By Chaplain Mike
Part three of a four-part series.
Chaplain Mike the Pastor
I have been in pastoral ministry since 1978, when I graduated from Bible college.
- I served as an assistant pastor in my home church (Southern Baptist) the summer after I graduated from Bible college.
- For five years, I was the pastor of a small (75-100) church in Vermont. It was an American Baptist Church that became independent of the association.
- While in seminary, I pastored an IFCA Bible Church in the Chicago area.
- We moved to Indianapolis, where I was an associate pastor, responsible for worship and music and other ministries for nine years in a non-denominational church.
- I then became the senior pastor in a smaller sister church south of Indy.
- Now, I serve in a community-based pastoral ministry as a hospice chaplain.
At times, I was a good pastor. At other times, I was awful, I’m sure. But through all the years, a few things have remained constant, at least in my understanding of what a pastor should do: (1) teaching the Scriptures, (2) leading God’s people in worship, (3) working with people personally to help them grow in faith, (4) providing pastoral care to those in need, and (5) helping people have a vision for and participate in God’s worldwide mission.
As I’ve watched what is happening in evangelical churches over the years, I’m not sure others have shared that same understanding.
Evangelicalism’s Pastoral Issue
In my opinion, few have spoken with regard to the ministry of pastors as powerfully as Eugene Peterson. His ideas will dominate my own critique in this post. I begin with a quote:
When I look for help in developing my pastoral craft and nurturing my pastoral vocation, the one century that has the least to commend it is the twentieth. Has any century been so fascinated with gimmickery, so surfeited with fads, so addicted to nostrums, so unaware of God, so out of touch with the underground spiritual streams which water eternal life? In relation to pastoral work the present-day healing and helping disciplines are like the River Platte as described by Mark Twain, a mile wide and an inch deep. They are designed by a people without roots in an age without purpose for a people without God.
Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, p. 12
Until about a century ago, what pastors did between Sundays was a piece with what they did on Sundays. The context changed: instead of an assembled congregation, the pastor was with one other person or with small gatherings of persons, or alone in study and prayer. The manner changed: instead of proclamation, there was conversation. But the work was the same: discovering the meaning of Scripture, developing a life of prayer, guiding growth into maturity.
…The between-Sundays work of American pastors in this century, though, is running a church.
The Contemplative Pastor, p. 66f
If not “running a church,” then what?
In the above quotes, Eugene Peterson contrasts two understandings of the pastoral vocation. One grows out of the Biblical and traditional understanding of the pastor as shepherd. The other is rooted in American corporate culture.
In his teaching, Peterson defines the shape of true pastoral work as a triangle. With a triangle, it is important to get the ANGLES right. The precision of the angles determines the shape of the triangle and the length of each line. If the angles are all constructed equally, the result is a triangle with matching sides, perfectly balanced.
In pastoral ministry, Peterson says there are three â€œanglesâ€ that form the shape of our work: (1) Prayer, (2) Scripture, and (3) Spiritual Direction. If we properly understand and give attention to these angles, we fulfill our ministerial calling, and the â€œlines,â€ which represent the activities in which we engage, will fall into place.
By his definition, then, a pastor is called to be a person who attends to God throughâ€¦
- Prayerâ€”living in a responsive, conversational relationship with God,
- Scriptureâ€”living a contemplative life that is immersed in the words of the Bible,
- Spiritual directionâ€”being with people in community and individually for the cure and care of their souls
If we “work these angles” and let them shape us, the result will be a pastoral ministry that has integrity, depth, and appropriate balance. Peterson comments,
None of these acts is public, which means that no one knows for sure whether or not we are doing any of them. People hear us pray in worship, they listen to us preach and teach from the Scriptures, they notice when we are listening to them in a conversation, but they can never know if we are attending to God in any of this. It doesnâ€™t take many years in this business to realize that we can conduct a fairly respectable pastoral ministry without giving much more than ceremonial attention to God. Since we can omit these acts of attention without anybody noticing, and because each of the acts involves a great deal of rigor, it is easy and common to slight them.
This is not entirely our fault. Great crowds of people have entered into a grand conspiracy to eliminate prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction from our lives. They are concerned with our image and standing, with what they can measure, with what produces successful church-building programs and impressive attendance charts, with sociological impact and economic viability. They do their best to fill our schedules with meetings and appointments so that there is time for neither solitude nor leisure to be before God, to ponder Scripture, to be unhurried with another person.
