On the Importance of Disappointing Your Congregation...

Question: How are you doing? Answer: Busy...

How many times have you heard that? How many times have you said that?

As a pastor, Eugene Peterson is the voice in the back of my head. When I experience challenges in my vocation, my sense of direction, or conflict in my understanding of my role as a pastor, I usually hunt around for what Peterson would say to my situation. He nearly always has the wisdom I'm looking for, and he never lets me off the hook.

Peterson's vision of the unbusy pastor has become the paradigm that I'm chasing. Busyness kills the pastoral vocation. Peterson says pastors become too busy for two reasons:

"I am busy because I am vain. I want to appear important. Significant. What better way than to be busy? The incredible hours, the crowded schedule, and the heavy demands on my time are proof to myself - and to all who will notice - that I am important If I go into a doctor's office and find there's no one waiting, and see through a half-open door the doctor reading a book, I wonder if he's any good. A good doctor will have people lined up waiting to see him; a good doctor will not have time to read a book, even if it's a very good book. Although I grumble about waiting my turn in a busy doctor's office, I am also impressed with his importance... I want to be important, so I develop a crowded schedule and harassed conditions. When others notice, they acknowledge my significance and my vanity is fed. The busier I am, the more important I am."

"I am busy because I am lazy. I indolently let others decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. It was a favorite theme of C.S. Lewis that only lazy people work hard. By lazily abdicating the essential work of deciding and directing, establishing values and setting goals, other people do it of us; 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."

Peterson's probing question is essentially this: If I was not busy making my mark in the world and not busy doing what everyone expects me to do, what would I actually do as a pastor?

His answer is quite simple: pray, preach, and listen. The pastor must be a person who prays, which takes disciplined hours of time set aside to engage with God. We cannot pray if we are busy. The pastor must be a person who preaches, stewarding the pulpit faithfully by speaking the language of the scriptures into our present day context in creative and compelling ways. We cannot preach if we are busy. The pastor must be a person who listens, spending time with the congregation over coffee and meals, learning about their lives and bearing witness to their struggle. We cannot listen if we are busy.

Busyness is the enemy of the pastoral vocation.

The problem is that, as Peterson says, if we decide to become an unbusy pastor we will become a huge disappointment to many people in our congregations. Peterson says that in order to be a good pastor, one of the first things you have to do is get used to disappointing everyone. "I think because of the culture we live in," Peterson says, "we almost have to disappoint people, at least at the outset, in order to get them to understand who we are and what we're doing."

Pastors cannot agree to meet the needs and whims of their congregation. We're not allowed to comply to their wishes, if their wishes require a superstar pastor who keeps the church upwardly mobile. This life, however, is not healthy for the pastor. Peterson's response is frank: "I refuse to give my attention to someone who encourages what is worst in me." Only in this refusal does the pastor offer his/her congregation the opportunity to deal with themselves, the pain that lives inside them, and the brokenness that keeps us all drinking from the same dirty cisterns year after year.

Reading Peterson today has made me so grateful for my church. This congregation continually calls me to tend to the important above the urgent. It makes me really grateful for the Redemption Church staff, who take seriously the charge to lead significant parts of our church structure so that I can be an unbusy pastor. I'm one of the lucky ones. I wish this kind of church for so many of my friends.

Today I am reminded of my own limitations and my need to take charge of my pace of life. I'm reminded of Peterson's sage advice: "How can I lead people into the quiet place beside the still waters if I am in perpetual motion? How can I convincingly persuade a person to live by faith and not by works if I have to constantly juggle my schedule to make everything fit into place?" The pastor who prays, preaches, and listens... that's who I want to be. I cannot do those things if I am busy.

(The quotes above come from two articles available online. One is an interview with Peterson, the other is from a 1981 article he wrote).