Notes on the Crisis of Pastoral Leadership in the North American Church

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I have been a Senior Pastor of a large, non-denominational, evangelical church for the past ten years, and been in pastoral ministry for nearly twenty years now. Maybe, like me, you realize there is something happening in the life of the North American Church that could best be described as a crisis of pastoral leadership. We see it around us and we feel it in our souls. There is something wrong and we cannot turn our eyes away. We must wrestle with the deeper issues of this crisis for our own soul’s sake, but also for the sake of the church. What follows is my fumbling attempt at reflection on this crisis, my wrestling with the challenges and questions, and also my invitation for you to engage with me in this. May God guide us and make something redemptively beautiful in His church and of His pastors.

 

The pastor who uses preaching or other forms of ministry as a means to platform himself or herself is doing disservice to themselves, shaming their calling, abusing their church, and turning their back on Messiah Jesus. Ministry is not about platforming ourselves, but about directing attention to Jesus and serving others in love.

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The pastor who aims merely to write books and speak at conferences has confused after-effects with goals. We should not seek these things, but, after serving faithfully and fruitfully, agree to some of these things also, although we know they threaten to damage our souls and distract us in ministry.

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A wise pastor once told me that God is more interested in having all of us than He is in having us do things for Him. Yet we are often more interested in having people recognize us for what we have done than for the degree to which we reflect Christ in our whole lives.

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The crisis of pastoral leadership in the evangelical church is a crisis of discipleship, ecclesiology, and authority. It is a crisis of discipleship because our shepherds cannot lead us to the deep places with God because they do not regularly go there themselves. It is a crisis of ecclesiology because we have misunderstood what it means to be the church at nearly every level, from foundations to expressions. It is a crisis of authority because we have set celebrity pastors in positions of nearly unbounded power without appropriate personal or institutional accountability to Christian formation.

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Ministry arises from the overflow of our own life with God. Failure to understand this and live by it will not only hinder our vibrant ministry, but also ruin us in the process. It will ruin us because the outward appearances of ministry activity will increasingly be at odds with our personal lack of discipleship.

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To step away from celebrity and into obscurity can be a gift to the soul that strives for recognition and hungers for approval. At the same time, such a move toward obscurity can also become an attempt at escape from responsibility or another bent impulse toward recognition through reverse optics.

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Toxic leaders and toxic environments often overlap and feed one another, but are not the same thing. Health will not come merely by addressing one but not the other. Health comes in the church when we address the personal issues of spiritual malformation, while also addressing the systemic issues of spiritual malformation in the environment.

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The one who appoints himself or herself as a prophet is likely not a pastor, and is more likely someone with an axe to grind. The true impulse of the prophetic comes only from the Holy Spirit, not from the self. In Hebrew Scripture, the self-proclaimed prophet was to be killed by stoning.

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To resist sin and temptation we must name it for what it is superficially but also subterraneanly. Every weed has a root, and many times the root is stronger and deeper than what is seen at the surface. The initial longings interlaced with temptation are not necessarily evil in themselves. It is the response to the longing that makes the difference. Naming the longing correctly often leads to an appropriate embrace of our weakness in relation to that desire that may lead us toward God. Giving in to temptation most often is connected with an inappropriate suppression or denial of desire, leading toward a whiplash of activity that will neither satiate our impulsive passion nor fully satisfy our desires because the true longing is ignored. Many pastors’ lives are like gardens whose weeds are plucked from the surface, but whose roots are still strong and just waiting to burst through the surface.

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Is the vision before us the glory of God in Christ or is it something else? Is it the glory of ourselves in earthly exaltation? Is it the glory of liberated pursuits of our fleshly desire? The vision before us shapes our pursuit and the path of the road by which we travel our life’s journey. Pastor are ironically capable of seeing this in others, but often blind to the vision before us in our own lives.

 

Practicing Spiritual Direction [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 11]

fullsizeoutput_ae1Spiritual direction is difficult. Pastoral wisdom is not available on prescription. Every person who comes to a pastor with a heart full of shapeless longings and a head full of badgering questions is complex in a new way. There are no fail-proof formulae (179).

Eugene Peterson brings this book, Working the Angles, to conclusion with attention to what it means for the pastoral to practice spiritual direction with his parishioners. As he mentioned earlier in the book, spiritual direction “takes place when two people agree to give their full attention to what God is doing in one (or both) of their lives and seek to respond in faith” (150). But how does a pastor do that well?

