Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

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Five Books Every Pastor Should Read

Of the four practices of pastoral self-care I recommended recently, the final one encouraged pastors to read good books. Of the naming of books, there may be no end, but here are five that I believe every pastor should read. I commend these with absolute seriousness. To practice ministry without the company of these books, to me, is to walk a tightrope without a net. It’s possible, but oh so risky.

1. The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson.

Everything about pastoral ministry drives the pastor to do more and to push harder. The culture of American efficiency is not shed upon ordination, and many pastors land in churches where leaders ask increasingly more of them. Peterson deftly subverts that uncompromising culture inviting pastors rather to a more biblical and bearable ministry of the Word and of prayer. It is one of the few books I’ve read more than twice because its lessons I too easily forget. I recently asked other pastors to weigh in on what books they believed should be read by every pastor. Nearly all mentioned this book. For good reason.

2. The Imperfect Pastor by Zach Eswine

Breathing a spirit similar to that of Peterson, Eswine challenges pastors to see the beauty, power, and value of the ordinary place and the ordinary people among whom they are privileged to serve. Wrong notions of who the pastor is, what his role is, and where his power lies poisons pastoral ministry beyond bearing for many. Eswine gently administers a welcome and Christ-centered antidote.

3. Surviving Ministry by Michael E. Osborne

The first two books shape pastors’ attitudes toward their calling. This (short!) book, expressing the same heart as these, zeroes in on the challenges of ministry when ministry grows hard, as it is prone to do. Mike, a personal friend, is a good pastor who cares deeply for pastors. There is power in his honesty. Born from his humble and gracious mining of the lessons of his own struggles and failure, he offers guidance to the unwary.

4. The Cross of Christ by John R. W. Stott

John Stott pastored an Anglican church in London for many years. One cannot measure the impact of that legacy or that of his worldwide speaking ministry. But perhaps his greatest gift to the church is this book on the central work of redemption. Pastors are called to preach “Christ and him crucified,” a calling from which we too easily are distracted. Our congregations have no greater need than to hear a clear and consistent preaching of the hope of the gospel which is rooted in Calvary. Too often we send people out with burdens of what they must do without a reminder of what God has done for them. Perhaps the reason for this is that we ourselves have lost sight of this great truth. Stott’s is a deep and stirring call to make what is most important, most important.

5. The Matares Circle by Robert Ludlum

This, like Ludlum’s better known The Bourne Identity, is a spy thriller. So what is it doing on a list of books geared toward pastoral health? Well, first, it’s here because it is really good. But primarily it is here as a placeholder into which pastors may pour all the books that they may want to read for fun, for relaxation, and for escape. Read for these reasons. It’s not just okay. It’s necessary. A pastor recently sent me a screen shot of his Kindle library which was full of mysteries and thrillers like this. The subject line of his email was “Pathetic, huh?” No, not pathetic. Wise. Those who have seen the movie The Shining are aware that all work and no play did not end well for Jack Nicholson. It rarely ends well for pastors either.

Four Practices of Pastoral Self-Care

Before leaving the subject of pastors and their survival in ministry (touched upon here and here and here), there are several things that need to be said to pastors themselves. That is, you need to take care of yourselves. Others would like to take care of you, yes. But they may not know what you need, or how to give it to you.

To many you work only when you are visible and the rest of the time you are, well, they have no clue. So other than praying for you (greatly appreciated!), they are not sure how to care for you. Therefore you need to care of yourself. Take care using all the regular and ordinary channels – good diet, exercise, brushing your teeth, getting medical check ups, finding sabbath rest, and so forth. But I would like to suggest several perhaps not so obvious strategies.

1) Engage a hobby. 

Find an activity which is unrelated to ministry and which you do just for fun. Make it one which at the end of the day you can stand back and say, ‘It is done.’ Ministry is never done and the job description is completely open-ended. But a hobby can be taken up and put down at will and has a clear measure by which progress can be measured. Learn woodworking, stamp collecting, gardening, or something similar. If Winston Churchill could find time to take up painting while leading a country at war, you are not too busy to take up, say, crocheting. You need it.

2) Find a friend. 

As well, you need a friend. Most pastors do not have one, not one with whom they can be completely honest. Find a friend outside the church to whom you can express your mind, unload your frustrations, and find time to laugh for no reason at all. Sometimes we just need to vent, to unload our thoughts on someone who understands, whom we can trust, and whom we cannot offend. I would not have made it this far without friends in ministry who have heard my gripes, comforted my tears, and pushed me back out into the fray when I wanted to quit.

3) See a therapist.

I’m not joking. Don’t be so proud to think you don’t need help. This is a calling you cannot pursue alone! If anger or depression or listlessness or marital bickering become an issue, it is time to seek outside help. There is nothing shameful in that. Your ordination does not make you invincible nor does it remove your human struggles. Sanctification is neither immediate nor perfected in this life. Good therapy can be a part of your growth in grace, and growth in ministry. Pursue it.

4) Read good books. 

There are books that I have returned to frequently over the years, books which have encouraged me and shaped me, books which have centered me and which have reined me in when I was wandering afield. There are five that I would want every pastor to have read or be reading….

[And here is where I would identify those five books. But I’m going to wait on that. First I’d like to hear from you, my readers. Whether you are a pastor or not, what books would you want to see populating such a list?]

