I’ve been reading through Eugene Peterson’s memoir over the last couple of weeks. It’s simply titled The Pastor. Peterson brings a sensibility and wisdom that’s much-needed and often ignored in our relevance-obsessed church culture here in America. It’s a sensibility and wisdom that comes from his ability to see things through the lens of Scripture in a manner that combines with the smarts that can only come with age.
Last week I read an especially interesting passage from Peterson’s book which I’ve included for you below. It’s a letter to a pastor friend. . . a warning letter of sorts. It’s a warning letter about the dangers of “adrenaline and ego and size” in our world of ministry. It’s good. Really good. I would go so far as to say that if you ignore it, you ignore it to your own peril.
A few days have passed since I read that passage. Since then, I read another newspaper story about one of our own who stepped down from a high profile ministry due to an adulterous affair. This time it was in Orlando and yes, the newspaper noticed. The story’s headline reads, “Discovery Church illustrates how power of pulpit can lead pastors to affairs.” I don’t at all envy this church as they are no doubt going through some very difficult days. Their response is a good one. I don’t know all the details, nor do I need to. I’m sure there are many variables here as there are in all stories. I think we need to think about our own response. Our own response should be a response that looks inward at ourselves.
These stories are well worth reading. Give them a read. Then, read the passage from Peterson’s The Pastor that I’ve quoted below. And while you read. . . remember. . . we’re all only one bad decision away from being a story in a newspaper.
One Tuesday as we were getting ready to break up, one of our company announced that he was leaving his congregation for another, a church of a thousand members, three times the size of where he was. He described it as “more promising.” I had lunch with Phillip later that week, and he told me that he felt his gifts were being wasted where he was, that he needed more of a challenge, more opportunity to “multiply his effectiveness” (his term). He had not been one of the original members of the Company, but he had been with us for seven years. He was thoroughly familiar with the particular ethos of pastor that had been developing among us.
The more he talked that day over our plate of breadsticks and bowls of vichyssoise, I realized that he had, despite the Company of Pastors, absorbed a concept of pastor that had far more to do with American values—competitive, impersonal, functional—than with what I had articulated as the consensus of our Company in Five Smooth Stones. That bothered me. It didn’t bother me that he was changing congregations—there are many valid, urgent, and, yes, biblical reasons to change congregations. But Phillip’s reasons seemed to be fueled by something more like adrenaline and ego and size. I made a few shy demurrals, but he wasn’t listening. So the next week I wrote him a letter:
I’ve been thinking about our conversation last week and want to respond to what you anticipate in your new congregation. You mentioned its prominence in the town, a center, a kind of cathedral church that would be able to provide influence for the Christian message far beyond its walls. Did I hear you right?
I certainly understand the appeal and feel it myself frequently. But I am also suspicious of the appeal and believe that gratifying it is destructive both to the gospel and the pastoral vocation. It is the kind of thing America specializes in, and one of the consequences is that American religion and the pastoral vocation are in a shabby state.
It is also the kind of thing for which we have abundant documentation through twenty centuries now, of debilitating both congregation and pastor. In general terms it is the devil’s temptation to Jesus to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple. Every time the church’s leaders depersonalize, even a little, the worshipping/loving community, the gospel is weakened. And size is the great depersonalizer. Kierkegaard’s criticism is still cogent: “the more people, the less truth.”
The only way the Christian life is brought to maturity is through intimacy, renunciation, and personal deepening. And the pastor is in a key position to nurture such maturity. It is true that these things can take place in the context of large congregations, but only by strenuously going against the grain. Largeness is an impediment, not a help.
Classically, there are three ways in which humans try to find transcendence—religious meaning, God meaning—apart from God as revealed in the cross of Jesus: through the ecstasy of alcohol and drugs, through the ecstasy of recreational sex, through the ecstasy of crowds. Church leaders frequently warn against the drugs and the sex, but, at least in America, almost never against the crowds. Probably because they get so much ego benefit from the crowds.
But a crowd destroys the spirit as thoroughly as excessive drink and depersonalized sex. It takes us out of ourselves, but not to God, only away from him. The religious hunger is rooted in the unsatisfactory nature of the self. We hunger to escape the dullness, the boredom, the tiresomeness of me. We can escape upward or downward. Drugs and depersonalized sex are a false transcendence downward. A crowd is an exercise in false transcendence upward, which is why all crowds are spiritually pretty much the same, whether at football games, political rallies, or church.
So why are we pastors so unsuspicious of crowds, so naive about the false transcendence that they engender? Why are we so knowledgeable in the false transcendence of drink and sex and so unlearned in the false transcendence of crowds? There are many spiritual masters in our tradition who diagnose and warn, but they are little read today. I myself have never written what I really feel on this subject, maybe because I am not entirely sure of myself, there being so few pastors alive today who agree. Or maybe it is because I don’t want to risk wholesale repudiation by friends whom I genuinely like and respect. But I really do feel that crowds are a worse danger, far worse, than drink or sex, and pastors may be the only people on the planet who are in a position to encourage an imagination that conceives of congregation strategically not in terms of its size but as a congenial setting for becoming mature in Christ in a community, not a crowd.
Your present congregation is close to ideal in size to employ your pastoral vocation for forming Christian maturity. You talked about “multiplying your influence.” My apprehension is that your anticipated move will diminish your vocation, not enhance it.
Can we talk more about this? I would welcome a continuing conversation.
The peace of Christ,
That was the end of it. We never did have the conversation. He accepted the call to the big church, and then another, and then another. I would get occasional reports on him from friends. All the reports seemed to document that size was turning out to be a false transcendence in his life.