Diary of a Pastor's Soul (M. Craig Barnes) -- A Review

DIARY OF A PASTOR’S SOUL: The Holy Moments in a Life of Ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2020. 235 pages.

When you hear the words pastor or minister what comes to mind? If you’re a pastor or minister, at least in a Protestant context, what might that life look like? Since ministry has to do with the things of God, what are the holy moments in the life of ministry? To be honest, clergy live rather odd lives. We’re real people, and yet we seem different. At least that’s the perception. When people discover you’re clergy they tend to get quiet. They become more careful about their language and their stories. Not only that, but we also tend not to go out on Saturday nights, when most people throw parties. Then again, who wants a preacher at a party? If clergy live with certain expectations and stereotypes, the same is true for family, who face lives lived in a fishbowl.

If you were to describe the pastoral life, how might you go about it? One could write an academic tome, and many have been written. You could write a memoir, but that becomes difficult due to the need to protect the identities of the people involved. Or, you could write a fictional story that picks up on elements of one’s own story, without revealing too much about the people in your life. Many fictional accounts have been written, some by clergy and some by those who have imagined what that life looks like. Diary of a Pastor’s Soul is a work of fiction that one assumes draws on elements of the author’s own ministry, as well as stories he’s heard (he’s a seminary president after all) that uses the format of a diary to reveal what ministry looks like.

Craig Barnes is the author of this Diary of a Pastor’s Soul. He currently serves as the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, where he also serves as a professor of pastoral ministry. He is an ordained Presbyterian (PCUSA) minister and served at one point as pastor of National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. before going to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary as a professor of pastoral ministry. He has been president of Princeton Seminary since 2013.

The setting for this diary is the fictional pastor’s final year of ministry before retirement. We know from the start that he will retire when the year is up, though he doesn’t reveal this to the congregation until about six months before he will retire. I approached the book from a similar point in the ministerial journey as the fictional pastor. I too am nearing retirement, though I announced my impending retirement about seventeen months out and not six as is true here. His is the normal pattern, though I had my reasons for choosing to reveal my impending retirement when I did. 

The context of ministry appears to be a tall steeple Presbyterian Church, perhaps much like National Presbyterian Church, though Barnes’ tenure wasn’t as long as this pastor’s. We know that this is a multi-staff church that resides in a neo-Gothic building. It is traditional in its style, much as a tall-steeple mainline church might be. This context is much different from the one many of us clergy experience. The vast number of churches are much like mine—under a hundred members. Nevertheless, I think most clergy will identify with elements of the story. At least we have friends and colleagues who fit this picture!

This pastor is sixty-eight at the time that the story begins, making him sixty-nine at the time of his retirement. That seems old to me, but that is the story. This pastor came to the congregation, we're told at one point, when he was thirty-nine, making this a very long tenure. Over the course of the year, which Barnes lays out in weekly posts to his diary, we move from the first inklings that it might be time to retire in July through the announcement until, finally, we get to the big finale—a party held at a hotel ballroom. He tells us he would rather have had a normal potluck, but I’m skeptical. I have to wonder if this kind of church has potlucks!

As we move through the year, we experience the various seasons—Advent, Christmas, Easter. As it is the final year of a ministry, every time is the last time when it comes to these defining moments of pastoral life. I can empathize! We go to meetings, meet with difficult members, and hear reflections on relationships with beloved members. We participate in pastoral care settings and officiate at funerals. Of course, there are maintenance things to take care of. Whether the church is large or small, there are somethings we can’t get away from. Of course, there are reflections as to family relationships. Being sixty-nine his daughter is grown with a family of her own, but there are memories to share. He also reflects on relationships with fellow clergy, specifically two primary conversation partners, a Roman Catholic priest, who serves as father confessor, and a Black Pentecostal pastor. There is a health issue in his own life that never gets shared with the congregation, which is a reminder that clergy often keep matters such as cancer close to the vest. Perhaps we don't want to be seen as vulnerable in that way. 

From beginning to end this fictional pastor seems to have mixed feelings about retirement, which maybe is why he was still serving in this capacity at sixty-nine. He seems ready to move on and yet he's reluctant to let go. He wonders what life in retirement will be like. He speaks, therefore, to the realities many clergy face as they move into retirement. We see some of this present in the epilogue, whee he gives an account of life after ministry  The question is, how do you do church once you're not the pastor? That might be why so many retired pastors do interim ministries (he doesn't do any interims if that helps).

There is much here that any clergyperson can identify with, as well as elements that we know about but haven’t experienced because we’ve never served large churches. While clergy will find this intriguing, nonclergy might find this book illuminating as well. We clergy might not want our church members to read this, but on the other hand, it might be helpful for laypersons to get a sense of what the pastoral life is like, both the holy moments and the less holy ones. It does reflect a more traditional experience of ministry, which we older clergy might resonate with, and younger clergy might not. For those of us, nearing retirement or entering that final year, as is true for me, this does speak!

The book is well written and accessible. It’s what you might expect from an experienced pastor given to preaching, who has also written books and articles that have been well-received. The “chapters,” which come in the form of weekly diary entries (fifty-four in all). Each is no more than four pages in length, and many have only two pages. So, you can read this in spurts and still follow along. It might even by a worthwhile read as a devotional exercise, so as to prepare for the day of ministry (if you’re clergy). Remember this lifts up holy moments, but in the context of real life. 


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