The Unbusy Pastor

Eugene Peterson“The Unbusy Pastor” is a phrase I found as a chapter heading to Eugene Peterson’s book entitled The Contemplative Pastor. When I found this little phrase I just took it up in my hands and rolled it around a few times. I liked the feel of it. I said to myself, “is it possible?” I didn’t know, but I sat down with the chapter and listened intently. And Peterson’s words sunk in me and resonated deeply. Like I mentioned in my last post, I think many pastors are running in so many directions and are spread so thin that quality of life (or even ministry) is a bit precarious. I think it affects their work, their health, and families. And Eugene Peterson has done a lot of writing on this malady. He has become one of my favorite voices to listen to. He pastored one church for 29 years and he authored the book called, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. (Isn’t that a killer title?) And one of the reasons I like him so much is that he refused to take his cues from modern trends and was willing to question popular opinion. One of his most impressive refusals was to resist the notion that he had to be a busy pastor to be a respected pastor.

I’ll let him explain.
The one piece of mail certain to go unread into my wastebasket is the letter addressed to the “busy pastor.” Not that the phrase doesn’t describe me at times, but I refuse to give my attention to someone who encourages what is worst in me. I’m not arguing the accuracy of the adjective; I am though, contesting the way it’s used to flatter and express sympathy.

Oh man, I think he’s right on. Sometimes pastors, just like anybody else, get busy. But, it’s the wholesale adoption of chronic busyness that speaks to a much deeper and systemic problem for the pastor. The thing Peterson bristles at is how we hold up the image of a busy pastor as the mark of admiration, success, or even pity. “Oh look,” we say, “that poor pastor… he’s just laying down his life for the flock.” But, Peterson suggests that this might not be so much a mark of commitment, as it is of betrayal. Oh yes – you heard it right – betrayal. Peterson gives two reasons, and it hurts a bit to read them.

I am busy because I am vain. I want to appear important. Significant. What better way than to be busy? The incredible hours, the crowded schedule, and the heavy demands on my time are proof to myself – and to all who will notice – that I am important… When others notice, they acknowledge my significance, and my vanity is fed.  
I am busy because I am lazy. I indolently let others decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. It was a favorite theme of C.S. Lewis that only lazy people work hard. By lazily abdicating the essential work of deciding and directing, establishing values and setting goals, other people do it of us; then we find ourselves frantically, at the last minute trying to satisfy a half dozen different demands on our time, none of which is essential to our vocation, to stave off the disaster of disappointing someone.

And for the knockout punch…

How can I lead people into the quiet place beside the still waters if I am in perpetual motion? How can I persuade a person to live by faith and not by works if I have to juggle my schedule constantly to make everything fit into place?

Do you see why I like this man so much? Man alive, that’s potent. Instead he recommends this:
I can be a pastor who prays.
I can be active and pray; I can work and pray; but I cannot be busy and pray. I cannot be inwardly rushed, distracted, or dispersed. In order to pray I have to be paying more attention to God than to what people are saying to me; to God than to my clamoring ego… there must be a deliberate withdrawal from the noise of the day.
I can be a pastor who preaches.
I need a drenching in scripture; I require an immersion in biblical studies. I need reflective hours over the pages of Scripture as well as personal struggles with the meaning of Scripture.
I can be a pastor who listens.
A lot of people approach me through the week to tell me what’s going on in their lives. I want to have the energy and time to really listen to them so that when they’re through, they know at least one other person has some inkling of what they’re feeling and thinking.

We need to have pastors who pray, preach, and listen. That’s the bread and butter of pastoral vocation. And pastor’s need space and time to do it well. They can’t be everything to everybody. They’re human. Sure, people need to realize this of them; but pastors, most of all, need to realize this of themselves. I think, more often than not, ‘the busy pastor’ is a creature of misguided ambition. And his prayingpreaching, and listening suffer as a result… and ultimately so does the church. So now when I meet an unbusy pastor, I’m really inspired. He has disciplined himself to tend to the most important features of his calling and trusts God with the rest. Thanks, Eugene, for keeping a generation of pastors honest and available to the vocation of which they are called.
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One comment

  1. Glenda Adee Rogers · · Reply

    These are good guidelines for life in general. By being an example to the flock, the pastor’s self discipline will indeed result in a very healthy church and the individuals there in.

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