Peterson begins by drawing out five examples of how not to do spiritual direction. He borrows those five negative examples from the journal of George Fox, who, in his desperate searching, experienced multiple failed attempts to find spiritual guidance. Here they are:

  1. First Pastor: Nathaniel Stephens, who turns Fox’s search for guidance into a theological inquiry and fodder for sermons he will preach. “When a person comes to me for spiritual direction it is not to get into a theological discussion but to find a friend in a theological context” (182).
  2. Second Pastor: The ancient priest at Mancetter, who “doesn’t see Fox as a person to be directed but as a consumer of spiritual goods, a possible buyer of a remedy” (183). When we depersonalize people into customers, we are missing the point of spiritual direction.
  3. Third Pastor: The priest living about Tamworth, who comes across as “an empty hollow cask” because he is focused on techniques or experiences instead of being the sort of person who can really guide Fox. Peterson comments: “our primary task is to be a pilgrim. Our best preparation for the work of spiritual direction is an honest life” (184).
  4. Fourth Pastor: Dr. Cradock, who is fixated on orthodoxy in theology and orthodoxy in life as a means for diagnosis of another’s life. Yet, when Fox transgresses his models, he lashes out in anger. “If we should mistakenly do our work in the dogmatic schoolmaster style of Dr. Cradock, we will deserve the epitaph ‘miserable comforter'” (186).
  5. Fifth Pastor: one Macham, who is regarded as a pastor of high value, but sets to action upon Fox as a means to accomplish something. “Pastors are particularly imperiled in this area because of the compulsive activism, both cultural and ecclesiastical, in which we are immersed simply by being alive at this time in history” (187).

These pastors have good reputations and experience, hold mastery in degrees and techniques, but fail as spiritual guides to George Fox. When we succumb to these impulses, we, too, as pastors miss the point of spiritual direction. What wisdom does Peterson offer for those of us wanting to stay on track as spiritual directors? The wisdom comes in three main points.

  1. “For a start, I can cultivate an attitude of awe” (188). This calls us as pastors to see those sitting with us as wonders made in the image of God, whose lives, full of joys and challenges, are worth paying attention to. Peterson comments: “George Fox was a remarkable person, but not one of his five pastors had the faintest inkling of it” (189).
  2. “Second, I can cultivate an awareness of my ignorance” (189). There is so much we do not know about the person with whom we are dealing, that we must admit it, or we will fail to see what we do not yet see. Even more, we are often ignorant about God and what He is doing in this person’s life. “My words and gestures and actions take place in the midst of a great drama, about the details of which I know little or nothing” (191). This puts perspective on our limitations, helping us to lean into our dependence upon God to see and hear what is happening in the one we are meeting with.
  3. “Third, I can cultivate a predisposition to prayer” (191). Peterson assumes that what people need most is to learn to pray so that they might enter into conversation with God. We are not merely engaging in discussion about ideas or truths, but trying to take them into deeper engagement with God. “Spiritual direction is then conducted with an awareness that it takes place in God’s active presence, and that our conversation is therefore conditioned by his speaking and listening, his being there” (192).

And so, Eugene Peterson’s “holy trigonometry of pastoral ministry” – prayer, Scripture reading, and spiritual direction – concludes, as does my journey through the entire book. The book ends suddenly, in my opinion, as if Peterson is thrusting us out into the work he has outlined. Perhaps one of the final lines of the book best reminds us of what Eugene Peterson is really calling pastors to in these days:

More often than we think, the unspoken, sometimes unconscious reason that persons seek out conversation with the pastor is a desire to keep company with God (192).

Pastors, let us help people keep company with God. Let us live in and minister from these three holy angles of prayer, reading Scripture, and spiritual direction. Let us not lose heart in the cultural confusion or drift out of focus with fads and models, but once again send down deep roots into the biblical foundations and historic practices of pastoral ministry.

[This post concludes my reflections on Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, which began here. You can read all the posts here.]

Getting a Spiritual Director [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 10]

fullsizeoutput_ae1There is a saying among physicians that the doctor who is his own doctor has a fool for a doctor. It means, as I understand it, that the care of the body is a complex business and requires cool, detached judgment….If those entrusted with the care of the body cannot be entrusted to look after their own bodies, far less can those entrusted with the care of souls look after their own souls, which are even more complex than bodies and have a correspondingly greater capacity for self-deceit (165).

