M. Craig Barns offers this fictionalized depiction of a pastor nearing retirement looking back over his years of ministry. Barnes, is currently the president of Princeton Theological Seminary and a professor of pastoral ministry. Coupling his 37 years of pastoral experience with stories from an untold number of pastors he has ministered with and taught, gives him plenty of material to compile a realistic look at the life of a pastor.
The storyline is of a 68-year-old pastor who has served at the same church for 28 years and plans to retire in 12 months. The book is comprised of weekly entries in his diary. Subjects covered are the typical encounters, experiences and ponderings that pastors face in church ministry: difficult members, sermon preparation, troubled souls, heartaches, joys, disappointments, unrealistic expectations, faulty ambitions, the privilege of preaching and yet, the challenge of trying to present the twins of beauty and truth in preaching and in the worship service (p. 188).
From the vantage point of decades of ministry, our fictional pastor has gained much insight into what it means to be a pastor. His personal ambition has morphed into grace, realizing that anything he may have accomplished was by God’s grace (p. 30). He has found that few things are more dangerous for pastors than expectations which are, “actually veiled attempts at controlling the future” (p. 31). “Most of ministry,” he writes, “is just doing small things as faithfully as possible” (p. 30). The pastor appreciates that seminaries teach how to exegete Scripture, but they do not teach how to exegete a congregation (pp. 120-122), for that, boots-on-the-ground ministry is necessary.
It is the hope of a pastor that in time he will gain gravitas – a soul that has gained enough weightiness to be attractive (p. 11). Barnes suggested that “[w]hat most pastors are thinking about as they drive home from their retirement party is not how excited they are to be free of working for the church. They’re thinking that it all went pretty fast, cost so much more than they could have anticipated, and profoundly changed them along the way. And they’re reassuring themselves that they made a difference with this use of their lives” (p. 12). I believe this is profoundly insightful, as is his comment on the best possible retirement gift from his congregation being the benediction: “We’re okay. There will be another pastor. You can go in peace” (p. 230).
The Diary of a Pastor’s Soul is a thought-provoking and helpful read, not just for pastors nearing retirement but for pastors at any stage of ministerial life. Sadly, it is deeply marred by the liberal theology and positions held by its author. This should be expected from the president of an extremely liberal seminary, but it nevertheless distracts from the overall work for those who are more conservative. Still the experiences of pastors, up and down the theological scale, remain remarkably similar.
The book won Christianity Today’s 2020 award of merit in the Church Pastoral Leadership category.
Diary of a Pastor’s Soul, the Holy Moments in a Life of Ministry By M. Craig Barnes (Grand Rapids: BrazosPress, 2020) 235 pp., paper, $18.25
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher at Southern View Chapel