Eugene Peterson pastored the same small church for almost 30 years. He has a wealth of wisdom and insight which demands our respect and attention. His book, The Contemplative Pastor, has an obvious target audience. However, the insight he provides extends well beyond the borders of those in full time ministry. For that matter, we are all in full time ministry, so by definition, we all have something to learn. Allow me to share what impacted me most and I pray it will be the same for you.
To begin with, I must admit that I was slightly offended in reading this book. As far as I am concerned, there exists an unwritten rule between author and reader to delay the impact of the most painful content until the reader has had a chance to ease into the material. Peterson violated this unwritten rule when he spoke adamantly against the “outrageous scandal” of busyness in the life of a Christian within the first few pages of his book.
Busyness, in Peterson’s view, is not a “symptom of commitment but of betrayal.” In a metaphorical one-two punch, he talks about the vanity of busyness and laziness as its source. Busyness, argues Peterson, often exists in order for us to appear important. It is vanity. The culture insists that a crowded schedule is a measure of significance and all too often the we all buy into this lie. If not for the reasons of vanity, Peterson suggests the other option is laziness (as if that makes me feel any better!). We become busy because we let others control our time instead of resolutely deciding for ourselves. In either case, the negative results of a life without margin which constantly meets the demands of others will inevitably render all of us harmless and unable to complete the work for which we have been called. It is a dangerous trap. Beware!
Peterson does offer the antidote, however. He encourages us to remain committed to prayer, meditation and listening. Prayer, at its core, is the cultivation of intimacy with God. It is the language of relationship. Meditation, says Peterson, must finds it’s source in the immersion of scripture. Time dedicated to meditating on God’s word which cannot happen in the midst of busyness and "sound bite study obligations". Richard Foster says that one hour one day a week is preferable to 10 minutes segments of time in God's Word every day. I tend to agree. Peterson continues by reminding us that we must learn to listen. But listening requires “unhurried leisure”. A quality of spirit, Peterson says, not a quality of time. Busyness is a theif of quality time.
I was impacted by Peterson reflection when he writes, “The question I put to myself is not, “How many people have a spoken to about Christ this week?” but “How many people have I listened to in Christ this week?”’ What a poignant reminder for us all.
One of the realities of my transition is the common question: “So…When are you taking over the church?” This has always unsettled me and it is the very thing Peterson seems to address as he reflects on his friends comment about “running the church.” Although the church activity on Sunday has not changed much through the centuries, what happens between Sundays is radically different. Peterson suggests that it has “not been a development but a defection.” Pastors (but not only pastors) have inherited an attitude of ownership where the success of the church (as determined by our culture) is falsely assumed to be based on our leadership ability and skill. This attitude centers around the belief that if we do not take charge, the church will fail and the people will drift into apathy. Our skill is in our programs and our organizational prowess of motivating people to get things done for the business of the kingdom.
This is the reality of the business world from which I come. But Peterson has reminded me that it is not the way of the church. The church does not need a successful business plan with a penetrating vision and a motivational mission. I am not the CEO. Neither are you. Instead, we are the servants of souls. As such, we recognize that it is not us but God who takes the initiative. He gets things going and He is on the scene before we ever arrive.
Peterson suggests that the better questions for us to ask are: “What has God been doing here? What traces of grace can I discern in this life? What has God set in motion that I can get in on?” Instead of carrying the burden of leading positive change, I must seek to discover what He is doing and live appropriately with it. I submit to you that the counsel given by Peterson applies not only to pastors but to every follower of Christ.
Living with this humble perspective should direct what we say and how we listen. Instead of persuasive speech and a drive to motivate others to get things done and to get on with growing in faith, we must learn the language of relationship. A personal language of love and prayer. Spontaneous language that is unhurried and unforced. Peterson describes it as “the leisurely language of friends and lovers.”
Our job, as Peterson reminds us, is not to solve problems. As an Administrator, this is my job. It is my responsibility to develop better procedures, organize and administrate. But the church is different. Much of what is done in the context of the body of believers is, and should be, a mystery. It is mystery that makes room for faith. If everything has an answer and the direction is always clear, the need for faith is removed.
We live in a world of experts where everything has an explanation and a solution. But the Christian life is a pilgrimage of prayer. A submission to the Soverign and a willingness to leave unanswered questions in His capable hands. As a Christian, we are not called to answer on His behalf as much as we are to direct others to discover Truth for themselves. When it is personal, lives are changed.
Good reminders, although slightly unfair in his tactics. Every once in a while, we all need a rude awakening.