The Holy Trigonometry of Pastoral Calling [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 3]

fullsizeoutput_ae1In 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.]

Learning to Pay Attention [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 2]

fullsizeoutput_ae1If we are to hold onto our identity and calling as pastors in North America, then we must resist the consumer-driven impulses that have infested our culture and even the church. We must become, as Eugene Peterson suggest, more than religious shopkeepers who keep the budget growing, the building improving, and the congregation busy. We must re-learn how to pay attention, not just in general, but primarily by paying attention to God. There are three pastoral acts that Peterson says are “so basic, so critical, that they determine the shape of everything else.” What are they? “The acts are praying, reading Scripture, and giving spiritual direction” (3).

These three pastoral acts are part of “the pastor’s responsibility…to keep the community attentive to God” (2). Peterson goes on to explain the way in which of those acts does this:

prayer is an act in which I bring myself to attention before God; reading scripture is an act of attending to God in his speech and action across two millennia in Israel and Christ; spiritual direction is an act of giving attention to what God is doing in the person who happens to be before me at any given moment.

Always it is God to whom we are paying, or trying to pay, attention. The contexts, though vary: in prayer the context is myself; in Scripture it is the community of faith in history; in spiritual direction it is the person before me. God is the one to whom we are being primarily attentive in these contexts, but it is never God-in-himself; rather, it is God-in-relationship — with me, with his people, with this person. (3-4)

This attentiveness to God in various contexts is difficult. As Peterson suggests, “great crowds of people have entered into a grand conspiracy to eliminate prayer, Scripture and spiritual direction from our lives” (4). This feels even more true in the thirty-year distance since he wrote this book. Distractions multiply like rabbits with the rhythmic clicking of a laptop touchpad or the frictionless swiping of a smart phone.

In a distracted culture, how countercultural is it for the pastor to be a person who is utterly attentive to God, self, Scripture, and others? Well, it so countercultural that many of us pastors are as distracted as anyone else, simultaneously immersed in our social media profiles and the endless notifications on our devices. When was the last time we knew what it was to truly enter into uninterrupted solitude with God ourselves? When did we last hear the voice of God whisper into our souls while we sat across from someone asking us for a word from God?

I have returned again and again to the cry of the psalmist:

Teach me your way, O Lord,
    that I may walk in your truth;
    give me an undivided heart to revere your name. (Psalm 86:11)

Lord, teach us pastors Your ways, and strengthen us to walk in your truth, that we might enter into the undivided heart that leads us to reverent attentiveness before You in our calling and ministry activity.

[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.]

Abandoning Our Pastoral Calling [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 1]


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.

fullsizeoutput_ae1As 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.]