Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Eugene Peterson defines the shape of pastoral work as a triangle. With a triangle, it is important to get the ANGLES right. The precision of the angles determines the shape of the triangle and the length of each line. If the angles are all constructed equally, the result is a triangle with matching sides, perfectly balanced.

In pastoral ministry, Peterson says there are three “angles” that form the shape of our work: (1) Prayer, (2) Scripture, and (3) Spiritual Direction. If we properly understand and give attention to these angles, we fulfill our ministerial calling, and the “lines,” which represent the activities in which we engage, will fall into place.

By his definition, then, a pastor is called to be a person who attends to God through…
  • Prayer, living in a responsive, conversational relationship with God,
  • Scripture, living a contemplative life that is immersed in the words of the Bible,
  • Spiritual direction, being with people in community and individually for the cure and care of their souls
If we "work these angles" and let them shape us, the result will be a pastoral ministry that has integrity, depth, and appropriate balance. Peterson comments,
None of these acts is public, which means that no one knows for sure whether or not we are doing any of them. People hear us pray in worship, they listen to us preach and teach from the Scriptures, they notice when we are listening to them in a conversation, but they can never know if we are attending to God in any of this. It doesn’t take many years in this business to realize that we can conduct a fairly respectable pastoral ministry without giving much more than ceremonial attention to God. Since we can omit these acts of attention without anybody noticing, and because each of the acts involves a great deal of rigor, it is easy and common to slight them.

This is not entirely our fault. Great crowds of people have entered into a grand conspiracy to eliminate prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction from our lives. They are concerned with our image and standing, with what they can measure, with what produces successful church-building programs and impressive attendance charts, with sociological impact and economic viability. They do their best to fill our schedules with meetings and appointments so that there is time for neither solitude nor leisure to be before God, to ponder Scripture, to be unhurried with another person.

…Pastoral work disconnected from the angle actions—the acts of attention to God in relation to myself, the biblical communities of Israel and church, the other person—is no longer given its shape by God. Working the angles is what gives shape and integrity to the daily work of pastors and priests. If we get the angles right it is a simple matter to draw in the lines. But if we are careless with or dismiss the angles, no matter how long or straight we draw the lines we will not have a triangle, a pastoral ministry.

Working the Angles, p. 4f
In my years as a pastor in local congregations, I saw (and lived out) some very different incarnations of ministry, pastoral caricatures which would lead one to suspect some poorly drawn angles. Here are a few I have witnessed and experienced…

The rest of the story...

Faster than Mr. Answer Man! More powerful than a German theologian! Able to parse Greek verbs with a single glance! I have been the professor. I have attempted to turn small churches into world-renowned seminaries. At times, I held the belief that discipleship means opening a new convert’s head and pouring in vast amounts of Biblical and theological knowledge. Many pastors love to teach. We were trained to teach. We got the idea, somehow, mistakenly, that what it really takes to help people follow Christ is for pastors to teach them Bible stories and Bible facts and Bible passages and Bible themes until their cranial cavities are bursting with sound doctrine. So, sanctuaries become lecture halls, words like “eschatological” are taught to toddlers, and congregations split over the number of links in the chain that will bind Satan during the Millennium.

I believe in deep, sound, faithful teaching, but pastors are not simply professors. How dull would that be?

This guy knows how to work a room. With Osteenesque brilliance, this genial host makes everyone feel welcome. Praying in public, he warms each one’s heart. As Master of Ceremonies, he makes certain that the presentation is impeccable, his stage manner flawless. His stories make you feel good. He speaks in sayings that are consistently clever and witty. Did I mention that smile? His sermons (“talks”) may not have depth, but they are eminently listenable. He is always positive, always affirming, always patting little children on the head, always making sure that people leave feeling better than when they came in. He never forgets a name. He could sell sand in the Sahara.

We all appreciate positive, affirming people, and we should. We should also be as encouraging and winsome as possible toward others. However, being a pastor is not to be equated with being “Mr. Personality.” Ask Luther or Tozer, or better yet, their congregations.

First one in the door, last one to leave. Responsible for each detail of the operation. Familiar with every inch of the property and every last piece of inventory. Takes his work home and burns the midnight oil pouring over the books. Never takes a vacation; in fact, rarely takes a lunch! Eats, drinks, sleeps, and breathes the business. Always working on new ideas to make things better and more profitable. Keeps one eye on the competition at all times. “Workaholic” is an insult—he is more dedicated than that. The answer to every problem is simply to roll up his sleeves and hit it a little harder.

