Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Pastors: Making it up as you go along

Last year I read through Eugene Peterson's book The Pastor in about two days. It was a really good read and I read it too fast. But as I went I took notes of places I would revisit. Which I intend to do over a series of blog posts this year. It is a very worthwhile book, especially for pastors, but probably for others as well. The only complaint is that Peterson is an extraordinarily talented individual and I think some of the more outrageous things he did very successfully are probably beyond the reach of many of us mere mortals. Sometimes you think, that is fine for your Eugene, but I am not Eugene Peterson and my congregation/body/family/brain would not let me get away with that!

The first quote that really struck me was this

The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans. Any kind of continuity with pastors in times past is virtually non-existent. We are a generation that feels as if it is having to start out from scratch to figure out a way to represent and nurture this richly nuanced sand all-involving life of Christ in a country that "knew not Joseph." (p4)
Peterson struck the nail on the head for me. In modern pastoral life there is no blueprint, only a fairly desperate making it up as you go along. This is my observation of others and my own experience. He quotes William Faulkner's bon mot in describing the experience of writing a book as being equally applicable to being a pastor:
It's like building a chicken coop in a high wind. You grab any board or shingle flying by or loose on the ground and you nail it down fast. (p6)
This I think is one reason why this job feels so difficult. I have worked in construction, manufacturing, education, music and catering and never wondered in those jobs if I was doing the right thing. Sometimes I didn't do it right but there was never any doubt because there really is only one way to serve a salad, build a house or solder a circuit board. But as a pastor there are a million ways to spend your time and often it is deeply subjective. In any other context you have either a boss or a client to please and if they are happy then you have done it right. In the church you have a congregation full of people with differing ideas about what it means for your to be "their" pastor and all the while you know you are supposed to be working only for God but he is often not very vocal while these other voices are very insistent on being heard!

And this making things up as you go is hard for other leaders (lay leaders for want of a better expression) in the church to get their heads around. When I raise things that need to change the most common question is "what do other churches do" as if there is a right way to do it and we just need to copy it. But as Peterson writes "it is a most context specific way of life" (p5), what another church does no matter how successfully will not translate in the same way to another church with a different congregation, a different neighbourhood and a different pastor.

What do you think?


  1. To some extent I agree there is a huge shift in culture going on, has been for some time, but the pace is not slowing, to some extent the job has to be redefined. And yet, people are still people. They still have the same hopes and fears (by and large, though with some new ones and others magnified), they still sin and need forgiveness. People still need pastoring... My fear is that in the excitement of redefining the job that essential can easily get missed out. But in the end it is the essential - if you (whoever, not you Jonathan) are not in the business of the "cure of souls" (a horrid phrase but expressive) then you are not pastors.

  2. To which I would give a hearty amen, and part of the stress is that it is no longer enough to look after people as maintenance churches are sliding off into oblivion as we speak, if pastoring requires a church context to operate then the cure of souls requires churches, and it is also a part of the pastors job to ensure the survival of the organisation - if only for the sake of those who are ministered to through it. you are right that many focus on the survival and growth of the organisation to the detriment of the cure of souls, but anyone interested in the cure of souls should surely care about the survival and growth of the church?

  3. No church should call someone only to pastor those already inside the doors, that would be selfish. The souls outside have even greater need of "curing" ;)

    If the wind is blowing hard (to borrow Peterson's image) then protecting the hens is more important than building a good looking hen house.