Incarnational Ministry:Being with the Church .

By Samuel Wells.

Eerdmans. pp. 245. $22

Incarnational Mission: Being with the World .


By Samuel Wells.

Eerdmans. pp. 224. $22

Review by Mark Clavier

How do we relate to others? One can relate to others as a friend, enemy, lover, parent, boss, employee, and so on. Simply being in relationship with others doesn’t tell us much about the nature of how we connect with our neighbors and the world. This would seem to be an obvious point, but it also highlights the need for Christians to think not only about the people to whom they relate but also the nature of those relationships.

That need goes to the heart of Sam Well’s two volumes, Incarnational Ministry, Being with the Church and Incarnational Mission, Being with the World. Sam Wells, formerly the Dean of Duke Chapel, is now rector of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London. While many Americans may know the church as a venue for musical performances or as a major tourist destination, it has long been famous in the UK for its ministry to the homeless. Perfect territory, one might assume, to reflect on the nature of Christian relationships with others.

Wells begins Incarnational Ministry by tackling the question of our relationships directly. Drawing on his previous books, he distinguishes between four types of relationships: working for, working with, being with, being for. When we work for others, we seek their benefit in exchange for some reward like payment, public esteem, or gratitude. Working with others, on the other hand, “locates power in coalitions of interest” (p.9) as we seek to solve problems, achieve goals, and overcome obstacles.

Wells likes neither of these models for describing Christian ministry. Instead, he turns to the idea of presence, which he describes in terms of “being with” and “being for.” Ultimately, he rejects “being for” as an appropriate model because it lacks the energy and hopefulness of working for or with others. Being for others describes the relationship of advocates and champions of causes who, to his mind, worry more about supporting the right things or using the right words than about engaging sympathetically with others.

And so, Wells settles on the model of “being with” as the best place to start in describing Christian mission and ministry. This, of course, fits entirely with his emphasis on the Incarnation as setting the pattern for discipleship, ministry, and mission. Just as Jesus spent much of his ministry being with humanity (Wells highlights that most of Jesus’ earthly ministry was spent being a carpenter), so too are we called to walk alongside others in the world. In his own words,

Its main concern is the predicament that has no solution, the scenario that can’t be fixed. It sees the vast majority of life, and certainly the most significant moments of life, in these terms: love can’t be achieved; death can’t be fixed; pregnancy and birth aren’t a problem needing a solution. When it comes to social engagement, it believes one can seldom solve people’s problems — doing so disempowers them and reinforces their low social standing (p. 9).

This is effectively what others have called the ministry of presence, arguably one of the hallmarks of the Anglican parochial model of mission and ministry. As such, there is a great deal that is attractive about this way of understanding our relationships with those within and outside the church, though it does risk the danger of passivity and ineffectiveness. Presence can often be a euphemism for inaction.

Wells largely avoids this danger by looking at what it means to be with others through eight dimensions: presence, attention, mystery, delight, participation, enjoyment, and glory. These are evocative terms that provide him rich veins of pastoral theology to mine as he looks at what it means to be with God, ourselves, and all the various kinds of people that come into contact with our ministry. He illustrates many of his points with his own experiences and turns for support to a wide array of authors. Incarnational Ministry is worth purchasing just for his description of being with dogs, which brought a tear to my wife’s eyes when I read it to her.

He follows the same pattern in the second volume, Incarnational Mission, to address our relationships in the mission field. These cover such groups as the lapsed and seeker as well as institutions, organizations, the marginalized, and the government. Wells is commendably thorough in the people, social groups, personalities, and social units he addresses. One is reminded after a fashion of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule insofar as he allows the characters of his subjects to guide his advice. There is much for almost anyone, ordained or lay, to learn from his systematic approach to ministry and mission. I personally value his inclusion of delight among the ways we relate to others, as it’s an idea that remains too under-appreciated in our discussions about faith.

For all that, the books left me somewhat underwhelmed. There’s something too systematic about Wells’s approach, too neat about the way all the relationships he describes can be viewed through his eight dimensions. Moreover, these dimensions are numerous enough not to allow him the space to dwell long on any one of them and after a while I found myself plodding through them like an over-long litany. This may, however, speak to my own aversion to systems; others, I suspect, will find it a useful way to proceed. Wells’s use of sources is also somewhat idiosyncratic, representing (one suspects) a bibliography that he personally has found useful rather than a more protracted engagement with the pastoral tradition itself.

Still, Incarnational Ministry and Incarnational Mission will be useful volumes to own — a kind of encyclopedia of pastoral wisdom to dip in and out of and a useful corrective to models of mission and ministry that over-emphasize advocacy or achievement at the expense of personal relationships. Wells’s systematic approach also lends itself to being used as a basis for teaching a church class on how to minister to others and would no doubt provide fodder for fruitful discussion groups. It was certainly written with the general reader in mind.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Mark Clavier is the residentiary canon, or priest in residence, of Brecon Cathedral in mid-Wales.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Mark Clavier is Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Swansea and Brecon in the Church in Wales, Bishop’s Chaplain, and Vicar of St Mary’s Brecon.

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