An Important Pursuit

This past week I was spending time with the pastor of a mega-church who had recently retired after serving at his church for almost 40 years. He had enjoyed the trappings of outward success: big church, a national and international ministry, relative fame in the religious sub-culture, author, sought-after speaker, rapid growth, and then steep decline. All the accolades, criticisms, and crazy perks/curses of success in our celebrity culture. We were reflecting together on all those years of ministry and what it all meant. We wondered about what mattered, what remained, what lasted, what endured.

With a great degree of candor, he said, “Kent, all that stuff is really kind of boring to me these days. Some of it was nice. A lot of it was awful. But here’s what matters. I’m sitting on my deck with a guy whose marriage is falling apart, whose faith journey isn’t making an actual difference in the mundane, daily routine of his life. He’s opening up, he’s telling his whole story, he’s sharing stuff he has never shared with another human being, and he’s beginning to cry. We’re getting at territory that has never been explored with such vulnerability and authenticity. Ever. It was a sacred space. And I was there with him in all the mess. I had the privilege of bringing some light into a dark and tender place to help us both navigate the pain of this world, and to begin to experience the reality of the presence of Christ in our midst. I’m telling you, that’s what matters. That’s what remains. When you are actually with another human being and you love and care for each other and God shows up. You want to take off your shoes. Nothing beats that. That’s what it means to be a pastor. All that other extraneous stuff is like chaff that blows away. But that stuff right there, that remains.”

We should be honest and admit this to each other. We live in a culture that demands high production and top performance—results. We measure our worth by our accomplishments. That’s how we keep score. And many pastors and Christian leaders have bought into that value system whole-heartedly. I know I did for too many years. Consequently, the deeper things in life, the most important things, are often neglected. We sacrifice them at the altar of external success – or least the striving for it. Our lives become increasingly public, measured, programmed. We learn to always try to say the right thing, to present ourselves a certain way, to always be “on.” When you think about it, we are a producing culture, not a wisdom culture. Wisdom is not something that we develop by just getting older. Unless the pursuit of wisdom is intentional, young fools simply become old fools. Wisdom is almost impossible to develop if we are moving too fast, if we are too intent on our outward success, if we fail to reflect deeply, if we fail to learn how to love extravagantly, if we forget that we are going to die.

One of the most important pursuits for pastors, and pretty much everybody, is to value the ministry of shepherding, of caring for souls, of being fully present with another human being. I am aware, of course, of the five-fold giftings from Ephesians 4, which states that Christ has given to the church apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. I believe that people, at least at certain times, gravitate to some of those giftings and roles more than others and the church desperately needs the full flourishing of all those giftings and roles. But there are times when each one of us will need to embrace and pursue the vision and faith of an apostle, or the insight and courage of a prophet, or the passion of an evangelist, or the tenderness of a shepherd, or the wisdom of a teacher. What I am suggesting is that we need to once again pursue and nurture the calling of shepherding as an integral part of Christian leadership.

It has become popular in many religious circles over the past fifty years to downplay the shepherding role in church leadership. Pastors who emphasize shepherding in their ministry, the caring for and nurturing of souls, have often been looked down on, sometimes even ridiculed. We are told we need to be catalytic leaders. Shepherds don’t change the world, catalytic leaders do. Perhaps. But what shepherding does, when done well, is invite people into the healing and transforming power of the Spirit of God. And that, I submit, is one of the greatest and most powerful ways to change the world; at least that little corner of the world that has been placed under our care.

The late Eugene Peterson, one of the greatest examples of the pastor as shepherd, was interviewed for the Religious News Service in 2013, where he was asked this:

With your experience in both the church and the academy, I wonder what advice you would give to young seminary students today. If you were asked by one to describe what is at the heart of the work of pastoring and shepherding, what would you say?

Here is Eugene Peterson’s response:

I’d tell them that pastoring is not a very glamorous job. It’s a very taking-out-the-laundry and changing-the-diapers kind of job. And I think I would try to disabuse them of any romantic ideas of what it is. As a pastor, you’ve got to be willing to take people as they are. And live with them where they are. And not impose your will on them. Because God has different ways of being with people, and you don’t always know what they are.

The one thing I think is at the root of a lot of pastors’ restlessness and dissatisfaction is impatience. They think if they get the right system, the right programs, the right place, the right location, the right demographics, it’ll be a snap. And for some people it is: if you’re a good actor, if you have a big smile, if you are an extrovert. In some ways, a religious crowd is the easiest crowd to gather in the world. Our country’s full of examples of that. But for most, pastoring is a very ordinary way to live. And it is difficult in many ways because your time is not your own, for the most part, and the whole culture is against you. This consumer culture, people grow up determining what they want to do by what they can consume. And the Christian gospel is just quite the opposite of that. And people don’t know that. And pastors don’t know that when they start out. We’ve got a whole culture that is programmed to please people, telling them what they want. And if you do that, you might end up with a big church, but you won’t be a pastor.

It is helpful for us to remember that Jesus described Himself as the Good Shepherd (John 10:11), and good shepherds lay down their lives for their sheep. Jesus never considered being a shepherd of souls a lesser, inadequate version of Christian leadership. Rather it is a high and noble calling. When we are actually with another human being, fully present to that person and the presence of Christ in our midst, miracles happen. Yet, I cannot be fully present with another human being if I am obsessed with myself, my success, my inadequacies, my fear, my shame, my ambition. It is when I am learning how to lay all that aside, when I am learning, in Jesus’s words, to lose myself, that I truly begin to find myself. As C. S. Lewis says it, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.”