Eugene Peterson is one of those people who is just plain gifted with words. He’s a pastor, author, poet, and scholar, with over 30 published books. F. Scott Fitzgerald is quoted as saying, “You don’t write because you want to say something; you write because you have something to say.” Eugene Peterson has a lot to say, and most of what he says is just what I need to hear.
I recently came across an interview that asked Peterson what his advice to seminary students would be. Here’s some of what he said:
“I’d tell them that pastoring is not a very glamorous job. It’s a very taking-out-the-laundry and changing-the-diapers kind of job. And I think I would try to disabuse them of any romantic ideas of what it is. As a pastor, you’ve got to be willing to take people as they are. And live with them where they are. And not impose your will on them. Because God has different ways of being with people, and you don’t always know what they are.
The one thing I think is at the root of a lot of pastors’ restlessness and dissatisfaction is impatience. They think if they get the right system, the right programs, the right place, the right location, the right demographics, it’ll be a snap.”
Soon after my friends and I graduated from seminary and began serving at our first appointments (as United Methodists, we pastors are ‘appointed’ to serve local churches), we set up weekly Skype conversations with each other. I looked forward to these times every week to reconnect with my friends who were now spread throughout the country, but it was also good for us to share our joys and struggles with each other. Some of our initial struggles, I think, can be traced back to unmet expectations.
Peterson talks about the ways in which some pastors, especially those new to full-time ministry, believe that having the “right” systems, programs, places, locations, and demographics will make ministry “easier.” More people will be baptized, more will worship on Sunday mornings, youth groups will expand, lives will be changed, and more young families will attend. Unrealistic, perhaps, and not entirely fair either.
As a young clergy person, I’ve been told in not-so-blasphemous ways that I am the “savior” of a particular church. Every church, I was told, wants a young clergy family. Many others told me, “Oh you’re young. You’ll make that church grow!” as if my age possesses within it some magic magnetic pull that can reign in fellow twenty-somethings and parents with young children.
Perhaps I fell into the trap of believing that I was the “right” ingredient (young clergy person with a Duke degree, married with a growing family) that could be dropped into any church that would miraculously make it grow, “save” souls, and spread scriptural holiness throughout the land!
I wasn’t alone. Many of my fellow seminarians were given similar expectations. It’s tough for new and young pastors when they are met with the reality of Jesus-ministry.
Peterson is right, “ As a pastor, you’ve got to be willing to take people as they are. And live with them where they are. And not impose your will on them. Because God has different ways of being with people, and you don’t always know what they are.” As a pastor and, more fundamentally, as a Christian, I live with people where they are and – I pray – they live with me as I am. We do this because Jesus did it and continues to do so today.
Jesus loves us exactly the way we are…but way too much to let us stay that way. The expectation is for us to keep following after Him. I’ll let Him be the Savior that He is, and I’ll just keep doing my best to invite people to be part of this Jesus-journey that is saving and healing the world, including people like me.