What Four Months as a Pastor Have Taught Me
I hope you are all able to recognize the irony in the title of this post, especially in succession to Ron’s ten-part series (which, if you haven’t done so already, you should read before entertaining me any further). You won’t find the same level of deep, poetic wisdom here, but I am hoping to share a little more about myself and what it means for me to be a pastor at New Covenant. At some point I may have time and space to explore alternative models and metaphors for ministry—ones I grew up with and ones I have seen over time—but for now I will limit myself to talking about the model that I have settled on most recently. Various mentors of mine as well as my own experience have convinced me that pastoral ministry is best characterized as spiritual direction.
Most contemporary Christians are unfamiliar with this term, despite its long and honored place in our tradition (as well as in Judaism). It is far less glamorous than many of the other models available to pastors today because it is one that is unapologetically focused on everyday life. A spiritual director tries to help another person pay attention to how God is at work in his or her ordinary life, which cannot be done bluntly, but is most often approached indirectly, through what we often refer to as small talk. There is no external goal, but the process is simply focused on becoming more of who God intends for us to be. For the director, this process is grounded in the notion that God is already at work in the world and in our lives, and so we are in no sense forcing God’s hand or even asking God to work in certain ways, but are simply calling attention to the ways that God is already at work, already speaking to us, already seeking the best for us.
This model of spiritual direction does have some direct application to pastoral ministry in that I am making an effort to reach out to everyone to get together over coffee or a meal to talk about everyday life and where God might be at work. Indirectly, however, this model also applies on a communal level. A pastor’s commitment is to a community and it is not enough to simply think of a community as the sum of its parts. It is quite important for all of us to attempt to notice how God is at work or speaking to us through our daily lives, but it takes extra work for someone to notice how God might be at work in a community, calling us to be more than we are as individuals.
This is the unique work of a pastor, my understanding of which is compiled from a variety of sources, but for full disclosure, probably the most important is Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor. (Some of you have probably already asked me for resources and noticed that I almost always include a Peterson book. Get used to it.) I will phrase it in terms of what kind of pastor I desire to become, recognizing that four months is a far cry from forty years, and that even someone like Ron often described himself as still in the process of becoming.
I want to be a pastor who prays. I’ve stated before and will do so again here that I don’t really know how to pray. I’m not really exactly sure of what it even means, except that I know I have a tendency to go about life as though nothing matters but me (my desires, goals, needs, fears, etc.), and that it takes special effort for me to pay attention to God and to others instead. Sometimes this effort takes the form of reading a bit of poetry in the morning, listening to music, or a more traditional form of calling to mind names of those I care about and their needs. My hope with these efforts is that I learn to spend my days paying attention to God and to others in addition to myself.
I want to be a pastor who preaches. We’ve typically called what happens in the pulpit on Sunday mornings “teaching”, but I want to make a small distinction here. While I never want to place too much importance on this one aspect of worship, I do believe there is more taking place than simply conveying information (hopefully that is true for teaching, too). I see preaching as sort of a convergence of factors: God speaking through Scripture, the Holy Spirit’s presence in the community, and a person who has their ear to the ground enough to know what sorts of things need to be said at that particular time and place. Ideally, the sermon on Sunday morning is just the tip of the iceberg, and is informed by a wealth of understanding that is gained in study, prayer, and listening.
I want to be a pastor who listens. I probably should have reversed these last two because my hope is that all my preaching will be informed by listening to both God and our community, but I’m putting this last because I want to end on this note. I will never be a great counselor or therapist, I will probably not always give great advice, but I will make every effort to listen to you all when you want to talk with me. In the end, I’m not really interested in diagnosing or fixing problems or telling you what to do, but in simply being there for you. One quip that unfortunately rings true for many says that a pastor is “invisible six days a week, and incomprehensible the seventh.” My hope is that we will instead work to see and understand each other as much as it is possible and learn to look and listen for God’s leading in our lives and our life together as a community.
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for God. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what God wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
I’m speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for God.
~ Romans 12:1-3 (The Message, by Eugene Peterson)