â€¦Pastoral work disconnected from the angle actionsâ€”the acts of attention to God in relation to myself, the biblical communities of Israel and church, the other personâ€”is no longer given its shape by God. Working the angles is what gives shape and integrity to the daily work of pastors and priests. If we get the angles right it is a simple matter to draw in the lines. But if we are careless with or dismiss the angles, no matter how long or straight we draw the lines we will not have a triangle, a pastoral ministry.Working the Angles, p. 4f
In my years as a pastor in local congregations, I saw (and lived out) some very different incarnations of ministry, pastoral caricatures which would lead one to suspect some poorly drawn angles. Here are a few I have witnessed and experiencedâ€¦
Faster than Mr. Answer Man! More powerful than a German theologian! Able to parse Greek verbs with a single glance! I have been the professor. I have attempted to turn small churches into seminaries. At times, I held the belief that discipleship means opening a new convertâ€™s head and pouring in vast amounts of Biblical and theological knowledge. Many pastors love to teach. We were trained to teach. We got the idea, somehow, mistakenly, that what it really takes to help people follow Christ is for pastors to teach them Bible stories and Bible facts and Bible passages and Bible themes until their cranial cavities are bursting with sound doctrine. So, sanctuaries become lecture halls, words like â€œeschatologicalâ€ are taught to toddlers, and congregations split over the number of links in the chain that will bind Satan during the Millennium.
I believe in deep, sound, faithful teaching, but pastors are not simply professors, and churches are not classrooms. How dull would that be?
THE MASTER OF CEREMONIES
This guy knows how to work a room. With Osteenesque brilliance, this genial host makes everyone feel welcome. Praying in public, he warms each oneâ€™s heart. As Master of Ceremonies, he makes certain that the presentation is impeccable, his stage manner flawless. His stories make you feel good. He speaks in sayings that are consistently clever and witty. Did I mention that smile? His sermons (â€œtalksâ€) may not have depth, but they are eminently listenable. He is always positive, always affirming, always patting little children on the head, always making sure that people leave feeling better than when they came in. He never forgets a name. He could sell sand in the Sahara.
We all appreciate positive, affirming people, and we should. We should also be as encouraging and winsome as possible toward others. However, being a pastor is not to be equated with being â€œMr. Personality.â€ Ask Luther or Tozer, or better yet, their congregations.
First one in the door, last one to leave. Responsible for each detail of the operation. Familiar with every inch of the property and every last piece of inventory. Takes his work home and burns the midnight oil pouring over the books. Never takes a vacation; in fact, rarely takes a lunch! Eats, drinks, sleeps, and breathes the business. Always working on new ideas to make things better and more profitable. Keeps one eye on the competition at all times. â€œWorkaholicâ€ is an insultâ€”he is more dedicated than that. The answer to every problem is simply to roll up his sleeves and hit it a little harder.
I admire dedicated pastors who work hard. Slothfulness is a sin, and diligence is a virtue. It may very well be better to burn out than to rust out. I just donâ€™t think itâ€™s the pastor’s calling. Even God stopped working at one point; we call that Sabbath. It doesnâ€™t all depend on you, Mr. Shopkeeper.
THE DRILL SERGEANT
Mr. Shopkeeper thinks he has to do it all himself. At least this next pastoral type understands that people in the congregation must also have an active faith that works. In fact, that is his sole focus. People, get busy! You have been saved to serve! Start standing on the promises rather than sitting on the premises! God wants to direct your life, but he canâ€™t steer a bicycle that is standing still, only one that is moving! To the work! The Drill Sergeant takes the urgency thatâ€™s burning in his own soul and urges it onto others with constant, fervent appeals for folks to get busy for the Lord by getting involved in the church program. His counsel to anyone who has a spiritual problem is to stop focusing on self and start working for Christ. He has no time for spiritual navel-gazing or people who want to waste time. When the house is on fire, you donâ€™t sit around sharing your feelings.
Yes, pastors are called to assist people in using their spiritual gifts for the Bodyâ€™s benefit and the worldâ€™s blessing. However, we are shepherds, not sheep dogs. Sheep must be led, not driven.
Natural born leader, remarkably gifted, entrepreneurial, expert in his field, with great capacity for understanding large organizations, an uncanny knack for administrating them, and endless energy to keep it all going, this is the “rancher” that the church growth movement used to talk about. (As in, a shepherd cares for a flock, but a rancher oversees an operation; ergo, for churches to grow really, really big they need ranchers not pastors.) The guy’s ambitious and knows how to build. He could run a Fortune 500 company; instead he runs the incredibly complex megachurch. He is high profile, thrives on new challenges, and earns the respect of the business folks who used to thumb their noses at the church. Finally, they say, a minister we can respect! A guy who can duke it out with the bankers and politicians! He does it the American way and does it right.
