Tuesday, February 17, 2009

AN EVANGELICAL'S LAMENT AND JOURNEY: The Pastoral Issue, part three

In his remarkable book, Under the Unpredictable Plant, Eugene Peterson describes how the conditions in which pastors work, embodied in the three different parties that affect the pastoral vocation, often conflict with the minister's true calling.
First, there is the ordaining body, the denomination.
I had discovered that spiritually and vocationally I was on my own. The people who ordained me and took responsibility for my work were interested in financial reports, attendance graphs, program planning. But they were not interested in me. They were interested in my job; they cared little for my vocation. (p. 80)

Second, the local congregation
The people who gather in our congregations want help through a difficult time; they want meaning and significance in their ventures. They want God, in a way, but certainly not a "jealous God," not the "God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." Mostly they want to be their own god and stay in control but have ancillary idol assistance for the hard parts, which the pastor can show them how to get. (p. 81)

Third, the ego of the pastor him or herself
We must do only what we are there to do: pronounce the Name, name the hunger. But it is so easy to get distracted. There is so much going on, so much to see and hear and say. So much emotion. So many tasks. So much, we think, "opportunity." But our assignment is to the "one thing needful," the invisible quiet center—God.

Such restraint is not easy. Dealing with important matters, we assert ourselves as important. We do it, of course, in the name of God, supposing we are upholding the primacy of the One we represent and intending to build up congregational effectiveness. This is done with distressing regularity by pastors. But such posturing does not give glory to God; it only advertises clerical vanity and contributes to congregational inanity. We are only hogging the show.... (p. 88)
I will use these categories to continue sharing my own perspectives on what I perceive to be some shortcomings of evangelicalism with regard to pastoral theology. I served as a pastor in mostly nondenominational evangelical churches for more than 25 years and directly experienced (and contributed to) the concerns I write about here. What I have seen in that church culture is Peterson's critique gone to seed.

The rest of the story...

First Concern: Where are the "apostles"?
If Eugene Peterson found no nurture and guidance from his denominational leaders, that is a shame. Those who serve as "apostles" above the local church level should have at least some among them assigned to be spiritual mentors and directors to pastors, who need constant support and direction. Peterson's critique shows us that no system is perfect, and that administrative structures don't always address the situations they are created to handle.

However, the problem in the autonomous world of evangelicalism is that there is NO STRUCTURE whatsoever. There is not even the least possibility of spiritual guidance, support, personal counsel, or accountability from the "apostolic" level, for there is no "apostolic" level! Like the churches they serve, pastors are expected to be independent, autonomous, and self-supporting. Each one is a solo act, and he works without a net.

This starts in school, where you will look long and hard to find a course or program that instructs prospective pastors about what a minister actually does day in and day out. Then, the world of church work he enters after school is the world of the entrepreneur. You are the man! Start your own. Do it your way. Come up with the next new and big idea. Climb the ladder. Learn to compete with the big boys. It's spiritual capitalism at its best, and only the strongest survive.

When I left my last church, a troubled congregation, I went home alone with my family. I literally had no idea what to do next. Oh sure, the folks from the pews were sympathetic and kind and very generous to help us out as they could, but where was the vocational "net"? Where was the older, wiser apostle overseeing the churches, whose job it was to pick up a colleague who had fallen on his face, bandage his wounds, put him on his own animal, bring him to the inn, and take care of him until he was strong enough to stand up again? Who would envision a future and point out possibilities?

Some lost pastors have found such healing and help providentially, but in my experience, it is far too rare and most of the time the fallen one himself has to search for it. There simply is no structure, no vocational net. Peterson warns us that denominational structures may not work well, or even at all sometimes. But at least someone cared enough to do something!

Timothy, you are on your own. You won't be hearing from Paul anytime soon.

Second Concern: Cultural ecclesiology
Peterson reminds us that Aaron was one of the most popular spiritual leaders in Scripture. He gave the people what they wanted and let them enjoy their "religion" to the fullest. According to Calvin, all people seek idols before God, and with today's technology, the American evangelical church can churn them out at record pace. In Peterson's priceless words, "John Calvin's insight plus Henry Ford's technology equals North American religion" (p. 81).

One idol that constantly provides hurdles for the evangelical pastor is that of the all-purpose church. This is the suburban doctrine of ecclesiology. A program for everything, and everything packaged in a program. A veritable Disney World of opportunities for all ages to find fulfilling spiritually-themed things to do. A religious activity center.

If the community and congregation are allowed to define "church" in these terms, it has an appalling effect on the pastor's vocation. He is no longer the shepherd whose job it is to help folks pay attention to God in their daily lives. No longer the one who is relieved from the normal demands of daily work to make a living and given leisure to keep company with God himself. No longer the one to practice what David Hansen calls, "long, wandering prayer." No longer the one encouraged to spend time among "the least of these," to "visit the orphans and widows in their distress," to leave the flock and seek the single lost sheep.

Instead he becomes the busy executive, who works in his "office" rather than his "study." Who oversees a staff and conducts their performance reviews and approves their budgets. Who works on a "campus," and conducts programs in the "worship center" rather than leading people to contemplate God in the "sanctuary." Who is called upon to cast the vision and come up with the strategy. Whose true sacred text is his DayTimer. He is CEO. He is shopkeeper. He is where the buck stops. He runs a church.

The customers demand it.

Third Concern: The celebrity pastor
Given the first two concerns, being a pastor in a contemporary evangelical church is a high risk/high reward proposition. You work without a net. You exist in a highly competitive market. If you ain't got the stuff, you'll probably get the stuffin' kicked out of you. If you got it, you can be a star.

Evangelical churches are mostly known by their pastors. Charismatic. Gifted. Dynamic. Visionary. Born leaders. These guys (and they are almost all guys in this tradition) have their pictures on all the conference brochures. You hear them on Christian radio. Their books are the ones you see when you first walk in the bookstore. People visit their churches and run from the parking lot to get good seats in the service.

Has anyone ever thought it strange that they represent a Savior who was mostly unknown by the world in which in lived? Who traveled by foot to obscure places and spent inordinate amounts of time with people who would never be able to return him any favors? Who rejected all attempts at publicity and "marketing"? Who intentionally said things so that some people would turn away and not follow him anymore? Who refused to make his teachings easy or "user-friendly," but spoke some of the strangest, hard-to-grasp words ever spoken? Who let his disciples fail again and again but never gave up on them, even when they gave the "ministry" a bad name? Whose greatest work was done in absolute shame and nakedness, darkness, death and despair? Whose symbol is not some snazzy logo designed by savvy marketers, but a bloody cross?

Pastors commonly give lip service to the vocabulary of their vocation, but in our working lives we more commonly pursue careers. Our actual work takes shape under the pressure of the marketplace, not the truth of theology or the wisdom of spirituality. I would like to see as much attention given to the holiness of our vocations as to the piety of our lives.

Basically, all I am doing is trying to get it straight, get straight what it means to be a pastor, and then develop a spirituality adequate to the work. The so-called spirituality that was handed to me by those who put me to the task of pastoral work was not adequate. I do not find the emaciated, exhausted spirituality of institutional careerism adequate. I do not find the veneered, cosmetic spirituality of personal charisma adequate. I require something biblically spiritual—rooted and cultivated in creation and covenant, leisurely in Christ, soaked in Spirit.

Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant, p. 5


Anonymous said...

This is heartbreaking to read. I so want to have a pastoral pastor, but I see the pressures mounting. I wish I could protect my pastor from this stuff somehow. (Actually he's a priest, but I have a hard time getting used to that word.)

Anonymous said...

This is heartbreaking to read. I so want to have a pastoral pastor, but I see the pressures mounting. I wish I could protect my pastor from this stuff somehow. (Actually he's a priest, but I have a hard time getting used to that word.)

AZ said...

A church near where we live recently hired a new man, and the old folks are really enthusiastic about him. "I think we've got a real live wire this time!" said one.

And he is. He's 6'5". His office is cluttered with the heads of animals he's shot. He paces back and forth across the "stage" during his messages, flapping his arms and teaching the audience memory-aiding gestures that he proudly calls "Mick-isms" after himself. (Would that be "eponymous mnemonics?")

This latest commentary makes me wonder if they weren't looking for a man who was all exterior, with none of the inner man that you write of, Mike. The previous pastor had failed them in two respects: he wasn't entertaining, and he had needs. So they went looking and found a game-show host.

That church has all the defects that Peterson describes, and everybody's happy with it.

gina said...

Pastor Mike: I agree with so much of what you have said. My views changed after I took a Spiritual Formation class last semester. I found that I was indeed confused about my role in life. My job is to abide in Him, period. I am not someone else's Holy Spirit. Professor Mike Sabo leads a leadership institute in Colorado that addresses much of what you discuss. He disagrees with the way seminaries are training us and works with pastors who are "fleeing" the ministry. Keep working this through. Peace, Gina

chris said...

"We must do only what we are there to do: pronounce the Name, name the hunger"

And may I add...a shepherd still has to sheer the sheep. They can't be afraid of doing that.

Anonymous said...

Undeniable truth. I am not so sure of the need for Apostles, but fellowship would be nice. I find pastors to be like eagles, alone in a vast territory, if only we flocked like dove.

Steve Frazer said...

Reading the parts of the book you have on your blog has made my heart heavy. This is mainstream religion. People no longer want to hear the truth; Instead, church in may ways has become a form of entertainment. No wonder so many pastors are walking away from their calling. Personally, I have been amazed by the behavior of my fellow christians in the name of the lord. Great thing is God loves us anyways.

Steve Frazer