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“But isn’t [being subversive] dishonest? Not exactly, for I’m not misrepresenting myself. I’m simply taking my words and acts at a level of seriousness that would throw [the congregation] into a state of catatonic disbelief if they ever knew.”

How can the pastor be subversive and sustain his vocation?

Eugene Peterson wrestles with who is living in the real world. Is it the business man who thinks church is a nice diversion from the real world of money-making, bottom lines and profit margins or the faithful pastor who announces, “The kingdom of God is at hand”? In my view, when business or any other cultural metaphors replace the old, but ever new kingdom-of-God realities for describing the vocation of ministry, any pastor will lose his or her footing and begin sinking in the quicksand of artificial relevancy. Wanting to be seen or known as important is a giant step away from Christlikeness. “It’s hard to maintain a self-concept as a revolutionary when everyone treats us with the same affability they give the grocer.” Without a deep, enduring commitment to the realities of both the truth and the way(s) of the kingdom of God, a pastor will settle for becoming “a chaplain to the culture,” rather than a discerning challenger of it.

I like EHP’s description of the pastor as subversive because it points to the way of God in Jesus Christ. “Jesus was the master at subversion. … Jesus’ favorite speech form, the parable, was subversive. … But under the surface of conventionality and behind the scenes of probability, each was effectively inaugurating the kingdom: illegitimate (as was supposed) conception, barnyard birth, Nazareth silence, Galilee secularity, Sabbath healings, Gethsemane prayers, criminal death, baptismal water, eucharistic bread and wine. Subversion.” These quotes are from The Contemplative Pastor, a book we’re using to grasp EHP’s taxonomy of pastor.

Emily Dickinson wrote, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” EHP writes, “Hitting sin head-on is like hitting a nail with a hammer; it only drives it in deeper.” The kingdom of self is a highly fortified kingdom and direct assault on it almost always fails. A lot of Bible expositional hammering has been going on in the USAmerican evangelical church and, yet, George Barna and company report that the sin index of the church is just like that of the culture around it. So much for the supposed magic in “Preach the Word.” The “still small voice” of God’s Spirit has been replaced by the loud, Bible-verse spouting voice of the preacher. Have you ever noticed how many church announcements feel like TV commercials for God?  We don’t like the kingdom of God being like a teensy, weensy mustard seed or hidden yeast; we want it to be like an ear-splitting, action-packed movie trailer for God’s blockbuster hit in Jesus.

EHP notes that there are three things implicit in subversion: One, the status quo is wrong and must be overthrown. (You can get fired for this one). Two, there is another in-breaking world; a God-oriented and Jesus-saturated world. Three, the usual means by which one kingdom is thrown out and another put in its place—military coup or democratic election—are not available. The tools available for the subversive pastor are two: prayer and parable. “Words are the real work of the world—prayer words with God, parable words with men and women. The behind the scenes work of creativity by word and sacrament, by parable and prayer, subverts the seduced world.”

A man or woman who wants the job of pastor will sooner or later become disillusioned. Getting to traffic in holy things: holy Bible and Eikons of God; getting to study and communicate the Word of God; getting the accolades of well-meaning people—all these things will turn to sand in the mouth. There has to be a heart-gripping mission. A pastor is patient, seeking to observe grace-evidence in the parched lives of human beings. She is a subversive spy in very dangerous territory wisely, faithfully, subversively alerting people who are so susceptible to the blinding schemes of a fierce enemy and the foolish values of a godless culture. The spy knows a hard, yet breath-taking way out of this mess we’re all in.

This Moby Dick episode pops up in a few of EHP’s books. Here it’s from The Contemplative Pastor: “In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, there is a turbulent scene in which a whaleboat scuds across a frothing ocean in pursuit of the great, white whale, Moby Dick. The sailors are laboring fiercely, every muscle taut, all attention and energy concentrated on the task. The cosmic conflict between good and evil is joined; chaotic sea and demonic sea monster versus the morally outraged man, Captain Ahab. In this boat, however, there is one man who does nothing. He doesn’t hold an oar; he doesn’t perspire; he doesn’t shout. He is languid in the crash and the cursing. This man is the harpooner, quiet and poised, waiting. And then this sentence: ‘To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, and not out of toil.’” EHP adds, “Melville’s sentence is a text to set alongside the psalmist’s ‘Be still, and know that I am God’ (Ps. 46:10), and alongside Isaiah’s ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength’ (Isa. 30:15.”

