Godspeed, Eugene Peterson

Today I read that Eugene Peterson has entered hospice care. Peterson may be the most influential person in my life that I’ve never actually met. Not only have his ideas about the nature of pastoral ministry profoundly reoriented my thinking, his books have introduced me to some of my favorite writers and thinkers, people like Wendell Berry and Stanley Hauerwas. I am sure that I am not alone in this. I had heard of Eugene Peterson as a young pastor but his greatest influence came when I became a professor training others for pastoral ministry. For over twenty years I have required my students to read Under the Unpredictable Plant,  a remarkable book where he turns pastoral ministry on its head.

Instead of describing the pastor as someone who controls the church and shapes the lives of others, Peterson argues that congregational ministry is the place where God shapes the pastor’s soul. In the process, he takes aim at the culture of careerism which has so infected our idea of ministry. He calls career driven ministry idolatry: “The idolatry to which pastors are so conspicuously liable is not personal but vocational, the idolatry of a religious career that we can take charge of and manage.”

Peterson’s criticism came as a great relief. It explained so much about my ministry and my life. “There is much that is glorious in pastoral work, but the congregation, as such, is not glorious” he warns. “The congregation is a Nineveh like place: a site for hard work without a great deal of hope for success, at least as success is measured on the charts.” How many times since have I wished that I had heard this warning when I was first starting out in ministry? But the truth is, I doubt that I would have accepted it. Oh, I might have believed that this was true for other more ordinary sorts but not for me. I was young.  I was gifted. I was destined for great things.

Peterson warns that anyone who glamorizes pastoral ministry does a disservice to pastors. “We hear tales of glitzy, enthusiastic churches and wonder what in the world we are doing wrong that our people don’t turn out that way under our preaching” Peterson observes. But the real problem is not our ministry but our expectation. We have been pursuing a fantasy. “Hang around long enough and sure enough there are gossips who won’t shut up, furnaces that malfunction, sermons that misfire, disciples who quit, choirs that go flat–and worse.” It cannot be otherwise, Peterson explains. Every congregation is a community of sinners and has sinners for pastors.

I do not think Peterson saw himself as an iconoclast so much as a witness. “It is necessary from time to time that someone stand up and attempt to get the attention of the pastors lined up at the travel agency in Joppa to purchase a ticket to Tarshish” he has written. “At this moment I am the one standing up. If I succeed in getting anyone’s attention, what I want to say is that the pastoral vocation is not a glamorous vocation and Tarshish is a lie.” For the past twenty-five years, I have tried to add my voice to his.

A few years ago I wrote to Peterson. I hoped that he would agree to write the introduction for a book I had just finished. He declined the opportunity. In a brief handwritten note, he explained that he had reached the stage in life where he had to make careful choices. He said that he was not an expert in everything and needed to stick with what he knew best. He closed with a quote from Wendell Berry. It was the kindest rejection I’ve ever experienced. Godspeed, Eugene Peterson.

The Trouble with the 80/20 Rule

You know the 80/20 rule. You probably heard about it from your pastor. The 80/20 rule is the statistic which says that in the average church 20% of the people do 80% of the ministry. There is a problem with the 80/20 rule and it’s not the uneven distribution of labor.

Before I go any further I need to confess that when I was a pastor I used the 80/20 rule to try and motivate the congregation. It’s a helpful statistic, if your main goal is to get people to hang their heads in shame. It is also good for reinforcing the pride or the resentment of those who see themselves as part of the 20%. What it does not do is motivate the 80% to greater involvement. I know this from personal experience. I have been on both sides of the statistic.

But that’s not the reason the 80/20 rule is problematic. The real problem is the way this statistic defines ministry. When church leaders (and let’s be honest it’s usually only church leaders who use this statistic) speak of ministry, they almost always mean church programs. They are talking about the nursery or the Sunday school program. They mean VBS or the weeknight kids club or the latest short-term mission trip to some country that also sometimes shows up as a destination for the prize puzzle on Wheel of Fortune. What they don’t mean are the kinds of things you and I spend most of our time doing. Things like working at our jobs, raising our kids, caring for our families, relating to our neighbors, or being a citizen.

There is a reason for this. It has to do with the competitive environment in which the church does business. Most churches use the term ministry to describe the religious goods and services they provide. Those goods and services are the main product they offer to their customers. The more product they offer, the larger their customer base. Because most churches operate with limited staff, they rely mostly on volunteers. Those volunteers carry out this work in between everything else they are doing in their lives. It is their ministry. Everything else is pretty much dead space.

