Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Quotable Peterson: Pastoral Work

I saw a Twitter post the other day asking for favorite Eugene Peterson quotes.  Well, some of those would would take more than the 280 characters Twitter allows.  I’ve read pretty much everything he’s written so I have a lot of quotes.  Perhaps I’ll do a couple of blog posts.  This post focuses on some of my favorite quotes on pastoral life.  Pastors will appreciate these quotes.  But non-pastors might find them educational as well …


America’s pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate.  They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs.  Congregations still pay their salaries.  Their names remain on the church stationery and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays.  But they are abandoning their posts, their calling.  They have gone whoring after other gods.  What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries.   Working the Angles

I had never articulated it just this way before.  “You are at your pastoral best when you are not noticed.  To keep this vocation healthy requires constant self-negation, getting out of the way.  A certain blessed anonymity is inherent in pastoral work.  For pastors, being noticed easily develops into wanting to be noticed.  Many years earlier a pastor friend told me that the pastoral ego ‘has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self.’”  The Pastor: A Memoir

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.  Under the Predictable Plant

So sinner becomes not a weapon in an arsenal of condemnation, but the expectation of grace.  Simply to be against sin is a poor basis for pastoral ministry.  But to see people as sinnersas rebels against God, missers of the mark, wanderers from the way—that establishes a basis for pastoral ministry that can proceed with great joy because it is announcing God great action in Jesus Christ “for sinners.”  The Contemplative Pastor

It is not the pastor’s job to simplify the spiritual life, to devise common-denominator formulas, to smooth out the path of discipleship.  Some difficulties are inherent in the way of spiritual growth – to deny them, to minimize them, or to offer shortcuts is to divert the person from true growth.  It is the pastor’s task, rather, to be companion to persons who are in the midst of difficulty, to acknowledge the difficulty and thereby give it significance, and to converse and pray with them through the time so that the loneliness is lightened, somewhat, and hope is maintained, somehow.  Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work

Most pastoral work takes place in obscurity: deciphering grace in the shadows, searching out meaning in a difficult text, blowing on the embers of a hard-used life.  This is hard work and not conspicuously glamorous.  Under the Predictable Plant

The pastor is the one person in the community who is free to take men and women seriously just as they are, appreciate them just as they are, give them the dignity that derives from being the “image of God,” a God-created being who has eternal worth without having to prove usefulness or be good for anything.  The Pastor: A Memoir

Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking the biblical words of command, promise and invitation.  The Contemplative Pastor

In the disordered time in which we live, pastors can’t get along without [psychologists] Dr. Wall and Dr. Hansen.  But their work is not my work.  Knowing they are there to do their work, I am free to do my work.  And my work is not to fix people.  It is to lead people in the worship of God and to lead them in living a holy life.  The Pastor: A Memoir


There are so many more quotes I’ve gathered in my files, but these are enough for now.  Worth chewing on.  Worth considering.  Worth practicing.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Did God Ever Do Me a Favor!

I knew he couldn’t live forever.  But I sure hate to see him go.  I’m writing about the best pastor I ever had but never met: Eugene Peterson.  He died on Monday.  And here’s the irony of that for me: I was leading a pastors’ conference and giving away some of his books on pastoring.  I preached that day on the pastor as shepherd and quoted him twice in my sermon.  And here’s another irony: I’ve written a book for pastors (The 23rd Pastor: Shepherding in the Spirit of our Shepherd Lord) that should be released in a few days.  And in the introduction, I wrote these words: 

While I have learned from the pastors I served with on staff and from some of my pastor friends, two key mentors have kept me grounded in my pastoral work across more than three decades.  The first is a Presbyterian named Eugene Peterson.  He, more than anyone else, has taught me what it means to be a pastor.  Peterson’s books should be essential reading for every pastor and everyone who feels called to become a pastor.  (If you have never read one of his books, you should put this one down and go read one of his first.)

I learned a lot from and am forever grateful to the handful of men who pastored me until I became a pastor in 1982.  But no one taught me more about pastoring than Eugene Peterson.  Peterson founded Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, and pastored that church for 29 years.  He retired to teach Spiritual Theology at Regent College for another six years.  He wrote a lot across the years.  I’ve read most everything he wrote.  And I am a better Christian and a better pastor because of it.

My first encounter with his work was in the 80s, and man did I need him then.  I was pastoring a growing church in suburban Kansas City.  Those were the days of the church growth movement, and our church was busting at the seams.  He arrested me immediately on the first page of his book Working the Angles:

America’s pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate.  They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs.  Congregations still pay their salaries.  Their names remain on the church stationery and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays.  But they are abandoning their posts, their calling.  They have gone whoring after other gods.  What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries.

The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches.  They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns—how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.

Some of them are very good shopkeepers.  They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations.  Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping, to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same.

Busted!  Humbled.  Put in my place.  I was becoming a shopkeeper, not a pastor.  Through the book, I learned the three angles that have historically been at the heart of pastoral ministry: Scripture, prayer, and spiritual direction.  I learned how to pastor a growing church without abandoning my calling.  I am indebted to Peterson for that, and the two congregations I’ve served have been better-shepherded because of him.

