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Unlikely Pastor

I finished Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor last night while waiting for the kids to finish up at piano lessons. It was a good book (if a little more hortatory than one might expect from a memoir) and I am grateful for the window that it provided into the life and career of a man I admire greatly. Perhaps unsurprisingly, over the course of reading Peterson’s memoir I have found myself reflecting often upon this peculiar vocation called “pastor” that I have found myself in, how I ended up here, and what I understand it to be.  

I’m still pretty new at this pastor thing, of course, and hardly qualified to be writing with any kind of authority upon the pastoral vocation. But reading about the unlikely path that led Eugene Peterson to become a pastor inevitably led to a bit of musing about the strange ways that God leads us into doing the things we do…

If you would have asked me as a younger person if I would have ever seen myself as a pastor, your query quite likely would have been met with outright laughter and/or a snort of derision. The vocation of “pastor” was not exactly a highly-esteemed one, in my youthful view. This wasn’t because I had bad pastors or terribly negative experiences in the church, or anything like that. It was mainly because I was a pretty typical kid who often found churches—and sermons, in particular—to be insufferably dull and irrelevant to the things that were important to me (girls and hockey, mainly). I didn’t really know what pastors did, aside from being boring on Sunday mornings, but I assumed that they read the Bible a lot (and enjoyed it, inexplicably!), talked about the Bible with others, and visited sick people in the hospital. Not exactly the life of adventure and intrigue that sets the imagination of a teenager alight.

Later on, as a young adult, my conception of “pastor” would expand beyond “boring sermon-producers who enjoy reading the Bible more than I do” to include “people who try to sell religion to those who don’t have it (and probably don’t want it).” Somewhere along the way, I picked up a kind of conception of pastor-as-salesman (they were always men), where everything they said and did was a kind of set up to sneak Jesus in the back door. They weren’t really interested in you as a person, or any questions you might have had, or what any of your hopes and fears and existential anxieties might be. Their job was to save your soul and to keep you (and others) in the pews.

I must stress, again, that these negative conceptions have virtually nothing to do with any of the pastors I actually had. I have been fortunate to have some very gifted, competent pastors who have contributed to my faith in ways that I am barely able to articulate. Some I still look to for wisdom to this day. Yet for some reason, the word “pastor” obtained and retained a negative connotation in my confused, immature, selfish little brain. Perhaps I saw one too many horrific American religious television programs.  Perhaps it was because few of my friends seemed to admire or respect pastors. Perhaps I was unusually thick, and somehow didn’t connect the good and intelligent people in my life who occupied the role to the word “pastor.”

At any rate, given the above, it is more than a little ironic—amusing, even!—that I now find myself in the position of wrestling with and growing into the vocation of “pastor” (it was gratifying to read that even the great Eugene Peterson took time to warm up to the idea!). Truth be told, I still squirm a bit when the “so what do you do?” question comes in social settings. The word “pastor” is certainly not a dirty word for me anymore. I have grown and matured a bit, over the last couple of decades (thanks be to God!), and my understanding of “pastor” has become a much more liberating and expansive one due, in no small measure, to reading people like Peterson, and getting to know many gifted and intellectually vibrant pastors as friends and colleagues. But “pastor” is still a word that fits a little bit awkwardly for me.

I don’t know why this is, exactly. Undoubtedly it has more to do with my importing of what I assume others perceive a pastor to be and do than it does with the nature of the vocation itself. I am not, and will never be, a salesman of religion. I am not fond of the idea that people might consider me to be some kind of an alien species who happens to be interested in “that kind of thing” (i.e., God, religion, etc) I shudder at some of the things pastors sometimes say, and I shrink from the anti-intellectualism that is sometimes associated with the word. For some reason, I tend to assume that these images, rather than the numerous other more healthy (and accurate) images, are what people are thinking when I identify myself as a “pastor.”

And yet… I am a pastor. Why? Well, I still wonder, at times, and there are certainly many things that I could say in response to this question. But one of the ways that I have increasingly come to conceive of my own vocation and identity is simply as one who keeps the story of God alive in the hearts and minds and lives of people in a culture where the story is easily ignored, abused, misused, or forgotten.

That’s my job.

Not to save souls, not to populate churches, not to run religious programs, not to make the Bible “relevant,” not to rescue people from desperate situations, not to prop up people’s flagging faith, not to write books (although that would be cool!), not any number of other things that commonly get associated with the word “pastor.” But continuing to tell and to keep people alive to the gospel story of life and meaning and  hope? I can get excited about that. I can fit that into my conception of the word “pastor.” I can live with and into that kind of word.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. larry s #

    on pastors…

    I remember reading this description of pastors given by Garrison Keillor (of Prarie Home Companion – Lake Wobegon fame). And dug up this from Leadership Journal archive

    One of Garrison Keillor’s stories describes the twenty-four Lutheran ministers who visit Lake Wobegon as part of their “Meeting the Pastoral Care Needs of Rural America” study tour. There to greet them as they step off the bus is the mayor of Lake Wobegon, who, according to Keillor, observes:

    “Ministers. Men in their forties mostly, a little thick around the middle, thin on top, puffy hair around the ears, some fish medallions, earth tones, Hush Puppies; but more than dress, what set them apart was the ministerial eagerness, more eye contact than you were really looking for, a longer handshake, and a little more affirmation than you needed. ‘Good to see you, glad you could be here, nice of you to come, we’re very honored,’ they said to him, although they were guests and he was the host.”

    pastors are expected to be greeters and ‘people’ people. the part that rings specially true is Keillor’s description of what set the pastors apart: “ministerial eagerness, more eye contact than you were really looking for, a longer handshake, and a little more affirmation than you needed.”