So what’s wrong with the 80/20 rule? The trouble is that the 80/20 rule is a calculation based on a definition of ministry that concerns itself with far less than 20% of what we do with our lives and leaves the rest out. It might be better described as the 90/10 rule or even the 98/2 rule. It is limited not only because the things that it defines as ministry fall outside those areas where most of us expend the majority of our energy but because of the limited number of options it provides. By this definition, there are only a handful of things that really qualify as a ministry.

This is more than a bad definition. Ultimately it reflects a failure of the church’s mission. The function of the church is not to train workers for the spiritual marketplace. It is to equip its members to live the Christian life. They live out this calling as a distributed community, dispersed in their various locations, jobs, and circumstances. Their ministry is to bear witness to the grace of God and the transforming work of Jesus Christ in whatever context they find themselves.

My friend Al is a good example of this. Before he retired, Al worked as a special education teacher in the public school system. Now he spends much of his time as a caregiver for members of his family. He not only tends to their practical needs by preparing meals or providing transportation but maintains a spiritual presence. Al prays for his family and talks to them about God. He doesn’t teach Sunday school or go on short-term mission trips. He doesn’t serve on church committees. In fact, most of what the church is concerned about seems removed from Al’s life. The church does not seem especially concerned about him except as a potential laborer. He is part of the 80%.

In reality, there is no 80%. There are only followers of Jesus, dispersed in their various callings and contexts and charged with the task of living for Christ. Some do it well. Some fail. Most muddle through without much encouragement or instruction from the church. When the pastor mentions the 80/20 rule, they hang their heads in shame.

Working for God: Part II

When Scripture declares that those who “direct the affairs of the church well” are worthy of “double” honor (1 Timothy 5:17), it implies a standard of recompense which is correlated with performance. Paul’s reasoning seems to be something like this: All those who direct the affairs of the church are worthy of “honor.” The “good ones” deserve double honor. Those who labor in preaching and teaching especially deserve this reward (the Greek term could be translated “most of all”).

 Such language not only implies a comparison of effort between those engaged in the same ministry context, it implies that the nature of the work and the degree of effort should be taken into account when the church considers how to reward its servants in a monetary way. All who labor deserve a “wage” or reward. Some are more deserving than others. In view of this, an equitable return for one’s labor does not mean that everyone who labors should get the same amount but that the return should be equal to the effort. Those who work harder deserve more.

 The fact that those Paul has in view are engaged in what might be described as “kingdom work” is significant. How should the perspective of grace affect one’s approach to evaluation and reward in the workplace? Two of Jesus’ parables may shed light on this question. The parable of the workers in the vineyard and the parable of the talents both have employment and evaluation as a backdrop. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard God is portrayed as one who generously rewards those who labor (Matthew 20:1–16). Certainly the parable is intended as a warning against the kind of bargaining spirit which approaches the labor of the kingdom with a hireling’s mentality. It describes a shocking grace by which those who have invested less labor (because they came to the field later) receive the same reward as those who have had to endure the heat of the entire day. To suggest that employers ought to pay every employee the same wage goes beyond the scope of this parable. Yet it would not be too much to say that a grace informed ethic in the workplace would be an ethic that has generosity and kindness as its dominant features.

 The theme of expectation is further emphasized in Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30; Luke 19:12–27). Here Jesus tells the story of a man who entrusts his property to four stewards before setting out on a journey. Upon returning from his trip, the man calls his servants to “settle accounts” with them. In Luke’s version the man is described as a “king” and those who are entrusted with talents as “servants.” Such details provide another reminder that these parables were not meant to provide detailed guidance to employers in how to handle their employees. The parable of the talents, like the parable of the laborers, is a parable of the “kingdom.” Yet it is just here that the parable provides important insight for “Christian work.” Evaluation and reward are consistent with kingdom values. When Christ returns He will assess the performance of those who have served Him. This evaluation of what has been done will be based on a standard of expectation. The master tells the “wicked, lazy servant” what he should have done.

All legitimate labor deserves its own reward. The worker deserves his wages. But the one for whom we labor is also owed something. God expects us to do our work well. We are not merely laborers. We are artisans and craftsmen for the Kingdom.

Ministry Monday: Attending to the Culture of Our Souls

In his lectures on preaching delivered to students at Yale in 1912, John Henry Jowett asked how ministers were to avoid the perils of their calling. He answered: “By studious and reverent regard to the supreme commonplaces of the spiritual life. We must assiduously attend to the culture of our souls.”

This seems to me to express the essence of spiritual practice. It is the effort we make to “attend to the culture of our souls.” What is equally striking about Jowett’s answer is its emphasis on what he calls “the supreme commonplaces of the spiritual life.” We are enamored of the novel and the exotic, when the real crucible of spiritual formation is usually found in the mundane.

