Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Ministry (Page 1 of 3)

A Lament for Good Pastors

Another pastor friend called me a few months ago to tell me that he was done with being a pastor. He is one of the wisest, gentlest shepherds I know and he is done. The job had taken its toll.

I’m currently aware of three other men, stellar pastors as well, who have no desire to pastor again. All have gladly served churches, loved the people, and faithfully preached God’s word. They would still if they could. But they are weary and they are done.

Something is very wrong with this.

Lynn Johnston

These are good, qualified, called and gifted men. Though like all of us they could do a better job at self care, they all have friends, engage in hobbies, and have sought counseling. Something else is at play. The church itself is driving them away. And that is to be lamented.

President George H. W. Bush was eulogized recently as being both humble and imperfect. As a eulogy that was sweet. But in office, neither attribute was well received. Something similar is true for pastors, and it is crushing. To be humble is great, but one had better be good.

But the pastor can’t be good. Not in everything, which often is the expectation. The pastor is a generalist in the same way that a family doctor is a generalist. No one expects his family doctor to be able to execute a heart transplant or to be able to distinguish a skin cancer from a simple mole. For these things one goes to a specialist. And yet pastors, every one of them, is expected to specialize in preaching, counseling, evangelism, organizational management, conflict resolution, pastoral care, apologetics, hospitality, small group dynamics, financial management and development, and more.

There is room for humility here, but precious little space for imperfection.

Churches alone are not to blame. We pastors are co-conspirators. We tolerate no imperfection in ourselves. An article tells us that we need to be our church’s chief evangelist and we believe it. A speaker challenges us to better management and we embrace the duty. A book says that our people need to see us as their primary counselors, and we set out to fill the role. And on it goes. If we do not live up the bar we or others have set in any one of these areas, we wear heavily the mantle of failure. If our churches don’t grow, if the money does not come in, if the leaders don’t buy into our vision, if we don’t have a list of evangelistic successes, we blame ourselves. We let people down, and we suffer under that realization.

In this culture those sensitive and gentle ones who make the best pastors are often crushed under the pressure and will, if they can, bail.

I have persevered not because I’m better at this job. I have felt the pressure. But I have been blessed to serve two wonderfully patient and accommodating congregations. Too many others not so blessed grow weary and walk away. The church is the poorer as a result.

I was angry at the church when my friend called. Now I’m simply sad, hoping that others will join in my lamentation. Perhaps this will create, in time, the soil out of which a newer and gentler church culture will sprout.

What Is a Sabbatical?

My church has scheduled a sabbatical for me beginning in April, 2018. In order to build understanding for this the church has started a blog for which I was asked to write the following in answer to the question, “What is a sabbatical?” Published last week it interestingly generated attention outside the church. This suggests that others not associated with the church might find value in it. With that in mind I am posting it here as it appeared originally on the church’s sabbatical blog.

Talk of my taking a sabbatical spawns the question (thought, though rarely spoken), “Why are we giving Randy a 13 week vacation?”

It’s a great question. ‘Sabbatical’ can easily look like ‘vacation.’ After all, I will stop coming to church. I will stop preaching, stop planning and moderating meetings, stop visiting the sick, stop mentoring or discipling others. I will stop doing my job, and that looks like a vacation.

But sabbatical is more than stopping. It is a period of intentional rest, renewal, and re-imagining.

In engaging ‘rest’ the sabbatical most resembles a vacation. Rest for people in ministry is essential but hard to find. Jesus commanded his disciples to ‘come away and rest’ (Mark 6:31) because ministry depletes the minister. Ministry demands an intentional period of disengagement so that strength for the work can be renewed.

The minister’s body needs rest and renewal, but so does his soul. Over time, though the pastor fights to retain his passion for Christ, the demands of ministry can deplete it. This leaves some ministering weakly on the fumes of their prior devotion. Churches end up with pastors merely going through the motions of ministry. A sabbatical, as a part of a pastor’s regular routine of spiritual health, can renew the depth and vitality of his walk with Christ restoring his ability to give needed spiritual care to his congregation.

Such intentional rest and renewal can refresh a pastor’s vision. Men and women from all professions report that disengagement from their regular responsibilities allows them to imagine a future they might have been unable to see before. A properly planned sabbatical (and much planning is being given) can give a renewed enthusiasm for the vision God has for the church.

The sabbath year in the Old Testament law required that farmers let a field lie fallow for a season. Obedience to this was an act of faith by the farmer and an act of renewal for the field. During that year nutrients drained by prior use would be restored to the soil. Similarly, a pastoral sabbatical is a congregation’s act of faith, hoping for the restoration of their pastor’s depleted spiritual resources.

“Okay,” you say, “It’s not a vacation. But will you come back?”

