Eugene Peterson never fails to challenge me with his writing. Addressing the common tendency today of many ministers to approach their calling from a managerial and secular perspective he writes in Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, "The greatest errors in the spiritual life are not committed by the novices but by the adepts. The greatest capacity for self-deceit in prayer comes not in the early years but in the middle and late years."
As he notes earlier in the book, once a person has served as a pastor for a period of time he or she "can conduct a fairly respectable pastoral ministry without giving much more than ceremonial attention to God." He compares ministry to a triangle and writes that the "visible lines of pastoral work are preaching, teaching, and administration." It is those lines that our people evaluate, and if we provide those three things we often win the approval of our congregation. However, Peterson points out that we often fail to address the angles of that triangle which he describes as prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. If we disconnect the angles from the lines we no longer have a triangle.
The challenge for many of us in ministry is that the longer we are in ministry the more we are tempted to ignore the angles. The busyness of ministry and life prevents us from times of prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. We know how to do ministry so we continue on, but without that connection to the angles we eventually find that we are functioning solely on our own power.
I have to admit that this has been a challenge for me throughout my ministry. As a bivocational pastor I've frequently found myself too busy to spend the time in prayer and the study of Scripture that I needed to function in my calling. It's never been an intentional thing on my part; it's just a problem that creeps up on me. One day I realize that my devotional life has grown weak, and Peterson's words come back to haunt me. I write this because I doubt that I am the only one who struggles in this area of life.
What happens when we ignore the angles? Frustration. Depression. Burn out. Loss of spiritual zeal. Confusion. Lukewarm preaching and living. Questioning our call to ministry. Do any of these sound familiar?
Of course, the problem is that our congregation does not see us when we are on our knees in our study. They don't see us as we study the Scriptures, not for our next sermon, but for our own spiritual development. They see us when we stop in a hospital room or attend a Little League game to cheer on players from the church. They see us when we give the prayer to open the Rotary meeting and when we stand in the pulpit on Sunday morning. They see us when we attend the many meetings on the church's schedule. It is those visible times of ministry that they see, and applaud, and for which they reward us.
However, we must never forget that God does see us when our congregation cannot. He sees and hears us when we pray. He sees us diligently searching the Scriptures that we might know Him better. He sees us when we offer spiritual direction to one who is lost. "And your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly."
The reward is that we will not have to do ministry under our own power and abilities. The reward is that our ministry will be more effective, not for our honor, but for His glory. The reward will be when we enter into heaven and hear those wonderful words, "Well done, good and faithful servant...." Do not neglect the angles.