Back in the nineties, a couple of years into my ministry in a local church, I had something of a personal crisis. I found myself seriously questioning my call as the minister of that church, and indeed my call to Baptist ministry.
I’m glad to say that I survived the crisis, and this was due to at least three factors. The first was the wise and calm influence of my Regional Minister, who in the process introduced me to the insights of Family Systems Theory. The second was the support and prayer of some excellent friends. And the third was the writing of Eugene Peterson, and in particularly his trilogy for pastors: Working the Angles, Five Smooth Stones, and Under the Unpredictable Plant.
While I feel very un-trendy, I still hold to his emphasis upon the three basic pastoral acts which determine the shape of everything else: praying, reading Scripture, and giving spiritual direction. I resound to his statement that ‘The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God.’ (Working the Angles)
However, it was the third of these books, Under the Unpredictable Plant, which helped save my life! Using the Old Testament book of Jonah, Peterson clarifies the pastoral vocation in terms of helping to recover what he calls ‘vocational holiness’. I’ve returned to this book on countless occasions; I’ve recommended it to many; and I’ll continue to do so. But let Eugene Peterson speak for himself:
‘It is necessary from time to time that someone stand up and attempt to get the attention of the pastors lined up at the travel agency in Joppa to purchase a ticket to Tarshish. At this moment, I am the one standing up. If I succeed in getting anyone’s attention, what I want to say is that the pastoral vocation is not a glamorous vocation and that Tarshish is a lie. Pastoral work consists of modest, daily, assigned work. It is like farm work. Most pastoral work involves routines similar to cleaning out the barn, mucking out the stalls, spreading manure, pulling weeds. This is not, any of it, bad work in itself, but if we expected to ride a glistening black stallion in daily parades and then return to the barn where a lackey grooms our steed for us, we will be severely disappointed and end up being horribly resentful.
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 as success is measured on the charts. But somebody has to do it, has to faithfully give personal visibility to the continuities of the word of God in the place of worship and prayer, in the places of daily work and play, in the traffic jams of virtue and sin.
Anyone who glamorizes congregations does a grave dis-service 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… I don’t deny that there are moments of splendour in congregations. There are. Many and frequent. But there are also conditions of squalor. Why deny it? And how could it be otherwise?… Ordinary congregations are God’s choice for the form the church takes in locale, and pastors are the persons assigned to them for ministry…’