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.

 

The Weekend Wanderer: 5 January 2019

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

View More: http://thejoesphotos.pass.us/anyabwilefamily“Diverse Theologians to Read in 2019”Thabiti Anyabwile, pastor at Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC, and a Council member of The Gospel Coalition, offers a great resource for those trying to broaden the voices of their theological conversation partners. “Recently a brother on Twitter asked if I could recommend some orthodox theologians from around the world that he could read in 2019. It’s not the first time I’ve gotten such a request. So I thought I’d put together a short list of theologians and leaders from differing ethnic backgrounds for those who may be interested to diversify their reading lists.”

 

Screen Shot 2019-01-02 at 1.14.18 PMThe Tech-Wise Family Challenge – Without a doubt, the best book that I have read related to living a healthy life as a family in the digital age is The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch. If you have not read it, I would strongly encourage you to do so. Because of this, I was thrilled to hear about Barna Group partnering with Crouch to offer a 21-day Tech-Wise Family Challenge that begins this coming Monday, January 7. Find out more about it here.

 

uganda peace“Risking Peace: How Religious Leaders Ended Uganda’s Civil War” – At Commonweal, David Hoekema writes about the influence of religious leaders in shaping peace for the end of the conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government. “Far less known—scarcely mentioned in news reports—was the formation of an alliance of religious leaders in the darkest period of the conflict. Overcoming centuries of mistrust and disagreement, the Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim communities of the Acholi region joined forces to help relieve suffering caused by the violence and to bring government and rebel leaders to the negotiating table. Their work bears witness to the transforming power of interfaith collaboration and to the ability of local communities in Africa to resolve a seemingly intractable conflict.”

 

Jerry Falwell Jr“Jerry Falwell Jr. can’t imagine Trump ‘doing anything that’s not good for the country’ – In an interview with Joe Heim in The Washington Post, Jerry Falwell, Jr., speaks out in favor of Donald Trump in a way that is worth paying attention to because his justification is theologically questionable. Falwell credits his ongoing support for President Trump as based on Trump’s success in business and that we need a President “to run the country like a business.” While that could be true, Falwell  goes on to dismiss the importance of character in public leaders and downgrades the importance of caring for the poor. Citing a simplistic approach to two kingdoms theology, Falwell says: “In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country.” Alan Cross, a Southern Baptist Pastor, offered a scathing critique of Falwell’s statement that is worth pondering.

 

85735“Building on the Black Church’s Bible Legacy” – “African Americans have held tight to their Bibles over the years. Amid cultural shifts in beliefs and reading habits, their demographic consistently outranks other racial groups for their reliance on the Word. Last year, the American Bible Society (ABS) once again named African Americans ‘the most Bible engaged in the US.'”

 

dante inferno online“An Illustrated and Interactive Dante’s Inferno: Explore a New Digital Companion to the Great 14th-Century Epic Poem” – I guess you could be wasting your time playing Fortnite, so why not explore Dante’s Inferno? “The online, interactive companion to the Inferno you see screen-shotted here does not attempt to join their ranks. Its charming, children’s-book-graphic visual presentation takes a G-rated approach, ditching accurate human anatomy and horrific violence for a cartoonish video game romp through hell that makes it seem like a super fun, if super weird, place to visit. Created by Alpaca, an Italian design cooperative, and design studio Molotro, the tool aims to be ‘a synsemic access point to Dante’s literature, aiding its study.'”

 

Thomas Merton“Thomas Merton, the Monk Who Became a Prophet” – In The New Yorker, Alan Jacobs offers a wonderful reflection on the life of Thomas Merton, that quirky, most-popular monk of the twentieth-century. “Merton lived the public world, the world of words and politics, but knew that living in it had killed him. (‘Thomas Merton is dead.’) He sought the peace of pure and silent contemplation, but came to believe that the value of that experience is to send us back into the world that killed us. He is perhaps the proper patron saint of our information-saturated age, of we who live and move and have our being in social media, and then, desperate for peace and rest, withdraw into privacy and silence, only to return. As we always will.”

 

85769“Billy Graham, Eugene Peterson, and Other Evangelicals Lost This Year” –  Christianity Today highlights some of the most notable figures in the evangelical world that died in this past year. While most of us probably heard of the deaths of Billy Graham and Eugene Peterson, we may not have known about the passing of James Earl Massey, Bob Buford, George Lindbeck, and others on this list.

