The Pastor as Docent
Moving beyond the "messiah" and "manager" pastoral models.

A friend told me that Eugene Peterson's Under the Unpredictable Plant should be required reading for every pastor who has served for at least five years. That was how long it had been since my ordination. I picked up a copy.

Peterson claims that there are two common types of unhealthy clergy. The first is the messiah. Messiahs seek out wounded, broken people, to make them healthy again. It is a noble task, except for its motivation: messiahs need to feel needed. They consider healed people to be numbers, accumulated to suggest pastoral effectiveness.

Then there are managers, who seek not the unhealthy but the healthy: talented, faithful, and prepared people. Managers plug them in, finding the right places for them to serve in an ever-expanding congregational machine. The bigger the church gets, the better managers feel effective and useful. Once again, people become numbers.

I have both messianic and managerial tendencies. It is too easy for congregants to become statistics, which I can use to inflate my sense of clergy effectiveness.

That realization prompted me to search for a new pastoral identity, one that treated people more personally. I found one at the Louvre.

Rather than being my church's messiah or your manager, I see myself as its docent- a tour guide in a museum or art gallery. Clergy showcase to the world the architecture and artistry of the Christian faith. We are tour guides, leading people from one gallery to another, shifting their attention from one work of God to the next. At times, we offer language to describe the unutterable: magnificence, awe, anguish. We are wordsmiths for life's most muted moments.

Sometimes that moment demands explanation, and like a docent we offer information. We love when someone looks at a familiar passage of scripture in a fresh way, or unpacks some mystery of God in their life that transforms. Those are galleries that buzz with energy.

But other rooms we visit demand nothing but silence. We pause, speechless, when confronted by the mysteries of our liturgy: the breaking of bread, the lifting of a cup, the pouring of water. And there are times when our silence emerges from the ache and anguish of souls: the graveside of a loved one, a doctor's diagnosis, or a future swirling with shadows. Our job in these moments may not be to speak but to stand. To let people know they are not alone in this gallery, and that someone has been there before.

We also know that our tours are temporary. It is a holy privilege to serve as pastor temporarily. Contemporary mobility ensures that our relationship is only for a season, so we cherish this time together.

April 21, 2010

Displaying 1–8 of 8 comments


February 24, 2011  9:16am

The destructive nature of committing to either the "messiah" or "manager" models is best evidenced when the numbers go the wrong way. That is, when attendance in worship and other activities decreases rather than increases. I have witnessed pastors in this situation worry and fret daily, seize control of many facets of church life from either paid staff or laity empowered to manage them, and change course more often than they change clothes in a desperate attempt to "get the numbers back up." These acts frustrate church staff, confuse the faithful, and ultimately result in the pastor losing favor and even credibility. Would the "docent" model simply be passive in this situation? Certainly not! The docent would go about addressing the issue according to their training and experience and would enlist the help and "wise counsel" of trusted associates and friends in order to "right the ship" and set it on a new course, at right angles from the path of the storm. The docent would encourage the crew (read Staff and laity) to "stay the course" but would entrust the actual steering to those trained to do so. Get the picture? Good. If you see yourself as a "messiah" or "manager" but your title is "Pastor," think about becoming more of a "docent."

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April 27, 2010  2:26pm

I should have mentioned also (though many might recognize this) that the Epistle to the Hebrews presents the Scriptural basis for the Orthodox understanding of Christ as our High Priest.

