Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Busy Pastor

As pastors we often hear the familiar apologetic statement, "I'm sorry to bother you pastor. I know how busy you are...." Such statements flatter our fragile egos. For busy means important. Busy implies great accomplishments. Busy shows sacrifice. Right?

Not so, according to Eugene Peterson. In his recent book The Contemplative Pastor, Peterson writes that "the word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion, but defection. The adjective busy set as modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker."

Such words sound strong and almost insensitive. Yet he is wright, and the truth often hurts. Busy is a word we hide behind to cover up other weaknesses and shortcomings.

Peterson identifies two reasons why pastors become busy: 1.) They are vain, and 2.) They are lazy. The first reason plays to our sense of importance. A busy doctor with a crowded waiting room is a good doctor. Many people want to see him. Peterson notes that we "live in a society in which crowded schedules and harassed conditions are evidence of importance." So what do we do? We "develop a crowded schedule and harassed conditions. When others notice, they acknowledge [our] significance, and [our] vanity is fed."

The second reason plays to our inability to define our own vocation. We let others define what we do with our time, believing such acquiescence will endear us to demanding parishoners. We let others define our goals and establish our values, he notes, and then we "find ourselves frantically, at the last minute, trying to satisfy a half dozen different demands on our time, none of which is essential to our vocation, to stave off the disaster of disappointing someone."

When we fail to define our own vocation we end up never accomplishing the proper work of our calling. How can we lead people "into the quiet place beside the still waters" if we are in "perpetual motion"? Good question.

Peterson's words strike very close to home. In my last parish I took a certain amount of pride in my overworked and hectic schedule. I felt important (even in my supposed humility). However, as God allowed me to see the distant shadow of my suffering family hid behind the veil of my misguided commitment, I began to realize how warped my ministry had become. It was time to move on. The vocation of husband and father were too important to be buried in my need to feel irreplaceable to the church.

Today I do not feel the curse of busyness as much as I did in those heady days of administering a large parish. Yet I am reminded by Peterson how the temptation still lurks in the shadows. There are times when I still take pride in all the things I am doing.

I find it interesting that in the book of Acts the apostles created the deaconate in order to devote themselves more fully to preaching and prayer. Yet how often in the larger mega-churches does it seem that we praise the pastor who does anything but this? Even in smaller parishes the pastor is too often defined by duties outside of preaching and prayer (such as his effectiveness in youth work). But this is our vocation to proclaim and intercede. This is what we are called to do. No other vocation can substitute for us here.

May the Lord of the church teach us again to labor faithfully without using our labor as a barrier to fruitful ministry to those in need, and never to put a stumbling block before the free course of the Word of God - especially our misguided busyness!

[Excepts from Peterson's book included in Logia, Holy Trinity 2007 issue, p. 63.]

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