Wise: Transforming Pastoral Ministry

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Executive Director of PMC Dr Stephen Harrison, reviews a new book on pastoral ministry written by Bishop Matt Brain: “Bishop Brain has a great ability to take academic knowledge and show how it informs pastoral practice in a hands-on way. It would certainly lend itself to robust study and discussion within a clergy learning group.”

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The Right Rev’d Matt Brain, Bishop of Bendigo, says early in his new book Wise that: “The idea of ‘life-long learning’ has become a truism. However, if those called and deployed into pastoral ministry do not embrace the need to be continually learning, they will find their effectiveness dulled.”

This book makes a significant contribution to how those in pastoral ministry may continue learning, renew themselves, stay focused and make wise decisions.

Wise is both scholarly and practical, drawing upon Bishop Brain’s rich experience in ministry and academia. Grounded firmly in the changing complexities of contemporary ministry, it provides a sound balance of encouragement and challenge. It is both helpful and hopeful, not shying away from the realities that many ministers confront including reduced resources, changed patterns of community engagement and the risk of stagnation.

Wise has two parts. The first explores the challenges confronted in the practice of ministry. It lays the groundwork for part two, where a methodology is provided for wise decision making that takes account of those challenges and the many nuanced contexts in which often sensitive decisions need to be made.

Part one: Challenges in the practice of ministry

Bishop Brain grounds pastoral ministry in the current realities of church life in Australia. He acknowledges that the place where the church finds itself adds challenge to the already complex work of pastoral ministry. He also highlights the additional challenge of maintaining focus in ministry mid-career. Part of the usefulness of Wise is that it encourages those in pastoral ministry to remain sharp and focused, and resistant to stagnation, complacency or paralysis. It provides an approach for reawakening attention to context and decision making and ensuring that the work of pastoral ministry is distinctly Christian.

Bishop Brain draws on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus to provide a language for thinking about how a minister’s immersion in the life of Christ might help them reflect and act in any context.

Part two: How to be a wise pastor

Having laid the groundwork in part one, Bishop Brain begins to build a framework for being a wise pastor. Initially, he focuses on the work of discerning a given context correctly through the practical aspects of asking good questions, collecting information and weighing the value of that information. This includes an encouragement to draw upon the insights gained from many fields including those of the social sciences. Using the metaphor of the prism, Bishop Brain explores how all those sources of information might be focused through the lens of the pastor’s Christian life, shaped by scripture, tradition and reason, into a wise and distinctly Christian response. Bishop Brain provides a clear and practical process for how this might be achieved. The important emphasis in this work is that the ongoing formation of the pastor’s life in Christ is critical to how they respond in pastoral ministry. In the final chapter, Bishop Brain provides some wisdom for those seeking to develop a wise pastoral hermeneutic. This includes some ideas about how to respond effectively and faithfully to some of the challenges and roadblocks that might arise on the journey.

There is a lot to like about this book. Bishop Brain draws and reflects upon his own experience in a frank and honest way, which is both refreshing and enlightening. Throughout Wise, there are a number of useful summaries on different areas of knowledge, including perspectives on pastoral ministry and an interesting excursus on the many ways of doing research.

Wise is a deceptively small book – it contains a lot to consider, reflect upon and integrate into practice. Bishop Brain has a great ability to take academic knowledge and show how it informs pastoral practice in a hands-on way. It would certainly lend itself to robust study and discussion within a clergy learning group.

Matt Brain, 2019. Wise: Transforming Pastoral Ministry. Morning Star Publishing, Reservoir, Victoria.

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