The Pastor as a Naked Noun

“If I, even for a moment, accept my cultures definition of me, I am rendered harmless”  Pastor Eugene Peterson

It has become necessary to dress the noun “pastor” with adjectival clothes that reveal the definition and purpose of this ancient term.  In the following posts I hope to dress the noun in such a way that it points to the central identity of this God-appointed person.

The word “pastor” is a noun that needed less explanation to previous generations.  In his book, The Pastor as Minor Poet, Craig Barnes writes,

“The hardest thing about being a pastor today is not the long hours, the demanding congregations, the eclectic responsibilities, the fishbowl existence, or the relentless returns of Sundays. Those who have taken the vows of ordination have long shouldered all of that as the yoke of Christ.  But only within the last two generations have the clergy been force to bear an additional burden that is far from light—confusion about what it means to be the pastor.” (The Pastor as Minor Poet, Craig Barnes, 4)

The confusion of the meaning and application of the term “pastor” in the 21st century has led to a multiplicity of definitions, which have caused an identity crisis in the vocation of pastoral ministry. In his book, The Contemplative Pastor”, Eugene Peterson explains the need for clarification of this old vocation.  He explains that healthy nouns do not need adjectives.  Adjectives can clutter the robust nature of any clear noun.  However, if the noun has been skewed by society, it is necessary to strengthen the noun with proper adjectives.  The noun of pastor at one time could stand as a naked noun, now it needs modifying clothes. Peterson contends that the term “pastor” was one an “energetic and virile” noun.  In fact, most in society would identify a pastor as one that was both “passionate for God and compassionate for people”.

The forgetfulness of our culture has deemed it necessary for us to restore it to its original brilliance with the use of adjectives.  Peterson asserts, “I find I have to exercise this adjectival rehabilitation constantly, redefining by refusing the definitions of pastor that the culture hands me, and reformulating my life with the insights and images of scripture…The essence of being a pastor begs for redefinition.” (The Contemplative Pastor, 16)  He then offers three adjectives to clarify the noun of pastor.  They are as follows: Unbusy, Subversive, and apocalyptic. I will add additional adjectives to the list as I am led in this vein of future blog posts.

The Unbusy Pastor seems to be an endangered species these days.  I can recall meeting with a pastor a few years ago that religiously checked his watch and his phone as we met.  I came to him as a young mentor seeking pastor.  He was distracted and disinterested in our communion.  He was not present in the present, and I suffered from it.  Peterson addresses the term “busy pastor” as a scarlet letter for pastors, instead of the badge of honor it seems to be among modern day clergy.  He writes, “…the word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal.  It is not devotion but defection.  The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzlement to describe a banker.  It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.” (The Contemplative Pastor, 18)

In the first chapter of the book Peterson offers two reasons why pastors become too busy.  The first reason the pastor could confess if he was honest is, “I am busy because I am vain.” The first reason equates self-importance and self-worth with busyness. Peterson explains, “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.” (The Contemplative Pastor, 18)  The reinforcement by our culture that these condition are evidence of successful pastoring are from a society that equates busyness with significance. The second reason pastors become busy is the unspoken confession, “I am busy because I am lazy.” Pastors often let others determine their plans, dictate their time, and ultimately run their ministry.  Peterson writes of the lazy pastor, “I let people who do not understand the work of the pastor write the agenda for my day’s work because I am too slipshod to write it myself.”  So, laziness is not merely slothfulness, it is not doing the most important or prioritized tasks.  A busy pastor can therefore be lazy.

Pastors have a calling from God to be deliberate with their decisions, persistent in their priorities, and intentional with their time.  Peterson adds, “By lazily abdicating the essential work of deciding, directing, establishing values and setting goals, other people do it for 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…” When pastors properly function in an unbusy manner, they exemplify a quiet discipline that proclaims wisdom, humility, and love to a busy and distracted world. Peterson ends by challenging pastors with several questions.  He writes, “How can I lead people into the quiet place beside the still waters if I am in perpetual motion? How can I persuade a person to live by faith and not works if I have to juggle my schedule constantly to make everything into place?” (The Contemplative Pastor, 11)  If we cannot find stillness as pastors, we will be relegated to what Stanley Hauerwell calls “a quivering mass of availability.” (The Pastor as Poet, 5) Pastors we must be “still and know that He is God…” or we will not be able to live like Christ and proclaim His message of peace. Psalm 46:10




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