The unbusy pastor

The title of this post is taken from the book, The ContemplatCalmive Pastor, by Eugene Peterson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993). This is one book I find I must reread at least once a year. Peterson says things that my heart responds to with an eager, “Yes! Yes!”, but that my ego and my schedule stubbornly resist.

For example, Peterson says that the word busy, when applied to pastors,

is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.

He goes on to say,

…if I vainly crowd my day with conspicuous activity or let others fill my day with imperious demands, I don’t have time to do my proper work, the work to which I have been called. How can I lead people into the quiet place beside the still waters if I am in perpetual motion? How can I persuade a person to live by faith and not by works if I have to juggle my schedule constantly to make everything fit into place?

But isn’t being busy what our culture rewards? Aren’t hard workers busy? And if I’m not busy, won’t my parishioners have proof that pastors work just one day a week and are paid too highly?

Eugene Peterson is trying to get us to redefine the work of a pastor. Our “proper work,” he says, is the cure of souls. That work, according to him, has been replaced by “running the church.”

I so agree. Over the years, my vision for pastoral ministry has moved from “trying to get my church to grow” to “helping people experience the gospel.” There’s a big difference between those two things. The former vision demands that I be super busy. I must pack my daily schedule with tasks and meetings and appointments: can’t waste a moment. I must always preach a better sermon this Sunday than I did last Sunday. I must master the art of motivational speaking and be highly relevant to every segment of my congregation. And tragically, my marriage and family must take a back seat to the higher goal of pastoral success.

A vision for helping people experience the gospel, on the other hand, demands very different things:

  • I must slow down, observing and processing the people and events taking place around me.
  • I must commune deeply with God, listening carefully to his Word and speaking honestly and often to him in prayer.
  • I must allow the gospel to surgically explore and heal my own heart.
  • I must really listen to and care about people, not just use them to prop up my own ego and make me successful.
  • I must be available for whatever inconveniences broken people may bring my way.
  • I must maintain a vital awareness of my own limitations, and depend upon others in the body of Christ to advance the gospel in the world.

One last quote from Peterson:

I can’t be busy and pray at the same time. I can be active and pray; I can work and pray; but I cannot be busy and pray. I cannot be inwardly rushed, distracted, or dispersed. In order to pray I have to be paying more attention to God than to what people are saying to me; to God than to my clamoring ego. Usually, for that to happen there must be a deliberate withdrawal from the noise of the day, a disciplined detachment from the insatiable self.

As I said earlier, it’s so easy to say “Amen!” to all this and then get caught up in the whirlwind of pastoral duty. But maybe we can remind each other to slow down, to be more patient and more prayerful, to focus more on the cure of souls
than the “business” of running the church.

What do you think?

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