In this way, Eugene Peterson continues his attention on spiritual direction in chapter eight of Working the Angles. This time, he turns to why and how a pastor must find a spiritual director, not for others, but for themselves. Peterson highlights the reality that, in the past, having a spiritual director (whether called that or not) was a requirement for pastors, but that this is no longer the case. “It is rare today to find a pastor who has a spiritual director” (166). The results in contemporary pastoral ministry, and I could corroborate Peterson’s description here, is disastrous:

The wreckage accumulates: we find pastors who don’t pray, pastor who don’t grow in faith, pastors who can’t tell the difference between culture and the Christ, pastors who chase fads, pastors who are cynical and shopworn, pastors who know less about prayer after twenty years of praying than they did on the day of their ordination, pastors with arrogant, outsized egos puffed up by years of hot-air flattery from well-meaning parishioners (166).

I would be more happy to read Peterson’s clear diagnosis of pastoral ministry in our day if it were not so painfully true. My experience with friends and colleagues in ministry over the years fits this ‘wreckage’ fully. At the same time, my own personal experience has shown me how hard it is to move forward as a pastor with an “undivided heart” (Psalm 86:11) without someone speaking from the outside into my areas of slippage, shortcoming, or confusion. Why is this the case?

Peterson traces the contours of one of the most distinct challenges of pastoral ministry, which is that the role calls for the exercise of both authority and submission. “At memorable moments of life…pastors are robed in dignity and represent God’s authority….But the practice of our faith involves the exact opposite of wielding authority, namely, the exercise of obedience” (167). The pastor lives at the intersection of these two seemingly contrary realities and therein arises much of the tension for pastors. We must preach God’s word with authority, but we must also obey it, particularly in areas where it is most challenging for us. We must represent Christ at the communion table, in the waters of baptism, and in visitation within hospital rooms, but we must also receive Christ at the table of our lives for our own daily bread and hear Him call us to take up our cross of selfless obedience.

It is at the point of this tension that our need for a spiritual director finds traction. In one footnote, Peterson shares a quotation from St. Dorotheus of Gaza on this point:

There is nothing more harmful than trying to direct oneself….That’s why I never allowed myself to follow my own desires without seeking counsel (166).

Comparing this work of the pastor both to learning a musical instrument and ascending a mountain climb, Peterson calls pastors to have teachers and lead climbers who will point the way ahead of us, highlight our errors, and direct us into the most fruitful practices of ministry. A spiritual director serves toward these very ends. For pastors this means letting go of absolute authority and fierce independence in order to allow a trusted other to be present with, listen to, and speak into our life and ministry.

Peterson describes his own journey to find a spiritual director who could speak into his journey. I will not recount his words here, but will share my own journey with those who have served as spiritual directors for me over the years. During college I reached out for an older man in the faith to mentor me. He agreed to meet every other week in his office. Not knowing what to ask for, I let him set the agenda, but was shocked when he said he would like for us to simply pray for an hour every time we met. I’m not sure why I was shocked, but I’m glad that was the agenda. As I should have expected, I learned more about prayer by praying than by talking about prayer or talking about myself. It was a few years later, that a professor, who also was a pastor, became a spiritual father to me near the end of my college years and into my first years after college. I lived in the basement of his home for a summer and it was not only our formal lunches where we talked about the spiritual life that directed me in the ways of growth in ministry, but also the laughter over a Sunday night meal or the way he and his wife interacted in marriage that set me up for growth as a pastor in my own marriage and family.

Many years later, I have had mentors and spiritual directors, both formal and informal, who have spoken into my life and ministry in various ways. I am so thankful for those I’ve mentioned and others who have helped me become the disciple of Christ and pastor of His church that I am today. I would not be here without them. It has always been a challenge to discover the right person to look toward for spiritual direction, but never so challenging as in my role as Senior Pastor of a larger church over the past several years. I have been forced to seek it out and strive to find it with greater intentionality than ever. Sometimes people I have look to for spiritual guidance have moved to another geographic location, and I have had to start over. Sometimes, I have needed specific guidance for specific things, whether during a recent ministry sabbatical or as I wrestle with specific challenges in ministry. Through it all, however, I cannot agree more with Peterson on the priority of spiritual direction in the life of the pastor. Concluding the chapter, he writes about how his own growth was helped through spiritual guidance:

Quite obviously none of these experiences depends on having a spiritual director. None of them was new to me in kind but only in degree. Some people develop marvelously in these areas without ever having so much as heard of a spiritual director. Still, for most of the history of the Christian faith it was expected that a person should have a spiritual director. In some parts of the church it is expected still. It is not an exceptional practice. It is not for those who are gifted in prayer or more highly motivated than the rest. In fact, as responsibility and maturity increase in the life of faith the subtleties of temptation also increase and the urgency of having a spiritual director increases (176, emphasis mine).

