Over the coming weeks, we are highlighting Leadership Journal's Top 40, the best articles of the journal's 36-year history. We will be presenting them in chronological order. Today we present #38, from 1981, written by the pastor of a small church in Bel Air, Maryland, Eugene Peterson, the first of many he would write for the journal.
The one piece of mail certain to go unread into my wastebasket is the one 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 in which it is used to flatter and express sympathy. "The poor pastor," we say. "So devoted to his flock; the work is endless and he sacrifices himself so unstintingly." But the word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife, or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront. Hilary of Tours diagnosed pastoral busyness as "irreligiosa solicitudo pro Deo," a blasphemous anxiety to do God's work for him.
I (and most pastors, I believe) become busy for two reasons; both reasons are ignoble.
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 If I go into a doctor's office and find there's no one waiting, and see through a half-open door the doctor reading a book, I wonder if he's any good. A good doctor will have people lined up waiting to see him; a good doctor will not have time to read a book, even if it's a very good book. Although I grumble about waiting my turn in a busy doctor's office, I am also impressed with his importance.
Such experiences affect me. I live in a society in which crowded schedules and harassed conditions are evidence of importance. I want to be important, so I develop a crowded schedule and harassed conditions. When others notice, they acknowledge my significance and my vanity is fed. The busier I am, the more important I am.
The other reason I become busy is that I am lazy. I indolently let other people decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. I let people who do not understand the work of the pastor write the agenda for my day's work because I am too slipshod to write it myself. But these people don't know what a pastor is supposed to do. The pastor is a shadow figure in their minds, a marginal person vaguely connected with matters of God and good will. Anything remotely religious or somehow well-intentioned can be properly assigned to the pastor.
Because these assignments to pastoral service are made sincerely, I lazily go along with them. It takes effort to refuse, and there's always the danger that the refusal will be interpreted as a rebuff, a betrayal of religion and a calloused disregard for people in need.
It was a favorite theme of C. S. Lewis that only lazy people work overhard. By lazily abdicating the essential work of deciding and directing, establishing values and setting goals, other people do it for 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.