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Freedom for Ministry
by Richard John Neuhaus.
Eerdmans, 272 pages, $26.

Among his many books, Freedom for Ministry held a special place in the affections of Richard John Neuhaus. In part, it was because this book, while not overtly autobiographical, is a deeply personal statement about the urgency and dignity of the pastoral calling. It was this vocation that so decisively shaped Neuhaus’ own identity as a minister of Word and Sacraments, in the context of which he did all of his other work.

Back in 1960––when he was a robust, twenty-four-year-old graduate of Concordia Seminary––Neuhaus moved into the heart (or the core, as he liked to say) of the city to serve as the senior pastor of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Brooklyn, a position he held for seventeen years. It was here, in this inner-city, multi-ethnic Lutheran parish, that Neuhaus came to grips with what he would call the “thus and so-ness of the Church.” As a parish minister, Neuhaus became involved in the crusades for reform that convulsed America during the 1960s, including the struggle for civil rights and protests against the war in Vietnam. As an advocate for the poor, he engaged in civil disobedience and was arrested on several occasions.

Through these experiences, he came to see the Church he was called to serve had an integrity of its own. It bears through history the apostolic witness to the risen Lord, and it serves as a point of moral reference by which at least “the potential exists for ordering this society more in accord with Judeo-Christian virtue.”

The model for ministry is incarnational and thus intrinsically personal. The Word did not become a text or an idea but, as Luther put it, a muling and puking infant in the arms of his mother Mary. It is the job of the Church and its ministers to stand with the most vulnerable at the entrance and exit gates of life and at all the nodal points in between, and to do so in Jesus’ name. The Church has a witness to make in the public square, but it does so most effectively by being true to its own mission and purpose.

By the time he wrote Freedom for Ministry in 1979, Neuhaus had rejected whatever utopian dreams he may have pursued in his early pastoral work. The Church, he realized, is beset by contradictions and compromises all along the way; within its precincts, wheat and tares mingle. The churchly can all too easily degenerate into the churchy, and religion into religiosity. “The church in all its forms and manifestations is profoundly inauthentic,” he wrote. “It is made authentic only by the judgment of a gracious God.”

The freedom Neuhaus describes in Freedom for Ministry derives from a sense of divine summoning, a being tapped on the shoulder, a calling that comes to one from beyond one’s self. Theological schools in North America today recruit students to take courses that presumably impart certain competencies that will allow graduates to perform a number of expected tasks in a professional way. If that sounds reductionistic and utilitarian, it is because the danger of an uncalled ministry is often hidden in the profile of academic transcripts and personality tests.

Neuhaus recounts a story, told by the renegade preacher Will ­Campbell, about a Southern Baptist pastor named Thad Garner. Despite his affable smile and trips to the Holy Land, he was not a model pastor. He privately admitted that he thought his whole ministry was a sham. Why, then, asked Campbell, do you go on with it? “Because I was called, you damn fool!” retorted his tormented friend. Neuhaus comments: “So it is that in moments of vocational anguish we kneel in prayer and argue with the God who called us. A premise of the argument is that he has promised his Spirit to the Church and that the Church, praying the Spirit’s guidance, called us to ministry. While that objective or external call can help carry us through periods of self-doubt, it, too, finally depends upon our personal belief about God’s relationship to the Church of which our ministry is a part.”

When it was first published in 1979, Freedom for Ministry struck a chord with a generation of ministers who had been taught to revel in their self-doubts and to question the importance of preaching, worship, and pastoral care––all in deference to psychology, social work, and public relations. Neuhaus saw how debilitating such deference was to the real work of ministry. He reminded pastors that they were ambassadors of a disputed sovereignty and that the inherent awkwardness of their calling could not be relieved by their seeking validation from any other kingdom. Too many ministers, Neu­haus believed, had lost their zeal for serving Christ and his flock. Instead, they had become skilled practitioners of the techniques of adjustment to a transcendence-starved theology and a death-dealing culture. The kind of accommodation Neuhaus was concerned about is still advanced in the pop-religious culture of today where the Jesus Christ of the gospels is displaced by Jesus the CEO, Jesus the Political Activist, Jesus the Homeboy, etc. The biblical term for suborning Jesus to our own goals, ideals, and fantasies is idolatry.

Neuhaus’ view of the ministry was inherently sacramental, not only in the sense that he took with utmost seriousness the importance of the liturgy, and especially the Eucharist, but also because he understood the role of a pastor or priest as fundamentally representational. Against what Santayana called the “stupid positivism” that confuses the real with the actual, Neuhaus believed that the minister serves not only the local congregation but also the Church that is the Body of Christ, extended throughout time as well as space.

His point was driven home to me when, as an inner-city pastor in Boston, I served as a backup minister at the local funeral home. The ar­rangement was simple: In a pinch, I would be called on to preside at a funeral when no other minister could be found, in exchange for fifty dollars. Hard up for cash, I rushed over one day to discover a deceased veteran of the Spanish-American War, who obviously had outlived all of his friends and loved ones. I thought a few of his old cronies might show up, but no one did. I could take the money and run, they said; no need to do the service. I knew that funeral services were meant for the living, not the dead. Nothing I could say would alter the eternal state of this old soldier.

Yet I could not walk away. So while the organist and florist performed their rituals, I read from Holy Scripture about the God of all comfort and offered a simple prayer of thanks for the gift of life and the grace of death.

The purpose of ministry, Neuhaus declared, is “to sight, signal, support, and celebrate the coming of the Kingdom.” Essential to this work is the unfettered proclamation of the Word of God and worship that aims to be worthy of the God who sustains and saves. Slovenly preaching and sloppy worship are a disservice to God and his people.

The Hartford Appeal––the manifesto for Christian fidelity and orthodoxy that Neuhaus had helped ­organize in 1975––had asserted that “we worship God because God is to be worshipped.” Worship for any other purpose––entertainment, aesthetics, even evangelism––is done in pursuit of a minor absolute.

Neuhaus defined preaching as “the communication of truth through sanctified ego and sanctified rhetoric.” The keyword in this definition is “sanctified.” For, as James Stalker has reminded us, “The effect of a sermon depends, first of all, on what is said, and next, on how it is said; but hardly less, on who says it.”

The last chapter in Freedom for Ministry is titled “The Pursuit of Holiness.” Here Neuhaus deals not only with the public behavior of ministers but also with their private temptations, not excluding the big three: ambition, money, and sex. The words he would utter in response to the clergy abuse scandals of later years are spelled out here in black and white: fidelity, fidelity, fidelity.

Freedom for Ministry was written while Neuhaus was still a Lutheran pastor; the second edition, with minor revisions, was published shortly after he became a Catholic priest. It remains today one of the finest expositions of pastoral ministry from an ecumenical perspective. Soon after the second edition was released, he joined Charles Colson to convene a team of theologians to begin the project known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Neu­haus believed strongly that the quest for Christian unity was part and parcel of his pastoral calling.

Against critics of this movement who saw it as a political ploy to achieve short-term ends, he again and again called us to pursue the unity-in-truth for which Jesus prayed. In these labors, he reminded us, we are sustained by hope––the hope, as St. Paul said, “which does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” As stewards of the mysteries of God, ministers of Jesus Christ live and die in the freedom this hope affords.

Timothy George, a member of the First Things editorial board, is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and executive editor of Christianity Today.