We’re attempting to grasp Eugene H. Peterson’s taxonomy of pastor. The story by Melville vividly paints the value of the disciplines of solitude and silence for the pastor. I get more out of Melville’s graphic paragraph than from the trendy books on spiritual disciplines. If you read the popular stuff on pastoral work these days, the pastor is to be Captain Ahab, an oarsman, the spotter, the cook and a frantic harpooner. Pastors who buy into our “success” culture have to appear busy and important. EHP traces this “need to succeed” to two malignant motivations: vanity and laziness. Vanity shouts, “I am important!” and laziness reveals a pastor who is an empty suit, letting others direct his ministry. To put busy in front of the word pastor is like putting the word adulterous in front of the word wife. So, the question arises: what do unbusy pastors do? Three things.

Pastors pray. Pastors cultivate their own first hand experiences with the living God. “I want to awaken others to the nature and centrality of prayer.” This cultivation of the art of prayer takes time. It cannot be rushed. EHP actually believes in a personal relationship with God. Many say they believe it; EHP lives it. “I don’t want to live as a parasite on the first-hand spiritual life of others, but to be personally involved with all my senses, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good.” What’s so big about prayer? Well, what’s so big about being personally involved in conversation with the living Creator, Trinitarian God of all?

Pastors preach. “I want to speak the Word of God that is Scripture in the language and rhythms of the people I live with.” EHP isn’t interested in “delivering” bright, inspiring sermons from sound outlines with snappy illustrations. When pastors preach the Scriptures, EHP wants the people “to hear its distinctive note of authority as God’s Word, and to know that their own lives are being addressed on their home territory.” EHP’s admiration for the writings of Wendell Berry creates EHP’s insistence that local church ministry is fiercely contextual.

Pastors listen. “I want the energy and the time to really listen to [others] so that when they’re through, they know that at least one other person has some inkling of what they’re feeling and thinking.” I enthusiastically add here EHP’s chapter on “The Pastoral Work of Story-Making: Ruth” in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. That one chapter helped me reimagine the nature of the congregation. “Pastoral listening requires unhurried leisure, even if it’s only for five minutes. Leisure is a quality of spirit, not a quantity of time.”

In Mark’s Gospel, we read about one very long, busy day in the life of Jesus. Jesus serves late into the evening hours. Yet, here is what we read next: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35). Why? Hadn’t Jesus earned the right to sleep in? Why get up so early? Here’s why: “The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.  The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears; I have not been rebellious, I have not turned away” (Isaiah 50:4-5 emphasis mine). The Gospels at one level present a passionate, kingdom-driven, needs-meeting, on-the-move Jesus. Beneath the flurry of his public ministry, however, was the subterranean, solitude-and-silence-life of Jesus the Pastor.

Peterson denounces laziness in pastoral work; he also denounces busyness. He knows the demands on one’s schedule; he knows of the tedious administrative dimensions of pastoral work; he knows the expectations to have “pastor” pray at the African Violent Ladies Guild; he knows the call to saturate his heart and mind in serious study of the Scriptures; he knows the pressures of budgets, buildings and bodies. Yet, he will not allow anyone or anything to sabotage his call to pray, to preach and to listen from the heart.



Pastor: The Naked Noun

We will grapple with Eugene H. Peterson’s (EHP) taxonomy of pastor from the opening chapters of his book The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction. The subtitle offers the huge clue: spiritual direction. Not Bible exposition, apostolic entrepreneurship, CEO, coaching, counseling, and religious shop-keeping.

What does “pastor” mean to you?

EHP opens with “A healthy noun doesn’t need adjectives.” He writes about “the naked noun.” For him, “pastor” is a virile, energetic term. “Pastor” doesn’t need propping up with adjectives. From his early years, the word “called to mind a person who was passionate for God and compassionate with people.” Yet, this strong noun has become weak, parodied and in need of supporting words. EHP finds himself refusing to let the anemic definitions foisted on the word by the culture define him. Why? “But if I, even for a moment, accept my culture’s definition of me, I am rendered harmless.” In another place EHP writes that the pastor now seems as necessary as but no more threatening than the neighborhood grocer. With “pastor” rendered so amiable and harmless, EHP feels the need to call in some redefining words for a term almost on life support. Those adjectives are: unbusy, subversive and apocalyptic.

Earlier in the book, we have a transcript of Rodney Clapp’s interview with EHP about the church in USAmerica. Peterson said, “If you listen to a Solzhenitsyn or Bishop Tutu, or university students from Africa or South America, they don’t see a Christian land. They see something almost the reverse of a Christian land. … They see a lot of greed and arrogance. And they see a Christian community that has almost none of the virtues of the biblical Christian community, which have to do with a sacrificial life and conspicuous love. Rather, they see indulgence in feelings and emotions, and an avaricious quest for gratification.”

