For our series on “Loving the Church” in all its grit, grime and glory, we had some exchanges with Jason Byassee. Before accepting an appointment as Senior Minister at Boone United Methodist Church (North Carolina), Jason worked at Duke Divinity School, heading up their Center for Theology, Writing and Media. Since a lot of our posts here at Hopeful Realism have prodded and poked around with the idea of the pastor-scholar or pastor-theologian (most recently, see here and here), we were intrigued with the news of the job shift—it is not everyday that someone leaves a coveted academic post at a prestigious university for the pastoral trials of the parish. We interviewed Jason last year (click here) in what turned out to be one of my top five favorite posts of 2011. We thought it would be fun and helpful to check in and find out how plying the fused craft of theology/writing/ministry was faring….
Writing and Reading as a Pastor
HR: How have the past several months as a pastor shaped your writing? Any change in style, content, length… or changes in topics of focus?
I certainly have a less romantic view of the parish! The small church cured me of that in one way (I wrote about this in The Gifts of the Small Church), but a largish church (1400 members, 700 on Sunday) cures in another way. There are more critics. There are also more selfless servants. And those are often the same people! Sunday is more of a performance, and that’s not a bad thing. We can do more in mission. We’re also a tall steeple in a town that’s still Christendom enough that being a visible member can help you advance in your career. Odd—but there’s nothing to be done about that other than to receive it as a gift. We’re in a university town with an entrepreneurial spirit. Those are all gifts, all potentially dangerous, potentially sources of grace.
I’m struck by how much of my job is leading staff. I have no idea how to do that other than not to do what supervisors I’ve had did that I disliked. Of course merely avoiding things is no way positively to lead. I find myself faking it far more often than I’m comfortable with. But lots of senior pastors tell me they’re doing the same.
I find my view of theological education growing. Smart people are right to demand sophisticated intellectual engagement that respects and takes them seriously. But academia often serves up inside baseball debates when it thinks it’s being intellectual. Who has the patience for that outside the guild? Folks want preaching that engages their life with the treasures of the church and harsh realities of the world and takes their minds seriously. Some sui generis geniuses can do that, but that’s not most of us.
I’m sure all that’s shaped my writing some. It comes in smaller bursts of time, certainly. To be honest I know what I’m doing when I write but not when I’m leading, so writing can be an escape in the negative sense for me.
HR: How has serving as a pastor expanded (or constricted) your reading and studying?
I find I read more fiction. I’m not sure why exactly. I wish I had a theory that I found narrative helpful in reading scripture or reading the congregation or working with words but it might just be fun. I certainly read more commentaries and sermons. When I get ready to preach I see if I have a sermon on a text and am sure to read it. If I’m being extra diligent I’ll read commentary on it, but not always. Modern commentary always feels the need to act more clever than anything that came before, so I get annoyed and distracted by that.
I also read things parishioners give me. Not email forwards usually, but books, and I try to work what I learn there into sermons. I both want to show them we can discover things together and I want genuinely to know what they’re reading and thinking about.
HR: How does your process of sermon-writing differ from the research and writing you have done for more academic purposes?
More is at stake. A sermon declares the word of God in a specific time and place, a word that judges and saves, contradicts and makes whole. Academic work also has its place in God’s purposes, but less is up for grabs. It’s second-order discourse (borrowing from Robert Jenson here): it offers reflection on scripture or church at a remove, potentially correcting or encouraging things being said in first-order discourse like sermon or church teaching. But if an academic piece gets things wrong, who cares?
That said, ideas do have legs. Terrible theologies of suffering or salvation or politics get disseminated from a variety of sources and can do harm. I’m also aware of my own post-liberal training more than I have been. The temptation is to try to turn people into liberals before they can be turned into post-liberals! Of course there’s no credit for doing that. The better goal is to approach Jesus together and see how we’re changed for having done so.
It certainly matters who I imagine will be listening on Sundays. I often find myself thinking how specific people will hear things. I hope that’s not selling out on the gospel—I believe it’s not, but it seems unavoidable anyway.
HR: You have devoted considerable amounts of time and energy to studying Patristic exegesis. Do the approaches of those early writers on Scripture give shape to your own exegetical practices as a pastor?
They must, but I’m not sure how. Augustine is rigorously textual in his preaching. Graham Ward calls this a “letteral” sense—Augustine’s paying exacting attention to the letter, but not doing what we moderns think of as “literal” reading. Scripture has a fulsome sense, it includes history and letter and language, all that is remote. Yet it’s also brought near us in Christ, as he leads us in discipleship now. The fathers know this: that the bible is both far away and unbearably near. Monica is a good image for Augustine’s preaching. She’s uneducated but fiercely intelligent, pious and superstitious in one way, in another dramatically dedicated to Jesus in ways that affected generations. My parishioners are far more educated than Monica in a formal sense but not in theology—otherwise it’s a perfect bullseye.
Media as a Pastor
As a Research Fellow with the New Media Project, I know that you spend a lot of time thinking about media. How are social media incorporated in your pastoral ministry?
Not near as well as they should be, but better than they were when I arrived. We had a 90’s era flash presentation on site that just screamed “dated.” Now we have a pretty nice looking site, put together by a lay staffer and good consultant. We have a Facebook presence where we had none before. We’re not using it very well yet. I’m struck anew by how difficult it is to connect to people in social media as an institution. They work so much better for individuals. I’ve got 2500 Facebook friends; something like 160 people “like” Boone UMC. So we’re trying to ask people what I ought to preach on etc. But it’s slow.
Personally I find it much easier to connect to people via text message or Facebook than it ever was with the tools around when I was last in the parish—phone and email. I like praying on people’s Facebook wall on their birthdays. Social media is a great way to connect with first-time visitors. All that is borrowed from folks we studied in the New Media Project. I like Tony Lee’s language—pastor of Cathedral of Hope AME in DC. He says new media increases his “pastoral touches.” Sure enough—folks I’d never connect with in person, who don’t elbow their way through the greeting line to get in the pastor’s attention—I can connect with really well digitally. It only works if face-to-face and social media work integrally.
But I don’t claim to have this figured out at Boone UMC in the slightest.
[Part 2 of the interview will be up in a couple of days on ” The Rift between Church and Academy and the Pastor Theologian“…. ]
Here are Jason’s books if any of you are interested—