I admire dedicated pastors who work hard. Slothfulness is a sin, and diligence is a virtue. It may very well be better to burn out than to rust out. I just don’t think it’s our calling. Even God stopped working at one point; we call that Sabbath. It doesn’t all depend on you, Mr. Shopkeeper.

Mr. Shopkeeper thinks he has to do it all himself. At least this next pastoral type understands that people in the congregation must also have an active faith that works. In fact, that is his sole focus. People, get busy! You have been saved to serve! Start standing on the promises rather than sitting on the premises! God wants to direct your life, but he can’t steer a bicycle that is standing still, only one that is moving! To the work! The Drill Sergeant takes the urgency that’s burning in his own soul and urges it onto others. Hear the constant, fervent appeals for folks to get busy for the Lord by getting involved in the church program? His counsel to anyone who has a spiritual problem is to stop focusing on self and start working for Christ. He has no time for spiritual navel-gazing or people who want to waste time. When the house is on fire, you don’t sit around sharing your feelings.

Yes, pastors are called to assist people in using their spiritual gifts for the Body’s benefit and the world’s blessing. However, we are shepherds, not sheep dogs.

Natural born leader, remarkably gifted, entrepreneurial, visionary, with great capacity for understanding large organizations, an uncanny knack for administrating them, and endless energy to keep it all going, this is the "rancher" that the church growth movement used to talk about. (As in, a shepherd cares for a flock, but a rancher oversees an operation; ergo, for churches to grow really, really big they need ranchers not pastors.) The guy's ambitious and knows how to build. He could run a Fortune 500 company; instead he runs the incredibly complex megachurch. He is high profile, thrives on new challenges, and earns the respect of the business folks who used to thumb their noses at the church. Finally, they say, a minister we can respect! A guy who can duke it out with the bankers and politicians! He does it the American way and does it right.

Thank God for this pastor's amazing gifts. The problem comes when he is lifted up as THE model for pastoral success. Then the whole enterprise for all of us becomes about being big and excellent, and about having more, and about pastoring a "great" church. Ever gone to a pastor's conference where the keynote speaker was Pastor Joe from rural Kansas, who shared about his church's great success in reaching four new children for VBS this year? Didn't think so. He's a shepherd, not a rancher.

The pastor who has regular visions may or may not become a CEO-type. He may not have the stuff to build big, but he sure dreams and talks big. There is always something great on the horizon and his job is to see it and rally the troops in hot pursuit. To use the lingo, he devotes a great deal of effort to "vision-casting" (ugh), continually challenging his congregation to new heights, ever the cheerleader to spur them on, always ladling out the hot sauce to keep the enthusiasm high. After all, God is in the business of doing new things... all the time... everywhere... for everyone! His sermons are rife with military metaphors—conquest, triumph, and victory over the strong forces arrayed against us. He knows how to raise the flag and get the patriots to cheer.

Nothing wrong with enthusiasm or being on the outlook for new direction from the Spirit. However, having my eyes fixed on the horizon may mean missing something right beside me, something not so exciting or dazzling but just as important. Why not lead the flock beside quiet waters once in awhile?

Have I got a program for you! Take this discipleship course, and in thirteen weeks, guaranteed or your money back, you will be a mature follower of Christ! Memorize this packet of Bible verses and your mind will be renewed!
Follow these nine steps and you will be financially free! Here are some Christian diet suggestions to keep you healthy, a Christian exercise video to keep you fit, Christian clothing so you can be a public witness, Christian music for your CD player to keep you holy while you drive, a Christian Yellow Pages so that you never have to hire someone who doesn't work "as unto the Lord," Christian child-raising tips so your kids will turn out just right, a Christian sex video to keep your marriage smoking hot, and our latest church newsletter so you can find something to do at the church building every day of the week. By such means, pastoral ministry morphs into programmatic activity.

The technician pastor believes in a lot of this stuff. He probably has testimonials to back up the claims. It's simple. It's easy. It works. Where's God?

In the entrepreneurial, anti-tradition, historically ignorant, low-accountability world of evangelicalism, pastors are pretty much free to choose their identity and many end up like the caricatures above. Of course, each description contains elements of genuine pastoral ministry, but only when we properly "work the angles" at the heart of our calling can we escape the unbalanced approaches that are more determined by personality and culture than Biblical wisdom.

1 comment:

Damaris said...

Darn, I already commented on the Darwin entry -- and this one is really good, too . . .