So, yes, pastor, get your exercise, take your day off, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, cut back on the salt, and see a doctor. But there are elements of self care necessary to our calling that too many of us neglect, to our own, and our congregations’, detriment.

Secret Handbook for Pastors (and Their Spouses)

Recently I posted a response to the pastor’s wife who wrote me to say, “I can understand why pastors and wives aren’t given a secret handbook when ordained, but I really wish we got one.”

My first post in response to this was directed to pastors. This one is takes into consideration their spouses, which in my context where only men are pastors, means their wives. I’m sure it applies in both directions.

This was written for and printed in Florida’s The Bradenton Herald, at a time when the Gulf oil spill dominated the news.

A friend who speaks at conferences in all kinds of churches used to tell me that pastoring the local church was the hardest job in the world. I don’t know. Those trying to contain the Gulf oil spill might put up a good counter-argument, as might many others.

Recently he told me that he had changed his mind and elevated single motherhood to the top spot. This is a wise adjustment.

Married male pastors, however, know they can’t lay claim to second place. That ‘honor’ belongs to the often thankless role assumed by their wives.
The ‘job’ of pastor’s wife comes with no job description, no pay, and plenty of unwritten expectations from church and husband. She is to lead, teach, and be outgoing. She is to do anything and be at everything. And she is to have perfect children.

Some avoid these expectations, but there is a weight she carries that cannot be avoided.

When pastors struggle with pastoral issues, it is the wife who watches, often helplessly. When he comes home enveloped in the dark cloud of concern for the flock, she sees. Concern for confidentiality prevents his letting her in. She can do nothing.

When others aim criticism at her husband, the arrows strike her heart, too. Other wives might find comfort in the body of the church, a balm often denied the pastor’s wife, who cannot share with other women her concern for her husband.

When someone leaves a church, the pastor is often the focus of that decision. Though those leaving may maintain relationships with others in the church, the pastor is often cut off. The wife becomes collateral damage and can grow fearful of pouring her heart into the next relationship for fear of it being crushed all over again. Many minister out of a broken heart.

Her role is not all heartache. There is much joy. Even those capping oil wells get to go for a swim in exotic waters. Most pastor’s wives would not change ‘jobs’ for another. So don’t cry for her. Pray for her. Love her. Encourage her.

This may not be the hardest job in the world, or even the second. But if there is a list of unseen and under-appreciated jobs, “pastor’s wife” will certainly lurk about the top.

Secret Handbook for Pastors

The wife of a pastor wrote me recently, “I can understand why pastors and wives aren’t given a secret handbook when ordained, but I really wish we got one.”

It’s an intriguing idea: an initiatory book of secrets and rules and rituals to keep us sane in the ministry. There are a number of good resources out there, but I decided to bite and offer my own modest contribution in that direction. Here and in a subsequent post, I will reprint two articles written years ago for Florida’s The Bradenton Herald. The first, which was never published, is a ‘open letter’ to a new pastor and the second, which I’ll post here later, is a word for their spouses.

None of this is secret, but I hope it is suggestive and helpful.

Dear __,

By your ordination you join in a great line of those who, like Mr. Greatheart in Pilgrim’s Progress, seek to lead pilgrims on the perilous journey to the Celestial City. God has uniquely gifted you for this calling and will use you greatly.

I am excited for you but want you to enter ministry with your eyes open. Ministry attracts idealists who can be shattered by its harsh reality. Instead of undoing you, these realities will, if you let them, enable you to see how quickly and personally Christ comes to encourage and support us all.

I trust then you’ll take the following to heart, as I must do daily.

1) You cannot fix everything.

Congregations expect their pastor to ‘fix’ them and to ‘fix’ their situations. You will be tempted to think you can. You can’t. Only Christ can. If you try, everything in your life will pay a price.

2) People will disappoint you.

Precious people will encourage you, care for you, support you, and love you. Others, just as beloved by Christ, will fall short of your best expectations and betray your most heartfelt commitments. They, too, are Christ’s gift to you. You will grow because of them to place your hope in Christ alone. The pain of the process will be real, but so is the gain.

3) You will disappoint people.

You are weak and you will fail. You will say unkind things and you will sin before those who look up to you. You will forget appointments and blame others for doing the same. You will change where people don’t want you to change and be unable to change where you should. Your grief over these things will again drive you to Jesus to experience his love even when we fail.

4) You will experience more deeply the pain of your sin.

People will call you ‘reverend’ and shush their cursing when you come into the room. They will think you holy. But in reality, you will come to see more clearly your own sin. You will begin to see it through the eyes of the sheep you have been called to shepherd. As the painfulness of this knowledge increases, you will need even more to know the refreshing grace of the gospel as a daily reality. As you preach grace to yourself, you will learn to preach it to others.

5) You will wrestle with the idol of success

You will not escape the expectations people (and you) place upon you. By whatever standard you and those you care about measure success, you will fall short. Such knowledge can destroy you. Remember, though, that Christ has already given to you every blessing you need for happiness and contentment in himself. His reward is far greater than the idol of success.

The calling of the pastor is noble but not easy. Find others in whom you can confide and work through the struggles. Most importantly, retreat frequently to the gospel of God’s grace so that it and it alone will be that which defines your ministry.

You will then do well and be of great usefulness.


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.

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