The Relational Pastor: Sharing in Christ by Sharing Ourselves

Written by Andrew Root Reviewed By Jon Nielson

Andrew Root’s The Relational Pastor offers a corrective to pastors who have set out only to “use” relationships with the people in their congregations as means to other ends (greater attendance, increased giving, and the like). Root’s stated goal is to show how relationship with human beings is itself the “end” of pastoral ministry, rather than the means to some other end. His goal, then, is to connect these relationships with a relationship to God—he writes this, for example, as he introduces his book: “Pastoral ministry can be nothing more and nothing less than making space for people to encounter the very presence of God. Here, in this book, I claim that space is created in the sharing of relationships of persons” (p. 10).

Root sets out to show how pastoral ministry must be grounded in real human relationships that are nurtured through “empathy” and “sharing as transformation” (p. 19). These kinds of relationships are, according to Root, the “end” of pastoral ministry, for it is through these kinds of relationships that we actually “encounter Jesus Christ” (p. 19). In order to develop this idea throughout the book, he first traces the “development” and “transition” of pastoral ministry through the different “ages” of history, ending with the “new form of ministry” that our new age demands—a kind of relational ministry for the “arriving new world” (p. 43). The pastor, according to Root, is primarily a “convener of empathic encounter of personhood” (p. 44). It is this picture of a pastor that flies in the face of American individualism and the recent pastor-as-CEO model.

Root goes on to contrast “individuals” from “persons,” making the point that individuals are primarily defined by their wants, while persons really “are” their relationships with other persons (including Jesus). They are “embodied spirits” that can indwell one another (p. 84). It is “empathy” and “place sharing,” for Root, that nurtures the growth and development of these kinds of relationships in a vibrant church community. These relationships, for Root, actually show us Jesus; as he puts it: “This is the place where Jesus is present, in the space between persons. Jesus is in between us, sharing in the place created by our persons” (p. 158; emphasis original). He then goes on to apply this concept more broadly to the various aspects of pastoral ministry—preaching, prayer, church leadership, and evangelism. The latter of these is ultimately a “shared story” in the context of a growing relationship (p. 194).

With this book Andrew Root offers a sound warning to pastors who (wittingly or unwittingly) seek to “consume” their congregation for their own purposes, using relationships with their people merely as “tools” to get things done. Root describes this sad dynamic: “So when we speak of ‘relational,’ we usually mean it as another strategy, another buzzword, to get people to do what we want them to do. Relationship becomes a kind of glue that keeps individuals involved or coming. The point of our ministry isn’t the relationships between persons, but how the relationship wins us influence” (p. 17). He makes important points here. To be sure, our relationships with the people in our congregations must not be “tools” to somehow win us influence or foster personal ministry success. Pastors should constantly be testing their hearts, thoughts, attitudes, and motives.

Root also correctly puts a finger on the influence of selfish individualism that has plagued so many churches in the world today. His call to free pastors (and Christians in general) from consuming people for their own individual needs and wants is well taken. Indeed, all Christians are called to see people as valuable—made in the image of God, and thus inherently worthy of care, empathy, and understanding.

The author’s call to pastors, too, to help move people away from being “self-enclosed addicts” to actually sharing in the lives of other believers is an important one. His teachings and suggestions in this book can be helpful to pastors who seek to foster genuine and grace-filled relationships in their congregations, as members move away from infatuation with self and endless introspection.

This book does, however, have some problematic emphases. While Root has surely put his finger on a key problem in pastoral ministry today, he responds to a lack of focus on genuine relationships in pastoral ministry by narrowing in far too exclusively on human relationships as the main end in gospel ministry. At best, he has overstated his case to make a point. At worst, he comes dangerously close to presenting a vision of pastoral ministry that is far removed from the model of Word-centered ministry that the Apostle Paul put forward to young Timothy (2 Tim 4:1–5). It will be easy for young pastors to come away from a reading of this book thinking that relationships, if truly the final goal of ministry and the path to encountering Christ, are eternally valuable regardless of what end—spiritually speaking—they lead to in the hearts and souls of the people with whom they relate.

The first sign of this problem confronts the reader immediately in the preface, as Root states that “pastoral ministry at its base is about facilitating relational encounters” (p. 9). While facilitating relational encounters is certainly part of pastoral ministry, it is misleading to say that this is what it is at its base. Pastoral ministry at its base, according to Scripture, is about speaking God’s Word to God’s people. Perhaps what we need in pastoral ministry is not a new model for a new age, but a return to the rich foundation laid by the apostles.

Root later makes another statement that reaches far outside the language that the Bible provides for us as we consider the fundamental commitments of Word-driven ministry: “The pastor’s vocation is to help our people participate in this indwelling of spirit to Spirit. . . . In being a community of persons, a community of spirit to spirit, we share in the Spirit of Christ” (p. 86). He seems to mix up what comes first in a relationship with Christ. The path to a relationship with Christ does not come, biblically, through a relationship with another person, but through the hearing of the Word, the work of the Holy Spirit, and repentance and faith in Jesus. Root’s language is vague, and can be misleading and potentially harmful to pastors who are insufficiently discerning to formulate their primary calling and focus in Word ministry.

Finally, while his point with regard to relationships being used as means to a selfish end is well taken, he may downplay the reality of sin and depravity that can infect even the best, most understanding, and empathetic human relationships. There is, ultimately, one relationship that should be central—a relationship that far surpasses all human relationships. That is the relationship between a holy God and a sinful human, made possible through Christ’s substitutionary death for sin. Salvation by faith in this Savior is not mediated by any human relationship—even the best one!

To conclude, this is a book that correctly identifies the intense need for deep and authentic relationships that are at the very core of gospel ministry, but a book that mistakes both the means and the end of humanity’s deepest relationship. The means: God’s living and inspired Word, brought to bear in people’s lives and hearts as the Holy Spirit does its work through preaching and teaching. The end: a gathering of believers who are caught up in a saving and restored relationship with God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as they love and share life with one another under God’s good Word. This is a book, therefore, which, while providing some valuable correctives, could mislead many regarding the Word-centered nature of pastoral ministry, as defined by Paul to Timothy, and therefore to us as pastors today.

Root’s challenges to pastors who use relationships as means to their desired ends is valid. May none of us use people in these sinful ways. Yet those in gospel ministry do submit even the closest human relationships to the ultimate relationship—between sinful people and an infinitely holy God. This is a relationship that is made possible through a bloody cross, and one that is mediated to us through the living Word of God. Relationships with one another are not the end of pastoral ministry; proclaiming the life-giving hope of that cross-centered gospel, and seeing sinners restored to right relationship with their Creator, is the end of pastoral ministry. In this sense, human relationships—even in gospel ministry—can be means, if their end is the conversion of lost souls that leads to eternal saving relationships between humans and a gracious and powerful God.

Jon Nielson

Jon Nielson
College Church
Wheaton, Illinois, USA

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