The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry: Preparing a People for the Presence of the LordWritten by David Rohrer Reviewed By Timothy Witmer
In The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry, David Rohrer leads off with the delimitations of his work. He makes it clear that it is not his intention to write a “manual on pastoral ministry” (p. 19), though he sees the need for “a pastoral theology adequate for the task before us” (p. 15). He sets out to use the ministry of John the Baptist as a “case study of pastoral work” (p. 17) for the contemporary pastor. Rohrer himself admits that this model may lead to some head-scratching to those who first engage the concept. Let's see how he does.
One of the first hints that the book is written by a seasoned pastor is his alliterative approach to chapter titles. After the introduction he presents nine challenging concepts under the headings of Consolation, Call, Covenant, Commission, Context, Confrontation, Conflict, Confusion, and Confidence. Each chapter includes stories from his ministry experience, mostly from his work at Michillinda Presbyterian Church of Pasadena, California. Lessons from the ministry of John the Baptist sometimes cross-reference with other biblical material and the connection for the contemporary pastor. The experienced pastor will resonate with the principles communicated and the parishioners introduced along the way for illustrative purposes. After all, what pastor hasn't had a “Phil” in the church who not only thought but told you, “This is my church. I was here before you got here. I'll be here after you leave”? (p. 68).
For the younger pastor there are beneficial insights and warnings that may save them from avoidable pain. These are often well-written tidbits that are worthy not only of reading, but careful pondering. In speaking about conflict, for example, Rohrer writes, “Obviously, pointing to truth can be risky business and the rub of the risk is in the wildcard of people's response” (p. 120). A matter that I have seen many younger ministers wrestle with after a few years in the trenches is the concept of calling. Rohrer helpfully writes, “The circumstances that arise on acting on our calling inevitably lead us to question that calling, and in the struggle of this conflict we learn something more about God and about ourselves that fosters our own spiritual growth” (p. 136).
There is some difficulty in following the train of thought in some of the early chapters. As helpful as the material is, where the chapter finished was not quite what one was led to expect early on in the chapter. That may be partly due to the fact that, as every alliterative preacher knows, there is often a bit of forced shoe-horning that goes on to maintain the alliteration. However, the later chapters on Confrontation, Conflict, and Confusion were more focused and tightly written. As the book progresses one also gets the sense that this book is more about the heart of the pastor than about “preparing a people for the presence of the Lord,” as the book subtitle announces.
In terms of using John the Baptist as a model for contemporary pastors, those who are sensitive to the unique redemptive historical “bridge” role that he plays will at times be jarred by Rohrer's blurring of the nuance that is needed to appreciate the continuity/discontinuity dimension of the Baptist's ministry. Certainly we see traits of boldness, proclamation, and mission focus in John that ministers today should emulate. But his unique place in redemptive history could have been more clearly delineated. Despite a passing concession of this point (p. 93), the contemporary pastor's discontinuity with John could have been helpfully noted more often.
In the introduction, Rohrer sets a very high bar as he hopes to do “for new pastors what Eugene Peterson did for me in the early years of my ministry” (p. 20). Even among those who appreciate Peterson's ministry, Rohrer should get credit for the effort. Nevertheless in writing, as in preaching, it is crucial for each author to find his own “voice.” Rohrer is not Peterson, but Rohrer is worthy of the reader's effort, which will be rewarded with much wisdom drawn both from Scriptures and from decades of experience in pastoral ministry. The experienced minister will find encouragement to “finish strong” and the younger pastor will get a “reality check” that both sobers and motivates him to persist in the sacred calling that comes from God.
Westminster Theological Seminary
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA