The Dart

One of my favorite authors is Eugene Peterson. The man is a great writer and is extremely insightful when it comes to the pastor’s vocation.

In his book Under the Unpredictable Plant, he uses a chapter of Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, called “The Dart” as an analogy for the role of a pastor in the life of a church.

moby dick

Recently I was able to read the chapter in its entirety. I loved it. What an interesting piece of literature, and yes, I believe it serves well as an analogy for the pastor.

The following is chapter 62 of Moby Dick written in blue, with my thoughts interdispersed in black.

According to the invariable usage of the fishery, the whale-boat pushes off from the ship, with the headsman or whale-killer as temporary steersman, and the harpooneer or whale-fastener pulling the foremost oar, the one known as the harpooneer-oar.

When you read harpooner, read pastor. And when he strikes the harpoon, you can say he’s preparing his sermon.

Now it (the harpooner) needs a strong, nervous arm to strike the first iron into the fish; for often, in what is called a long dart, the heavy implement has to be flung to the distance of 20 or 30  feet.

Sermon preparation requires energy, and a fresh mind and spirit. It requires zest, spice, and life. But, things can get busy for a pastor.

But however prolonged and exhausting the chase, the harpooneer is expected to pull his oar meanwhile to the uttermost; indeed, he is expected to set an example of superhuman activity to the rest, not only by incredible rowing, but by repeated loud and intrepid exclamations; and what it is to keep shouting at the top of one’s compass, while all the other muscles are strained and half started – what that is none know but those who have tried it. For one, I cannot bawl very heartily and work very recklessly at one and the same time.

The pastor can quickly get swamped in administration, wading through everyone’s concerns, pulling late nights, running back and forth from meeting to meeting. But how is he expected to be fresh enough in the Word to deliver a substantive, content filled, inspiring sermon? And when does he have time to pray?

In this straining, bawling state, then, with his back to the fish, all at once the exhausted harpooneer hears the exciting cry-


Before he knows it it’s at the end of the week and the pastor is tired, but mentally he hears the excited cry, and in his fatigue he must drop what he’s doing, pick up his harpoon, and get to his sermon.

He now has to

  • drop and secure his oar,
  • turn round on his centre half way,
  • seize his harpoon from the crotch,
  • and with what little strength may remain, he essays to pitch it somehow into the whale.

Ever been there? Not a fun place to be.

And rarely is it productive. Hear the lament of Melville:

No wonder, taking the whole fleet of whalemen in a body, that out of fifty fair chances for a dart, not five are successful;

no wonder that so many hapless harpooneers are madly cursed and disrated;

no wonder that some of them actually burst their blood-vessels in the boat;

no wonder that some sperm whalemen are absent four years with four barrels;

no wonder that to many ship owners, whaling is but a losing concern;

for it is the harpooneer that makes the voyage, and if you take the breath out of his body how can you expect to find it there when most wanted!

No wonder preaching in many circles is said to be in a sad state. Pastors are too busy.

Again, if the dart be successful, then at the second critical instant, that is, when the whale starts to run, the boatheader and harpooneer likewise start to running fore and aft, to the imminent jeopardy of themselves and every one else. It is then they change places; and the headsman, the chief officer of the little craft, takes his proper station in the bows of the boat.

Commotion! Way too much commotion.

Now, I care not who maintains the contrary, but all this is both foolish and unnecessary. The headsman should stay in the bows from first to last; he should both dart the harpoon and the lance, and no rowing whatever should be expected of him, except under circumstances obvious to any fisherman.

Now I’m sure there’s still rowing to be done. But let’s not miss the point. You can’t be expected to dart the harpoon with any level of efficiency when you’re exhausted. Somehow churches must find ways to relieve their pastors so that they can make the best use of their energy.  The main thing must remain the main thing, and according to Acts 6:2-4 it’s primarily prayer and the ministry of the Word.

But, who’s going to spearhead the fundraiser? Who’s going to chair this committee? Who’s going to coordinate the small group program? Who’s gonna sign off on every work order?  In some churches it’s the pastor.

But for the good of all the pastor needs to slow down.

I know that this would sometimes involve a slight loss of speed in the chase; but long experience in various whalemen of more than one nation has convinced me that in the vast majority of failures in the fishery, it has not by any means been so much the speed of the whale as the before described exhaustion of the harpooneer that has caused them.

“The speed of the whale” isn’t as big of a deal as the “exhaustion of the harpooner.” Let the wise heed these words.

And Melville concludes his chapter with this salient thought…

To insure the greatest efficiency

in the dart, 

the harpooneers of this world

must start to their feet from out of idleness,

and not from out of toil.

Wow. So good.

Does the pastor’s work week include busy work? Yes, invariably it will.

But, I think this parable speaks to the unrealistic expectation that the pastor (or anyone for that matter) must be involved in everything. And we wonder why the dart doesn’t always find it’s mark. To honor the vocation of preaching, though, I believe a pastor must be afforded adequate space in order to rise to his feet from out of a sense of idleness, and not from a spirit of toil.

Whatever that looks like every whale boat must decide.



One comment

  1. Glenda Adee Rogers · · Reply

    Very good! A must for every pastor, or Christian worker for that matter.

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