When George Barna started publishing his uneasy findings about the lack of Christian knowledge and almost non-existent Christian formation in the evangelical church, he discovered those findings among people who attended well-organized, Bible-teaching churches. Pastors were viewed primarily as “feed-my-sheep” communicators of Bible content. The assumption was that the reception of correct doctrine by people who sat “under the Word” would automatically create the expression of correct, Christ-following lives. “Preach the Word in season and out…” “Preach the whole counsel of God!”  It was as if the Great Commission was “Preach the Word” not “Make disciples of all nations.” The church-at-large had become horribly ingrown and self-seeking.

Small groups came in vogue. Artificial, zip-code formulated communities studying fill-in-the-blank discipleship books—surely this will turn things around. A companion was added to the Sunday morning entertainment, the celebration (huge worship services). That companion was community (the template-driven small groups). Distinctive Christian living here we come! Yet, alas, large group celebration and small group community were not the magic bullet.

Over time many concluded, “It’s the pastor’s fault.”  What is a pastor anyway? What happened to the other gifts: apostles, prophets, evangelists and teachers?  All kinds of new positions were pulled out of the hat: ruling pastors; teaching pastors; worship pastors; executive pastors; youth pastors, local outreach pastors; global missions pastors; and visitation pastors. Peterson would have none of this. He lamented the Saul’s armor baggage attached to pastor and the pastoral vocation. I don’t think EHP and I would ever deny that there are plenty of inadequate and incompetent pastors. Yet, rather than throwing out “pastor” altogether or welding “pastor” to every position in the church, EHP insisted on chipping off the hardened innovative cultural accretions on the very robust term “pastor.” EHP is passionate about the sheer force of the naked noun.

This year Eugene H. Peterson (b. 1932) and his, wife, Jan, were the main guests of Gabe Lyons’  Q-ideas sessions in New York City, February 28-29. Through the generosity of good friends, I was able to attend.  I was struck by the attendance of many young, enthusiastic leaders who affirmed the steadfast vision that EHP offered for the pastor. I was one of the older attendees. EHP has weathered the storm of much contentious push-back on his vision of pastor, but his gracious, persistent voice is still strong and magnetic, kind and discerning. EHP is now the  pastors’ pastor.

A Word in Search of Meaning

In seminary we were offered just one pastoral polity class. Along with the Bible, our suggested textbook was Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. We consulted the Bible for the baptism formula and how to lead the Lord’s Table. Either the seminary fathers assumed pastor and pastoral ministry was well-understood, or no one had a clue. When I graduated and engaged in vocational pastoral ministry, I realized it was the latter. What tipped me off were the incessant pastors’ conferences where, instead of thoughtfully defining pastoral ministry, attendees were invited to listen to the latest rising pastor-stars. Because these shining stars had different personalities, abilities, and denominational models of ministry, I assumed that pastors’ conferences were simply ecclesial cafeterias.

If you defined “pastor” by what your pastor “does,” what would your definition be? Who has been most influential in your understanding of “pastor”?

I was free to pick and choose my own ingredients to form a vision of what a pastor is and what a pastor does. So American. Being active in pastoral work, I patched together my own vision of my calling. My vision was ragged, but it contained snatches of Bible-exposition, seeker-sensitivity, small-group value, NIV-priority, vision-mission-objectives-standards continuity (i.e., corporate), multi-staff variety, and the whole venture went stone-cold dead in my soul. I had been urged to be a coach, a CEO, a Bible-teacher, a leader, a servant, an administrator, a visionary, a funny guy, a counselor, a cheerleader, a person who wins friends and influences people. Amidst these chameleon roles, I lost Jesus.

The annoying horse-fly buzzing over this smorgasbord of pastoral models was commercialization. We could buy the books, get the kits, view the videos, and unwisely mimic the successes of others. I don’t know how many times “successful” pastors would present how God worked amazingly in their churches and affirmed it was God’s work in their context. We were urged, “Don’t think you should imitate us. Trust God in your own context. Yet, hey, our books and videos are on sale at the break.” When the local church is market-driven, we all die. The decades of the eighties and nineties saw the church hemorrhaging pastors. Why? Because the traditional vocation of pastor was hijacked by innovative thinkers who seemed to know a lot about culture and little about the Bible and church history. The word pastor was gutted by well-meaning, but misguided gurus of the more “relevant” way.

