Few have given clearer thought to the role of pastoral ministry than Eugene H. Peterson, professor of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and a pastor for more than three decades. Kevin A. Miller, editor of LEADERSHIP journal (a sister publication of Christianity Today, from which this article is excerpted), probed Peterson on the following subjects:
—The pastor's first responsibility. My job as pastor is to call people to repent, deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus. If I revise "Repent!" to "How can I help you get your life in order?" I'm turning away from the gospel. If I take out the "follow" part and say, "We'll find out how you can live your life best the way you define it," who needs Jesus?
Sometimes I feel like somebody carrying a sign around Times Square that says repent! I've been a pastor for 35 years, and I don't trust people one inch in defining what they need. We don't know ourselves. We need God to tell us what we need.
The most important thing a pastor does is stand in a pulpit every Sunday and say, "Let us worship God." If that ceases to be the primary thing I do in terms of my energy, my imagination, and the way I structure my life, then I no longer function as a pastor. Our primary work is to make saints.
—Problems. Do pastors face more difficult problems today than in previous generations? I know this is a mixed-up, difficult, damaged generation. But it's arguable that the main difference today is not how much people are hurting, but how much they expect to be relieved from their hurting.
The previous century suffered just as much—in fact, probably much more. Just think of all the illness, death in childbirth, infant mortality, plagues. The big difference today is that we have this mentality that if it's wrong, you can fix it. You don't have to live with any discomfort or frustration. And the pastor is in the front line of people who get approached: "Make me happy. Make me feel good."
—People and programs. The gospel is experience-able. As a pastor, whatever the person's situation, you say, "This person can experience the gospel here."
This involves giving attention to people—the most inefficient way to do anything. It's boring, and when you do it, you feel like you're wasting time. There are committees to run to and budgets to fix—what's got to go? Listening to people. Seeing them in their uniqueness, without expecting anything of them. You quit paying attention, and people get categorized and recruited.
What would pastors have to give up in order to make time for people? Efficiency. Control. Quick returns. The satisfaction of pleasing people. But those are terrible things, and giving them up results in a wonderful freedom.
There's nothing quite as satisfying as being the one who proclaims the gospel, the one who's there to pray. When you do this, there's a sense of being in on something original and creative in people's lives. You're watching something happen that is resurrection life. But you can't produce the resurrection; it never happens when you think it ought to be happening.
—Society. This culture is an evil culture. Through the media, through friends, through conversations, we're constantly fed lies, and like most lies, they're 90 percent the truth. So you swallow the lie, and subtly, the edge of the gospel is blunted; you think you're preaching the gospel, and you're not. You don't even know it.
It's the pastor's job to pray and study the Word. People in the congregation are busy in their jobs, reading their periodicals, and attending their conferences. As a pastor I've got to be alert to my culture so that my congregation is not seduced. If I don't do it, nobody will.
—The pace of ministry. It's odd: We live in this so-called postmodernist time, and yet so much of the public image of the church is this rational, management-efficient model. If the postmodernists are right, that model is passe; it doesn't work anymore. In that sense, I find myself quite comfortably postmodern. I think pastors need to cultivate "unbusyness."
My father was a butcher. When he delivered meat to restaurants, he would sit at the counter, have a cup of coffee, and waste time. But that time was critical for building relationships, for doing business.
Some pastors don't wander around. They don't waste time. Their time is too valuable. They run to the tomb, and it's empty, so they run back. They never see resurrection.
To be unbusy, you have to disengage yourself from egos—both yours and others'—and start dealing with souls. Souls cannot be hurried.
—Prayer. I want to get past the idea that prayer is a do-it-yourself activity. I'm trying to give some sense of the largeness of prayer, the church at prayer. Somehow, I want to find out how people can disengage from their culture for silence and solitude. I'm willing to work with people to find out how to do that, but this is slow work. Most pastoral work is slow work. It is not a program that you put in place and then have it happen. It's a life. It's a life of prayer.
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