Stories of pastors leaving their churches after a sabbatical are dramatic but rare. The opposite is the norm. Pastors return invigorated and anxious to continue to serve. CPC’s sabbatical policy is structured to ensure my return, but the concern is really moot. I love this church. My desire is to return to serve you as a better pastor.

When all is done I hope to be able to report in a fashion similar to this:

“I returned with more energy than I can remember having since I was fifteen years old…. The experience of my maturity was now coupled with the energy of my youth…. The sabbatical had done its work.” (Eugene Peterson)

Please pray to that end.

The Pastor – Eugene Peterson

Over half of my thirty years of pastoral ministry have been deeply marked by the refreshing vision of pastoral ministry embodied by Eugene Peterson and given expression in his books, particularly The Contemplative Pastor and A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. His sense of pastoral vocation affirmed for me a focus on pastoral care and the weekly rhythms of congregational life. He came to me as a freeing mentor delivering me from ministry models majoring on ways to grow a church. His affirmation in many ways has saved me from burning out and giving up. His is a critical voice for those called to be ordinary pastors.

So when a friend recently mentioned that he was reading and enjoying Peterson’s 2011 memoir titled simply and profoundly The Pastor, my heart ached to read it. Perhaps I should have tempered my fan-boy expectations, for I came away disappointed and sadly unsatisfied.The pastor

Peterson is foremost a story-teller, and this book is best when he simply tells his story. When freed to tell his stories, he soars. But then he attempts to apply them or draw a moral from them, and the wind falls from beneath the wings. This is more an exposition of his pastoral theology with his life and that of his congregation serving as extended illustrations of the pedagogical purpose. There is a place to develop a pastoral theology. Just don’t call it memoir. It feels as if he has begun to no longer trust his reader to draw the lessons he feels can be learned from his life, and so he insists on telling, and not just showing, and this detracts from the whole.

But unquestionably the greatest flaw is the book’s lack of transparency. Too much is hidden and unsaid. This is fatal in a memoir.

The pastors I know struggle. We struggle with doubt, with disappointment, with anger, and we feel these things intensely. A pastor’s heart is often broken. We disappoint people, we make mistakes, we worry, we question, we hurt and are hurt. How can this book about a pastor’s life be genuine and real without stories of heartache and rejection? A pastor’s life without darkness does not sound like any pastor I know. The only glimpse we have of Peterson’s emotional life are the tears at his mother’s funeral.

Of course, ministry has joys as well. When he speaks of joy in ministry it comes across as clinical. He speaks of his writing, but he says nothing about the thrill of being published, nothing about the agony or prospects of rejection, nothing of his writing habits, little of the tension between his writing and his pastoral ministry. It’s all very theologized, and in fact, boring for those who want to know both what is it like to be Eugene Peterson and what it might be like to be a pastor who also writes.

The lack of honesty tilts to a kind of boasting which conflicts with the humility I’ve come to expect from Peterson. A number of the sections begin with his analysis of weakness in a pastoral model, or a way of ‘doing church’, and then proceeds to show how he, and his church, got it right. This is off-putting, and feels false.

But maybe he was different? I don’t think so. The final three pages of the book is a letter he wrote to a young pastor. Here alone, at the end, we see hidden references to the honesty lacking from the rest of the book. He speaks to this young pastor of not knowing what to do, of making mistakes, and of ‘faithless stretches’. This feels real, like the vocation I inhabit. But he says nothing more about it, and that is the glaring hole at the center of the book.

This is not a bad book. Eugene Peterson is not capable of writing a bad book. But it does not feel honest or true to its genre, and that makes it uninteresting, and that, in the end, makes me sad.

The Unthinkable

I recently ran across a five year old, but still relevant, article on clergy suicide. We wish those two words were never used together, but those who are in ministry understand the reality.

The article (which is now behind a pay wall) observes:

Those who counsel pastors say Christian culture…creates the perfect environment for depression. Pastors suffer in silence, unwilling or unable to seek help or even talk about it. Sometimes they leave the ministry. Occasionally the result is the unthinkable.

When pastors fail to live up to demands imposed by themselves or others, they often “turn their frustration back on themselves,” leading to self-doubt and feelings of failure and hopelessness, said Fred Smoot, executive director of Emory Clergy Care in Duluth, Georgia, which provides pastoral care to 1,200 United Methodist ministers in Georgia.

I know the pressures. I know the culture. And I know the depression. And therefore I know as well how blessed I’ve been to have been befriended by other pastors who understand the pastoral world. To have such friendships is key to survival in ministry.

But I’ve also been blessed with caring congregants. Shortly after the high-profile suicide of a pastor here in Orlando, one member of the church I pastor determined to love me in a very concrete and highly unusual way. She found me at Starbucks and said she wanted to ask me a very hard question. She looked me in the eyes and asked if I’d had thoughts of killing myself.