    Ryan I like what your wrote at the end of your post. 🙂

    April 12, 2011
    • I think I read that piece once upon a time, but thanks for digging it up, Larry. It’s a pretty funny few paragraphs even if, as you say, it rings a little too true when it comes to people’s expectations :).

      April 13, 2011
  2. paul johnston #

    What do you think God expects of a pastor? How do you think He conceives it?

    April 13, 2011
    • Well, I think God conceives of the role of a pastor just as I do, of course :).

      The biblical image of a shepherd is one that I think is as good a place as any to start—combines the qualities of leadership and direction with compassion and care. Of course, there’s much more that could be said about it, but I think it’s a good image to work with in helping people on the journey of loving God and neighbour.

      April 13, 2011
  3. larry s #

    Ryan wrote: “The biblical image of a shepherd is one that I think is as good a place as any to start”

    yes, so long as the pastor remembers that s/he is also part of the sheep herd and also has sheep-like qualities/tendencies.

    I get twitchy when I hear/read pastors speaking of ‘the sheep’ as though they are not part of the herd.

    April 13, 2011
    • Oh, don’t worry—I’m right there in the Anabaptist pen with the herd! No illusion there… :).

      April 13, 2011
  4. paul johnston #

    lol…yes, the good shepherd. Who knows, saving souls, desperate situations and flagging faiths might just be your mandate someday. Don’t sell yourself short, you’re up to the challenge.

    April 13, 2011
    • I don’t necessarily have a problem with these activities in and of themselves (although only God saves souls :))… I have a problem when they become ends rather than means toward something like the ends I describe above.

      April 13, 2011
  5. Rita #

    Hi, Ryan. Hello to Naomi too. I hope things are going well – its been a while!

    I just discovered your blog – interesting to skim through bits and pieces here and there. You’ve had some interesting discussions here.

    about this post (re being a pastor). My sense is that some, perhaps many people in pastoral positions don’t really have a strong sense of the potential impact they could have on people’s lives. I will forever be grateful for the influence of a pastor. I didn’t know him personally, and he didn’t know me, but he was able to connect with my deepest thoughts and musings. He seemed to have read every meaningful thing ever written, and could make connections between them, movies, cartoon clips – really, anything at all to what was written in the Bible. He made me think, and helped me begin to see. As a pastor, you too are in a position of huge potential impact – I hope you know that you can have a huge impact on peoples’ lives.

    April 14, 2011
    • Hi Rita, good to hear from you!

      I hope that my post did not communicate that I think that pastoral vocation is insignificant or anything like that. My three years as a pastor have certainly provided evidence of the impact on people’s lives that I can have in this role. I guess the main thing I was pushing against in the post was an understanding of “pastor” that was something like a “provider of religious goods and services.” I have little interest in that. I have much more interest in being the kind of pastor you described with these words:

      He made me think and helped me begin to see.

      April 15, 2011
      • Rita #

        Ryan – no, I didn’t interpret your post as you thinking the vocation is insignificant. I do think, however, that many pastors do not really seem to see their potential for impact. Perhaps it’s easy to assume that everyone in their ‘audience’ already has all the answers and there’s no one searching for more. Hopefully you will always realize that your opportunity for impact is huge.

        April 15, 2011
  6. I am partial to the ‘pastor as sheepdog’ imagery. Yapping a lot, and getting dirty and muddy, all trying to keep the sheep close to their True Shepherd. It’s not original with me, of course, but the longer I am a pastor, the more sense this makes.

    April 15, 2011
    • Rita #

      Chris – hope you don’t take this wrong, since I don’t know you, but as one of the sheep, I don’t care for that image. at all. It makes me think of someone I can’t really see, a blur as they run around the edge of the group, barking, nipping at my and others’ heels, doing whatever works to keep us in line. I much prefer a shepherd , someone we can see and hear among us, sometimes in front, sometimes beside, sometimes behind. Sometimes tired and weary themselves, but always looking out for not only those who are in the group, but also guiding, calling, encouraging, noticing and seeking when someone strays, gets lost, or gets tired. And, returning with joy when one who was lost is found.

      April 15, 2011
  7. “I much prefer a shepherd , someone we can see and hear among us, sometimes in front, sometimes beside, sometimes behind. Sometimes tired and weary themselves, but always looking out for not only those who are in the group, but also guiding, calling, encouraging, noticing and seeking when someone strays, gets lost, or gets tired. And, returning with joy when one who was lost is found.”

    Rita, this is a perfect description of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

    Peace to you.

    April 16, 2011

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