In his attempt to recover the essence of pastoral ministry and help pastor’s hold onto their essential vocation, Eugene Peterson takes an image from an unlikely source: mathematics.
I have found a metaphor from trigonometry to be useful in keeping this clear; I see these three essential acts of ministry as the angles of a triangle. Most of what we see in a triangle is lines. The lines come in various proportions to each other but what determines the proportions and the shape of the whole are the angles.
The visible lines of the ministry triangle are those pastoral actions that people readily see: preaching, teaching and administration. Our congregation wants us to do well with each of these, and oftentimes our ministry is judged by how effective we are at these three things. However, it is the invisible angles of ministry – prayer, Scripture reading, and spiritual direction – that shape those visible lines of ministry.
Working the angles is what gives shape and integrity to the daily work of pastors and priests. If we get the angles right it is a simple matter to draw in the lines. But if we are careless with or dismiss the angles, no matter how long or straight we draw the lines we will not have a triangle, a pastoral ministry. (5)
It is easy to be dismissive of Peterson’s strong statement here, but there are reasons why this is evidently true. The visible work of preaching, teaching, and administration does not in itself make an effective ministry. If ministry is primarily about God and His work in the lives of human beings, then pastors must be in touch with God, allowing our ministry to flow out of our deep attention to and connection with God. In fact, if we are not “working the angles,” which shape the lines of the visible triangle of pastoral ministry, then our ministry work will quickly become a husk of life that eventually will be seen for what it is: evacuated of God’s presence.
Jesus’ great critique of the Pharisees was that their appearances did not much reality their reality. “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence!” (Matthew 23:25, NLT). It wasn’t that the Pharisees did not know Scripture or regularly pray. In fact, the Pharisees were known for their commitment to Scripture and prayer. However, their inner lives were empty of the real life of God, even as their outer lives gave the impression of godliness through furniture and wall hangings associated with God. Unfortunately, their appearance was not the real thing, but merely a facade with nothing behind it. We can draw upon Jesus’ own words again: “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (23:27, NIV).
What is the remedy for this situation that can creep up on us as pastors? First, let me encourage us to pay attention to the areas of tension that we feel in our lives as pastors. Particularly, we must pay attention to where we begin to sense that our lives do not match what we say or portray. This gap is the hidden gap in which death is born. Second, let me encourage us to return to, as Peterson exhorts us in Working the Angles, attentiveness to God with our selves, Scripture, and others as the primary work of our calling and ministry. This is not just part of what we do, this is essentially what we do. Thirdly, and this is the flip-side of the second point, let us challenge the prevailing tendencies of cultural models of ministry that focus almost entirely on the visible lines of ministry. Peterson wryly suggest the prevailing cultural model is summarized in a four-course curriculum: Course I: Creative Plagiarism; Course II: Voice Control for Prayer and Counseling; Course III: Efficient Office Management; and Course IV: Image Projection (7). If all our attention is on these things without attention to God, then we will sow the seeds of emptiness or death into the lives of those in our congregations.
If the pastors of America were asked two questions, ‘What do you think about God?’ and ‘What do you want to accomplish as a pastor?’ I believe that a great majority of answers would have to be judged satisfactory. But what if we are asked a third question, ‘How do you go about it — what means do you use to bring your spiritual goals into being in your parish?’ At this point the responses would range, I am quite sure, from the faddish to the trite to the silly. Pastors, by and large, have not lost touch with the best thinking about God, and they have not lost touch with the high goals of the Christian life, but they have lost touch with the trigonometry of ministry, the angles, the means by which the lines of the work get connected into a triangle, pastoral work. The pastor who has no facility in means buys games and gimmicks and programs without end under the illusion of being practical. (15-16)
Lord, deliver us from games and gimmicks and endless programs so that we might recover the integrity of our calling in pastoral ministry. Give us grace to pay attention to You for the good of our congregations, as well as our very own lives and vocation.
[This post continues my reflections on Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, which began here. You can read all the posts here.]