A reminder about this series: We are seeking to always cultivate leadership that is effective and displays the compassion of our Lord. We asked pastors to choose a book that has influenced their leadership and tell us how they use it. These are not book reviews, and therefore the men will not qualify what is wrong or what they didn’t like in the book. We are making the disclaimer up front that some of these books are from non-Reformed and unbelieving authors. There are things in the books that wouldn’t apply to church life. That disclaimer now taken care of, the men share how the books have helped them.
(You can find the other posts in this series here: (“Lessons in Leadership”)
Here is our second installment, from Jeremiah Montgomery, one of the pastors at Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Vandalia, OH.
By the spring of 2016, I had been a pastor for almost five years. The Lord had used me to plant a church, growing a loose core group of just under twenty into a worshiping congregation of approximately seventy. Two years prior, our church plant had elected and installed four ruling elders. In ecclesiastical terms, we had ‘particularized.’ In ministry terms, it seemed like I had ‘arrived.’ Our congregation was growing, my family was settled, and life seemed to be pleasantly busy. All seemed well.
But all was not as it seemed. My schedule was consistently overloaded, even my “day off” had become crowded, and at least one of my elders had begun to worry that I was on a trajectory toward burnout. At some point, that same elder sent to our session an old article by Eugene Peterson, entitled, “The Unbusy Pastor.”
Peterson’s articled minced no words. Pastors make themselves overly busy because, first and foremost, they are vain: “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 me – and to all who will notice – that I am important.” Second, pastors are too busy because – ironically – they are lazy: “By lazily abdicating the essential work of deciding and 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, but to stave off the disaster of disappointing someone.”
What happens when a pastor becomes too busy? They run the risk of becoming nothing more than skilled spiritual parasites: “I don’t want to distribute mimeographed hand-outs that describe God’s business; I want to witness out of my own experience. I don’t want to live as a parasite on the first-hand spiritual life of others, but to be personally involved with all my senses, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good.”
I could have chosen to be offended by Peterson’s words. I could have loudly protested that my over-busyness was not my choice, but rather a necessity forced upon me by the overwhelming task of solo-planting and solo-pastoring. But deep down, I knew that a fair bit of what he said was correct. As a pastor in a high-performance university community, I often felt a sense of needing to “keep up” with the level of activity of the other high-flyers – including the two PhDs on my own session! Moreover, I had always struggled with a fear of disappointing others – which made it hard for me to say ‘no’ to demands upon my time. Finally, I had felt for several months the growing sensation that my sermons, Bible studies, and Sunday School lessons were passing through my head and my hands – but not through my heart. I had even described this feeling to some as the sense that I had become a “sermon factory.”
So rather than ignore Peterson’s article, I decided to dig deeper. As it turns out, “The Unbusy Pastor” is the first chapter in a somewhat larger book, The Contemplative Pastor. I got this book and read it in its entirety. It created a paradigm shift in my ministry.
There is too much marrow, too many useful nooks and crannies to Peterson’s discussion, to simply summarize. Perhaps the best thing I can do, by way of commending this book to other ministers, is to provide a few additional quotations and let them speak for themselves:
“The cure of souls… is the essential pastoral work. It is not a narrowing of pastoral work to its devotional aspects, but it is a way of life that uses weekday tasks, encounters, and situations as the raw material for teaching prayer, developing faith, and preparing for a good death.”
“When I engage in conversation, meet with a committee, or visit a home, I am coming in on something that has already been in process for a long time. God has been and is the central reality in that process. The biblical conviction is that God is ‘long beforehand with my soul.’ God has already taken the initiative. Like one who walks in late to a meeting, I am entering a complex situation in which God has already said decisive words and acted in decisive ways. My work is not necessarily to announce that but to discover what he is doing and live appropriately with it.”
“My primary educational task as pastor was to teach people to pray. I did not abandon, and will not abandon, the task of teaching about the faith, teaching the content of the gospel, the historical backgrounds of biblical writings, the history of God’s people. I have no patience with and will not knowingly give comfort to obscurantist or anti-intellectual tendencies in the church. But there is an educational task entrusted to pastors that is very different from that assigned to professors… The more I worked with people at or near the centers of their lives where God and the human, faith and the absurd, love and indifference were tangled in daily traffic jams, the less it seemed that the way I had been going about teaching made much difference, and the more that teaching them to pray did.”
“Pastoral work, I later learned, is that aspect of Christian ministry that specializes in the ordinary. It is the nature of pastoral life to be attentive to, immersed in, and appreciative of the everyday texture of people’s lives – the buying and selling, the visiting and meeting, the going and coming. There are also crisis events to be met: birth and death, conversion and commitment, baptism and Eucharist, despair and celebration. These also occur in people’s lives and, therefore, in pastoral work. But not as every day items. Most people, most of the time, are not in crisis.”
“To see a person as sinner, then, is not to see him or her as hypocritical, disgusting, or evil. Most sinners are very nice people. To call a man a sinner is not a blast at his manners or his morals. It is a theological belief that the thing that matters most to him is forgiveness and grace.”
“We can impersonate a pastor without being a pastor. The problem, though, is that while we can get by with it in our communities, often with applause, we can’t get by with it within ourselves.”
Over and over throughout The Contemplative Pastor, Peterson drives home the simple point that pastoral ministry ultimately comes down to three things: prayer, people, and preaching. The way he fleshes this out, and bears witness to the change it wrought in his own life and ministry, is something worth every pastor’s reading – especially those who may think they don’t need it.
I read The Contemplative Pastor in my fifth year of ministry. I wish I had read it in my first. And even today, as I reviewed my notes on the book in order to write this recommendation, I realized just how much even I – now soon entering my ninth year of ministry – need to read it again.