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April 25, 2010  6:05am

"Perhaps Shepherd is a good Pastoral model..." I agree with you, Gregg. It is anchored in one of the most beloved passages of the Scripture of all time - Psalm 23 with its renowned first line "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want." Another valuable verse: "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep..." (John 10:14) Hence, the overriding question for us: Do we know our sheep? Adrian Rogers in his book "The Lord Is My Shepherd" spelled out the nature of sheep in 5Ds - that is, 5 characteristics. And no mistake, we can identify with all the characteristics of the sheep. To bear this out, I excerpted passages from Psalms that give utterance to today's insatiable hungers stashed in the deepest recesses of fallen man's hearts and minds. 1. Sheep are dumb When was the last time you went to the circus and saw trained sheep? "O God, you know so well how stupid I am, and you know all my sins.' Ps 69:5 2. Sheep are dependent When sheep slip and fall, they can't right themselves. They roll over on their backs until rescued. "I am depending on you, O Lord my God, to save me from my persecutors." 3. Sheep are defenseless Lions bite. Tigers claw. Bears crush. Snakes strike. But sheep's short, weak legs, bad eyesight, and dwarfed horns are inept against predators. "Justice? You high and mighty politicians don't even know the meaning of the word! Fairness? Which of you has any left? Not one? All your dealings are crooked: you give 'justice' in exchange for bribes." Ps 58:1 4. Sheep are distracted easily A breeze kicking up some leaves will so distract and frighten sheep that a stampede ensues. "O wash me, cleanse me from this guilt. Let me be pure again for I admit my shameful deed - it haunts me day and night." Ps 51: 2-3 5. Sheep are directionless He only has one thing on his mind - the next blade of grass. Soon he's lost. "O God, listen to me! Hear my prayer! For wherever I am, though far away at the ends of the earth, I will cry to you for help." Ps 61:1 Douglas McGregor of MIT developed in the 1960s what we call "Theory X and Theory Y" that have been used in human resource management and organizational development. The nature of sheep matching man's weaknesses and failings due to his fallen nature can be identified with Theory X. Adapted Conclusion: "As a result...[the clergy] believe that [the laity] need to be closely supervised and comprehensive systems of controls developed. A hierarchical structure is needed with narrow span of control at each and every level." Biblical Application: The whole essence of Psalm 23.

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April 22, 2010  11:10am

We need to recover the pastor as "navigator." The Greek word is "kubernetes," referring to a ships pilot. The pilot works with the crew when the waters are uncertain. And when the location is unknown and there are no maps, the navigator references the North Star - a fixed point off the planet. In ancient literature (John Climacus) the same word was used to describe a spiritual director.

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April 21, 2010  7:58pm

Perhaps Shepherd is a good Pastoral model...

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April 21, 2010  11:51am

Because of the understanding of the Orthodox pastor serving as an icon (image) of biblical priesthood and specifically that of Christ's High Priesthood, I think the dangers for Orthodox priests are a bit different than that of pastors in another Christian worship tradition. There is clearly still room for abuse, but it is more likely to be clearly seen and understood as the raw abuse and misuse of power than as confusion about what his role ought to be (as in pastor as Messiah or Manager in this article). In Orthodoxy, the priest (whether Bishop or Presbyter) serves as an icon (image) of the one Priesthood of Christ. His role in the congregation instructs us about the meaning of Christ's Priesthood and allows us to encounter that greater Reality in a concrete way. He is also a pastor, but this is in the framework of biblical priesthood. It also helps us to understand better what it means that all believers through conversion and baptism are made to be holy priests unto God ministering on behalf of the larger world. Despite the intellectual understanding I had about the role of the priest in the Scriptures and Christ's High Priesthood fulfilling that role when I was Evangelical, I didn't understand experientially what it means to have Christ as my High Priest until I became Orthodox and my pastor was also functioning as my priest. There is a significant difference. I found out that I need my priest much more as priest than as a pastor (though I need both), and that this makes Christ present to me in a way that no pastor ever could. The Orthodox priest serves to present the faithful to Christ (and Christ to the faithful through proclamation and preaching of the gospel and its demonstration through liturgical action), but it is very clear in Orthodoxy that it is Christ Himself Who must nurture and transform the faithful. I was deeply conscious of needing Christ Himself above all (especially in a corporate worship setting) in order to feed my spiritual life and never finding any sure avenue into His direct Presence in my Evangelical Christian experience (despite knowing Him to be present everywhere). I have not had that same frustration as an Orthodox Christian.

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April 21, 2010  11:01am

I'm currently reading Under the Unpredictable Plant, and mentioned it on my blog the other day. Peterson does a fine job of reorienting pastors to understand their roles as "docent". The reality that Christ is already at work among the peoples and cities that we serve is important to remember. In that sense, pastors look for what Jesus is doing, and point it out to others as their primary task.

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April 21, 2010  10:21am

As metaphor, docent is decent. Contra messiah, docent is descent. For most, docent is dissent.

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