The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades.
• Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity
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I can’t recall exactly when I first began reading Eugene Peterson, but it must have been either at the end of my first pastoral assignment or at the beginning of seminary. This was the early 1980s. All I know is that once I began reading his articles in Leadership Journal, the Christianity Today publication designed for the continuing education of evangelical pastors, or his early pastoral theology books like The Contemplative Pastor, I was hooked. Here was a voice that gave content to my calling. This — what he was writing about — was what I was meant to be and do.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard him tell the story of his own awakening to the meaning of genuine pastoral ministry. A friend made the offhand remark that Peterson “ran a church.” The phrase so caught his attention and offended him that he determined from that point on to prove the description wrong.
And so he taught me, from his own experience, about the importance of being “un-busy.” Citing Moby Dick, Peterson encouraged pastors to remember that the harpooner strikes truest when acting from a place of inaction, stillness, inner peace and watchfulness. The hard work of being a pastor, as our friend Matt B. Redmond said yesterday, is in the quiet work of study and prayer.
But I also learned from Eugene Peterson that the work “between Sundays” in the world, in the midst of the “traffic” of real life, is integral to the pastor’s work. Being with people locally, personally, conversationally is of the essence. He called it “the cure of souls,” and defined it as “the Scripture-directed, prayer-shaped care that is devoted to persons singly or in groups, in settings sacred and profane. It is a determination to work at the center, to concentrate on the essential.”
Unfortunately, although I responded enthusiastically to this portrayal of the pastoral life, I did not have the wisdom, the creativity or discipline, the maturity, or the support to make it happen in my own ministry as I would have liked. So I felt like a square peg in a round hole. I just couldn’t grasp how to be that kind of pastor in a church world that required me to be a small business owner, a CEO, a community organizer, and a program director. Churches wanted “leaders,” and by that they meant builders of successful organizations and high-powered motivators. I admire people who can do that. I’m not one of them, and I’m not convinced that “pastor” is the correct title to give to such talented folks.
When I stopped being a congregational pastor and became a chaplain, I finally found the opportunity to put my Eugene Peterson learning into practice. Freed up from “management,” I could be the “clinician” that I was called to be. Balancing solitude with visiting people. Caring for souls. Enjoying true teamwork and mutual respect with colleagues who bring complementary gifts, talents, and skills.
I still have no idea how to bring this to what we call “the church” today. That’s why I find myself outside the gates of the ecclesiastical world in so many ways.
I guess I blame — or, more accurately — give thanks to Eugene Peterson for that.