Straining at the Oars -- Review

STRAINING AT THE OARS: Case Studies in Pastoral Leadership.  By H. Dana Fearon III with Gordon S. Mikoski.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013.  Xx +118 pages.

                It is a regular complaint heard among clergy – “I didn’t learn how to do this (or that) in seminary.”  The transition from seminary to ministry can be overwhelming for many.  Internships and CPE are designed to help ease the transition, but even they don’t always prepare you for the realities of parish ministry.  One wonders whether the complaints are justified.  Is seminary purely vocational training, or is it designed to provide the necessary theological and biblical foundations that one needs to serve effectively?  Perhaps one must make the transition into ministry before one is ready to wrestle with the big questions posed by pastoral ministry.  That is, like other professions, there will remain a strong need for ongoing continuing education that can help one develop skills needed for the long term.   

                One way to do this work is to gather regularly with colleagues and discuss case studies.  The case study method has been used in a variety of professions to assist in continuing education.  You take a particular story or scenario, read it, think about it, and then discuss it with peers, seeking a solution to a problem.  The Academy of Parish Clergy, an organization born at the end of the 1960s, at a time when pastoral ministry was seeking greater professional respectability, has long utilized this method for their colleague groups.   

                H. Dana Fearon III, a retired Presbyterian pastor who guest lectured at Princeton Theological Seminary during his long tenure as pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, New Jersey, recognized this need and together with Gordon S. Mikoski, Associate Professor of Christian Education at Princeton, he offers us this collection of case studies drawn from his own ministry.  The title of the book, Straining at the Oars serves as a useful metaphor for the work done by clergy in parish ministry.  He writes that “like the disciples as they rowed through the storm, we encounter obstacles for which we are unprepared, sometimes leading us to a sense of despair.  Time and again, however, Jesus makes his presence  known, joins us in the struggle, challenges the wind and waves, renews our courage, and helps us reach the far shore” (p. xv).    

                The book lays out twenty-one cases or scenarios ranging from decision-making in the congregation to engagement in the public square.   In each chapter the authors lay out a dilemma or challenge and then provide reflections that assist the reader/discussion group to grapple with the situation and come up with a solution.  Fearon offers his own resolutions to the issue – that is – “pastoral actions” – but they’re meant to be suggestive not prescriptive.  There is, for instance, a strong Presbyterian orientation to the actions suggested – the authors are, after all, Presbyterian.  Therefore, one may need to translate this for one’s own situation.

                To give but one example – one of the chapters deals with the value of wearing the collar.  In many traditions, especially Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopal, and Lutheran, the clerical collar is standard dress.  For others, including my own tradition, which has an anti-clerical dimension, collars are uncommon.  I’ve noticed an increasing number of colleagues wearing them, especially when engaged in ecumenical and public events, but for most of us this is rather foreign (I’ve never worn one), so I might need to think about other ways of being present in public as clergy.  Another example would relate to the question of whether one baptizes a baby in duress for persons who aren’t church members.  As I'm part of a tradition that practices believer’s baptism this normally wouldn’t come up, but then again it does come up. 

                On the other hand, the majority of chapters deal with questions every pastor or clergyperson faces – from prayer to taking congregations on a pathway of change to the question of having friends in the congregation.  This latter question was recently raised in the Christian Century, providing for a rather fierce debate.  Fearon suggests one must distinguish between friends and cronies.  One is likely to develop friendships with members – it’s only natural – but one must beware of allowing members to become cronies – that is people who gain power by their relationship to the pastor, or who provide power to the pastor.  The key here is recognizing where the necessary boundaries lie and respecting confidences.  One should be friendly to all, but recognize that one will likely draw closer to some members.  One of the suggested solutions is that one should recognize that “friends know there are challenges in being a pastor, and they do not ask for inside information since they want to support a friend and not make life more difficult” (p. 36). 

                Each chapter ends with three questions for reflection and discussion.  These questions are designed to push the reader to more fully engage with the question.  They are the beginning of the conversation, not its ending.  But those of us who are clergy, whether just entering the field or having been in the field for some time (I’ve been ordained nearly thirty years and have served as a parish pastor for the past fifteen), these case studies should provide a valuable resource.  If nothing else, this book is a reminder to those of us in ministry that we must continually upgrade our knowledge and skills – in large part because seminary isn’t designed to provide everything we need for effective ministry. 

                The book is short in length, with chapters that are equally brief.  They’re not intended to be exhaustive, but rather suggestive of challenges and solutions.  Seminary professors in the area of practical ministry will find this useful, as will those who are leading internship practicums.   I think that this is a good resource for clergy just entering ministry to gather with other colleagues in a similar situation to discuss the challenges they’re about to face.  And as I said, those of us who have been on the road for the while will benefit from our conversations instigated by these authors.    Since I’m mentioning this need, I can offer a plug for the Academy of Parish Clergy, which encourages clergy to gather for such conversations.  My sense is that this book will be of greatest benefit if it’s read and discussed in such a group of colleagues, that we might learn from each other.  Besides, if we're going to get to the other side in the company of Jesus we need to row together!


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