Rethinking "The Front Lines" of Ministry

'The Front Line' photo (c) 1918, State Library of New South Wales - license:
Jason Byassee, of Duke Divinity School has put a lot of thought into the notion of ministry being "The Front Lines" of religious work. It's a pretty common metaphor, that I know I've used myself once or twice. The image is that of pastors going off to seminary or Bible College or some education where they are given some knowledge and some training -- sort of "The West Point" of the religious system. And then the pastors become the infantry, heading out to do battle with the devil and the social ills of the world while some of the shots are called by the bigwigs, conference leaders, denominational administrators, the "generals" of the General Conference who never set foot out there in "the trenches of ministry." After all, what do they know about life on the front lines with the MRE rations of church pot-lucks, armor that can't protect against the weapons staff parish committees throw at their pastors, and ineffective "field manuals"?

A couple of problems here:

1) It's a little over-dramatic and violent considering parish ministry.
2) It claims that the work of seminary, and indeed, denominational leadership is not real ministry.

So Byassee offers a medicinal image to take the place of the more militaristic one:

The academy is like a laboratory where we try new things. Some blow up, some disappoint, others contain promise to offer cures. Then the pastor is the physician that Origen discusses in the “Philokalia.” The physician must know all the herbs in the garden, and she must know the precise malady of the patient. Then she can mix up the proper cure for whatever illness she faces. The herb garden is the Scriptures, the concoctions are their mixture in the tradition (a little Esther, some Revelation, and voila!), and their proof is in the health of the church. Both lab researcher and general practitioner are trained as physicians and aim to be healers.

This image still ranks the parish and the academy appropriately. It also judges the academy by how innovative it is in bringing forth new (and old) things for the sake of the church. And its telos is in the health of the body for which we all care.

It’s far from perfect, I grant. What do you think would be better?

Do you have something better to offer?