That question is a bit shocking, and blunt, and necessary. I might have lied to her (I didn’t) but even if I had, the fact that someone loved me enough to ask the question might have been sufficient to draw me out.

Anything I post which calls for caring for pastors is going to come across as self-serving. But knowing the challenges of pastoral ministry, I know how important it is for pastors to be loved in hard ways like this. I know how important it is for people to pray for a pastor’s emotional health. And I know how important it is for pastors to seek out and find friends.

Note: Some time ago, a pastoral acquaintance (‘friend’ would be claiming too much) of mine, Petros Roukas, did take his own life. The sermon at the memorial service was preached by Dr. Bryan Chapell, then of Covenant Seminary. It is a paradigm for how one ought to handle such difficult situations. It’s a wonderful sermon which I commend to all. The text is found here. I can no longer find the audio on-line, but I have posted it in my dropbox, though I cannot guarantee how long it will remain.

Dark Night Rises

Eugene Peterson, in reflecting on the longing for intimacy with God, often elusive, of which I wrote yesterday, speaks these hopeful words:

“The appetites that God has created in us lead to the satisfactions he has promised.”

That is hopeful, but it does not promise immediate satisfaction. And so Peterson reflects on the role of pastoral ministry in guiding struggling Christians through what has been called such ‘dark nights’ of the soul. The counsel he gives pastors is applicable to all Christians as we come alongside of others who are struggling.

Too often all we know to offer those struggling spiritually are trite and simple “fixes” to their struggle of doubt and loneliness. Rather what they may need are friends comfortable with walking with them through the valley of the shadow doubt and even death. They need friends who understand that such spiritual struggles are not abnormal and cannot be rushed.

Peterson’s words are not only wise and refreshing, but counterintuitive in our technocratic age. It is good for us to hear them.

5 Smooth Stones

“The accounts of saints who tell of the ‘dark nights’ of the soul are familiar. Their search for God seems endless and futile, but is broken into by moments of ecstasy when they find (or our found by) the one they sought….”

“Pastoral work acknowledges the difficulty and the pain of the quest and shares it. It does not attribute the agony of longing to a neurosis, it does not search for a cause in moral deficiency, it does not try to ‘cure’ it by working for an adaptive adjustment to ‘reality.’ It honors the quest. The difficult painful moments of unfulfilled longing are integral to the nature of the relationships.

“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.”

Eugene Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, pages 49-51

All the Least of These

I just finished reading Mike Beates’ helpful book Disability and the Gospel: How God Uses Our Brokenness to Display His Grace. The book is important and necessary, and is disarming in its direct honesty. It is a disturbing challenge to consider how the Christian church has successfully excluded the ‘different’ and the ‘imperfect’ from her community.

Disability and the gospel how god uses our brokenness to display his graceThe book stimulated two tangential thoughts which I think call for some more long term thinking.

Once again I’m struck with how God has used the non-Christian to shame the church. If any should be the champions of the weak and powerless, it should be Christians who have a deep appreciation for the gospel of grace. And yet the most forceful, effective and prophetic voices in fighting for accessibility in the broader culture have come not from Christians, but from those outside the church. Our blind spots have been legion (see slavery, civil rights, poverty). When will we have eyes to see the causes worth championing and the courage to champion them?

One cause that we have championed has been a concern for the unborn. But labor in this field, while producing local and individual victories, has not produced much in the way of a fundamental shift in public concern. After 40 years, abortion is still legal and prevalent.

And so I wonder if there is a connection between our embrace of the ’cause’ of life for the unborn and our lack of embrace of the actually disabled all around us. Causes are always easy to embrace, but broken people are not. Letter writing, petition signing and sign carrying are all fairly easy and antiseptic. But actually engaging our lives with those whose brokenness makes us uncomfortable is all so much more difficult.

Perhaps what this exposes is hypocrisy in our camp. We OUGHT to care passionately about the unborn and the women who carry them. But the reality of our caring is tested and measured by our lack of concern for the born, but different. Perhaps God withholds his blessing until we learn to love in deed all the least of these.

STUDY leave

I mentioned on Facebook and Twitter (@rg7878) my gratitude to the leadership of the church I pastor for granting me a week of study leave. That lead to a conversation with my sister last night in which she assumed that I was taking a week off relaxing at home.

Un, no. That’s not quite it.

Pastoral ministry happens in the course of life – through God’s work in my own life and through my day by day interaction and involvement in the lives and struggles and questions of others. Depth in pastoral ministry comes from study and reflection and prayer. I read recently of John Piper challenging pastors to get away and study, and suggesting that most congregations do not really understand the amount of emotional and mental and creative energy it requires to prepare sermons week after week after week. John Stott in his “Reflections of an Octogenarian” challenges pastors to set aside one hour/day, one day/month, and one week/year to isolate oneself for study. Bill Gates used a similar strategy to keep himself sharp when the head of Microsoft.