I met a man who did a simple thing for me. He grounded pastoral ministry in the Holy Scriptures. His name was Eugene H. Peterson. At a writers’ conference at Spring Arbor College, Peterson was the keynote speaker. Providentially, he sat with my friends and me at the lunch table. He suggested I read Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. I purchased a copy, he signed it, and I read it. My soul, on life-support from the battering of foolish and culturally-driven ideas about being a pastor, revived as the biblical blood of tested truth was injected. I could not recall even one pastor-scholar who presented at one, just one pastors’ conference, the simple idea that the Bible might just have something deep and significant to say about pastoral work.

Then I met the Man, Jesus, who, of all things, called himself the Good Pastor. Two times! This meeting anew of the Jesus I had lost caused me to do some serious repenting, some thorough changing of the mind. Instead of looking outward onto the ever-changing, trendy landscape of marketed, local church ideas, I gazed downward into the sacred text. While I had been trained to honor Jesus as LORD, Messiah, Savior, Friend, Prophet, Priest and King, no one ever suggested that I get to know Jesus the Pastor. While I had been urged to comb the Gospels to find ample data that Jesus Christ is 100% God and 100% human in one Person forever, no one ever suggested that I should read the Gospels in order to meet Jesus, the preeminent Pastor of all time, the authentic Senior Pastor (see 1 Peter 5:4).

My friend, Scot, has suggested that I present Eugene H. Peterson’s taxonomy of “the pastor” as presented in The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction. Taxonomy means classification or grouping of similar things. As I have observed vocational pastoral work, many ecclesial taxonomists still do not have a clue about “pastor.” Pastor is still a word on our cultural landscape in search of meaning. I know that many do not accept Eugene Peterson’s taxonomy. Some seem to despise it. Let’s continue the conversation with the aim of listening well and learning more about the beautiful word “pastor.” We’ll consider “the naked noun” next time.

Dawne, an aspiring pastor, made this inquiry about the last post: “… it brought to mind the idea of the five-fold ministry, something I am hearing a lot about in my local church. I wonder how this might relate?” Dawne has raised a significant question.

I have had the opportunity to teach a seminary course on church and culture focusing on the missional church. Alan Hirsch’s The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church was on the course reading list. Alan has offered, IMO, the most thorough, operative description of the “five-fold ministry” concept under the acronym APEPT, i.e., Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor, Teacher (see Ephesians 4:11).

Because there is no one “pure” early church or historical template on how to do church at the pastoral leadership level, I have no problem with those who want to learn about and implement the five-fold ministry model. I cannot say that there is anything wrong with it. Hirsch offers very stimulating and pragmatic ideas around APEPT. Yet, I do push back on that model or any other model that allegedly trumps or replaces the traditional view of pastor. Why?

First, Ephesians 4:11 in context is descriptive, not prescriptive. If some take the text as prescriptive, they do so against Paul’s intent. There is no exegetical basis or hermeneutical reason to make the Ephesian text prescriptive. We read nowhere else in the New Testament about this particular gift configuration, i.e., we don’t read that Paul appointed or exhorted Timothy and Titus to appoint “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers” in every church. Apparently no one in the early church or in church history read Ephesians 4:11 as prescriptive until the Pentecostal movement prompted the model in the middle 1800’s.

Secondly, the five-fold ministry model is novel. Novelty in itself is not a reason to reject a concept. I think there are merits in the APEPT idea as explained by Hirsch. The issue is the recognition of the relatively newness of the APEPT model and its origins in 1800’s as a Pentecostal push back against cessationist views of some of the spiritual gifts. More pertinently, anyone who reads Alan’s descriptions of the APEPT model will see that he is seriously trying to make culturally-relevant the five-fold giftings, but without the attendant Pentecostal issues. That is well and good. But Alan is not exegeting and interpreting the text at this point. Hirsch is seeking to apply the text in an innovative, pragmatic manner in the 21st century. He does so in order for the church to recapture its missional DNA.  This is commendable.

Thirdly, the assumption that pushes against the traditional view of the pastor is that a solo pastor limits the church’s missional impact. The more cynical assumption is that a church with a vocational pastor is just a “one man/woman show.” Sadly, that may the case in some local churches, but not in the vast majority. Vocational pastors know the value of team ministry and if they serve well as pastors, the people will discover, develop, and deploy their spiritual gifts as in any multiple staff church or church operating with the APEPT model.

