Book Review: “Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and Not-so-Young) Ministers” by Anthony B. Robinson, Cascade Books, 2020. (Link to the book at Wipf and Stock here.)
By Richard L. Floyd
This little book is well-titled, for it is both useful and wise. In the interest of transparency, let me say that I have known Tony Robinson as a friend and interlocutor for decades. During that time, I have admired his many writings, which are clearly and concisely written, and grow out of his pastoral experience and long years as a church consultant.
One of my canny theology professors was once described to me as “a fly on the wall.” What was meant by this is that he watched and listened and paid attention to what was before him. Tony, as self-described introvert, is like that. If he hasn’t “seen it all” in the panoply of both congregational grandeur and misery, he’s seen most of it. And he has written about it all in a shelfful of books (my favorite is “What’s Theology Got to Do With It?” even though it didn’t sell that well. He told me his publisher told him that “books with theology in the title don’t sell.” More’s the pity.)
“Useful Wisdom” came about as a request to Tony from two young ministers in their first call. Like many of us, they discovered that their seminary education had prepared them well for many things, but being a pastoral minister wasn’t one of them (they didn’t say that, I did).
Tony and I share the fact that both our daughters, roughly contemporaries, are ordained ministers serving local congregations. Tony’s daughter and her colleague provided some topics for Tony to opine about and he did so with clarity and grace,
Beginning with “A Sense of Purpose” in Part One, Tony shares his wisdom about how to stay energized and avoid burn-out in the ministry, and explores “What is the Gospel?” and “The Marks of the Church.”
Part Two asks “How Can I Live with This Job?” Here he speaks about being grounded, self-care, and the observing of healthy boundaries. And, speaking as one who knows, he offers a valuable reflection on “Remaining Faithful Amid Trials.”
Part Three might be called “nut and bolts” or “where the rubber meets the road.” He wisely calls it “Shop Craft.” This section alone is worth the cost of the book. He begins at the beginning: “Starting Out in a New Call.” He tells them: you’ve got to pay attention to your setting. When he began his own first call his seminary advisor told him to put on your “anthropologist’s hat.” To do so “use your newness—it won’t last long.“ “Ask innocent questions about how thngs are done and why.” Work at building trust over time through “commitment, competence and character.” Don’t be afraid to disappoint people. “You aren’t the Messiah (thankfully, that job is taken.”) Beware of those who want to be your best friend. “A pastor who tries to meet each and every expectation will end up like a Golden Retriever at a whistler’s convention—running in every direction and soon exhausted.”
More useful wisdom comes about in his thoughts on “Praying in Public.” “Relationships with Colleagues” and “Meetings, Meetings, Meetings.” He wisely suggests you, as pastor, become a theological reflector, to bring some theological perspective to the meeting.
In like manner his letter “Inviting God to the Meeting” recalls his Congregational forbears who insisted that when the congregation meets for “business” they employ the same approach as they do in worship, waiting on the Holy Spirit of God to discern what God would have them do.
This Part has useful wisdom on preaching (‘Is There a Word from the Lord?”), leadership and prophetic leadership. In “Prophetic Leaderships” Tony laments the loss of this important role in many of our churches: “too many clergy think their job is to be ‘Rev. Nice,’ to be the most loving, patient, caring person in the known world. But this job is more complicated, interesting, and dangerous than that. Loving people and challenging them—even as our faith and God do both, love us and challenge us.”
Part Three ends with the important question “How Long Shall I Stay?’ in which he argues for the fine line between long enough and not too long. He warns against paying too much attention to the nay-sayers: He says, again wisely, “Don’t act from a distorted picture of reality based on hurt and frustration.”
Part Four is called “Tough Stuff” and he works through the nettles of “Personnel Issues,” “Bullies,” “The Former Pastor Problem,” and last, but not least, “Money.” He writes, “Money and how we use it is a kind of barometer of our faith and spiritual health. Just as going sailing without checking the barometer would not be smart, so ignoring the role of money in people’s lives and in the life of the church is a missed opportunity.”
Part Five is “The Future of the Church.” Here we see Tony’s astute attention to reality combined with his faithful hope. The “mainline” church has been in decline in numbers and dollars and social impact since before Tony (and I) were ordained. In “Dealing with the Narrative of Decline” he doesn’t deny the decline, but recasts it in a more theological angle. “If I read the biblical story at all accurately, it seems to me that God specializes in situations of the decline and people who might be said to be unlikely choices or in one state of decline or another.” He mentions Abraham and Sarah, well into their declining years, who God chooses to be carriers of the Promise.
In “How Do We Breathe Life into the Institutional Church?” Tony offers some wise observations such as: “What I notice about churches where there is greater vitality is that the focus is less on the church itself and more on God (Jesus, Holy Spirit). In such churches the church is not an end in itself, but a means to a larger end.” “Dive into Scripture.” “Focus on Jesus. He is amazing. Always upsetting expectations. Forever turning the world upside down.”
Part Six is “The Church of the Future.” His letter “Building the Front Porch” uses the metaphor of the front porch, a space somewhere between private an public, to suggest that a nimble congregation will have entry ways for people to come in and ways to reach out to its community. He asks the question, “What is God already up to in this community, this neighborhood?”
In his letter “Telling the Truth” he takes on ““a religion of virtue.’ The virtuous are loved, saved, and acceptable to God, to other people, and to themselves. But that’s not the gospel. The gospel is that, sinner that you are, God loves you and is for you.” We have to stop playing pretend and start telling the truth to each other.
In “Pay Attention to the Energy” he has wise advice about worship. The “Worship Wars” focused on “right and wrong” ways to worship. The church of the future will need to be about God’s power. “Worship, when it is alive and faithful, tend to get us out of our heads alone and move us into our hearts.”
In “Rethinking Mission” Tony suggests new ways of thinking about our ministries of service and justice, the outreach of the church. “ He asks, “Why do we do these things? Like build homes, serve meals, tutor children, visit those in prison? We may say, ‘To help the needy,’ or ‘to make the world a better place,’ or even, ‘Because Jesus said we should.’ There’s nothing, of course, wrong with any of these answers. But in the time after Christendom (Christian dominance of our culture) and in the new post-Christian future, a better reason for these ministries of service and justice may be that their purpose is to change the lives of our members. As I see it, the main task of the church in our new time is forming people in a particular faith and way of life, a life shaped by Jesus and following him.”
Tony’s conclusion is called “Delight in Your Calling.” Tony and I are contemporaries, and we began and ended our active ministries about the same time. I found his conclusion to be both joyful and encouraging, as he told these two young women pastors, Yes, this calling is worth doing, worth giving your life for.
He writes that C.S. Lewis called worship, somewhat paradoxically, “joy” and “the serious business of heaven.” He doesn’t want to suggest that you always have to “be light and bubbly, never serious. Actually, I’m sort of sick of that. But I am suggesting that at some deep-down level you need to delight in what we’ve go going on here as church, as people of the unexpected God.”
What are the sources of this delight? One is scripture. Another is Jesus, himself. Tony confesses, “I couldn’t have always said that. At times Jesus, or how Jesus was portrayed, I found more off-putting than delightful.”
He closes with a testimony that he loved the Jesus he met through the years in the New Testament, and in the Risen One he had met in life.
He tells these young pastors: “In the end our delight in him, in his table-turning, world shattering, dying and rising way among us. You are one of his messengers. Delight in this calling.”
Put this graceful book in the hands of a young pastor or seminarian, or any minister, for that matter. It is not only joyful and faithful, it is wise and useful.