 

book open“10 Novels Every Pastor Should Read” – I stumbled upon this article by Kolby Kerr and liked it right away. Here he offers an apologetic for reading fiction for pastors that is winsome and clear, while also offering a very energizing list of suggested reading for pastors. There were a few on this list that I haven’t read, and so I look forward to exploring them. There were some missing that I would have included, but such is the subjectivity of book lists. Some may not know that the reason I studied English Literature as an undergrad was because of my calling toward pastoral ministry. I could not have been more happy for the education that I received and the way it has shaped my life and vocation.

 

PNG.jpegWhich country has the most languages?” – The BBC reports: “Papua New Guinea has about eight million people, but more than 800 languages. The oldest ones, in the Papuan group, date back tens of thousands of years. So why are there so many languages in this mountainous island country?”

 

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

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.]

Real Shepherds: Thomas Oden on pastoral leadership as service

tom odenIn Thomas Oden‘s Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry, he takes one chapter to reflect on the analogy of pastor as shepherd. In the midst of that chapter, he strikes at the heart of what I think is missing within much of pastoral ministry as it is currently practiced in North America: pastoral authority approached as service.

The shepherd is not without authority, but it is of a special sort. The shepherd’s authority is based on competence grounded in mutuality, yet this authority requires accurate empathy to be properly empowered. Pastoral authority is not primarily coercive authority, such as that of a judge or a policeman, but rather authority based on covenant fidelity, caring, mutuality, and the expectation of empathic understanding (Gregory, ACW, vol. 11, Part 2).

This conception of authority has a christological base in the minds of Christian believers. From where else did Christianity learn this unusual view of authority? It is precisely from the servant messiah that we learn of the paradoxical unity of dignity and service. It is from the true God, true man, who though he was rich became poor for our sakes (2 Cor. 8:9), “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8, RSV). The pattern of authority is that of the incarnate Lord, who expressed in a single, unified ministry the holiness of God amid the alienations of the world, the incomparable power of God that was surprisingly made know in an unparalleled way amid crucifixion and resurrection.

Wherever Christians speak of authority or dignity of ministry or headship of the shepherd, those are not properly understood as coercive modes of power, but persuasive, participative modes of benevolent, empathic guidance. This is an extraordinarily complex, subtle, and highly nuanced conception of authority, but it is intimately familiar to those who love Christ and listen for his voice. The proper authority of ministry is not external, manipulative, alien power that distances itself from those “under” it, but rather a legitimized and happily received influence that wishes only good for its recipient, a leadership that boldly guides but only on the basis of a deeply empathic sense of what the flock yearns for and needs. The analogy of shepherd was not promiscuously or thoughtlessly chosen by Jesus as the centerpiece of ministry, but wells up from the heart of God’s own ministry to the world. (p. 53)

Ten Ways Eugene Peterson Shaped My Pastoral Ministry

peterson-square1My first introduction to the work of Eugene Peterson was through one of my college roommates, who often read from Peterson’s paraphrase of Scripture, The Message. In his own idiosyncratic style, Peterson’s work with the words of Scripture helped me remember God’s word was a relational word to us here and now. Roughly five years later, one of my mentors, Dr. Lyle Dorsett, introduced me to Peterson’s works on pastoral ministry, often referred to as Eugene Peterson’s Pastoral Library. Those works helped me ponder pastoral ministry in a deeper way than I had before. Since that time, I have continued to read and interact with Peterson’s work in ways that have deeply shaped my approach to pastoral ministry.

When the family of Eugene Peterson announced that he passed away on Monday after entering into hospice care recently, I took time to reflect on how he shaped my own approach to vocation as a pastor. Although I never met him, Eugene Peterson significant impacted my life as a pastor. What I have tried to do below is share ten specific ways Eugene Peterson shaped my pastoral ministry.