Pastors, let us take Eugene Peterson’s words to heart. Join me in seeking the wisdom of another who can, like a music teacher or a lead climber, direct us toward thriving and flourishing in ministry over the long haul.

[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.]

The Pastor as Spiritual Director [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 9]

fullsizeoutput_ae1In his book Working the Angles, Eugene Peterson outlines three essential acts of pastoral ministry: prayer, reading Scripture, and spiritual direction. These three acts are, to use a metaphor from mathematics, a holy trigonometry of three inner angles that shape outer, visible acts of ministry: preaching, teaching, and administration. I turn now, in my journey through this book, to the third of those inner angles: spiritual direction.

Peterson spends most of chapter 7, “Being a Spiritual Director,” defining and clarifying what he means by spiritual direction. Here are a few of his definitions.

Spiritual direction is the aspect of ministry that explores and develops this absorbing and devout attentiveness to “the specific detail of everyday incidents,” “the everyday occurrences of contemporary life” (150).

Spiritual direction is the task of helping a person take seriously what is treated dismissively by the publicity-infatuated and crisis-sated mind, and then to receive this “mixed random material of life”…as the raw material for high holiness (150).

Spiritual direction takes place when two people agree to give their full attention to what God is doing in one (or both) of their lives and seek to respond in faith (150).

Many are unfamiliar with the term and uneasy with its implications….what I call spiritual direction is what they [pastors] are doing when they don’t think they are doing anything important (150-151).

Peterson emphasizes the ordinary sources for spiritual direction and the relational environment in which such guidance takes place. This is a return to one of the essential tasks of pastoral ministry with a terminology that was widely used throughout the history of the church. While Peterson is not the first to encourage a return to this (see Thomas C. Oden’s 4-volume Classical Pastoral Care or John T. McNeill’s now out-of-print A History of the Cure of Souls), he does speak with direct insight into contemporary shortcomings in pastoral practice of spiritual guidance. 

Let me share a few of Peterson’s insights about the contemporary pastor’s role as spiritual director.

Being a spiritual director, which used to loom large at the center of every pastor’s common work, in our times has been pushed to the periphery of ministry. Ironically, this is the work that many people assume that pastors do all the time: teaching people to pray, helping parishioners discern the presence of grace in events and feelings, affirming the presence of God at the very heart of life, sharing a search for light through a dark passage in the pilgrimage, guiding the formation of a self-understanding that is biblically spiritual instead of merely psychological or sociological (151).

Being a spiritual director means a readiness to clear space and arrange time to look at these elements of our life that are not at all peripheral but are central — unobtrusive signals of transcendence. By naming and attending and conversing, we teach our friends to “read the Spirit” and not just the newspapers (152).

For most pastors being a spiritual director doesn’t mean introducing a new rule or adding another item to our overextended job descriptions, but simply rearranging our perspective: seeing certain acts as eternal and not ephemeral, as essential and not accidental (153).

Being a spiritual director means noticing the familiar, naming the particular. Being knowledgeable in the large truths of sin, grace, salvation, atonement, and judgment is necessary but not sufficient. A lot of our work takes place in the details of the particular (157).

I love Peterson’s comments about spiritual direction, but I almost wish that I could sit with him to see how a week of his ministry would have played out. Thankfully, he gives some practical insight for those of us looking for it: “For me, at least, formal spiritual direction involves only five or six people with whom I meet at intervals of four to six weeks” (161). This makes what Peterson is suggesting both clear and, although I hesitate to use the word about these matters, manageable. Reading works like this, or perhaps older texts on spiritual direction, we may sometimes tend to idealize the pastoral role as doing nothing but meeting with souls hungry for a word from God. Peterson graciously dashes that idealized picture, while still calling pastors to pay attention, listen, and join in the journey as guides for those God entrusts to us.

Three pithy statements in this chapter are worth holding up here at the end of the post for further reflection:

Any Christian can do this, and many do. Spiritual direction is no prerogative of the ordained ministry….But the fact that anybody can do it and that it can occur at any time and place must not be construed to mean that it can be done casually or indifferently. It needs to be practiced out of a life immersed in the pursuit of holiness (160, emphasis mine).

This is one part of our work that stubbornly resists generalizations. All the same, I will risk one: the “unimportant” parts of ministry might be the most important. The things we do when we don’t think we are doing anything significant might make the most difference (161, emphasis mine).

