From the Shepherd’s Nook: Searching for Meaning

In seminary we were offered just one pastoral polity class. Along with the Bible, our suggested textbook was Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. We consulted the Bible for the baptism formula and how to lead the Lord’s Table. Either the seminary fathers assumed pastor and pastoral ministry was well-understood, or no one had a clue. When I graduated and engaged in vocational pastoral ministry, I realized it was the latter. What tipped me off were the incessant pastors’ conferences where, instead of thoughtfully defining pastoral ministry, attendees were invited to listen to the latest rising pastor-stars. Because these shining stars had different personalities, abilities, and denominational models of ministry, I assumed that pastors’ conferences were simply ecclesial cafeterias.

If you defined “pastor” by what your pastor “does,” what would your definition be? Who has been most influential in your understanding of “pastor”?

I was free to pick and choose my own ingredients to form a vision of what a pastor is and what a pastor does. So American. Being active in pastoral work, I patched together my own vision of my calling. My vision was ragged, but it contained snatches of Bible-exposition, seeker-sensitivity, small-group value, NIV-priority, vision-mission-objectives-standards continuity (i.e., corporate), multi-staff variety, and the whole venture went stone-cold dead in my soul. I had been urged to be a coach, a CEO, a Bible-teacher, a leader, a servant, an administrator, a visionary, a funny guy, a counselor, a cheerleader, a person who wins friends and influences people. Amidst these chameleon roles, I lost Jesus.

The annoying horse-fly buzzing over this smorgasbord of pastoral models was commercialization. We could buy the books, get the kits, view the videos, and unwisely mimic the successes of others. I don’t know how many times “successful” pastors would present how God worked amazingly in their churches and affirmed it was God’s work in their context. We were urged, “Don’t think you should imitate us. Trust God in your own context. Yet, hey, our books and videos are on sale at the break.” When the local church is market-driven, we all die. The decades of the eighties and nineties saw the church hemorrhaging pastors. Why? Because the traditional vocation of pastor was hijacked by innovative thinkers who seemed to know a lot about culture and little about the Bible and church history. The word pastor was gutted by well-meaning, but misguided gurus of the more “relevant” way.

I met a man who did a simple thing for me. He grounded pastoral ministry in the Holy Scriptures. His name was Eugene H. Peterson. At a writers’ conference at Spring Arbor College, Peterson was the keynote speaker. Providentially, he sat with my friends and me at the lunch table. He suggested I read Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. I purchased a copy, he signed it, and I read it. My soul, on life-support from the battering of foolish and culturally-driven ideas about being a pastor, revived as the biblical blood of tested truth was injected. I could not recall even one pastor-scholar who presented at one, just one pastors’ conference, the simple idea that the Bible might just have something deep and significant to say about pastoral work.

Then I met the Man, Jesus, who, of all things, called himself the Good Pastor. Two times! This meeting anew of the Jesus I had lost caused me to do some serious repenting, some thorough changing of the mind. Instead of looking outward onto the ever-changing, trendy landscape of marketed, local church ideas, I gazed downward into the sacred text. While I had been trained to honor Jesus as LORD, Messiah, Savior, Friend, Prophet, Priest and King, no one ever suggested that I get to know Jesus the Pastor. While I had been urged to comb the Gospels to find ample data that Jesus Christ is 100% God and 100% human in one Person forever, no one ever suggested that I should read the Gospels in order to meet Jesus, the preeminent Pastor of all time, the authentic Senior Pastor (see 1 Peter 5:4).

My friend, Scot, has suggested that I present Eugene H. Peterson’s taxonomy of “the pastor” as presented in The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction. Taxonomy means classification or grouping of similar things. As I have observed vocational pastoral work, many ecclesial taxonomists still do not have a clue about “pastor.” Pastor is still a word on our cultural landscape in search of meaning. I know that many do not accept Eugene Peterson’s taxonomy. Some seem to despise it. Let’s continue the conversation with the aim of listening well and learning more about the beautiful word “pastor.” We’ll consider “the naked noun” next time.

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  • I was a pastor. When I turned away from all the books and conferences to dig deep in the Scripture for what it had to say, I saw that it taught not how to organize, lead, and grow a local church. Rather, it taught the kingdom of God – that is, trusting and obeying Jesus Christ. Church is not a means to this end but rather a diversion from it. The King Jesus gospel means Jesus is king…of all of life (not just Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights).

  • When I was a pastor, Peterson’s work helped me more than anyone else. His simple recognition that the sheep KNOW the (under)shepherd was foundational for me. I just don’t see how someone can claim the “title” of shepherd and be completely removed from the actual people who he/she is called to care for.