Here’s my observation. When I was the “teaching pastor” on a multiple staff team of a large church, I did my part to equip the people for works of ministry. Yet, we, the staff team, lamented the low percentage of people who actually had defined and were using their spiritual gifts in missional ways. The mentality of that large church seemed to be: “We pay all of you as staff to do the ministry. Just give us what we want.” We were an attractional, vender-model church. For me things have changed. As the one pastor of a smaller congregation, I celebrate that over 75% of the church members are regularly active in missional endeavors.

Men and women who desire to serve as pastor of a local church in the enduring, traditional model need not feel obsolete. Any pastor can and should celebrate ministry innovations without feeling like she has to mimic them “to do church right.” Local church ministry is profoundly and fiercely contextual.

Note:  For a stimulating set of comments about this post, see Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed.

What Pastors Urgently Need

Originally posted at JESUS CREED thanks to Scot McKnight.

First , a big “thank you” to Scot McKnight for inviting me to post a weekly reflection on pastoral ministry in this 21st century.

Second, a word about my purpose. I am writing very intentionally about the traditional view of pastoral ministry within the current milieu of many contentious views about the vocation of pastor. To get a feel for this purpose, please read the first two posts. These are my own reflections about being “a pastor” and I believe these ideas have an enduring and rightful place in any discussions about local church ministry. Now to today’s thoughts.

Because many pastors and local church leaders have not met Jesus, the Pastor, the pastoral vocation and local church ministry gets needlessly skewed. If you’re new to this idea, read slowly through Ezekiel 34, John 10 (the Good Shepherd) and ponder these two titles of Jesus–the Great Shepherd (Hebrews 13) and the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5). For some odd reason many pastors have been led to fixate on Paul the Apostle and his letters. With this Pauline fixation, pastors neglect Jesus the Pastor and ignore the Gospels as pastoral documents. I’ll make the point again, Paul never describes himself as a pastor nor is he referred to as a pastor. He is Paul the Apostle (to the Gentiles).

I am inclined to trace the origin of current debates in pastoral ministry and ecclesiology, especially in the USAmerican evangelical church, to inadequate mental constructs of Jesus the Christ.  Because the “Jesus”  offered to potential pastors (in their Seminary days) is dished up as a theological construct, the local church gets smothered over with a precise, doctrinal Jesus. Churches need to meet the Jesus of Revelation 1 who walks among real local churches in real geographical places (Revelation 2-3) bringing commendation and correction. I would not have met this dangerously-alive, fiery Jesus if it were not for scholars like Scot McKnight, N. T. Wright, Ben Meyer, E. P. Sanders, Darrell Bock, Conrad Gempf, Sean Freyne, and so many others who have worked hard to ground our theologically-constructed Jesus in the hot, dusty Palestinian world of 1st century Judaism. While God purposely incarnated in the fierce particulars of time and space, theologians through the ages have worked hard to de-incarnate Jesus so Jesus could be the God-Man for all peoples in all cultures in all times. When Jesus is lifted out of his 1st century historical particulars and squeezed into timeless theological categories, his timeless impact actually is severely blunted. Am I against theology? Of course not. But a theological Jesus does not and cannot hold a candle to the radical, courageous Jesus of the Gospels and the blazing Jesus of Revelation 1.

I was a pastor for many years and was frankly getting bored with the Jesus I had inherited. I had embraced unwittingly the Jesus described by Ken Medema in song–”a corner drug-store Jesus pushing happiness pills.”  I had a Jesus who wasn’t worth dying for, and so, was not worth living for. I had a Jesus who could easily affirm the American Dream and middle-class values while making many Christians think they were deeply committed “disciples” of Jesus. The Jesus proclaimed in the early church who was turning the world upside down was now a valet parking spot guy who heard prayers for good parking places–a fuzzy first world problem on a bloody, desperate third world planet.

I am convinced that USAmerican pastors urgently need the skilled historian-theologians to help them reimagine Jesus as the good pastor. As long as pastors look to other pastors wearing suits and sipping tea with the African Violet Church Ladies or wearing Levi’s and tattooes and sipping lattes at Starbuck’s, praying at the potluck and re-cycling sermons by Swindoll, Hybels, Stanely, or Ortberg, pastoral ministry will soon go to seed. I think many men and women have left the pastoral vocation, not because of church “models” or doctrinal conflicts, but because of a stale, we-already-know-all-we-need-to-know-about-Jesus mental construct. Jesus is an incarnate lightning bolt. Read the Transfiguration accounts.

The challenge for aspiring and serving pastors is to read the Gospels all the while saying, “This is the recorded life of the Good Pastor!” I cannot think of a more powerful adrenaline rush for the pastoral vocation.

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