The Kind of Pastor You Want to Be

Most pastors in ministry I know had a vision of what they wanted to be as a pastor before entering the ministry. Many still do. But a good many of those pastors are now frustrated, or unsatisfied or angst-filled because they are not being the pastor they want to be.

Recently I was having coffee with a pastor friend and we were talking about pastoring. He was expressing frustration over the demands of pastoral ministry. The busyness of leading a large congregation. As the senior pastor in a traditionally senior pastor led church, he was involved in almost everything: problem solving, staff mentoring, vision casting and leading, running the church, preaching and teaching and contributing as the church theologian. Here’s the thing: He’s good at all those things (he’s the most qualified in the room) and he enjoys elements of all of them. But the collection of these tasks are not what he wants to be as a pastor.

In the course of the conversation I used the phrase “the pastor you want to be”. He stopped and looked confused. As if, and I’m assuming here, he did not think he had a choice in the matter. But the truth is, he does. He can be the pastor he wants to be. Not every pastor has the same vision of what it means to be a pastor. And there is not one biblically sanctioned vision of the pastorate. The kind of pastoral ministry you have has to do with the kind of pastor you want to be. One’s own passions, gifts and personality should shape pastoral identity.


What kind of pastor do you want to be?


This conversation was fresh in my mind when I recently read Eugene Peterson’s reflection, “The Unbusy Pastor”, in his Memoir, The Pastor (Harper One, 2011, pp. 277-82). It is in a chapter by the way with a great title: “Invisible Six Days a Week, Incomprehensible the Seventh”. Both the chapter and the passage are a must read. But not because everyone should adopt Peterson’s vision of pastoral identity. I think, of course, we should all take stock of the busyness in our lives. Some of us, myself included, are addicted to the chaos of busyness. His reflection is convicting. But pay attention to his courage and tenacity in pursuit of the pastor he wants to be. Peterson inspires pastors not to settle for less than their unique vision of pastoring – whatever that looks like.

Peterson writes of a meeting he had with his elders about 3 years into the planting of Christ our King Church. He writes:

“I haven’t been a pastor to this congregation for six months. I pray in fits and starts. I feel like I’m in a hurry all the time. When I visit or have lunch with you, I’m not listening to you; I am thinking of ways I can  get the momentum going again. My sermons are thrown together. I don’t want to live like this, either with you or with my family”
“So what do you want to do?” This was Craig speaking. His father had been a pastor. He know some of this form the inside.
“I want to be a pastor who prays. I want to be reflective and responsive and relaxed in the presence of God so that I can be reflective and responsive and relaxed in your presence. I can’t do that on the run. It takes a lot of time. I started out doing that with you, but now I feel too crowded.
“I want to be a pastor who reads and studies. This culture in which we live squeezes all the God sense out of us. I want to be observant and informed enough to help this congregation understand what we are up against, the temptations of the devil to get us thinking we can all be our own gods. This is subtle stuff. It demands some detachment and perspective. I can’t do this just by trying harder.
“I want to be a pastor who has time to be with you in leisurely, unhurried conversations so that I can understand and be a companion with you as you grow in Christ – your doubts and your difficulties, your desires and your delights. I can’t do that when I am running scared.
“I want to be a pastor who leads you in worship , a pastor who brings you before God in receptive obedience, a pastor who preaches sermons that make scripture accessible and present and alive, a pastor who is able to give you a language and imagination that restores in you a sense of dignity as a Christian in your homes and workplaces and gets rid of these debilitating images of being a ‘mere’ layperson.
“I want to read a story to Karen [his five year old daughter at the time].
“I want to be an unbusy pastor” (277-78).

Peterson’s elders assumed the work of running the church that evening in response and did so for the next 26 years. Peterson was for his pastorate at the church, an unbusy pastor.

He ends his reflection on “the pastor he wants to be” with the image out of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick of the harpooner who is quiet poised and waiting in the midst of the frenetic activity of sailors all around frighting the tempest. He quotes a sentence, “To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, and not out of toil”. Then this paragraph:

The metaphor, harpooner, was starting to get inside me. Somehow it always seems more compelling to assume the work of the oarsman, laboring mightily  in a moral cause, throwing our energy into the fray that we know has immortal consequence. And it always seems more dramatic to take on the outrage of a Captain Ahab, obsessed with a vision of vengeance and retaliation, brooding over the ancient injury done by the Enemy. There is, though, other important work to do. Someone must throw the dart. Some must be harpooners (282).

I personally resonate with Peterson’s harpooner metaphor. But I admit that I live like the oarsman.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Pamela M.

    I’m not sure if it’s the pastoral role that creates the sense of busyness, or if it happens to be the people filling the role, but it’s a common trend. The unfortunate aspect of this is that in not slowing down, in not being patient with the guidance of the Spirit, one’s pastoral ministry won’t be very effective. It’s no wonder burn-out rates for pastors are so high. I appreciate the question being asked. It gets pastors thinking more intentionally about who God has called them to be, and the answer provides ministry goals to be held accountable to.

  • Don

    thanks for this..
    I went searching for the book on Amazon and discovered you are referencing his book “The Pastor,” not the “unbusy pastor.” Just in case any others are looking for it. FYI

  • As a young pastor I found Peterson’s book intensely relevant (!). Thanks for exposing more people to his work!

  • John Smuts

    “To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, and not out of toil”.

    That quote sums up the issue for me. When is it efficient purpose and when is it idleness?

  • I certainly agree that a pastor must wrestle at living within his own limitations. If he doesn’t he won’t function. I would hope too that he will be able to fulfil one or two godly initiatives that seem to him important. However, that being said, no one goes into a job to serve and serves exactly as he would like to serve. We all find lots of constraints put upon us that do not allow us to be what we would ‘ideally’ be. That is just life. Life is messy. Life is being an oarsman.

    In fact, it is in the messiness of life, that we grow. We do not grow in faith when all is neatly under our control. We grow when we are forced to trust in a life we would not choose and circumstances we would rather not face. We grow in the ‘let this cup pass from me’ moments of life.