3 questions with Ray Van Neste
Ray Van Neste serves as assistant professor of Christian studies and is director of the R.C. Ryan Center for Biblical Studies at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. Van Neste writes regularly on pastoral ministry and serves as an elder in a local church in Jackson. Van Neste edits a popular blog called "Oversight of Souls," where he regularly challenges ministers to undertake the personal care of the souls of church members in addition to faithful preaching. He presented a paper at the recent Baptist identity conference at Union on the pastor's call to shepherd the flock.
You write a lot about the idea of a pastor being a shepherd of the flock instead of being one who is a mere ‘dispenser of sermons.' Do you see a resurgence of this approach to soul care among the pastors and future pastors you teach?
Ray Van Neste: No, I don't yet. I see students here who, when they are exposed to this idea, rally to it. But for many of them, it's new; they've never really heard this idea before. It's what we do in our pastoral care class and they typically come up to me say, ‘Man, this is great.' I had one young man e-mail me and tell me he was praying for my paper at this conference on this. He said, ‘These are the truths I heard as a 19-year-old and I am now basing my life and ministry on them." But I don't hear it a lot. More of what I hear from guys coming out of seminary is their preaching, which of course is important and we have to make that clear. But I hear that and I don't hear the other. I hear an attitude sometimes that communicates, ‘[Preaching] is important, so I can't bother with people.' Now, they don't say it that harshly, but their attitude toward it does. That is partly what has given me the desire to make it a more important issue because I think it is missing.
During the Puritan era in England and America and even beyond, it certainly was a major pastoral emphasis. Where did we lose the shepherding pastor and replace him with the professional minister?
RVN: I don't know enough to speak real authoritatively, but there are a few things that seem obvious. Greg Wills talks about when you come to the early 20th century, there was a move from purity to pragmatism or "efficiency" is the word he uses, I think. This kind of ministry is not efficient. So we've moved in that sense. When you move to a more program-driven, efficiency model, then this is going to begin to slide. You find evidence of it in the 1950s, but as the business and efficiency model continued to grow, this fell out. It can't fit along with all the other things that are crowding in, particularly the CEO mentality. Then you also have that idea that [the pastor] is too important to do this. And of course, this is hard, so we look for other ways out. It's easier to preach against adultery than it is to sit down with a man who has walked out on his family and rebuke him and call him to repentance. It is easier to preach on obedience to the parents in your church than it is to sit down with a rebellious child in your church or simply to call him out at church while everybody else is watching him do what he is doing, but nobody else is willing to stop him and speak to him. I think it fits with our whole scattering from one another and just being by ourselves. It fits with our move from church being a community towards just being a place where you show up and get your card punched. All that impersonal drive of culture has affected this too.
Who and what writings/books have been your main influences?
RVN: As I came through seminary and doctoral work, I had some older pastors to ask me, ‘Do you think people are caring for the flock?' They understood that I cared about preaching and sound doctrine, but didn't think I cared about the other thing (pastoral care) and that was a challenge to me. I had to reconsider. Then, Richard Baxter's "Reformed Pastor" was a key for me. Baxter and also Eugene Peterson have probably been the two biggest influences. I think there is a lesson there with Peterson. I say ‘Eugene Peterson' and a lot of people freak out, and I certainly have my differences with Eugene Peterson, but people who are wrong on one thing can be right on other things. In my estimation, he is the wisest voice writing on this topic today, at least in my experience.