In reflecting on the ways Eugene Peterson shaped my pastoral ministry after his passing (see “Remembering Eugene Peterson“) on Monday, October 22, I took a look through his writings again. I asked myself a number of questions, amongst them being: what was it about Peterson that helped me so greatly as a pastor?
I saw a note in one book saying that I re-read Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work in August 2016. I remember receiving that book like a glass of cool water on a hot day right when I needed it. Part of what made his words in that book so refreshing was the way in which he opened up Scripture so powerfully and clearly with application to pastoral ministry today.
As I continued peaking through the pages of his writing on pastoral ministry, I was quickly sucked in by the first few pages of Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. This book, published in 1987, strikes a chord so relevant for our own day. I will share the extended excerpt that caught my attention below, but over the next few weeks, I will share some reflections on this outstanding book. I hope you benefit from it as much as I do.
American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries. Their names remain on the church stationery and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling. They have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries.
A few of us are angry about it. We are angry because we have been deserted. Most of my colleagues who defined ministry for me, examined, ordained, and then installed me as a pastor in a congregation, a short while later walked off and left me, having, they said, more urgent things to do. The people I thought I would be working with disappeared when the work started. Being a pastor is difficult work; we want the companionship and counsel of allies. It is bitterly disappointing to enter a room full of people whom you have every reason to expect share the quest and commitments of pastoral work and find within ten minutes that they most definitely do not. They talk of images and statistics. They drop names. They discuss influence and status. Matters of God and the soul and Scripture are not grist for their mills.
The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns — how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.
Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping, to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs; while asleep they dream of the kind of success that will get the attention of journalists. ‘A walloping great congregation is fine, and fun,’ says Martin Thornton, ‘but what most communities really need is a couple of saints. The tragedy is that they may well be there in embryo, waiting to be discovered, waiting for sound training, waiting to be emancipated from the cult of the mediocre.’
The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades.
Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), pp. 1-2.
As I read those first two pages of the book, it was as if I were reading so much of my own story, and the story of so many other pastors, as we wrestle to hold onto our vocation in a culture and church culture that seems many times dead-set on forcing us to let it go of it. Throughout the rest of the book Peterson works out how the pastor can hold onto appropriate biblical vocation through three “angles” of prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. More to come on that in future posts, but perhaps now is a good time to consider whether we have abandoned our post — our pastoral calling — as pastors in North America.
[This is the first in a series of posts reflecting on Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. You can read all the posts here.]