One of my favorite and most challenging books is The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene Peterson. In his book Peterson juxtaposes what he sees as two prevailing notions of the pastorate: the competitive pastor and the contemplative pastor. In the following quote he talks about his paradigm shift from one to the other.
I was addicted to adrenaline. And now I was realizing how my already well-honed competitive instincts were exacerbated by the competitive and consumerist church culture that surrounded me. Was it realistic to think I could develop from a competitive pastor to something maybe more like a contemplative pastor – a pastor who was able to be with people without having an agenda for them, a pastor who was able to accept people just as they were and guide them gently and patiently into a mature life in Christ but not get in the way, let the Holy Spirit do the guiding? (210-211)
I like what he’s saying and I don’t. I like this because I don’t think having competitive juices constantly fueling the pastor’s mind is a good thing. I also like the thought of not having this big agenda for people. We should just learn to be with them and enjoy their pressence. But, that’s the thing that I’m not quite comfortable with either. If pastors don’t have a vision to see people go from point A to B then that approach could get a little stagnant. Personally, I’ve liked being around pastors who have had an agenda for me. Makes me feel like I’m being taken seriously. Maybe not everyone is like that though. I could see how having a constant agenda for people could seem a bit utilitarian.
Peterson here describes his appreciation for a mentor who refused the ‘agenda’ approach.
He became my pastor without making me a project, without giving me advice, without smothering me with his ‘concern.’ There wasn’t a hint of condescension, not in his prayer, not in his conversation. I learned, without being aware that I was learning, of the immense freedom that comes in pastoral relationships that are structured by prayer… and let everything else happen more or less spontaneously. (212)
There’s something about this that resonates with me. I like what Peterson said about his mentor: “There wasn’t a hint of condescension, not in his prayer, not in his conversation.” I want to be like that. I know I’ve patronized others with my advice-giving before. Someone even told me that I was doing that to my face. I was just trying to be helpful, but sometimes unsolicited advice can feel that way. I want to be a pastor who confers a great deal of dignity. And to refrain from jumping into advice-giving I think does that, and it requires a great deal of patience.
Listen to Peterson’s personal lament. I think many could chime in with him.
I never had a patient pastor – they were all trying to get me ‘with the program,’ shape me up, get me, as they put it, ‘involved.’ I don’t want to become a pastor like that. I don’t think that is what pastors are for. (284)
Ouch. I’ve been guilty of ‘getting people with the program’ too. And I think Peterson is right… that’s not what pastors are for!
The pastor is the one person in the community who is free to take men and women seriously JUST AS THEY ARE, appreciate them JUST AS THEY ARE, give them the dignity that derives from being the ‘image of God,’ a God-created being who has eternal worth without having to prove usefulness or be good for anything. (285) – emphasis mine.
Here’s what I take away from this:
Take people seriously just as they are. This is a powerful approach as a pastor. I don’t know of anything that gains a pastor more credibility than that right there. If people know that you value them just as they are, right where they are, you become real to them. They have at least one person in the whole world they can trust. They don’t need to prove their worth; they have it by virtue of being made in the image of God. Do people have to earn our approval?Do we view a person only in the light of how they can benefit our church? Is getting people ‘with the program’ our main objective? If it is then we have become what Peterson calls a competitive pastor. And competitive pastors have the tendency to treat people as projects. Something I’ve been guilty of and don’t want to do anymore.
My work is not to fix people. It is to lead people in the worship of God. (137).
And to that I say, “Amen.”