It would be unwise to forget for a moment that in this business we are sinners dealing with sinners; still, the primary orientation is toward God, looking for grace. It is easier to look for sin (163).

Pastors, let us return to the art of spiritual direction in our ministry, not pushing it aside as unimportant or missing the significant in what we feel is insignificant.

[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.]

The Pastor as Guide on the Spiritual Quest [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 8]

fullsizeoutput_ae1This post continues my reflections on Eugene Peterson’s book Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, which began as an attempt to honor Peterson’s influence upon me while also reconsidering the essential aspects of pastoral ministry that Peterson affirms. The book explores what he calls the holy trigonometry of pastoral ministry, built around three angles of ministry: prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction.

This is the third and final post on the second of those angles, Scripture, which began with Peterson’s exhortation for pastors to return to hearing Scripture and continued with his call to contemplative exegesis. This next chapter, chapter six entitled “Gaza Notes,” was very powerful for me personally, as Peterson focuses on the hermeneutical work of the pastor bringing Scripture to life for people. He starts into the chapter with an extended reflection on Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40, particularly looking at the questions between the two:

  • “Do you understand what you are reading?” (8:30)
  • “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” (8:31)
  • “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” (8:34)
  • “What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” (8:36)

Essential to this is Peterson’s emphasis that good exegesis – which brings meaning out of the text – must be augmented by good guidance – leading a person in the way of the text.

Pastoral-biblical hermeneutics presupposes exegesis but involves more. The African invites Philip into the chariot to accompany him as his guide….Philip has to make a choice: will he stand alongside the chariot, providing information and answering questions about Scripture, exegetical work that comes easily for him, or will he involve himself in a spiritual quest with this stranger? (128).

This brings us into the essence of how Peterson applies Acts 8 to the ministry of pastors: we must become guides on the pathways of interpretation, walking alongside of and entering into the lives of those before us. The challenge of this is the perceived distance between the world around us and the world of Scripture.

Reading Scripture involves a dizzying reorientation of our culture-conditioned and job-oriented assumptions and procedures…Scripture calls into question the domesticated accommodations we are busily arranging for the gospel. The crisis into which the act of reading Scripture brings us does not usually mean emotional intensity or dramatic turn-about, but rather the solemn awareness, repeated as often as daily, that the world of reality to which we have vowed ourselves in belief and vocation is a divinely constituted world in which God calls upon us; it is not a humanly constituted world in which we, when we feel like it, call upon God (132).

And with this, Peterson launches into a portion of the book that moved me so deeply that I actually had tears in my eyes as I read it aloud with my wife, Kelly. On pages 133-139, he calls pastors to take a different way in their preaching and handling of Scripture; a way set apart from “breezy familiarity” (132), “abstraction” (134), or “distilling truths from Scripture” (135). All those tendencies are hallmarks “of the gnostic, for whom matter is evil and history inconvenient.” This is, in my opinion, the most common approach to preaching in North American Christianity today. It is something I have tried to resist in my preaching, but have at times felt like a wild man in the wilderness when everyone else is trying to “preach one main point” or “serve up the principles of the text.” Peterson continues, highlighting the temptation to become a gnostic purveyor of principles instead of a steady guide through the jagged terrain of Scripture:

In the early Christian centuries the gnostic program was to dump the entire Hebrew Scriptures and disembowel the Gospels. The parts of St. Paul that talked theology they liked pretty well. What they proposed instead can be read in the documents discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1946: Jesus as guru, safely distanced from the common and profane, serenely uttering eternal truths. This is tea-room religion where the ‘women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo’ (T. S. Eliot)” (136).

It is in paragraphs like these that Peterson’s prophetic edge comes forth. It is an edge that is so painfully necessary in our day that it felt both painful and liberating to read. That prophetic edge strikes, to borrow a quote from Franz Kafka that he uses earlier in the chapter, like “an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us” (133).

To close out the chapter, Peterson retells Walker Percy’s parable from The Message in the Bottle about longing, communication, and meaning in a way that connects with life in the church and the ministry of the pastor with the Scriptures. I will not retell it entirely here, although it is worth the read, but let me share the final words:

Most mornings on the island on many of its beaches there are people walking, wonderingly attentive, looking for bottles with a message in them. On Sunday mornings they gather on some assigned beaches and read to each other what has been collected over the years. A lot of people on the island have yet to figure out what all the fuss is about (145).

[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.]