Reflecting on the Pastorate of Dr. Barnes

A Reflection from Shadyside’s Resident Historian on the Pastorate of Our Tenth Senior Pastor
The Reverend Dr. M. Craig Barnes
The Reverend Dr. M. Craig Barnes

The Reverend Dr. M. Craig Barnes is widely and accurately recognized as one of the best preachers in America. However, those who know him well understand the root of that inspired proclamation: a crucial part of his identity lies in being a pastor. That became clear when he graciously considered the clearly impractical idea of a shared ministry between Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Shadyside Presbyterian Church. Careful analysis showed that the seminary would require two-thirds of his time, and the church would require the other two-thirds of his time. He responded, quite pastorally, that the question is not how to make that work; rather, should it work? If the Holy Spirit is in the call, it will work.

Dr. Barnes recognized that his new congregation had, by 2003, come through a deeply disappointing pastorate, tempered by a long and healing interim pastorate. He urged the church to use its significant legacy as a sail rather than an anchor. He knew that worship — formal, reverential, Reformed worship — is the wellspring of all that Shadyside Church is and does. His refinements to that tradition of excellence helped renew the wellspring.

Dr. Barnes saw an opportunity — a need, really — to expand the church’s mission ministry; and discerned the will of Shadyside members to support that initiative. The congregation embraced the idea to elevate mission leadership to a pastoral position. The success bestowed on our mission work by the Holy Spirit has led us to renew and re-envision that pastoral leadership.

One of Pittsburgh’s best-kept secrets was the genuine welcoming spirit of Shadyside Church. With church leaders, Dr. Barnes guided the congregation to a ministry theme of “Building Community.” One result was the reconfiguration and expansion of our historic buildings to become a more inviting place for fellowship and a more effective base for outreach. A side benefit emerged: the boost of confidence that blesses a congregation when it places faith in a Spirit-led effort.

How do inspired sermons flow out of the pastoral identity of Craig Barnes? When discussing the portfolio of a very busy pastorate, he insisted that he have time for congregational care. He explained that he could not preach to people unless he engaged them personally. In one of his books, Dr. Barnes portrayed the role of preaching pastor as being in the midst of the holy conversation between God’s Word and God’s people. He also once admitted to a friend that, next to his home study, Shadyside’s pulpit was his favorite piece of geography on Earth.

Each of his sermons found an anchor point in the grace of God. A few representative themes demonstrate that grounding:

  • We are not called to be saviors, especially of ourselves. Jesus was dying to be our Savior.
  • Our identity is not defined by our work or even our place in the church. Jesus wants to weave our life stories into His eternal Gospel.
  • We do well to hold God’s gifts in upturned hands to be used for the work of the Kingdom. It is impossible to receive new gifts when we grasp those we already have.
  • The concept of a distinctly individual Christian is a modern construct. For much of history, the Christian life was centered on community.
  • Craig Barnes came to us at Shadyside Church from a seminary. In 2012, the time came for us to release him — to return to a seminary. The lesson of his especially memorable sermon, about the story of David and Jonathan in the Book of Samuel, became very important to us. Life or death can separate us from one we hold dear. But, when the Holy Spirit is in our midst, even in separation, we always get to keep the love.

Now, Craig moves his ministry beyond the institutions of church and academy. Now, we get to reaffirm that love that has bound us in separation. Now, we celebrate that bond by welcoming Craig Barnes back into our community as our Pastor Emeritus.

Elder Timothy C. Engleman

Read the Announcement about Honoring Dr. Barnes as Pastor Emeritus