But it’s not just his books on pastoring that have had influence in my life.  His work with the Psalms and with David’s life have made a difference too.  I did my doctoral project on “Using the Psalms as a Guide to Corporate and Individual Prayer.”  As part of the project I wrote a devotional book on praying the psalms.  I was told I needed an outside evaluator on the book.  I took a big chance and wrote a letter asking Peterson to be that evaluator.  He quickly responded with a nice, handwritten letter, telling me that as much as he’d like to, his work at the college kept him from being able to take on any outside projects.  Then he wrote a few sentences commending me on my project, encouraging me, and wishing me well.  I don’t know how he did it, but I’ve never felt better about being told “No” in my life.

A number of years later, I was on the verge of burning out.  Knowing my admiration of Peterson, a staff member, Mike Pounders, went to a lot of trouble to get in touch with Peterson.  Imagine my shock when I was given his cell number and invited to call him.  We talked 15 or 20 minutes—well, I talked, he mostly listened.  And invited me to come stay for a few days with he and Jan in his Montana home.  He said I could relax there, and we could visit.  He said he did that a couple of times of years for people in his larger congregation (people like me).  He could do that in about six months, he said.  He told me to keep his number and call him to set up a time.  I was an idiot.  I don’t know if I was starstruck or to overwhelmed to take him up on the offer.  I blew a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend personal time with one of my heroes.  I’ll regret that till I die.

He sent a nice note on my 20th anniversary as pastor at First Baptist, Hot Springs.  And I continued to read his writings: always challenged, always encouraged, always learning something, always growing in my faith.

I’m going to miss him.  He will still live in on my shelves and in my work.  And I suspect I’ll keep his cell phone number in my contacts till I die.

But now I’ll have to wait to meet him personally till I get to the other side.  I know I’ll have to wait in a long line, but I will not blow my next opportunity to meet the man in person and to thank him for the many ways his work shaped my spiritually and pastorally.  And when I talk to Jesus, I’ll tell him in person what I’ve already told him in prayer: “You did a lot of us a favor when you made Eugene Peterson.  I thank you.  And the churches I’ve served thank you too.”

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Gary: My Role Model for Ministry

October is Pastor Appreciation Month.  Not sure how I feel about that really.  October is also Adopt a Shelter Dog Month, Apple Jack Month, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, National Popcorn Popping Month, and Sarcastic Month.  I suppose we are all so busy that if we don’t have something to remind us, we’ll forget to appreciate most things.

But all that aside, could I say a word about the first Baptist pastor I ever had.  His name is Dr. Gary Fenton.  He wasn’t yet Dr. Fenton when he was my pastor.  He was fresh out of seminary and in his mid-20s then.  He was nine years my elder.  And he made an impact in my life.  He is the pastor who baptized me, counseled me in regard to my call to ministry, gave me the opportunity to preach my first sermon, and preached my ordination sermon a couple of years later.  Dayna and I would have liked for him to officiate our wedding too, but First Baptist, Branson, had a new pastor then, Gilbert Spencer, and we wanted to affirm Gil's ministry too.

Gary was a pastoral mentor to me.  He’s one of the few pastors I’ve known in my life who is the complete package.  The man can preach, provide shepherd care for his people, and lead the church toward its mission.  I worked for him for him during my first college summer at First Baptist in Branson.  He took time to talk with me about Bible texts and commentaries.  I watched how he related to people with compassion and love—all kinds of people too, not just the power people and the largest donors.  He was accessible.  And Gary was the hardest working pastor I ever knew.

From the moment of my call to ministry, I knew God wanted me to be a pastor.  I served in staff roles about five years before God gave me my first pastorate, but I knew the pastorate is where God was leading me all the time.  And here’s one thing I distinctly remember from the year or two Gary was my pastor: I wanted to pastor like Gary.  He set a high bar I strived to reach.  I’ve never reached his bar just yet but striving for it—striving to be a good preacher, a good shepherd for the people, and a good leader—has made me a better pastor than I would have been without Gary’s influence.

Last week, we were able to have Gary preach revival services in the church.  He’s recently retired.  It was great to spend some time with him.  Dayna and I treasure the moments we shared together with Gary during those few days in Hot Springs.  And even though I turned 62 during that revival, Gary is still teaching me and mentoring me in ministry.

So in this Pastor Appreciation Month, I want to say, “Thank you, God, for Gary Fenton, a man after your heart, the man who helped me begin my journey toward pastoral ministry, and a man whose fingerprints are on every good thing you’ve ever done in my nearly four decades of pastoring!  And thank you, Gary, for investing in a nobody from nowhere who had nothing to offer you in return except an eagerness to serve Jesus and to learn.”

Peter concludes a brief word to pastors in his 1st letter in the New Testament by writing, "And when the chief shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory."  There's a crown waiting for Gary.  And he's going to look really good in it.