From the Shepherd’s Nook: The Unbusy Pastor

From the Shepherd’s Nook: The Unbusy Pastor September 21, 2012

John W. Frye

This Moby Dick episode pops up in a few of Eugene H. Peterson’s books. Here it’s from The Contemplative Pastor: “In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, there is a turbulent scene in which a whaleboat scuds across a frothing ocean in pursuit of the great, white whale, Moby Dick. The sailors are laboring fiercely, every muscle taut, all attention and energy concentrated on the task. The cosmic conflict between good and evil is joined; chaotic sea and demonic sea monster versus the morally outraged man, Captain Ahab. In this boat, however, there is one man who does nothing. He doesn’t hold an oar; he doesn’t perspire; he doesn’t shout. He is languid in the crash and the cursing. This man is the harpooner, quiet and poised, waiting. And then this 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.’” EHP adds, “Melville’s sentence is a text to set alongside the psalmist’s ‘Be still, and know that I am God’ (Ps. 46:10), and alongside Isaiah’s ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength’ (Isa. 30:15).”

What do you think of Peterson’s marks of the “unbusy” life? What are its characteristics for you?

We’re attempting to grasp Eugene H. Peterson’s taxonomy of pastor. The story by Melville vividly paints the value of the disciplines of solitude and silence for the pastor. I get more out of Melville’s graphic paragraph than from the trendy books on spiritual disciplines. If you read the popular stuff on pastoral work these days, the pastor is to be Captain Ahab, an oarsman, the spotter, the cook and a frantic harpooner. Pastors who buy into our “success” culture have to appear busy and important. EHP traces this “need to succeed” to two malignant motivations: vanity and laziness. Vanity shouts, “I am important!” and laziness reveals a pastor who is an empty suit, letting others direct his ministry. To put busy in front of the word pastor is like putting the word adulterous in front of the word wife. So, the question arises: what do unbusy pastors do? Three things.

Pastors pray. Pastors cultivate their own first hand experiences with the living God. “I want to awaken others to the nature and centrality of prayer.” This cultivation of the art of prayer takes time. It cannot be rushed. EHP actually believes in a personal relationship with God. Many say they believe it; EHP lives it. “I don’t want to live as a parasite on the first-hand spiritual life of others, but to be personally involved with all my senses, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good.” What’s so big about prayer? Well, what’s so big about being personally involved in conversation with the living Creator, Trinitarian God of all?

Pastors preach. “I want to speak the Word of God that is Scripture in the language and rhythms of the people I live with.” EHP isn’t interested in “delivering” bright, inspiring sermons from sound outlines with snappy illustrations. When pastors preach the Scriptures, EHP wants the people “to hear its distinctive note of authority as God’s Word, and to know that their own lives are being addressed on their home territory.” EHP’s admiration for the writings of Wendell Berry creates EHP’s insistence that local church ministry is fiercely contextual.

Pastors listen. “I want the energy and the time to really listen to [others] so that when they’re through, they know that at least one other person has some inkling of what they’re feeling and thinking.” I enthusiastically add here EHP’s chapter on “The Pastoral Work of Story-Making: Ruth” in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. That one chapter helped me reimagine the nature of the congregation. “Pastoral listening requires unhurried leisure, even if it’s only for five minutes. Leisure is a quality of spirit, not a quantity of time.”

In Mark’s Gospel, we read about one very long, busy day in the life of Jesus. Jesus serves late into the evening hours. Yet, here is what we read next: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35). Why? Hadn’t Jesus earned the right to sleep in? Why get up so early? Here’s why: “The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed. The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears; I have not been rebellious, I have not turned away” (Isaiah 50:4-5 emphasis mine). The Gospels at one level present a passionate, kingdom-driven, needs-meeting, on-the-move Jesus. Beneath the flurry of his public ministry, however, was the subterranean, solitude-and-silence-life of Jesus the Pastor.

Peterson denounces laziness in pastoral work; he also denounces busyness. He knows the demands on one’s schedule; he knows of the tedious administrative dimensions of pastoral work; he knows the expectations to have “pastor” pray at the African Violent Ladies Guild; he knows the call to saturate his heart and mind in serious study of the Scriptures; he knows the pressures of budgets, buildings and bodies. Yet, he will not allow anyone or anything to sabotage his call to pray, to preach and to listen from the heart.

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  • Great post. Peterson, through his writings, has certainly become one of my mentors in ministry. This is such a valuable post and attitude to have as a pastor. This is something I struggle with mightily, especially as a bi-vocational pastor with a young family. There never seems to be enough time, and there is always more to do.

