Based in St. Cloud, Minnesota, Growing in Grace is a blog by Pastor Matthew Molesky. His posts explore the Bible, theology, ecclesiology, culture, books, family, and life.

Presenting vs. Underlying Problems

This is a helpful reminder for pastor and church family member alike, given by Craig Barnes in his book, The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Sub-Texts in the Ministerial Life.

...the pastor-poet does his or her best work not with presenting issues, which are seldom the real issue. This is the fallacy of those who try to define the pastor as a manager, an entrepreneur, or a service provider who is only in need of more skills to be a success in handling the many issues that have presented themselves. Most presenting issues are merely symptomatic of underlying theological issues.

In other words, theology matters. What you believe about God effects how you live and behave, so that if there is a problem presenting in your life, you need to get below that to see if there is theology that is either being misunderstood or not present at all. A specific case study will help flesh this out:

...if people are not praying [for example], it's the pastor-poet's job to discern why they are hesitant to enter God's presence. And if they are praying, then the question is, Do they really understand what is happening in such sacred communion?
..the woman who recently stopped at the door following worship to shake my hand asked me to pray for her in the coming week. "They're deciding if I'm going to make partner in the law firm," she explained. "I've worked really hard for this, so please pray that I get it." My real job at this point is to know that this promotion means too much to her, that she is never going to be satisfied even if she does make partner, that the real source of her identity is her life in Christ, and that if she only prayed to see the sufficiency of this, then she could approach this vote about her status at work with much less anxiety. It is even possible that not making partner will be better for her restless heart than getting what she so desperately wants. 
But I didn't say any of this.
The line is long at the door following worship, and there's no time for all that. So I say, again, "Sure, I'll be praying for you."
If I were faithful to my calling, though, the next day I would set up an appointment to have a conversation with her about what is really going on within her.

While I disagree with Barnes that he would have to be the one to meet with her (the pastor-poet can't meet with everyone, and this would be a great function of community groups), I do appreciate the biblical vision he is presenting for what Christian community must look like. Rather than dropping the standard church line, "I'll be praying for you," we need to gently ask heart questions of each other, probing what each other knows of God (theology) so that we can help each other move toward true human flourishing. 

May it be so.

God Alone is Whole and Complete

Mary Comforts Eve