Eugene Peterson on What It Means to be a Pastor

Eugene Peterson on What It Means to be a Pastor October 3, 2013

I’ve spent a significant portion of the past year working on a manuscript for Zondervan called Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture. It’s in editing right now and is supposed to come out in 2014. I’m so hopeful that this book can make a difference for pastors of small churches all over the place. As I’ve been working on this project, I have realized at several points along the way just how important Eugene Peterson has become to my understanding of what it means to be a pastor.

I have always been highly invested in archetypes. My first was Rich Mullins. I tried to emulate everything about him, and his influence on my life is still strong. When Rich died I was left without a living archetype to follow. Peterson has begun to fill part of that role for me, especially in my role as pastor, and in the way I’m trying to write spanning the world of academic theology, and rubber-meets-road ministry.

Honestly I have not read all of Peterson’s work. However, his book The Contemplative Pastor, and his memoir Pastor, have both been very influential in my life. Jonathan Merritt’s recent interview with the pastor is vintage Peterson. Merritt asked Peterson what advice he might give people who are preparing for ministry. I think Peterson’s response is perfect:

“I’d tell them that pastoring is not a very glamorous job. It’s a very taking-out-the-laundry and changing-the-diapers kind of job. And I think I would try to disabuse them of any romantic ideas of what it is. As a pastor, you’ve got to be willing to take people as they are. And live with them where they are. And not impose your will on them. Because God has different ways of being with people, and you don’t always know what they are.”

Man, I hope I’m learning how to do this – take people where they are, and live with them where they are, and especially keep from attempting to impose my will on them. I think that every wise person I’ve ever encountered has encouraged this in some form or another. The reason we have to take people as they are is that “God his different ways of being with people.” God is present with different people in different ways. We cannot prescribe one way as normative and track all people in that direction. It’s not healthy, and it’s not realistic. Peterson continues,

The one thing I think is at the root of a lot of pastors’ restlessness and dissatisfaction is impatience. They think if they get the right system, the right programs, the right place, the right location, the right demographics, it’ll be a snap. And for some people it is: if you’re a good actor, if you have a big smile, if you are an extrovert. In some ways, a religious crowd is the easiest crowd to gather in the world. Our country’s full of examples of that. But for most, pastoring is a very ordinary way to live. And it is difficult in many ways because your time is not your own, for the most part, and the whole culture is against you. This consumer culture, people grow up determining what they want to do by what they can consume. And the Christian gospel is just quite the opposite of that. And people don’t know that. And pastors don’t know that when they start out. We’ve got a whole culture that is programmed to please people, telling them what they want.  And if you do that, you might end up with a big church, but you won’t be a pastor.

One of the hardest lessons I’ve ever had to learn in my life is patience, and I’m still learning it. I’m pretty sure that I’ll never stop having to learn it, over and over. One of the most essential components of learning patience for a pastor is letting go of outcomes. We can keep  telling people what they want to hear all day long, and if we do we might end up with a big church, but that’s not pastoring. You know when you become a pastor? The moment you realize that you are always going to be the annoying person in the room telling people what they don’t really want to hear, but need to hear anyway. Telling yourself, too.

His advice for younger Christians:

“Go to the nearest smallest church and commit yourself to being there for 6 months. If it doesn’t work out, find somewhere else. But don’t look for programs, don’t look for entertainment, and don’t look for a great preacher. A Christian congregation is not a glamorous place, not a romantic place. That’s what I always told people. If people were leaving my congregation to go to another place of work, I’d say, “The smallest church, the closest church, and stay there for 6 months.” Sometimes it doesn’t work. Some pastors are just incompetent. And some are flat out bad. So I don’t think that’s the answer to everything, but it’s a better place to start than going to the one with all the programs, the glitz, all that stuff.”


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