  • MatthewS

    This is both convicting and encouraging. Thank you for these posts, John.

    It would be obvious if we failed to show up to preach. Nobody really sees if we fail to show up to pray, and we can pretend to listen even if people know better. But each are so important.

    I really like the description of speaking the Word of God “in the language and rhythms of the people I live with” and of wanting the people “to hear its distinctive note of authority as God’s Word, and to know that their own lives are being addressed on their home territory.” I find it a constant challenge not to remain in the world of the ancient text but to bring it home in a meaningful way; not only to make broad statements drawn from the text but to help myself and others walk it out in daily life.

    This is an imperfect analogy, but I recently sat for a couple days of training under a professional instructor. He had 2 days and spent the first day talking through how a certain procedure is supposed to be done. Most of the second day was spent re-covering that same territory, except with the class in charge of actually doing a live example. It was an example in a professional setting of taking instructions from a textbook and applying it in real life. It’s easy enough to agree with the reasoning in the textbook but when people start trying to make the decisions and apply it themselves, it gets more complicated.

  • I was introduced to Eugene Peterson the pastor and writer on pastoral ministry as an undergraduate when I took a class on pastoral theology and had to read his “The Contemplative Pastor.” It was then, and still is, one of the best books on pastoral ministry I’ve ever read. I have since devoured most of Peterson’s other writings, including his five-volume series of book on the spiritual life. I’m with Chris above, that through his writings, Eugene Peterson has become one of the most profound influences on my life as a pastor and in developing a personal pastoral theology. When I feel myself getting busy, hurried, “frenzied at the oars”, and caught up in the success culture that plagues so much of evangelicalism today, I return to Peterson, and he helps me remember that, no matter what else I do, I need to be a pastor who prays, a pastor who preaches, and a pastor who listens to others. Great post!

  • Paul D.

    Here’s a favorite passage from Moby Dick — part of the description of Father Mapple’s pulpit:
    “Nor was the pulpit itself without a trace of the same sea-taste that had achieved the ladder and the picture. Its panelled front was in the likeness of a ship’s bluff bows, and the Holy Bible rested on the projecting piece of scroll work, fashioned after a ship’s
    fiddle-headed beak. What could be more full of meaning? –for the pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is the storm of God’s quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds. Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.”

  • “To put busy in front of the word pastor is like putting the word adulterous in front of the word wife.” OUCH!!!

    I still remember the idea of being ‘unbusy’ from when I was made to read The Contemplative Pastor is seminary. It made an indelible mark on me. The truth of it is, most of the time, a pastor doesn’t need to go to that city-wide meeting, get on the board of that organization, doesn’t need to program the Church to high heaven, etc… That being said, it really is hard to avoid success culture and stay ‘unbusy’.

    Pastors pray, preach, and listen. Thanks for the reminder today!

  • Dawne Piotrowski

    “Leisure is a quality of spirit, not a quantity of time.”

    John, this is a challenging and encouraging post; thank you. I have been trying recently to reform my ideas about Sabbath from a break from my craziness of the past week to a place of rest from which I can move into God’s mission. I have found this change of thinking impacts my times of rest throughout the week, as well.

    Really enjoying your posts!

  • Contemplative Pastor and the Moby Dick scene probably saved my life 18 years ago, as we helped plant our current church. We still today encourage one another on staff to have a day of solitude a month (it counts as work!) and a multi-day solitude each year (this is not vacation). Just this morning I was quoting Peterson to a pastor 20 years younger – not the Moby Dick episode, but the “know your own job description” passage from Contemplative Pastor. Thanks for the post and the great reminder!

  • Thanks, John. I really like the thought that leisure is a quality of spirit rather than a quantity of time. And great thoughts from “Moby Dick.” I need more of that. Much more.

  • Very helpful reminder. The issues that force pastors to be Ahabs rather than the harpoonist are complex and not always easy to see how to resolve. But they boil down to one thing: leadership being undercapitalised in a church. And therefore perpetually overstretched by seemingly endless demands that are impossible to say no to. In my observation sole leaders never change this culture, it is too change-resistant. Only a concerted effort by teams of leaders does so. One thing is clear in my Brit context and that is that leaders are always run ragged when they are appointed retrospectively rather than prospectively to need. The congregation that wants the maximum possible for the least outlay or care for leader always appoints retrospectively. The congregation that wants fresh, spiritual (and physically!) alive leaders appoints prospectively