  • John,
    Reading through the first part of this post, where you recall your attempt to get a handle on what it means to be a pastor, was all too familiar. Can I ever relate to this! I remember going through a phase where I was attending conference after conference frantically searching for what seemed to be missing in my own ministry. I was at a conference once where the speaker had experienced much effectiveness with a particular methodology. I remember thinking that I had finally figured out what I needed to be doing. I then went to another conference a few months later only to discover a pastor who came at his ministry from a completely different perspective. For him, the missing ingredient in most churches was another methodology. Talk about confusing!

    Eugene Peterson has been very important to me in my own formation as a minister. Very helpful!

    I am glad that you are writing these posts and helping the rest of us think through our calling.

  • John, if you’re interested I have just finished my Masters thesis on the question, “How does Euegene Peterson define the pastoral vocation.” I anticipate reading your next post to see if I am on the same page as you in regards to Peterson’s taxonomy or if I should go back and re-write what I have written! 🙂

    Mark Stevens

  • This is refreshing and needed (even for someone just beginning to shape and understand what being a “pastor” is). I’m looking forward to the books 🙂

  • Tom

    My dad was a PASTOR all my life, and at the age of 85, he still is. But I’ve served on church staff for 30+years, received two seminary degrees and attended multiple church leadership conferences during that time and I must say, in all my training, never was I encouraged to emulate my PASTOR father. On the contrary, I often heard his ilk maligned by well-meaning church growth gurus. It wasn’t until this past year when I took a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at a local hospital, was I redirected toward what a true PASTOR is called to be.

  • Paul D.

    I have long made it a habit to read Peterson’s pastoral trilogy — Five Smooth Stones, Working the Angles, and Under the Unpredictable Plant — and their scriptural contexts, every year. I look forward to your distillations.

  • You, Pastor Peterson and your friend Scot … along with the writings of several others have helped me feel something firm under my feet and for your (collective) works I thank you. Another great friend and author, Dr. Tim Laniak, Dean of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Charlotte, has given me permission to venture into the shark infested waters of my own peculiar call to be a pastor and emulate Jesus … as a woman. (I was told just yesterday that God doesn’t call women to ministry by a woman who neither knows me nor has ever gone to the Word to discover if what she has been told fits with the character of the One who calls.) Know what? Didn’t hurt. Made me sad.
    By peculiar calling I relate three specifics that God pressed into my very soul and that it has taken decades to fully unpack and discover. 1. Knock on ministry doors and enter those where you are welcome. 2. You are not called to entertain. 3. You will be my pastor outside the church. I wrestled with this for years, and through more backhanded pain than I imagined. Then I realized two fantastic pastoral passages. Luke chapter 15 affirms those of us who need to be watching the back door, identifying those wounded and broken by churches who loved Jesus but have lost trust in his people. Search and rescue. Love it. Second, 1 Peter 3, especially 15-17 helped me through an exceptionally difficult time. Seriously, THIS from Peter? Tracing his Spiritual formation and landing here showed me this simple brilliance about rebounding and in the name of Jesus. I thought I would preach to many. Instead I find the ones and twos and have the time to watch the Spirit work transformationally. I thought I would find love (really very lovable!) and support. Instead I have been equipped to weep with those who weep, and when we laugh … it’s loud and glorious. The ministry that God has birthed and gently let rest in my care is uniquely blessed with safety, incredible joy and hope, and some serious learning!
    There’s a song, “God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you.” Yup … and it was the breaks in my road that are more worthy credentials than any of my graduate degrees.
    Deep, deep thanks for not dismissing half of the image bearers of God who bring a perspective the entire body needs to hear … when it’s ready. I stand ready, but fully understanding that God does, indeed, count by ones.

  • Jim #3,
    Thank you, fellow pastor, for the affirming words. There are so many good men and women serving admirably as pastors (in the traditional ways) who have been made to feel illegitimate. I hope I am giving a voice to their passion and their pain. Part of the failure was the theological educational systems that focused 95% on biblical content and 5% (if that) on Christian formation. Into that vacuum were sucked all the trendy cultural ‘magic bullets’ for pastoral work. God bless!

    Mark #4,
    I do want to read your thesis. I’m sure it will help deepen my own “taxonomy.”

    Jan #8,
    To be a small part of your journey feels rewarding. And, yes, the church desperately needs to hear from you and all our gifted and called-to-vocatonal-ministry sisters’ voices.

  • John, As someone who pastors and teaches pastoral ministry classes, I find your description of your training apalling. I’ve learned much from other pastors and seminars, but if it’s not approached with an adequate pastoral grounding in the key pastoral texts of Scripture we’re simply cast afloat on the latest “cutting edge” model which usually leaves those who are not similarly gifted bleeding in the dust. Thankfully, also, a personal encounter with Eugene Peterson (plus his writings and those of others he pointed me to) led me to more historically grounded models from which to discern what to keep and what was chaff that the wind needed to blow away!

  • scotmcknight

    Brent, it appears to me you find John’s description appalling and not the techniques approach to ministry appalling. Not sure …