The Pastor or the Schoolmistress

“When I get a congregation, I want to be a patient pastor. I want to have eyes to see and ears to hear what God is doing and saying in their lives. I don’t want to judge them in terms of what I think they should be doing. I want to be a witness to what God is doing in their lives, not a schoolmistress handing out grades for how well they are doing something for God. I think I see something unique about being a pastor that I had never noticed: the pastor is the one person in the community who is free to take men and women seriously just as they are, appreciate them just as they are, give them the dignity that derives from being the “image of God,” a God-created being who has eternal worth without having to prove usefulness or be good for anything. I know that I will be doing a lot of other things too, but I might be the only person who is free to do this. I don’t want to be so impatient with the mess that I am not around to see the miracle being formed. I don’t want to conceive of my life as a pastor so functionally that the mystery gets squeezed out of both me and the congregation.” 1

Pastor Irene’s Manifesto–so named by Eugene H. Peterson in his book, The Pastor–so resonates with my soul that I’ve read it over and again. This is the pastor I long to be, but I fear I have a long way to go!

As I contemplate where I fall short, I realize that my passion for equipping the people of God for the work of God easily gets tangled up with my impatience with the mess of ministry. When that happens, I become the schoolmistress rather than the pastor who “witnesses the miracle being formed.”

How do I reconcile these two postures?

I must re-frame how I think about equipping the people. For example, I am privileged to hear a person’s unique story as I guide them through a gifts discovery process. I need not be so focused on which ministry will be a good fit that I do not honor the gift of their story, the working out of the miracle that is their life.

I may see some parts of a person’s story as areas where they need to grow, and immediately begin considering where to direct them to get the discipling that will spur that growth. But my first response should be to accept them for who they are today and where they are today in their journey with Christ. It is true that God may not be finished with them yet, but it’s not my responsibility to decide how and when and where God should next work in their life!

Does this mean that I don’t think about where to place them in ministry, or where to direct them for discipleship opportunities? Of course not! But I need to slow down and appreciate each person in my congregation for the unique and beautiful image-of-God that they are.

I may be the only person in their life today who can give them that gift.

1 Eugene H. Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2011): 284-285

Done with fixing the church.

Church is the gift of a community of Christians in which we rehearse and orient ourselves in the practice of resurrection. It is never an abstraction, never anonymous, never a problem to be fixed, never a romantic ideal to be fantasized. (emphasis mine)

I pray that these two sentences will forever change my ministry. They are from the pen of Eugene H. Peterson, found on the next to last page of his book Practice Resurrection: a Conversation on Growing Up in Christ.

Through the words of New Testament scripture–particularly in the second chapter of Acts–I believe the Spirit gifted me with a sense of what the Church is supposed to be. I can’t necessarily articulate it in a clear and compelling manner,  so I prefer to speak of “sense” rather than “vision.”  Semantics perhaps. But this sense has been strong in me for 20 years and has become as comfortable as my marriage. I can’t imagine life without it. (A fitting analogy, according to Apostle Paul!)

But after reading those two sentences from Peterson’s book, I am struck by the realization that I may well have fallen into the trap of a romanticized hammer&nailsideal…meaning my concept of what is perfect, but not likely to become a reality this side of the Second Coming of Christ. And in so doing, I’ve been tempted into seeing the church as a problem that needs fixing and myself as one whom God has ordained to fix it.

In the previous chapter, Peterson has much to say about relationship to and within the church. I commend it to your reading, but for the purposes of this blog, suffice it to say that it’s all about relationship–relationships of trust and adoration with God, relationships of righteousness and love with one another (p. 238). The kind of relationship that is not abstract, that does not objectify others. The kind of relationship that understands that my maturation in Christ is inextricably linked to the maturation of those with whom I am in community. I can’t reach maturity on my own, and neither can anyone else in the church. God has graciously given us the gift of each other, that we might share this journey to maturity in Christ. I am to share the gifts I am given in order that we grow together, rather than using those gifts with the intention of fixing, of creating my romanticized ideal of  the church.

Ephesians 4 paints the picture, and it is truly the Spirit-inspired vision.

What’s your hurry?

“Goal-setting,” in the context and on the terms intended by a leadership-obsessed and management-programmed business mentality that infiltrates the church far too frequently, is bad spirituality. Too much gets left out. Too many people get brushed aside. Maturity cannot be hurried, programmed, or tinkered with. There are no steroids available for growing up in Christ more quickly. Impatient shortcuts land us in the dead ends of immaturity.1

Too often I think how quickly can I make this happen? I come up with a vision, set actionable and obtainable goals, and develop my strategic plan to reach those goals and make that vision a reality. This is what our “leadership-obsessed and management-programmed business mentality” tells me is the best way to achieve success.

Here’s the catch for ministry leaders like me: church is not business. As ministry leaders, we are not dealing primarily with products and pricing and financial gain. We are dealing with people–broken, imperfect, messy people–who were initially created in the image of God and who desperately need to be restored to that initial image. God says so.

In Romans 8:29 we see that God’s purpose for every believer is that they be conformed to the likeness of Christ. Don’t be misled by your own interpretation here. We may be tempted to read “likeness of Christ” and think of a photograph or a portrait–a “visual likeness” of the person. But the important word in this phrase is conformed. To conform is to be the same as; we are to be the same as Jesus. And when we look at Jesus in the gospels, what we see is One who serves–He serves His Father God and He serves humankind.

Serving is not something that comes easily or naturally to us humans, and especially not in the rugged individualistic culture of America. So why is it that ministry leaders think we can hurry people into spiritual maturity by establishing programs that channel them through gifts assessments and plug them into serving opportunities? Will this really hasten spiritual formation? Not in and by itself.

Certainly serving is an integral part of spiritual formation. Throughout the New Testament scriptures we see Jesus and the disciples serving others. By definition, then, to be conformed to the likeness of Jesus means we learn to serve. But learning to serve is not simple and it certainly can’t be rushed. Too often I talk with ministry leaders who want to get an “equipping program” implemented so that they can move on to whatever is next on their business…oops, I mean ministry plan. I find myself reminding them again and again that this will take time and patience and perseverance. It requires frequent reinforcement of equipping values through preaching and teaching, not to mention personal conversations and coming alongside others as they stumble through the process. No, we simply can’t hurry this process.

Want to develop an equipping culture in your church community? You need to first accept that there are no steroids and no shortcuts. Your plan must be designed to fit your context, and even then will need to allow for mid-course corrections and be bathed in grace. You will need to ruthlessly eliminate hurry and cooperate with God, who has all the time he needs to conform those entrusted to your care into the likeness of Christ.

If you are experiencing frustration in the area of volunteer ministry within your community, I would be blessed to come alongside and help you design a system that works in your unique context. Please contact me through my website if I can be of service.

1Eugene H. Peterson, Practicing Resurrection (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010), p.133