Relational Ministry is not a Strategy

In the history of thought the one person who plumbed the depths of relationship was Martin Buber in his famous I and Thou. That book deserves to be read again and again by pastors and leaders in order to comprehend both our relation to God and our relation to others. Few ministry books have plumbed that kind of book, but we are in a new day… a day when more might turn to relational ministries.

What is a relational ministry?

Relational ministry is about persons and about personhood. “We have deeply wanted our ministry to be relational, but not for the sake of persons, for the sake of ministry, for the sake of bringing success to our initiatives… So when we speak of ‘relational,’ we usually mean it as another strategy” (17). So Andrew Root in his excellent new book, The Relational Pastor: Sharing in Christ by Sharing Ourselves.

The idea that relationships are not a strategy is potent; and the sad commentary proceeds to say that often relationships are seen as a strategy, a means to accomplish great things — except love and relationship are not what is really wanted. We want to appear relational so people will like what we have to offer. It’s the difference between wanting a good marriage and loving the person you married.

Or as Andrew Root says it, “It becomes about using a relationship to get them to become loyal to the idea of Jesus, as opposed to encountering the person of Jesus” (18). Root proposes — and will develop — a distinction between an individual and personhood.  He “sees relationship with others as the very ontological structure of our humanity” (18). We are our relationships.

He wants to claim that relationships are an “end” in ministry. I agree but I’d say that love or, better yet, the person is the end rather than the relationship, but I suspect we are saying the same thing.

Individualism has no place for empathy; personhood does. “It sucks to be you!” is individualism. When we become empathic toward someone we leave individualism and enter personhood. Instead of saying “It sucks to be you” we say “I’m sorry.”

“To have our person embraced is to find our person bound to others and therefore transformed in and through the relationship” (21).

Root explores a proposed history of ministry:

In the hunter-gatherer framework the minister is the cosmic storyteller.

In the agricultural framework the minister is the manager and mediator of divine things.

In the steam and coal transition — industrial revolution — the minister perpetuated and protected a way of life. The pastor is a moral exemplar.

In the electric and managed oil transition — the second industrial revolution — the minister is involved in programmed intervention. The pastor becomes an entrepreneurial, entertaining, and a self-help therapeutician. The model of ministry here is influence.

Are we in a new day? Are we entering into a new day of relational ministries? He proposes the new pastor will be the “convener of empathic encounter of personhood” (44).

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • RJS

    This post strikes a nerve with me – there is a huge difference between fake relationship and artificial “community” as a strategy to achieve a goal and authentic relationship and community.

  • http://differentcloth.blogspot.com Jeff Stewart

    Relationship/Community are accomplished and enhance the transformation process when they are exercised on a common level. There are no one-day events, platforms or pews involved. Peter’s transformation is enhanced as he is instructed by the uncircumcised Cornelius. Saul’s transformation is enhanced as he is encouraged by Barnabas. Timothy’s transformation…
    Certainly sounds strategic in a same plane context.

  • Greg D

    The book, “Love Without Agenda” by Jimmy Spencer is the focus of this very subject. I highly recommend it.

    As a church planter serving in a foreign country I have to often check my own motives when I develop new relationships with people. Quite often I find myself developing new relationships with people because my primary intention is to tell them about Jesus. On the other hand, that is what I am here for. I am not here to make a bunch of friends, but to share Christ, make disciples, and enable local believers to start a church. Sure, friendships naturally evolve from these relationships, but sometimes they don’t. I can only look to Jesus as my example. And, quite often I see Him getting to know people before sharing a spiritual truth with them. And, that is what I have found to be the best way to introduce the love, the grace, and truth of Christ to people through both word and deed.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I enjoy and affirm Root’s emphasis on relationship as the goal rather than as a strategy, but I think even he may lose that emphasis when he moves to this construction of historical periods and corresponding ministerial types. I could be wrong but I instantly felt a shift to abstract analysis when Scot moved to analysis of the history of ministry.

    I myself have been working through a message that Noel Castelllanos of CCDA gave us a few weeks back. He noted that when people of privilege enter real relationships with people who are marginalized or dis-priviledged — whether by race, class, gender identity or less education — we stop dealing with abstract “issues” and begin addressing policies that matter visecerally becaus they affect people who we know and so affect us. Witness Sen. Bob Portman, when the issue gay marriage became personal, he changed his public political position.

    This I believe is the key to developing multi-cultural churches. Only when we gather and worship together and advocate together with people who are affected differently than we are, can we really viscerally relate to them and the affects of policies on them.

  • Adam

    What I want to add to this conversation is that relationships and empathy are not natural, nor are they easy and we need training in both. We need to be taught these things and we need to learn these things in much the same way we need to be taught math or yoga.

  • http://www.dennisredwards.com Dennis

    I wonder if the kind of emphasis the book seems to encourage will allow a shift in the kind of people we have as pastors. some of us are more naturally relational and less “entrepreneurial,” but i haven’t felt the church valued such relational leaders in recent years. Yet I assumed being relational was a prerequisite for ministering in the style of Jesus. however, the models of pastoral ministry that are pushed before us–at least in evangelicalism–do not focus on relational ministry, but the ” the second industrial revolution” type you noted.

  • http://www.schooleyfiles.com Keith Schooley

    I think that to the extent that emerging and missional models of ministry have failed and are failing, it is due precisely to this point. Leaders have wanted a relational strategy rather than relationships for their own sake. It comes down to the same personal kingdom building (not Jesus’ Kingdom building) that they think they’re rejecting from the old Evangelical models.

    I agree with Randy (#4) – the point is lost when we focus on time periods and developing methods of ministry. If relational ministry were simply the best method for the time period we are moving into, then it would be merely a strategy, undercutting Root’s main point.

  • http://brothergary.wordpress.com Gary Lynch

    I guess being “intentionally relational” could be seen as a strategy. But when the desired end result is being incarnational, I don’t think it matters what word we use to describe it. Being presence, is simply being presence. Maybe instead of strategic we can just say we are being faithful to our calling as followers of Christ and that includes both being presence and seeking out presence through relational means.

    Thanks for the post Scot.


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