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Pastors: More than Religious Careerism

I just started reading Eugene Peterson’s Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness. In the words of Mrs. Patterson (my 5-year-old daughter’s kindergarten teacher): it “knocks my socks off.” If you are a pastor, this is a must read. I’ll provide brief excerpts for your edification.

Peterson’s desire in this book is “to get it straight, get straight what it means to be a pastor, and then develop a spirituality adequate to the work” (5). His primary concern is that too many pastors view the pastoral vocation as a form of religious career that we attempt to manage and control. Peterson calls this “vocational idolatry.” One of the primary ways this occurs is to view ministry as a career ladder.

Peterson’s bemoans the contemporary practice of viewing ministry as a career ladder. Specifically, he does not appreciate those who tempt pastors away from their current positions to another ministry and pastors who freely move about:

“Propagandists are abroad in the land lying to us about what congregations are and can be. They are lying for money. They want to make us discontent with what we are doing so we will buy a solution from them that they promise will restore virility to our impotent congregations…Pastors, faced with the failure of the purchased procedures, typically blame the congregation and leave it for another. The devil, who is behind all this smiling and lacquered mischief, so easily makes us discontent with what we are doing that we throw up our hands in the middle of it, disgusted, and go on to another parish that will appreciate our gifts in ministry and our devotion to the Lord.” (17-18)

“Somehow we American pastors, without really noticing what was happening, got our vocations redefined in terms of American careerism. We quit thinking of the parish as a location for pastoral spirituality and started thinking of it as an opportunity for advancement.” (20)

But, Peterson suggests, this is all a false image:

“There is much that is glorious in pastoral work, but the congregation, as such, is not glorious. The congregation is a Nineveh-like place: a site for hard work without a great deal of hope for success, at least success measured on the charts…Anyone who glamorizes congregations does a grave disservice to pastors. We hear tales of glitzy, enthusiastic churches and wonder what in the world we are doing wrong that our people don’t turn out that way under our preaching. On close examination, though, it turns out that there are no wonderful congregations…Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren’t bad enough, they all have sinners as pastors.” (16-17)

Peterson calls this glamorization “ecclesiastical pornography” because it isn’t real (22).

“Every time a pastor abandons one congregation for another out of boredom or anger or restlessness, the pastoral vocation of us all is vitiated.” (18)

Doesn’t it make you feel good to realize that all ministries are in a similar situation and always have been (see Revelation 2-3).

Peterson’s solution? Stay where you are!

“But the norm for pastoral work is stability. Twenty-, thirty-, and forty-year-long pastorates should be typical among us (as they once were) and not exceptional. Far too many pastors change parishes out of adolescent boredom, not as a consequence of mature wisdom. When this happens, neither pastors nor congregations have access to the conditions that are hospitable to maturity in the faith.” (29)

In my experience, most ministry books and conferences glamorize ministry.  Even Emerging Church and Missional Church Movement books, which often denounce church growth tactics, provide tales of wonderful churches that are changing the world.  While this is often intended to challenge us, it causes us to look around and believe that the grass is greener on the other side if we can just get there.  Peterson’s words are a wonderful reminder and helpful correction to this common ecclesiastical pornography.

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  1. Andrew Ford
    November 3, 2007 at 9:47 am

    I read this book during my Renewal and I wholeheartedly agree that this is a must read for every Pastor. I do like how he phrases a pastors wrong desire to look at other (better looking) churches with longing – ecclesiastical pornography. We pastors must remember that the grass may look greener on the other side of the fence, but they use manure to get it that way.

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