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August 7th, 2011

The longer I serve as a pastor, the more I’m convinced my critics are right.

Which ones?  Pretty much all of them.  It’s not that they’re right about everything, just that most of their complaints have merit.  I mess up a lot.

Eugene Peterson gave me the courage, and the words, to say so.  Writing to a young pastor late in his ministry, Peterson said, “It amazes me still how much of the time I simply don’t know what I am doing, don’t know what to say, don’t know what the next move is” (315).

In a culture of self-definition and self-defense, pastors like everyone else are tempted to excuse or cover our incompetencies.  Peterson’s right when he says that we discover and develop “ways of escape” to mask “the ambiguity of being a pastor.”  We program new ideas, we develop vision statements, we raise money, we undertake study programs, we devise marketing strategies, we organize and administrate, and we stay really, really, really busy.  All the while underneath, we confess only to ourselves (and sometimes not even to ourselves) that we don’t know what we’re doing or what to say.

What’s wrong with that?  The fact that we don’t know is probably what’s wrong with it.

Every pastor, old and young, and everyone who wants to understand the vocation of pastor, should read Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor.   

One would think that the author of multiple books on pastoral ministry and the translator of The Message would have drawn enough attention to grow a megachurch across a 30-year period.  Had I lived within an hour of BelAir, Maryland (and weren’t a pastor), I would have loved to sit under Peterson’s ministry.  The church never grew past 500 in membership during his tenure.

The main reason that Eugene Peterson never shepherded a megachurch is that he chose not to.  In fact, he deliberately acted in ways that discouraged rapid growth.  He writes in the introduction to his memoir that he loves America, but he doesn’t “love the rampant consumerism that treats God as a product to be marketed.  I don’t love the dehumanizing ways that turn men, women, and children into impersonal roles and causes and statistics” (4-5).    Pastors who eschew busyness, take month-long vacations every summer, and get out of the way so their lay leaders can “run the church” do not wind up creating the kind of church that markets itself effectively to the American ethos.

Peterson’s memoir is as easy to read (maybe because I’m a pastor?) as a novel.  It’s fascinating to travel with him to his childhood in Montana, where his itinerant Pentecostal preacher-mother and his workaholic butcher father shaped both what he would become and would refuse to become.  I have to admit to a little pastoral envy for someone who can remember details from his childhood so vividly.  Much of mine is a blank.  I’m also a little envious of his scholarly mind and skill with the pen.  If I feel any disconnect with his vocation, it’s that Peterson was the founding pastor of his congregation, shaping its values and systems from birth.  Most of us inherit a set of pre-existing complexities.

Peterson identified many factors that shaped him into what he calls a “contemplative pastor” (also the name of one of his earlier books) – “a pastor who was able to be with people without having an agenda for them, a pastor who was able to accept people just as they were and guide them gently and patiently into a mature life in Christ but not get in the way, let the Holy Spirit do the guiding” (211).

That’s the kind of pastor I want to be.  My critics through the years would say I’ve not done it well.  At times I’ve been manipulative and insistent about my own agenda.  At times I’ve been less than intentional about giving Christ-centered direction, about what Peterson calls paying attention and calling attention to how God is at work.  It continually amazes me how many diversions to that primary work find their way into my soul and my schedule.

But thankfully this vocation is not limited to those who get it right.  In fact, this book, which only exposed more of what I don’t do well, ironically affirmed my calling as a pastor.  The role of a pastor isn’t to get it right all the time; the most essential qualification of a pastor is the sense of security in Christ’s grace that allows me to admit that I don’t get it right.  When I let go of my need to lead out of competence and instead shepherd out of vulnerability and weakness, I do my best pastoral work. 

The biggest problem with churches, I like to say, is that they’re full of sinners.  It’s not my job to sanctify them.  It’s my job to think deeply about the forces and pace (slow!) that shape me, and make plenty of room for the Holy Spirit to do the same in others.

Eugene Peterson helps me do that.

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