  1. The Pastor works with the word. Both through his work on The Message and his approach to writing other books that I read Eugene Peterson taught me that pastoral ministry is primarily about working with the word of God. Looking through Peterson’s works, you will quickly realize that most of his efforts are direct treatments of books of the Bible, whether Jeremiah, the Psalms, or Ephesians. “Scripture is at hand for those who will use it, foundation stones upon which a better pastoral work can be constructed” (Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work 11).
  2. The Pastor is shaped by the word. Unfortunately, sometimes as we work with the word, we fail to let the word work on us. Peterson knew this, so he made it clear that the pastor must be shaped by the word personally and deeply. In his outstanding book, Eat This Book, Peterson outlines the simple yet profound truth that the we must not only read Scripture informationally but engage more deeply by “reading the Scripture formatively, reading in order to live” (xi).
  3. The Pastor prays. Of all the things that a pastor could be about, prayer seems essential. Still, it is the unfortunate testimony of too many pastors that prayer falls to the wayside in the midst of meetings, strategies, committees, and writing sermons. In Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, Peterson writes: “The inner action of prayer takes precedence over the outer action of proclamation. The implication of this for pastoral work is plain: it begins in prayer” (40).
  4. The Pastor preaches. In one of his last books, a collection of sermons entitled As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Peterson reveals that early in his twenty-nine-year pastorate at Bel Air Presbyterian, he quickly realized that he did not know how to preach. Citing the influence of a lecture by Paul Tournier and a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Peterson writes: “I finally started to get it: preaching is the weekly verbal witness to this essential congruence of what Christ is with his work that ‘plays’ in us….Not ideas, not goals, not principles, nothing abstract or disembodied, but the good news of the ‘Word . . . made flesh’ (John 1:14)” (xix).
  5. The Pastor reads. One of my favorite books by Peterson, though perhaps not as well-known as others, is Take and Read: Spiritual Reading: An Annotated List. This book is Peterson’s personal annotated bibliography of recommended reading on topics from prayer to commentaries, poetry to history. You cannot read Peterson’s work without understanding he read widely, and it informed the way he approached ministry, understood the world, and interacted with people. Pastoral ministry is fueled by reading, but not just reading alone. It is fueled by thoughtful and well-chosen reading.
  6. The Pastor as spiritual director. Peterson was the first who helped me step outside of the realm of counseling to recover the lost art of spiritual direction for pastoral ministry. “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” (Working the Angles 150). As a spiritual director, the pastor helps another person pay attention to the everyday areas of their life, listening for God’s word to them, with a discernment that derives “out of a life immersed in the pursuit of holiness” (160). The pastor is less concerned with helping someone find the answer they want, and is more concerned with helping them find the God they need.
  7. The pastor as poet. In one of his lesser known works, Holy Luck, Eugene Peterson assembles a small collection of his own poetry. These had leaked out in other works before, but it was a glimpse at the connection between poetic work with words and pastoral work with words. As he wrote elsewhere: “In subtle ways, being a pastor subjects our word to corruption. That is why it is important to frequent the company of a poet friend . . . a person who cares about words and is honest with them, who respects and honors their sheer overwhelming power” (The Contemplative Pastor 156). Like a good poet, pastors take care with their words.
  8. The pastor as theologian. I love the way Peterson describes his recommendation to read Calvin’s Institutes: “Spirituality includes the mind—the thinking mind, attempting to follow and respond to the mind of God as well as his heart. Calvin’s heart was on fire, but his mind was clear. This is some of the keenest theology ever written, but written, every word of it, by a pastor in the middle of a parish of rather unruly sinner-Christians” (Take and Read 5). The pastor must be a clear thinker to bring the heart and mind of God into the lives of everyday people in their unruly, workaday lives.
  9. The pastor whose imagination is on fire. In two different works, Reversed Thunder and The Contemplative Pastor, Peterson links together St. John’s visions in Revelation with the dynamics of pastoral ministry. “How can I avoid metamorphosis from the holy vocation of pastor into a promising career in religious sales? Here is a way: submit my imagination to St. John’s apocalypse—the crisis of the End combined with the urgencies of God—and let the energies of the apocalyptic define and shape me as a pastor” (The Contemplative Pastor 41-42). The pastor without an imagination is a pastor without creativity and likely one who cannot minister well to another. The pastor must let God split our heads open wide that we might see anew with apocalyptic eyes and hear the world with apocalyptic ears.
  10. The pastor who perseveres. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction is still probably my favorite book by Eugene Peterson. Stealing his title from nihilist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Peterson baptizes the reader into a pilgrim faith through the water of the Psalms of Ascent. “It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel,” he writes, “it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest” (16).

And so, the pilgrim pastor, who shepherded so many of us under-shepherds, has now passed through the valley of death’s shadow and entered into the green pastures and still waters found in our Heavenly Father’s presence. May God be so gracious as to help us pastors still here to sustain our own pilgrim faith until we join Eugene Peterson in the presence of God ourselves.