God.
Finally, each chapter (and indeed, some chapter subsections) tackled topics so broad that the topic could have merited its own monograph. Massive issues of contextualization, leadership culture, and communication were given very broad-brush strokes of attention, and then the reader was whisked off into the next subject. Gibbs ought to have taken less subject matter and gone deeper, and with greater nuance. It was almost as if four different semester-long courses, which Gibbs taught at Fuller, were crammed into this book. This became frustrating and counterproductive.
Let me then move toward some commendation, which is indeed merited. The Journey of Ministry, while scattered in its vision, is full of good insights. The subtitle “insights from a life of practice” is indeed accurate. If you can get past the lack of focus, the mixed metaphors, and the breadth of each topic, there are gems to be found.
First, Gibbs is very basic and simple. There are no odd prescriptions of spirituality, no awkward means by which he commends pastoral disciplines. He offers straightforward advice, drawn from the Bible and illustrated with his life. Most pastoral readers will not be told anything new, but this book, at the right time in a struggling pastor’s life, could provide reminders and encouragements that will do deep soul-work.
Second, Gibbs’s tone is winsome. I have never met him but from his writing he comes across as a grandfatherly character whom one would enjoy spending time around and draw wisdom from. Some of the best mentors I have had infrequently gave me new insights on ministry and life but rather constantly pointed me back to the glory of Christ, the truth of the Scriptures, and the future joy of heaven. I appreciated Gibbs’s tone, and what the booked lacked in incisiveness and clarity was made up for in its unassuming and organic wisdom and warmth. For instance, though the pastor’s marriage was not a direct theme, the way Gibbs talked about his wife was both a challenge and a teaching on the centrality of a healthy marriage for ministry.
Third, the lack of a defined audience, pastor/lay leader/individual, actually opened the door for a wide swath of people to glean from this book. One does not have to be a pastor to identify with many of the chapters. But the educated pastor is going to have some good information on contextualization, the evolution of leadership culture in the West, the place of formal learning versus relational learning, and so forth. There is something for everyone in the book.
Finally, the book is very anecdotal, and thus narratival, which makes abstractions come to life. The concepts that did entail some depth of sociological and theological understanding were made simple by how Gibbs illustrated the idea with his life while also showing the import of the concept to practical discipleship. Though I often got tripped up on non sequiturs or inconsistencies in the shape of the book, the book keeps one’s attention through sincere, touching, and often humorous tales from Gibbs’s life.
How does this review net out? Is the book worth reading? Yes. It will be especially useful to the layperson who has a growing interest in some of the larger issues of formal ministry in a postmodern world. The person who has a need to understand the broader issues of both personal discipleship and ministry life will gain from this book. Is this for the veteran pastor who wants a very clear aim, with a depth of insight and theological profundity akin to a Puritan work? Probably not. Either way, if one’s expectations are adjusted and one is focused on the sincerity and wisdom of the writer, this is a helpful introduction to life and ministry over the long haul.
Chapel Hill Bible Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA
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