According to Jowett, attention to the culture of our souls requires solitude: “In the midst of our fussy, restless activities, in all the multitudinous trifles which, like a cloud of dust, threaten to choke our souls, the minister must fence off his quiet and secluded hours, and suffer no interference or obtrusion.”

This is hard to do, living as we do in an age which equates busyness with effectiveness. “Gentlemen, we are not always doing the most business when we seem to be most busy” Jowett warns. “We may think we are truly busy when we are really only restless, and a little studied retirement would greatly enrich our returns.”

Perhaps the most productive decision you make today could be to engage in “a little studied retirement.” You might start by turning off the little sound on your computer that alerted you to this new post.

Pitfalls for those in Ministry: The Holy Becomes Commonplace

In The Preacher, His Life and Work, John Henry Jowett warns that one of the great pitfalls of ministry is that of over familiarity. “You will not have been long in the ministry before you discover that it is possible to be fussily busy about the Holy Place and yet to lose the wondering sense of the Holy Lord.”

The fact that we have been given the privilege of dispensing God’s word week after week can result in a kind of over familiarity that causes us to take undue liberty with it. Not in doctrine so much as in our disposition. “Our share in the table provisions may be that of analysts rather than guests” Jowett warns. “We may become so absorbed in words that we forget to eat the Word.”

The responsibility of exegesis makes us especially vulnerable to this. Instead of being hearers of God’s word we easily become handlers of it. We mistakenly conclude that effectiveness in the pulpit is evidence of personal holiness. Jowett warns of the danger of assuming that “fine talk is fine living, that expository skill is piety.” A good sermon does not necessarily guarantee a good life and outward success is no sure sign of God’s favor. Mastery of the word will never make us masters over it. Those who proclaim God’s word to others must themselves remain under it.

Ministry Monday: The Future of Ministry

In a recent blog post, William Willimon proposed ten theses about the future of ministry (http://willimon.blogspot.com/2010/04/ten-theses-about-future-of-ministry.html). A Methodist bishop, Willimon looks at this issue through the lens of the mainline church. He expects mainline Protestantism to continue to experience numerical decline and to continue being pushed to the margins of culture.

The solution he proposes is theological. “The pastoral ministry in mainline Protestantism will need to find a theological way through the intellectual death of theological liberalism (“Progressive Christianity”) and the cultural compromises of traditional evangelicalism (the IRD and evangelical Protestantism’s alliance with the political right)” Willimon observes.  The best way forward is mission related not methodological. Willimon explains, “The mission of the church will take precedence over internal maintenance, real estate, fellowship, therapy, pastoral care and other factors that have driven the church in recent decades and have contributed to our decline.”

Willimon’s ten theses make me wonder how conservative evangelicals would answer the question, “What is the future of ministry?” How would you reply this question? What does this mean for training institutions like mine that seek to prepare students for future ministry?

Ministry Monday: Vision’s Dirty Little Secret

Wendell Berry writes that a farmer’s connection to the farm often begins in love: “One’s head, like a lover’s, grows full of visions. One walks over the premises, saying, ‘If this were mine, I’d make a permanent pasture here; here is where I’d plant an orchard; here is where I’d dig a pond.’ These visions are the usual stuff of unfulfilled love and induce wakefulness at night.”

 I would contend that something similar happens to the pastor who dreams of a different kind of future for the church. Like Berry’s farmer, thoughts of what could be drive sleep from us. Night falls and our work is only beginning. We imagine and plan. We create whole new worlds in our mind, striding across the landscape like giants. Until our spouse, weary from our tossing and sighing, tells us to either give it a rest or sleep somewhere else.

 Yet if it is to be realized, this imagined future must be shaped as much by reality as it is by vision. “One’s work may be defined in part by one’s visions,” Berry explains, “but it is defined in part too by problems, which the work leads to and reveals.” As powerful as vision is in motivating us to work for change, the change that eventually comes to pass usually differs from that which we initially imagined. Our dreams are transformed as we come to terms with the reality of our environment. Berry sees this as a necessary correction, one which “gradually removes one’s self from one’s line of sight.”

 In saying this, Berry has uncovered the dirty little secret of most vision work. Vision is often as much about us as it is about the future, a fact which explains why so many visionary leaders also turn out to be narcissists.

 There is, thankfully, a corrective built into the vision process, which is simply this: every leader is dependent upon others to bring the vision to pass. These “others,” usually consisting of the congregation, meddle with our dream. They resist it. Shatter it. Then eventually recast it in their own image. The result, if we are patient enough to wait and humble enough to submit, is often something even we would not have imagined.

Questions:

What do you think are some of the “best practices” for drawing stakeholders into the vision process?

How do you deal with the natural frustration that often arises when those stakeholders re-shape and change your vision?