Ministry is not efficient

A tragedy has unfolded in my neighborhood.

Some months ago, the county in which I live contracted with a new residential garbage collection service. They got every homeowner these enormous, new trash cans–one for recyclables and another for household garbage. The new cans are on wheels and they’re very nice. We load ourtrash-truck2 cans with trash and, once a week, we roll them down to the street to be picked up by the garbage service. All the guy in the driver’s seat has to do is operate a mechanical arm that reaches out, grabs the trash can, lifts it high in the air, turns it upside down, and whoosh–out spills the trash into the truck. The mechanical arm then lowers the can, places it back where it was on the street, and lickety split, off the truck goes to the next set of garbage cans.

It’s all very efficient and clean and wonderful.

The only thing is, something very precious has been lost in the process.

You see, before the county went with this fancy new garbage service, trash was collected the old fashioned way. A big, loud truck with a driver and a couple guys hanging off the back would lumber down the street, one house at a time. I often watched. It was laborious, thankless work. Sometimes trash was not in cans, and it would take the men a while to pick up the various bottles, boxes, and bags strewn by the road. Sometimes they would pause to talk to a homeowner on his driveway. They were not in a hurry.

There’s this family about five doors down from me. They have two little preschool-age girls. They knew that every Tuesday and Friday was trash pick-up day. So at about 9:00 a.m., when I would be heading out the door, I saw those two little girls standing with their mom at the end of their driveway. Waiting. Waiting for the garbage men. And it was the sweetest sight. When the truck drove up they would wave at the man behind the wheel. Then the two big guys on the back would hop off, walk over to the children, and say a few kind words. Sometimes the little girls would hand them an empty milk carton or cereal box. The men would pick up the cans, empty the garbage, pull the lever, and head off to the next house. The girls would giggle with glee and run back into the house with their mom.

A little encounter that took a couple of minutes but made lifelong memories for those little girls. I know, because I did the same thing when I was a kid.

But alas, no more. Garbage collection in my neighborhood has entered the 21st century. Those two little girls need to stay inside and get ready for school. It’s time they grew up. The mechanical arm doesn’t talk to little girls. The man behind the wheel sits behind a glass and pushes buttons. Nobody stands on the back of the truck.

It’s efficient, and clean, and wonderful. And sad.

So what’s this got to do with pastoral ministry? Everything. People want us pastors to get with it, to enter the 21st century and be more efficient and productive. They say there’s nothing worse than a lazy pastor who spends all his time reading and studying and praying and visiting and talking to people. Even our own hearts will often lie to us and say, “C’mon preacher, you’re moving too slowly. This church is too small! There’s got to be an easier way to do your job. You’re spending too much time on your sermons. You care too much about people’s aches and pains and sorrows. Get out there and build the church!”

The thing is, if I’ve learned anything as a pastor, ministry is mainly about relationships. People need to know, trust, and love you. You need to know your church members, love them, listen to them, and spend unhurried time with them. To borrow from Eugene Peterson’s book, The Contemplative Pastor, it’s actually the busy pastor who is the lazy one. Peterson writes,

…the word busy 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.

God help us not to be busy pastors. Because ministry is not efficient. It’s “a long obedience in the same direction,” to again quote Eugene Peterson. Ministry is slow, arduous, laborious–just like garbage collection in the old days. But the result is depth, meaning, connection, roots, fruit, perpetuity, permanence. I’m convinced that’s what people long for in this too-busy world of ours.

Don’t let the world, the flesh, and the devil tell you to hurry up and work harder, faster, smarter. Go for depth. Sure, we need to redeem the time, for the days are evil (Eph 5:16). But being a pastor is not efficient, and should not be.

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