Thursday, March 21, 2013

The ministry of the pastor

In yesterday's post I referred to a book I was reading, The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene Peterson.  Last night I finished reading the book.  I have long been a fan of Peterson's books, but this is my favorite as it gave me some insights into the journey that led him to write his other books.  More importantly, this book explains why he became the type of pastor he was, an unbusy pastor.

Many of us in ministry, especially those of us who are bivocational, are in constant motion.  We go from church to job to family activity to a dozen other things.  What often suffers in all that activity is our own personal walk with God.  We are so busy doing things for God that we fail to spend time with God.  We spend so much time with people that we can never really be with any of them.  Peterson found himself in that situation.  One night his daughter asked him to read her a story, and he responded he had to attend a church meeting that night.  She replied this was the 27th night in a row he had attended a meeting.  She was counting.  It broke his heart, and when he went to the meeting he told his elders he was resigning as their pastor.

When the elders asked why he wanted to resign he explained that he had become a pastor he did not want to be.  He wanted to pray, to study, to spend unhurried time with people so as to really understand their lives, and to lead the congregation in worship and a deeper walk with God.  He wanted to be an unhurried pastor, and he could not do that while trying to run the church and meet all the demands that entailed.  The elders asked him to trust them to handle the business of the church so he could become the pastor he wanted to be. By the end of the meeting they worked together to reorganize the administrative work of the church, and Peterson never attended another meeting except for the monthly elder meeting.

The entire book was a refreshing look at the life of a pastor, but that particular story really spoke to me.  So much of my ministry was spent feeling like I was a hamster in a wheel, always running but often going nowhere.  Although our church experienced many good things during my pastorate with them, much of my activity was just that, activity that accomplished little.  It wasn't until the last few years of my pastorate that we took seriously Ephesians 4 and began training the saints to do the work of ministry.  In the elder's meeting Peterson admitted he didn't trust them to handle the work of the church, and I suppose the same could have been said about me.  The reason Peterson and I didn't trust our church leaders was that neither of us had ever taken the time to teach them how to do that work.  We bought into the separation between clergy and laity and assumed that the work of the church was limited to the professional clergy.  Peterson learned that was not true much earlier in his ministry than I did, but it was a lesson that improved both our lives and that of our churches.

Due to my age it is doubtful I will ever return to pastoral ministry, but if I did I would want to be an unbusy pastor.  Frankly, that would not be popular in many of our churches.  People tend to judge pastors the same as they judge business leaders and those who play sports.  We measure the things that can be seen, and we keep track of the things that are most important to our particular organizations.  For pastors that is often the holy trinity of buildings, budgets, and baptisms.  In smaller churches it could even be how many committee meetings the pastor attended, how many times he or she went to the hospital or visited in member's homes, and whether or not he or she keeps regular office hours in case someone wants to drop by.

It's not nearly as easy to measure the prayer and devotional life of the pastor or the impact a casual conversation the pastor has with a server at a diner.  Congregations that measure the pastors' sermon by how it made them feel often have no idea how many hours were spent in the study to prepare that message or the ones that perhaps didn't create great feelings but took them deeper into the Scriptures in order to solidify their faith.

By the way, we in ministry often judge the quality of our own ministries by how busy we are as well.  I cannot tell you how many pastors have shown me their full calendars as proof of their worth as pastors.  It seems as if they can fill every day with activities it vindicates their calling as pastor.  After reading Peterson's book I will probably ask when they will have time for the unexpected ministry opportunity God will bring into their lives.  Where is their time for God?  If possible, I would make Peterson's book required reading for every minister, especially for those just starting.  I truly believe most of us could learn much about what pastoral ministry really is all about by reading his ministerial journey.

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