I like to joke with the seminary students who attend our church (Reformed Theological Seminary is two miles away) when they are complaining about writing a paper that they are pursuing a ‘career’ which will require writing a 4000-5000 word essay WEEKLY, due every Sunday at a particular hour, and there is no possibility for submitting it late. There is never enough time in a week to prepare a good sermon. Some of that preparation has to happen ahead of time. A week for study allows for some of that.

“Study” for the pastor, however, is not merely a book discipline. A congregation has a right to expect that the person who challenges them regarding the things of God is himself actively pursuing and nurturing a vital relationship with Him. That can get lost in the busy moment by moment pressure of ministry. A study leave provides some extended time to address one’s walk with God.

All of this is an argument for the idea of the pastoral sabbatical so eloquently plead by Eugene Petersonand others. But at the least it is an argument for pastors occasionally getting away from the routine to invest time in these valuable activities which are sometimes otherwise squeezed out or simply impossible.

So, no, Jeanne, I’m not spending the week at home. Rather, I’m holed up in a conference room at the hospitable Canterbury Retreat and Conference Center in Oviedo, Florida. I can invest three, six, nine hours of uninterrupted time on a single project if need be (yesterday, it was long range sermon planning). I have stripped my calendar of appointments and meetings, and I have someone else preaching for me on Sunday. This allows me to invest time in other things.

Still on the agenda are books to be read, worship services to be pondered, and even some software to learn to use better and more efficiently. And if I use the time correctly, there will be significant time spent talking to God and staring off into space thinking, reflecting, and dreaming.

So, if you will, pray that God would bless this week and give me the uninterrupted time I need.


“Most of our people have no idea what two or three new messages a week cost us in terms of intellectual and spiritual drain. Not to mention the depletions of family pain, church decisions, and imponderable theological and moral dilemmas. I, for one, am not a self-replenishing spring. My bucket leaks, even when it is not pouring. My spirit does not revive on the run. Without time of unhurried reading and reflection, beyond the press of sermon preparation, my soul shrinks, and the specter of ministerial death rises. Few things frighten me more than the beginnings of barrenness that come from frenzied activity with little spiritual food and meditation.” (from Brothers, We Are Not Professionals by John Piper)

Thank You, Dr. Chapell

I was leading a training session yesterday afternoon for a group of seminary students attending our church who were preparing to assume some responsibility in worship leadership. In the course of the training, I commended highly Bryan Chapell‘s Christ-Centered Worship.

After the students noted that the book was among the recommended reading in their worship class at the seminary and Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching required for their preaching classes, one of them, our worship team leader, said, “You told me to read the worship book as soon as you got here.”

I didn’t remember doing that, but then another said, “You told me to read a Chapell book last year as well.” (He was referring to Holiness by Grace.)

They all began to wonder if I got a kickback.

I don’t.

But all pastor’s are book pushers. I’m grateful for the good and rich and solid resources God has brought to our lives through Dr. Chapell’s ministry. I happily push them!


I’m working on a sermon in which a beloved brother dies, and the One who could have kept him alive and could have saved them the hurt and suffering delays in a seemingly callous way. We wonder where God is in our suffering, but often we don’t have to wonder where people are. They tell us, when maybe they shouldn’t.

I was reminded of a very wise, very short song by Charlie Peacock.

Now is the time for tears
Don’t speak
Save your words
There’s nothing you could say
To take this pain away
Don’t try so hard
You can just simply be
Cry with me don’t try to fix me friend
That’s how you’ll comfort me

Heavenly Father cover this child with mercy
You are my helper through this time of trial and pain
Silence the lips of the people with all of the answers
Gently show them now is the time
Now is the time
Now is the time for tears

On the Reading Desk: Practice

Yesterday, I outlined my goals for reading – the “whys” behind what I do. Below are the books which currently fill out that outline.


Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, referred to already here.

The History of the Medieval World by Susan Wise Bauer.


At this point I have tried to link several works which have been sitting on my shelf into something of a ‘Christian Life’ theme. Some will see the threads connecting these works. Thus far, this has been very fruitful.

Theology: The Doctrine of the Christian Life by John Frame.

Practical: Surprised by Hope and After You Believe, both by N. T. Wright.

Professional: God’s Empowering Presence by Gordon Fee and Dynamics of Spiritual Life by Richard Lovelace.

Historical: Calvin by Bruce Gordon.

My categories can be critiqued, but this is just a snapshot and a snapshot does not always catch things perfectly arrayed. I hope to be able to say something about each of these works as the days progress.

It is safe to say that I do not read enough. However, without the plan I have, I would read far less, and be that much more deprived. I’m grateful for then, the encouragement to set forth a plan.

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