The Ministry of Small Talk

Edge-Icons          In his book The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson says that small talk is a pastoral art. I like this. Not because I’m necessarily good at small talk, but because it says something about the pastor who is willing to engage in it. There are huge things that occupy the mind of a pastor. That’s what turns their crank. The big stuff. That’s why they are in the business of pastoring. Big talk, like – Jesus, eternity, souls, life, and death is what is most worthy of our attention and time. This is a pastor’s expertise. Not small talk. Big talk includes the things they were trained to handle. And it is those things we love to get to. It’s a ‘good contact’ when we were able to turn the conversation to eternal matters, when we were able to bring that person to a decision, when a person finally said, “Hey I been meaning to ask ya.” Then and only then do we feel like we are finally addressing real business. We grow impatient with small talk and so we knowingly pry our way into bigger talk. We force our way past the inconsequential to those things of consequence. We sense the violation, but press anyhow. Sounds like a form of conversational rape. Gross. I’ve been guilty of this. Wanting to get to the ‘important stuff,’ I manipulate the conversation even when I sense the door is closed. Lord, give us patience. Give us an ability to be perfectly happy with the talk even if it’s small.
          I don’t mean small talk as in the gift of gab, or just plain chattiness. I’ve never been a big conversationalist like that. But, a willingness to talk about simple everyday life. Peterson points out that, “Most of people’s lives are not spent in crisis… [instead they] are engaged in simple, routine tasks.” And what does it say about me if I don’t want to hear it? How does that come off? Peterson continues: “Pastors [who]… are frequently involved with large truths and are stewards of great mysteries, need to cultivate conversational humility.” Boom! Wow. I think this is a zinger to many coming out of seminary. Although, many seminarians love to converse about theology and church history, many of the people they will be pastoring do not. Those with evangelistic zeal love to ensure the soul is heaven bound, but people are first facing the issues of life, like employment, marriage, kids, bills. If we’re not willing to engage on this level then we could stand to grow in a little (as Peterson puts it) conversational humility.
          Peterson says we need to be “as respectful of the ordinary as we are of the critical.” This is true pastoring. Not in a hurry to turn up the heat. If that’s all we’re about, people can tell and we become irrelevant, artificial, and good for nothing. True pastors care about more than just the ‘big stuff’ because that’s what their people cares for. This putting our agendas aside may just be one of the greatest shows of respect possible and it’s a powerful gesture. Again, Peterson instructs, “We’re not trying to make something happen but to be part of what is happening – without being in control of it.” This is something I want to grow in. I think I have… yet I still have a ways to go. Just to be in the moment and not the master of it. Recognizing the moment and accepting it for what it is. This requires a pastor’s touch.
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