Thank God for this pastor’s amazing gifts. The problem comes when he is lifted up as THE model for pastoral success. Then the whole enterprise for all of us becomes about being big and excellent, and about having more, and about leadingÂ a “great” church. Ever gone to a pastor’s conference where the keynote speaker was Pastor Joe from rural Kansas, who shared about his church’s great success in reaching four new children for VBS this year? Didn’t think so. He’s a shepherd, not a rancher.
THE VISIONARY LEADER
The pastor who has regular visions may or may not become a CEO-type. He may not have the stuff to build big, but he sure dreams and talks big. There is always something great on the horizon and his job is to see it and rally the troops in hot pursuit. To use the lingo, he devotes a great deal of effort to “vision-casting” (ugh), continually challenging his congregation to new heights, ever the cheerleader to spur them on, always ladling out the hot sauce to keep the enthusiasm high. After all, God is in the business of doing new things… today… tomorrow… all the time… everywhere… for everyone! His sermons are rife with military metaphorsâ€”conquest, triumph, and victory over the strong forces arrayed against us. He knows how to raise the flag and get the patriots to cheer.
Nothing wrong with enthusiasm or being on the outlook for new direction from the Spirit. However, having my eyes fixed on the horizon may mean missing something right beside me, something not so exciting or dazzling but perhaps even more important. Why not lead the flock beside quiet waters once in awhile?
THE SPIRITUAL TECHNICIAN
Have I got a program for you! Take this discipleship course, and in thirteen weeks, guaranteed or your money back, you will be a mature follower of Christ! Memorize this packet of Bible verses and your mind will be renewed! Follow these nine steps and you will be financially free! Here are some Christian diet suggestions to keep you healthy, a Christian exercise video to keep you fit, Christian clothing so you can be a public witness, Christian music for your CD player to keep you holy while you drive, a Christian Yellow Pages so that you never have to hire someone who doesn’t work “as unto the Lord,” Christian child-raising tips so your kids will turn out just right, a Christian sex video to keep your marriage smoking hot, and our latest church newsletter so you can find something to do at the church building every day of the week. By such means, pastoral ministry morphs into programmatic activity.
The technician pastor believes in a lot of this stuff. He probably has testimonials to back up the claims. It’s simple. It’s easy. It works. Where’s God?
In the entrepreneurial, anti-tradition, historically ignorant, low-accountability world of evangelicalism, pastors are pretty much free to choose their identity and many end up like the caricatures above.
Of course, each description contains elements of genuine pastoral ministry, but only when we properly “work the angles” at the heart of our calling can we escape the unbalanced approaches that are more determined by personality and culture than Biblical wisdom.
Much more to say, but…
I am sure these problems are not unique to evangelical churches and pastors, but this is the world with which I am familiar. One reason we chose to go to a historic mainline church was because there are older and more theologically-informed traditions that shape the pastoral office in Lutheranism. When I was in evangelicalism, we were making it up every day.
That approach led to:
- Problems of autonomy. The independent-minded world of evangelicalism provides little structure or accountability for ministers. There are few opportunities for spiritual guidance, support, personal counsel, or accountability from a episcopal level of leadership. There is no such level! Like the churches they serve, pastors are independent, autonomous, and self-supporting. Each one is a solo act, and he/she works without a net.
- A “cultural ecclesiology” that provides the real expectations under which the pastor serves. Since religious consumers are setting the agenda today, that means pastors must fit into the system designed to meet their needs.
- A cult of celebrity. Prominent entrepreneurial church leaders are the face of evangelical Christianity. Charismatic. Gifted. Dynamic. Visionary. Born leaders. These guys (and they are almost all guys in this tradition) have their pictures on all the conference brochures. You hear them on Christian radio. Their books are the ones you see when you first walk in the bookstore. People visit their churches and run from the parking lot to get good seats in the service. Has anyone ever thought it strange that they represent a Savior who lived in obscurity and was “rejected by men?”
The last word, for now
One final thought from Eugene Peterson:
Pastors commonly give lip service to the vocabulary of their vocation, but in our working lives we more commonly pursue careers. Our actual work takes shape under the pressure of the marketplace, not the truth of theology or the wisdom of spirituality. I would like to see as much attention given to the holiness of our vocations as to the piety of our lives.
Basically, all I am doing is trying to get it straight, get straight what it means to be a pastor, and then develop a spirituality adequate to the work. The so-called spirituality that was handed to me by those who put me to the task of pastoral work was not adequate. I do not find the emaciated, exhausted spirituality of institutional careerism adequate. I do not find the veneered, cosmetic spirituality of personal charisma adequate. I require something biblically spiritualâ€”rooted and cultivated in creation and covenant, leisurely in Christ, soaked in Spirit.
Under the Unpredictable Plant, p. 5